Medical Adviser Fulfills Mission to Create Tool for Mitigating Pandemics

By Twig Mowatt

Paul Jarris

As health commissioner of Vermont during the SARS outbreak in 2003, Paul Jarris, M.D., became deeply concerned by the lack of effective tools available for use by the public health system to track and contain disease.

Over the years, as he moved into different high-level roles in healthcare, he gained new insights into the importance of such tools. He became determined to one day fill that void.

That day came on April 3, 2020. That's when MITRE launched Sara Alert™, a system designed to be a catalyst that gives public health workers the tool they need for containment of pandemics, such as the coronavirus. Jarris, now chief medical adviser of MITRE's health program, led the effort.

A multidisciplinary team of MITRE software engineers, software developers, public health specialists, and epidemiologists was hard at work on the system in early 2020. They knew they were racing the clock and were determined to rapidly release a minimum viable product.

"As soon as we saw what was going on in Wuhan, China, we knew we had to respond immediately," Jarris says, adding that the team created a working prototype within 10 days. "Sara Alert has the potential to modernize the public health management of individuals in quarantine and isolation to protect communities from further spread of disease in this and future pandemics."

Sara Alert is an open source tool for state and local health departments that enables remote monitoring of people in quarantine and isolation, as well as monitoring of case contacts. Ultimately, the system will promote the efficient exchange of information, reduce the burden of public health professionals, and rapidly identify people who may need medical assistance.

Aggressive and efficient contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine—along with social distancing—can control and mitigate pandemics, providing the time needed to develop medications and vaccinations and protect the healthcare sector.

Jarris brought a very broad perspective to the design and rollout of Sara Alert. In addition to serving as a health commissioner, he's been a family doctor in rural New York and Vermont, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, CEO of Vermont Permanente medical group, and chief medical officer leading maternal and infant health for the March of Dimes. 

"I've essentially covered the waterfront of public health and healthcare, which gives me a comprehensive view of how the system works, where the gaps are, and where MITRE can have the most impact," he says.

"This perspective helped me understand what a tool for pandemic containment would need to include and who should be present at the table to provide input."

A Passion for Social Justice

When he isn't working on Sara Alert, Jarris is involved in a variety of assignments for government agencies such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Health Resources & Services Administration.

He's also committed to building MITRE's capabilities in health equity, which is a personal passion. "I'm driven by a strong sense of social justice, particularly when it comes to achieving health equity and providing every individual the opportunity to reach their full potential."

Differences in health outcomes result from myriad factors across society that extend far beyond the health system. Communities may have unstable housing, poor schools, few employment opportunities, and inadequate public transportation. Health facilities may lack appropriate staffing and resources. Care may not be culturally or linguistically appropriate, and patients may be afraid to seek help for fear of running up bills they can't pay.

"We can't leave people behind in this country," Jarris says. "Even though there's been a focus on health equity since the early 2000s, there's still a large gap between the desired goal and the reality. MITRE has the potential to make a huge contribution to moving the field forward to help improve the health of every American."

Finding Solace in Nature

Even when he isn't at work, Jarris dedicates himself to improving people's health—both emotional and physical. In 1984, he co-founded the Catamount Trail, a 300-mile trail in Vermont for cross-country skiing.

He also teaches a class on mind/body medicine at Georgetown Medical School.

"In both my professional and personal life, I love pushing the envelope," he says. "And I love being a healer."

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