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CEOs need to do more for COVID

CEOs need to do more for COVID
© John Moore/Getty Images
Even as most businesses reopen across the nation, the economic recovery is anemic. As of June 10, consumer spending is down 11.3 percent compared to January 2020 levels. The lackluster performance is partly due to high unemployment, but customers’ fear of contracting the virus is also significant. At the end of May and early June, 70 percent of Texans reported avoiding some or all restaurants, even though the state allowed all restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity.

We can only boost economic activity close to pre-pandemic levels by drastically reducing the number of coronavirus cases in our communities, which will ease people’s fears of venturing out. China, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand have mostly quashed the outbreak, and Asian cities have photos of masked crowds calmly riding subways. British Columbia, with a population of 5 million, has had fewer than 20 new cases each day since June 3rd, and their lead provincial health officer for the pandemic has confidently lifted all restaurant capacity restrictions.

Public health officials with robust testing, contact tracing, and widespread safety measures around the world are winning the COVID-19 battle. But America’s state and local public health offices are starved for resources. Corporate America has the wealth and expertise to help fight the disease, and it must do so quickly. Here are some recommendations to CEOs:

Use your supply chain management connections and expertise to help local public health authorities expedite testing and treatment. Local authorities are still experiencing backlogs in supplies, whether its swabs, chemical reagents, or PPE for health workers to administer tests. In early March, Costco’s CEO sourced 40,000 N95 masks for Seattle from China in 24 hours. Meanwhile, Houston’s Harris County had to rely on a glow stick manufacturer and an indirect connection between a sheriff’s deputy and a Chinese supplier for much-needed PPE. 

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Help get PPE to nursing homes and jails in your community. Reducing the outbreak in high-risk locations will reduce hospitalizations, which in turn reduces the need for hospitals to reserve capacity for COVID patients. Hospitals have lost billions of dollars postponing elective surgeries, for fear of being overrun by COVID patients. Other health care providers have experienced 50 percent drops in revenue, due to non-COVID patients’ fear of contracting the coronavirus through a health care visit.

Local public health officials are struggling to determine the prevalence of the coronavirus in their communities. Multiple Fortune 500 companies could initiate efforts to encourage all of their employees to get tested within a limited time window and provide de-identified test results, along with sociodemographic data, to local health authorities. This action would also educate workers on the importance of minimizing the spread of the disease in the workplace. Set an example by requiring all your workers and retail customers to wear masks in the presence of others.

Community health workers have noticed that coronavirus patients self-medicate with cold medicines and cough suppressants when symptoms first appear. Large drug store chains and general merchandise stores could share their daily OTC cough and cold medicine sales with local health officials as a valuable early warning system that would be invaluable in situating mobile testing sites. Corporate data scientists could also assist public officials in analyzing and interpreting data such as these to limit the outbreak.

CEOs need to partner with public health officials and health care providers in their home towns to develop strategies to control the spread of disease. We are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. A vaccine could be months or years away. Yet a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs in the last two weeks of April, 93 percent responded that U.S. corporate leaders have done a good job in handling this crisis. We lack the public health infrastructure to control the spread of the coronavirus in our cities.

Don’t wait for your public health department to call you, because they lack the time to track down which companies are willing to help. Corporate leaders would need to invest millions of dollars and contribute expertise to drive coronavirus cases down to zero. Doing so would restore consumer confidence that it is safe to return to spending on goods and services that involve significant human interaction. The ROI would be tens of billions of dollars in increased economic activity for all of us.

Vivian Ho is the Baker Institute Chair in Health Economics at Rice University and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Her research examines the effects of economic incentives and regulations on the quality and costs of health care.