THU AM News: Company uses smartphone app to help people with hearing difficulties; Labor Secretary Scalia points to ‘pivot point’ for economy

— The World Health Organization estimates more than 5 percent of the world’s population experiences some type of hearing impairment. A Wisconsin-based company called Ascending Hearing Technologies is using smartphones to help.

AHT was founded in 2018 by Christina Runge, a professor of ear, nose and throat medicine and communication sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin who specializes in audiology, and Yi Hu, a professor of electrical engineering at the UW-Milwaukee specializing in sound processing. After collaborating for more than 10 years, Runge and Yi recognized a gap in the market for clinically based hearing amplifiers.

AHT’s first product is an iOS app that uses an iPhone with ear pods to amplify sounds for the user in real time.

“When you first use the app it will test your hearing and then allow you to do a fine-tuning procedure to ensure the highest quality sound,” Runge said. 

She added that the app uses machine learning for fine-tuning and sound optimization. AHT is currently developing noise suppression for the next iteration. AHT plans to offer the app on the Apple App Store using a subscription-based model following a one-month free trial period.

The app is meant for people who report difficulty hearing in some daily listening situations. It isn’t designed for people with more than a moderate degree of hearing loss. During an initial hearing test, the app will also notify the user if it identifies hearing loss that should be assessed by a hearing professional.

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— U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia says the country is approaching or has already reached a “pivot point” for reopening the economy. 

“We’ve been in a period right now of exceptional government intervention into society, and that’s been necessary to defeat this virus,” he said yesterday during a call hosted by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. “But it will be a mistake if we allow this … to become a new model going forward indefinitely.” 

Scalia highlighted the economy’s abrupt economic downturn caused by COVID-19, marking a stark contrast from when he spoke at a WMC meeting held in Madison just two months ago. 

At the time, he noted the United States had unemployment rates at a 50-year low and was creating jobs “at a pace far swifter than predicted before President Trump took office.” He emphasized “the policies that got us there,” including tax cuts and reducing regulations on businesses. 

As many U.S. states prepare to reopen or begin the process, Scalia stressed that federal officials have the enforcement tools to “ensure companies keep their workers safe.” He also pointed to employees’ rights to raise concerns about safety, calling on companies to respect these whistleblower rights. 

He also called on state governments to “be able to move quickly” to help people get back into the workforce as state economies are gradually reopened. 

“Although we shed millions of jobs extremely quickly, and it’s been very difficult for individual men and women, we have ample reason to expect we can add jobs back extremely quickly too in a way we’ve never done before,” he said. 

— Wisconsin Hospital Association President Eric Borgerding says the state’s health care system isn’t stressed by COVID-19 and has ample capacity, noting a downward trend in virus-related hospitalizations.

“COVID-19 continues not to stress the health care system in any really urgent or significant way,” Borgerding said yesterday during a call hosted by WMC.

He acknowledged “little mini-surges” in regions of the state have translated into a temporary increase in hospitalizations but said Wisconsin’s health system overall has enough capacity for the foreseeable future. 

Borgerding said Wisconsin hospitals should have no trouble meeting the recently announced gating metrics for the Badger Bounce Back plan, though DHS says data to measure these criteria are still being collected and will be available later this week. 

“For a hospital to be deemed in crisis, it’s a pretty high bar,” he said. “We have not seen anything near approaching the standards set forth in that new crisis care metric. That’s very positive.” 

He said WHA is “very comfortable” with both of the new metrics, which relate to hospitals operating under established crisis conditions and widespread testing of patient-facing staff. 

“At this point, we don’t see any issues at all with hospitals being able to test symptomatic clinical staff,” he said. 

Borgerding also noted that the number of positive cases has increased along with expanded testing, but pointed to the hospitalization rate as a more important metric for gauging hospitals’ readiness for surges. 

“Wisconsin’s COVID-related hospitalization rate has been generally trending downward,” he said. “It fell quite a bit, and it’s been more or less flat for about two weeks. And then over the last couple days it’s been dropping. And that’s very positive.” 

Still, he said hospitals are still challenged with a lack of personal protective equipment as supplies get rapidly used up due to “heightened infection mitigation” steps being taken, as well as more testing. 

Borgerding said demand on PPE supply chains is significant, and will likely only grow as testing continues to ramp up and hospitals start to phase in elective procedures that have been delayed.

— Several food plants in the state are temporarily shutting down for COVID-19 testing, even as concerns mount nationally about potential meat shortages. 

Cargill Meat Solutions in Milwaukee closed yesterday afternoon to allow for employee testing for the virus. In a statement issued to FOX6 News, a company spokesperson said operations will resume as soon as possible. 

And in Darien, the Birds Eye food processing plant has shut down as more than 100 employees have tested positive for the virus, according to a report from WTMJ Milwaukee. Another report from FOX6 News shows the state National Guard will conduct employee testing at the plant. And a Channel 3000 report shows 92 of Rock County’s 311 confirmed cases are linked to the facility. 

Along with a facility in Cudahy that has several dozen cases, the most high-profile outbreaks at meatpacking plants in Wisconsin have been seen in the Green Bay area. More than 460 cases have been identified between JBS Packerland, American Foods Group and Salm Partners in the nearby village of Denmark. 

JBS Packerland had initially closed after hundreds of cases were identified among its employees in Green Bay, but has since reopened after President Trump issued an executive order directing meat plants to stay open. 

