CDC Director Shares Candid Assessment of COVID-19 with U.S. Chamber

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Dr. Robert Redfield provided business leaders with updates on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic during a virtual event with the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Suzanne Clark. As Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Redfield shared new information on the importance of wearing a mask, distributing a vaccine, and what businesses can do to prepare for the next few months.

The State of the Pandemic
Redfield spoke bluntly about how widespread and serious the pandemic was throughout the United States. More than 90% of hospitals around the country are in red zone areas, where case transmission is very high, with more than 100 cases per 100,000 people. This has the potential to strain hospital capacity in the coming weeks and months. The CDC also reports that more than 90% of long-term health care facilities are in areas with high infection rates.

“Nationwide, we had more than one million cases per week,” said Redfield.

The very high infection rate throughout the country presents significant complications to hospital systems and public health officials. In the spring and summer, the country could shift health care capacity to hot zones as they developed.

“Now there is such widespread that we don’t have the capacity to move health care resources to meet increased surges,” said Redfield.

Mitigation
“The time for wearing a mask is now,” Redfield solemnly remarked. “We must recommit ourselves to mitigation techniques like wearing a mask, social distancing, and surveillance.”

The common theme throughout all of Redfield’s comments was the emphasis on mask-wearing. One of the most insidious features of COVID-19 is that it spreads largely through people who are asymptomatic or before an individual knows they are infectious. When people don’t wear masks, this dramatically increases the likelihood of transmission, in what Redfield called “the silent epidemic.”

“The instrument of transmission is not the person with a cough,” said Redfield. “It is a seemingly healthy person who is contributing to asymptotic transmission.”

U.S. Chamber members, including Minnesota Chamber President, Doug Loon, asked what employers could do to limit community spread.

Redfield responded that “the key to controlling community spread is using the number one mitigation tool we have available, a mask. Leadership matters, and business leaders can set an example in their workplace and for the public.”

The more businesses encourage the good behavior of mask-wearing, the more they can help reduce transmission. Additionally, The CDC is working on guidance for institutions and workplaces to deploy testing strategically. If a business also wants to develop a testing program with their employees, they can help identify and reduce exposure from an individual who is an asymptomatic carrier.

What This Means for Michigan Businesses
Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all been rising in Michigan over the past month. This presents serious challenges across the state of Michigan. It is more critical than ever for government leaders to take swift action to support businesses, hospitals, and unemployed workers. The Chamber’s Vice President of Government Relations, Brad Williams, recently shared five key areas of legislation that would help accelerate Michigan’s economy with Crain’s Detroit Business.

Businesses cannot wait for the widespread deployment of the vaccine. Businesses should work with their employees to help them stay safe with PPE, which should be tax-deductible. Unified action between the Governor and legislative leaders is needed.

Lessons Learned
The most widely reported comment from the event was Redfield’s statement that December, January, and February would be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.” However, business and government leaders also had a chance to hear about the lessons we should be learning from this experience.

Redfield felt that the nation was severely underprepared for this crisis. The CDC had not invested in critical analytics capabilities and laboratory resilience for testing capacity. This pandemic could cost up to eight trillion dollars in direct government expenditures and upwards of 15 trillion to the entire economy.

As the country navigates the economic recovery, investing in a robust public health system can help prevent future crises and pandemics from causing this type of economic devastation. Significant investment in resiliency will be a drop in the bucket compared to the total economic pain COVID-19 has engendered.

One final message that Redfield shared was the importance of good communication. Science and data should guide decision making and may even lead to changing recommendations by public officials. However, it is critical that “for the public, it is critical to have harmony in messaging with everyone on board.”


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