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Massachusetts needs to focus on coronavirus data, not dates to reopen the economy

May 15, 2020Boston Globe, Council in the News

May 15, 2020
Boston Globe
By Christopher R. Anderson and Steve Pagliuca

Timetables will need to be calibrated, and continually adjusted, based on evolving COVID-19 public health data. A “set it and forget it” approach will be ineffective and dangerous.

Predictability and certainty are important for business, but for the foreseeable future, public policies and employer responses will need to be fluid and responsive to changing circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the months ahead, we need to manage our expectations.

Public officials and economic leaders need to continue to focus on data, not dates, to drive effective decision-making and execute a phased and interactive approach to reopening the Massachusetts economy, while closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19 infection, hospital capacity, and access to key enablers like childcare and transportation, supplies, and critical personal protective equipment. Timetables will need to be calibrated, and continually adjusted, based on evolving public health data, particularly if trends indicate an emerging resurgence of infection. A “set it and forget it” approach will be ineffective and dangerous.

Follow the science, not public opinion polls

Governor Charlie Baker, the Legislature, and mayors will face a recurring onslaught of difficult decisions in the months and years to come. Citizens, businesses, and institutions will continue to face disruption and pain. Some policies and decisions may be burdensome and unpopular, such as limits on travel, required self-quarantine, continued closure of public spaces and cancellation of public events, and reduced seating limits in restaurants.

Public officials will build credibility with impacted individuals and institutions by following the science instead of public opinion polls. The policies for reopening the economy should be data-driven and align with employer return-to-the-workplace strategies developed in partnership with public health experts to ensure that difficult decisions are appreciated for their effectiveness and viewed as rooted in fairness, not favoritism. Massachusetts is fortunate to be a leader in education, biotech, health care, and political bipartisanship. As a state, we’ve been able to capitalize on this to create an enduring public-private partnership model to advance nimble, science-based public policy responses as the phased reopening of the economy continues. One such response would be to implement segmentation strategies based on legitimate risk factors — such as age, comorbidities, and multigenerational living arrangements — aimed at lowering infection and hospitalization rates.

Do what’s doable and temper expectations on testing and vaccine development

Conceptually, the availability of quick, accurate, cost-effective, and on-demand testing options could be highly effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19. But the reality is that current testing options are severely constrained, and the cost of deploying them at scale is prohibitive. Until more efficient testing emerges, policy makers and employers can use testing strategically to shape other public policy and private sector responses, for example triaging symptomatic employees and individuals for health care services.

Similarly, while progress toward vaccines is accelerating and promising opportunities are emerging, widespread availability of an effective vaccine is unlikely for a year or longer.

Employers and public officials should instead focus immediate efforts on “doing the doable.” Strategies we can implement now include new workplace practices and norms that require employees’ use of masks, self-diagnostics — employees could complete an app-based daily symptom checklist before coming to work — and screening technologies which are all highly effective in reducing the rate of spread when compliance is universal. Examples already in use elsewhere are no-touch forehead thermometers or infrared temperature scanning technologies for larger groups and/or common areas within the workplace.

For most workplace environments, employees and visitors can safely wear surgical masks, which help prevent the wearer from spreading fine particles and are up to twice as effective as cotton masks, while preserving N95 masks for front-line workers who need them most.

Execution matters

COVID-19 presents a systemic challenge that requires a coordinated systemic response, with exceptional execution on each and every protocol that helps reduce infection rates. Individual choices and behaviors are paramount in the state’s ability to prevent further spread and mitigate the risks of a large-scale resurgence. Our new-normal society means we need to be comfortable with new ways of living, working, and engaging in social activities. We must support the common good. For example, mandated use of masks in public and workplaces can be highly effective in reducing the spread at a relatively low cost. Government public safety mandates, robust communications by public officials and employers, and educational public service announcements to encourage compliance and meaningful enforcement mechanisms are essential to ensuring broad adoption.

The world is watching

As a global center for life sciences and innovation, Massachusetts companies and institutions are positioned to play a leading role developing the life-changing therapies and technologies that will support coronavirus response efforts worldwide and serve a global market. Near-universal work-from-home policies for many employers are accelerating the adoption and acceptance of remote work without lost productivity, loosening ties between physical locations and employment. More than ever, many employers and skilled workers will be able to locate anywhere. In addition, states, cities, and regions that get it right on COVID-19 response and recovery now will gain the advantage in the global competition for economic investment and employment in the long term. Massachusetts can — and must — continue to lead the way.

Christopher R. Anderson is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Steve Pagliuca is co-chairman of Bain Capital and co-owner of the Boston Celtics.

Increasingly, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is stepping up to create, execute, and lead critical statewide competitiveness strategies. Fostering a vision for our innovation economy under the MassVision2050 banner, the Council solidifies its position as a thought leader providing valuable insights to navigate emerging technologies, facilitates long-term planning, and reinforces the Council's commitment to excellence and action in the evolving Massachusetts tech-driven economy.

To learn more, contact Council President Chris Anderson.