In a little more than three months Kate O'Donnell, Pattie Fuentes and Anne Amick started a contact tracing company and turned it into a profitable software company that does contact tracing.
They make it sound easy. We take their word for it when they say it wasn't.
Finding themselves -- like so many of us -- with unexpected time on their hands because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a desire to help fight it, the three longtime friends independently figured they'd become contact tracers for local government. Each took the Johns Hopkins University certification course for contact tracers, learning later their friends had done the same thing.
When no government agencies answered their requests to join the contact tracing effort, they decided in late August to help by starting their own business, Wauconda-based Private Contact Tracers.
Now they're not only helping fight the spread of the coronavirus, their primary goal, they're making money doing it. And they're finding unexpected avenues to keep the company viable after COVID-19 becomes a bad memory.
"This really never started out being about making a lot of money," Fuentes said. "Yeah, the money's good, don't get me wrong. We're really happy that we created a situation where we could get some people back to work who were displaced economically because of the pandemic (the contact tracers they've hired on a contract basis), and that was really important."
Playing their roles
O'Donnell is the entrepreneur of the group; she has her own business doing interrogation training for law enforcement and working as a polygraph examiner. Those skills translate very well to contact tracing.
"To try to get someone to admit they stole $40,000 from their bank, that's nothing in comparison to talking to someone worried because they can't breathe," O'Donnell said.
Fuentes has a finance background with an interest in and innate ability with technology. Both have been important.
Amick uses her social work background to oversee the contact tracers themselves, a group of about 25 who include Northwestern and Marquette students as well as people who lost jobs because of the pandemic.
Clients include school districts or other governmental units, teachers unions and private businesses of all sizes.
"It's been a whirlwind," Amick said, noting they have been in communication with benefits consulting firms, "and it's been really nice just getting validation from some very successful business people that our business model was solid."
The business almost was derailed by the high cost of technology, however. Figuring they could get the software needed to do the contact tracing easily, they were flummoxed to see the prohibitive cost of the software.
They found relief in someone else who just wanted to do something to help the community: software developer Charles Southall.
"He's been our savior in the whole thing," Amick said.
"We've developed this software that is really cost effective," Fuentes added. "It's not the fanciest thing out there, but it gets the job done and gets it done well."
The software is the key to the business.
"We didn't think we'd be developing software, and all of a sudden now the three of us are cranking it out with this great software developer and we're making software," O'Donnell said.
When an employee reports a coronavirus infection to their employer's human resources department, the employer can enter the employee's name and contact information into the desktop app from Private Contact Tracers. They take care of the rest.
They keep track of a subject's symptoms and note comorbidities.
If the symptoms warrant, they direct the subject to get treatment. If a subject is self-isolating, they can direct the subject toward help getting medicine or groceries. Mental health also is a concern while isolating, and PCT can provide resources to help with that also.
PCT often has to collect information an employee might be reluctant to share with their employer.
"Contact tracing is labor intensive," Fuentes said. "It's very sensitive information that you're collecting. And the general population hasn't been exposed to it. ...
"And so we really saw an opportunity to be the third party. To say, look, we can keep your information safe, but we can give the organizations the guidance they need to be able to manage their productivity of their employees and know how safe their workplace is or their school."
They don't expect to fold up the company with their masks if vaccines finally beat the coronavirus into submission.
For instance, there are still other diseases that require contact tracing, though on a much smaller scale.
O'Donnell sees opportunities for the software to help law enforcement agencies. It might have uses in the mental health field as well.
And the vaccines still aren't approved for children under age 16, so schools might still have a need for contact tracing for a while.
"I feel like this is just the start of something we can do to keep helping the community," Amick said. "With our proprietary software we can kind of spin it into anything."
"We're flexible," Fuentes added. "We've set up an infrastructure where we can adapt. And I think that says a lot for the future of our organization. It will evolve beyond this to who knows what. We'll see."