We can't outweigh the health risks of the virus with the economic risks of isolation. They are both serious risks, but we need to re-evaluate our response plan for future emergencies.
COVID-19: A HEALTH + ECONOMIC CRISIS
WHAT IS HAPPENING
COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge to Pennsylvanians, the United States, and the world. My condolences go out to the thousands of Pennsylvanians who have lost their lives to this virus and to their families, friends, and neighbors. I am also deeply sympathetic to people who have been or remain un- or underemployed now. There is no doubt that many feel as though COVID-19 has sabotaged their lives and livelihoods. I believe that by working together, the government, our health sector, businesses, non-profits, faith communities, and citizens across will come out stronger by working together.
Over the last few months, I have talked with business owners, people in local and regional government, in non-profits as well as with researchers at Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. I am committed to understanding issues before us with the best information available and working from a place of knowledge.
I believe Governor Wolf has made a good series of calls on how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in Pennsylvania. His phased-in approach to the stay-at-home orders were both patient and timely because they were informed by the evidence. As we know, no one is immune to the novel Coronavirus and its potential to overwhelm our healthcare system was extremely high were we to be lackadaisical in our response. My mother lives in Italy, my best friend manages assisted care facilities in Seattle, I know healthcare workers and I have friends who have fallen ill or have lost parents to this virus. Through them, I see both the danger and how a sustained effort that places personal and public safety first pays off. Sadly, too many citizens have refused to take the threat seriously, leading to reversals in places like Allegheny County in Pennsylvania and worst of all in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona.
Still, the Governor, leaders in the Senate and House, Department of Community and Economic Development informed by public health officials and business leaders need to work together. They should have come together earlier to re-review the tens of thousands of waiver applications for work. This bipartisan effort could have brought people together so that we continue to keep our distance, to increase testing and to implement contact tracing. Instead, Harrisburg dissolved into a nest of partisan ugliness that failed to serve Pennsylvanians as they deserve to be served.
A PATH FORWARD
We have to understand that the people who have said “We must open the economy” have set up a false choice. There is no trade-off between health and economic performance. One requires the other.
Common sense tells us that healthy people don’t miss work, they don’t quit and they are more productive. Let’s face it: If a workplace can’t control the virus then people will get ill there, turnover will be high and productivity will falter. We have already seen this in some sectors of the economy.
We still need some more controls to open up in a way that the public can trust. As an epidemiologist from the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics told me, “We have to go from firehose to garden hose.” It is still necessary to maintain distance while we ramp up testing statewide and follow it with contact tracing. That way we can map the disease’s trajectory. But wearing a mask, distancing and being sanitary are the most important things that we can do as individuals. The vast majority of us understand this and will do it anyway. But should be requirements, investments in our common health and well-being. The Commonwealth, likely in partnership with universities, medical firms, other states and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, should increase investment in research and development of equipment, treatment methods and vaccines while supporting professionals who are on the front lines.
In November of 2005, George W. Bush warned the United States that we needed to prepare for a pandemic. And over the last two decades, leaders in state, national, and international public health have been calling on the public and private sectors to invest in pandemic responses. Despite their thorough research, well-reasoned arguments, and pleas for funding in public health infrastructure, our governments did not heed the warning. These shortcomings fall on both sides of the political aisle. Today, no one has an excuse.
We must invest more in preventive public health, in hazard response, supporting infrastructure, in research and development, and in basic science education. This crisis will be examined by businesses, researchers, and governments for years to come. I would ask that the Office of the Auditor General examine what worked, what did not, and establish recommendations for the public and private sector in the future.