Food processing plants around the country operated by JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have been forced to temporarily close as outbreaks have been identified. Some cracks in national meat supply chains have already been exposed, with many Wendy’s locations temporarily ceasing burger sales. And HyVee this week began limiting meat sales at its stores, which are spread across eight Midwest states including Wisconsin. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has written a letter to Tyson, Smithfield and JBS criticizing their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing “disturbing reports of unsafe working conditions and facilities failing to follow recommended safety guidelines.” 

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— Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon is calling for a public-private task force to reopen the economy. 

“How are we going to have an equal seat with public health, which is a government entity, as a private sector voice without a public/private task force?” asked Brandon during a GMCC webinar. “How do we get our voice inside the tent if we’re not in the tent?”

He noted that the chamber has already called for both a statewide and local task force.

“I think there are lots of ways in which organizations like ours are well suited to help companies collaborate,” added Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, noting a variety of collaboration efforts by the chamber.  

He said that while business chambers like GMCC and MMAC have the collaborative strength to get the economy going again, they will need to continue advocating for a seat at the table “so when there is a mitigation challenge in the fall or there is a spike in the fall, we don’t have to go through this as a learning exercise again.”  

— DHS reports the state’s COVID-19 death toll at 362 — up nine people from Tuesday’s count.

In addition, confirmed cases rose 335 since Tuesday. That brings the total number of confirmed cases to 8,901 as of Wednesday. A majority of the new cases came from Milwaukee (116) and Brown (110) counties.

According to Barbara Pinekenstein, nursing professor at UW-Madison, 19 percent of people with a positive test don’t exhibit any symptoms, but yet the patients are still infectious. She also noted in a “UW Now” livestream event from the alumni association that Waukesha and Dane counties are hotspots in Wisconsin.

But DHS’s hospital dashboard reports 299 COVID patients in hospitals statewide, a decrease of eight from Tuesday evening’s 307, and 51 under last Wednesday’s number of 350 patients.

With data provided from DHS, found that Wisconsin’s share of positive cases per number of total tests is on a steady decline after its peak on Friday. The numbers show 12.7 percent of total tests came back positive on Friday, followed by Saturday (10.3), Sunday (11.1), Monday (9.9), Tuesday (8.6) and Wednesday (8.4). 

— Of the state’s 8,901 cumulative confirmed cases, an estimated 49 percent have recovered from COVID-19. 

That’s based on the number of confirmed cases who have at least documentation of resolved symptoms, documentation of release from public health isolation or 30 days since symptom onset or diagnosis. Forty-seven percent of patients are still in that 30-day period.

Of the state’s confirmed cases, 19 percent were hospitalized, 5 percent received intensive care and 4 percent have died, according to DHS.

Counties reporting deaths include Milwaukee (204), Dane (22), Waukesha (22), Racine (15), Kenosha (14), Brown (11), Rock (10), Ozaukee (9), Walworth (9), Grant (7), Clark (4) and Washington (4). 

Door, Fond du Lac and Sauk counties report three deaths each.

Outagamie, Richland and Sheboygan counties report two deaths each.

Adams, Bayfield, Buffalo, Columbia, Dodge, Iron, Jackson, Juneau, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marathon, Marinette, Marquette, Monroe, Waupaca and Winnebago counties report one death each.

Sixty-eight of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have confirmed cases. Forest County reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 yesterday. 

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— Wisconsin has reached Gov. Tony Evers’ goal of a capacity for 85,000 tests per week, but sufficient PPE supplies are lagging.

Thirty-eight hospitals in the state have a seven days or less supply of N95 masks, 43 have limited supply of gowns and 33 hospitals have limited paper medical masks.

The state’s total testing capacity has reached 14,797 tests per day or over 103,000 tests per week, exceeding Evers’ goal of 85,000 tests per week. However, only about 4,214 tests came back yesterday with results, but that’s the most yet for a single day.

The Wisconsin National Guard, in partnership with local and state health services, is ramping up efforts to close the gap between the testing capacity and tests actually administered by setting up community testing sites and drive-through testing around the state.

And Wisconsin appears to have an adequate supply of beds and ventilators.

ICU beds immediately available in the state number 405 out of 1,453 total in Wisconsin; intermediate care beds — 200 out of 874; surgical beds — 1,646 out of 7,216; and isolation beds — beds in negative pressure rooms meant for isolating patients — 1,175 out of 2,005.

Statewide, hospitals have a total of 1,262 ventilators and are using 309 of those for patients.

“In Wisconsin, we’ve been very lucky that we have had enough beds for patients to be admitted to the hospitals, we’ve had enough critical care beds and we’ve had access to ventilators — very different from other states,” said Pinekenstein, the UW-Madison nursing professor.

— Milwaukee tech startup Sift Healthcare has launched a revenue-tracking tool to help health care systems make better-informed decisions. 

The interactive dashboard, called Rev/Track, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand patient financial needs and proactively respond to changing payment behavior, insurance denials and collection trends affecting revenue performance.

“In the current environment, as payment trends are rapidly changing, it is essential for healthcare providers… to have detailed reporting that clearly shows how their payments behave and how effective their work efforts are in driving revenue,” Sift Healthcare CEO and Founder Justin Nicols said in a statement.

Nicols added that Rev/Track provides value for those working in revenue cycles, “making it possible for them to proactively respond to payment trends and track the impact of their efforts.”

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