How this healthcare startup serving the maritime industry has seen huge growth in the pandemic

Ann Jarris, co-founder and CEO of Discovery Health. (Photo Discovery Health)

In January 2020, a ship docking in Dalian, China called on Ann Jarris for help.

As the company’s CEO overseeing the health of the ship’s crew, he was asked whether they should wear masks or prevent people from boarding. Little was known about a new virus.

For Jarris, it was the first sign that things were about to change for Discovery Health.

Jarris then had eight employees and loyal customers in the maritime sector. And the COVID-19 virus didn’t yet have a name. “We started paying attention,” Jarris said.

Now, the Seattle-based company is playing a central role in the response to COVID-19 in the Pacific Northwest. He oversaw testing and vaccinations for ships, farms and airports, and helped manage the health of thousands of workers.

Jarris now leads a team of nearly 300 people, including nurse practitioners, physician assistants and more than 10 physicians. She intelligently led Discovery Health through its explosive growth and became a go-to partner for companies and agencies on the front lines of the pandemic.

Pilotage of fishing vessels during COVID-19

A crew recently vaccinated by Discovery Health. (Photo Discovery Health)

At the start of 2020, Discovery Health was still primed.

“I maxed out my credit cards to make sure we had the testing supplies we needed,” Jarris recalled.

She had suffered a serious loss only two years earlier, with the death of her husband and co-founder, Ray Jarris, a fellow emergency physician. Together, Ray and Ann had assembled a small group of healthcare workers and set up a telehealth system. The company gained momentum, winning business plan competitions and joining Washington State’s first Maritime Business Acceleration Program.

The company faced a new challenge when the pandemic hit. His first assignment was to manage COVID-19 for fishing vessels sailing from Seattle to Alaska in March 2020.

Most companies didn’t know how to handle outbreaks and then get people back to work. But Discovery Health was well positioned to help. “We were the experts on what the environment was like on a fishing vessel and how best to respond while continuing operations,” Jarris said.

There was also a sense of urgency. The fishing season was in full swing and with tight quarters the ships were ready for outbreaks. “The State of Alaska remembers the 1918 flu pandemic,” Jarris said, when many Native communities were devastated. The state wanted to prevent outside workers from bringing the virus into remote and medically isolated communities.

Jarris partnered with the University of Washington Virology Lab, which had launched one of the first COVID-19 testing efforts in the country. Discovery Health has provided logistics and support for fishing businesses, testing thousands of workers this season and managing outbreaks.

Testing site operated by Discovery Health. (Photo Discovery Health)

Scaling

Discovery’s early partnership with fishing vessels provided a blueprint for later efforts. The startup has worked with agricultural companies and health agencies for testing and vaccination operations, and its 24-hour COVID-19 testing clinics near SeaTac Airport have served workers and travelers alike. It has extended its services to fishing fleets in collaboration with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle and the nonprofit Maritime Blue.

“The opportunity was just huge, all of a sudden,” Jarris said.

She kept the business centered in the Pacific Northwest, focused on testing, and provided broader services to medically distant clients in congregate settings, high-needs communities. “We really wanted to make sure we were available to them,” Jarris said.

Discovery Health’s revenues have increased 60 times in two years, from 2020 to the end of 2021.

The company has not only served different communities, it has partnered with various labs for processing COVID-19 tests to ensure quick turnaround. Last spring, Jarris was asked to help oversee medical care at Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate Expeditions for its Titanic investigation. The company’s telehealth infrastructure positions it well to move into new areas in the future, she said.

The key to Discovery’s success has been deciding in which direction to grow and then diversifying customers and supply chains within those parameters, Jarris said. A solid team and hard work were also a big part of it. When asked how many hours a week she worked, Jarris replied, “I worked everyone.”