A better strategy for reopening our communities, schools, and economy

By Jim Hackett, Rich Lesser, and Larry Merlo

The writers, who are presidents and CEOs of Ford Motor Company, Boston Consulting Group, and CVS Health, respectively, co-chair Business Roundtable’s Safe Recovery initiative.

America has reached a new state in the fight against COVID-19. In many parts of the country, reopening has been followed by alarming spikes of new cases and rising hospitalizations and deaths. The country is at an inflection point. Health officials and numerous projections have warned that if we don’t get this under control, the virus could spread like wildfire — with the most vulnerable among us as its likeliest victims.

How do we safeguard our loved ones and fellow citizens while maintaining strong communities until we have a vaccine? We protect ourselves and, critically, we protect each other. Specifically, we must look out for those who are most at risk: this includes older and other “health-vulnerable” Americans and individuals such as essential workers who are the most “exposure-vulnerable” members of society. Taking additional steps to protect these individuals is required to manage the virus and reopen our communities and schools. Such steps will save lives, strengthen our economy, and lead to a faster, more equitable recovery.

A quick look at the numbers on the health-vulnerable tells us that adults with specific underlying conditions are at about 10 times the risk of virus-related hospitalization as healthy adults; and those age 65 and above with underlying conditions are 30 times more likely to be hospitalized than their younger, healthy counterparts. As for the exposure-vulnerable, who are disproportionately people of color: analyses show that fatalities among Latino and Black populations under age 65 are more than three times that of whites, due to a combination of exposure risk from an individual’s community or job and insufficient testing.

We co-lead a Business Roundtable steering group of CEOs of some of our nation’s largest companies who are exploring ways to ensure our country achieves a safe COVID-19 recovery. We’re grateful to our employees and many others who have been on the front lines producing needed medical equipment, providing care, ensuring Americans have access to their medications, and helping governments around the world implement strategies for a safer and faster recovery.

Through our experiences and recent analyses, we know that the most effective action that all Americans should take to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our economy is to wear a face covering, especially indoors, where the virus is most likely to spread. We applaud the many local governments and employers who have mandated face coverings and limited large gatherings indoors, and we urge all others to follow suit.

To protect the vulnerable, we also need additional federal action, even beyond what’s already been done. Specifically, we call on Congress and federal, state, and local policymakers to urgently take these five actions:

  1. Supply masks. Provide funding to distribute high-quality masks to at-risk individuals who cannot afford them and ensure a sufficient and sustained national supply.
  2. Ramp up testing. Increase funding to state and local public health agencies for additional testing capacity, regular testing of asymptomatic individuals, and contact tracing focused particularly on the health-vulnerable, their contacts, and communities of color.
  3. Support shelter-in-place. Enable health-vulnerable populations who are either not working or working from home to isolate and stay safe by funding mental health and counseling services as well as food security assistance.
  4. Incentivize enhanced workforce safety measures. Provide funding or tax incentives to organizations, including small and medium-sized businesses, for investments in additional safety measures to protect vulnerable employees such as high-quality masks, safe transportation options, and voluntary redeployment opportunities. Additionally, support efforts to enable the two percent of workforce that is highest risk (over 65 with underlying conditions) to work from home or shelter in place.
  5. Protect congregate living facilities. Provide funding to implement health and safety measures in congregate living facilities, such as by creating spaces to quarantine infected residents, adding protections to rigorously limit visitors, and testing residents and workers at least weekly.

Our analysis suggests, these five policies could reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations by more than 50 percent relative to our current trajectory. What’s more, doing so would cost the federal government less than 10 percent of the monthly cost it incurred during the first three months of the pandemic.

We all must do our part. Businesses must continue to put the safety of employees and customers first. Swift government action, combined with broad mask-wearing and limiting super-spreader events, is needed to contain the spread of this deadly virus and keep our communities safe until vaccines and therapeutics allow us to return to a more normal way of life. And protecting the vulnerable should be an essential part of our strategy to reopen schools and communities while maintaining healthcare capacity.

There is no time to waste. We’re already seeing overwhelmed hospitals in areas designated as hot spots. A delay of even a few weeks could lead to overwhelmed hospitals and shuttered school buildings for months to come, perhaps requiring many more stringent lockdowns to get the disease under control.

We need policymakers to act now on wide sweeping actions to prevent further spread. Protecting the vulnerable, now, is critical to protecting us all.

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Business Roundtable

Business Roundtable is an association of CEOs of leading U.S. companies working to promote sound public policy and a thriving U.S. economy.