AUSTIN (KXAN) — This month marks three years since the coronavirus pandemic led to wide-scale closures and public health protocols in the Austin-Travis County region and beyond. Since then, Austin-based healthcare entities and public health officials have adapted their business models and responses, informed by lessons learned during the pandemic.

How COVID testing companies have adapted healthcare approaches

Austin-based Curative rose to prominence during the pandemic as a mass-COVID-testing facility and, later, assisted with vaccinations, said its CEO Fred Turner. The business began with seven employees and scaled up to more than 7,000 in its first year in operations, in a response to testing demands, Turner said.

From his experience during the pandemic, Turner said COVID-19 revealed flaws in the healthcare system. Now that Curative has shuttered its testing operations, the company has pivoted and launched a new Curative health plan, available in Austin.

Members who enroll in the plan go to a preventative health visit — what Curative referred to as “the baseline” — within the first 120 days of signing up. After that visit, the member would have $0 out-of-pocket costs for the remainder of the year, so long as it’s in-network care.

“We call it the Netflix model for healthcare: Basically, it won’t cost you any money to go access care that you need,” he said. “You can go see your doctor, you can have a baby, you can go to the hospital. It even extends to the preferred drug benefit. As long as you should up for that preventative health visit, then it won’t cost any money to engage in care.”

The plan is available to Austin-based employers now. Turner added the fully-insured product is awaiting regulatory approval before expanding into the San Antonio market. Later this year, he said the business is looking to expand into the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas before spreading beyond.

“I think a key for us is building trust with our members and really focusing on encouraging members to engage in care, particularly preventative care,” he said.

Despite momentous differences in testing and vaccine accessibility now versus March 2020, Turner said he feels his company is on a similar precipice now that they experienced then. In 2020, Curative launched as a company tackling sepsis outcomes, before pivoting to COVID-19 work.

Now, he said he wants to apply those same best practices and scaling operations learned in COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to healthcare reform efforts.

“We’re in a similar position in some ways, in that we’re right at the beginning of an exciting journey,” Turner said. “Now, we’re very excited about the health plan and helping our members access the care they need, and it’s right at the beginning of that journey.”

Lessons learned from public health agencies

Similarly, Austin Public Health officials are at the beginning of their own kind of journey, working to build back up its community health workforce to respond to everyday and future public health situations.

Dr. Desmar Walkes, APH’s medical director and Austin health authority, told KXAN Tuesday APH isn’t immune to workforce shortages impacting other areas of the healthcare sector. She said the agency is currently working on its recruitment and retention efforts to attract community health workers, utilizing APH’s training hub to build up its public health infrastructure.

“The pandemic has given us eyes on the importance of the trust of messengers and community health workers — they were so important before the pandemic, and their importance is even more elevated as we realize that trust building is something that can be damaged by misinformation,” she said.

One of the key things Walkes said was critical throughout the pandemic was communication with community members and other local government leaders. She said the COVID-19 pandemic helped prepare leaders to respond, at a smaller level, to mpox outbreaks in the Austin-Travis County area.

The landscape now is very different than three years ago, Walkes said, notably due to the widespread availability of testing and vaccination options. When looking back on rolling out vaccines, Walkes said some of the biggest challenges involved reaching residents who didn’t have the means or ability to get an appointment or who struggled with making those appointments.

“We got as many people as we could vaccinated, but that was the story of this pandemic: We were dealing with something that was out of our normal playbook,” she said. “We had to be nimble, we had to be creative and innovative. … we were prepared for an epidemic of a certain proportion. Now, we’re prepared for a pandemic.”

The COVID-19 response has led to substantive infrastructure improvements to APH’s computer systems, IT services and personnel responsibilities, something Walkes credited as having took “a village” to achieve.

“We have an amazing healthcare system here with healthcare professionals who have really stood the test of time, many of whom have worked just doggedly to keep people alive,” she said. “This team of people and our community have really worked together to do what we knew we were supposed to do for each other, and that is a really testament to Austin and to Texas.”

Heading into the spring festival season, Walkes noted measures residents can continue to take if they are higher risk or more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

That includes wearing a mask if higher risk or in an indoor area with poorer ventilation. Those who’ve been exposed should get tested and stay home if sick. She also stressed the importance of vaccines, and urged those who haven’t been vaccinated to seek out those resources to prevent more severe illness or hospitalization, should they contract COVID-19.

“We know that variants are not a thing of the past: They still have the potential to circulate in the community,” she said. “We’re a global society. We’re a social society. And so we have to do the things that we ought to do as a free society and get vaccinated, protect ourselves, protect our families.”