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In a brief but far-reaching panel discussion at HLTH in Boston last week, three Amazon executives involved in the company’s forays into healthcare discussed the company’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its Amazon Care employee healthcare initiative and more.

Moderated by CNBC’s Bertha Coombs, the panel brought together Dr. Kristen Lloyd Helton, director of Amazon Care; Heather MacDougall, Amazon’s VP of workplace health and safety; and Dr. Vin Gupta, chloroquine aralen side effects senior principal scientist and chief medical officer for COVID-19 response.

COVID-19 response efforts and the vaccine mandate question

Panelists largely dodged a question about why the tech and logistics giant, which employs one in every 169 workers in the United States, has not elected to institute a vaccine mandate. MacDougall and Gupta emphasized the company’s mass testing and mass vaccination initiatives, saying that they would continue an approach of educating and encouraging, but not mandating, the vaccine.

“Obviously, we’ll look at the emergency temporary standards, and that comes out whether it’s this week or in the weeks to come,” said MacDougall. “But I suspect that it’ll have, again, two avenues that you are either vaccinated or you have to get the weekly testing. And thanks to our experience with our onsite vaccination events, I think that we’re in a good position to be able to offer that weekly testing option for those [who], again, don’t continue or don’t choose to get the vaccine.”

Gupta said that Amazon’s vaccination rates track to the national trends. And he characterized the hesitancy for those who have not yet received the vaccine.

“I think we can all agree that communication, misinformation, confusing messages from the highest levels have been ripe,” he said. “And our associates share the same concerns as my patients do. They just have questions, the ones that have yet to get vaccinated. So we’ve been finding scale to direct engagement literally at the warehouse level, answering questions, trying to scale that, and Kristen’s Amazon Care team is helping us to scale that approach as well.”

Outside of vaccination, Amazon has instituted some interesting measures to control the spread of COVID-19 at their facilities. In addition to massive testing operations, MacDougall described a system that used cameras and machine vision to enforce social distancing. 

“We made over 150 different process changes, from social distancing to using our proxemics, which is a camera system in our buildings to identify areas where there were opportunities for improvement in social distancing.

“And each day sites and leaders would get sort of a summary of how they were doing, and it would identify areas where there could be opportunities to look at it in terms of social distance” she added. 

“We innovated with a tool we call the distance assistant, which is basically a camera and a computer screen where employees walk by in high traffic areas, like coming out of a break room or the restrooms, [and] as you walk by the screen, if you have a green circle around you, that means that you’re maintaining that six-foot social distancing. If it turns red, that’s a real-time reminder to you that you’re not.”

Scaling Amazon Care, and future plans

Helton said that Amazon is continuing to scale Amazon Care to more cities, as well as beyond Amazon employees in some cases. Specifically, she said the near-term roadmap includes Washington and the surrounding area, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles. 

Amazon Care will also continue to add services based on feedback from customers, Helton said.

“We have found that being able to take a customer through that journey virtually and then in person, and it’s seamless and friction-free, is a winning combination,” she said. 

“But patients are losing patience. They have very high standards, and they expect a lot from us. And they’re asking us to do more. We are hearing that from clinical services standpoint. They really wanted primary care. So we’re doing that. I think we’re hearing they want more self-service. And so we’re building that.”

Self-service means ease of scheduling services like in-person care visits, tests and vaccinations.

Gupta shared that Amazon is not averse to adapting COVID-response technology to care more generally, though he stopped short of sharing concrete plans.

“What’s interesting in this moment is we leverage our logistics operation already, combined with the innovations on testing that we’ve developed over the last 20 months, to do middle and last-mile healthcare delivery,” he said. “So if we think about what’s the future of pandemic response, it’s public-private partnerships. There was a Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network for basically testing on demand through a third-party app.

“You could say ‘I want a test because I have these symptoms,’ and within two hours and AMZL drivers will bring you a test, sending it back, in this case, to the University of Washington,” he added. “That is a model that’s scalable, but it requires public-private partnerships, and that’s leveraging what we’re good at, which is delivering things at home. But you can imagine that’s being expanded out to many more other services that have been developed throughout the course of this pandemic.”

Coombs asked the panel why Amazon sometimes seemed slow to combine disparate efforts within the company that could have synergies, such as Amazon Alexa’s caregiver assistance efforts and Amazon Care.

Helton said that the company’s process prioritizes responding to customer needs and feedback, rather than exploiting synergies and efficiencies for their own sake.

“Amazon Care is one effort,” she said. “Amazon Pharmacy is another … Amazon Halo. We’re all in the same space. But the way we work back from customers may mean that those points of interface may happen later in the road map. It’s hard to speculate. We’ll just stay focused on what customers are asking us to do. And when the time is right, then that’s when we make sure that those points of connection are seamless.”

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