Five pandemic predictions five months later. Was I right?

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Looking back

In April, with the pandemic raging, lockdowns underway in the Northeast and West, and widespread panic about what the immediate future would bring, I tried to look over the horizon to see where we were heading. My 4 predictions for the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and Prediction 5: The end of immigration, distilled what I was seeing in Boston plus what I was hearing from healthcare and life sciences clients and physician and scientist friends in US hotspots and around the world. I didn’t put a timeframe on when this “next phase” would be, but with the summer behind us and a new school year getting going, now seems like a good time to take stock.

Judge for yourself, but overall I think I did well. Let’s review:

#1: Treatment, not testing will be key to reopening the economy
Grade: B

I was right that testing wouldn’t be our savior, but also overestimated how quickly treatment would improve.

In April, everyone was talking about the need for millions of rapid turnaround tests to get things moving again. Other countries, like Germany and Singapore had deployed testing on a massive scale. But when I looked at what was going on in the US I was unimpressed. There were lots of announcements about capacity but little follow through.

Sadly, we’re still doing poorly. Recent estimates suggest the need for 193 million tests per day; we’re only doing 21 million. In Massachusetts (one of the leaders in testing) it’s still hard to get a test if you’re not symptomatic. Test results elsewhere can take a week or even longer, if you can get tested at all. Bill Gates recently criticized the current state of US testing: too few, too slow to return results, wrong swabs.

The absence of rapid turnaround testing at scale and weak contact tracking has hampered the ability of scientists to inform policy makers and the public about what works and what doesn’t. This failure contributed to the rapid spread of disease in early hot spots. It also fed public confusion and undermined support for guidelines, which seemed vague, random and contradictory.

Remdesivir was already showing promise in April, and non-drug adjustments such as optimization of mechanical ventilation and turning patients on their sides were being tried. Intriguing stories of cardiovascular impacts and cytokine storms were emerging. I expected we’d have a bunch of drugs and other innovations that would make COVID-19 a manageable disease by now. The death rate is down, but treatment improvements have been incremental and some early hopes fizzled. Dexamethasone, an old steroid is the only drug beyond remdesivir with widespread evidence of effectiveness.

There are new possibilities ahead. Olumiant (baricitinib) appears to help patients on remdesivir recover faster and may gain emergency approval by the time you read this. And researchers are looking at new mechanisms, such as bradykinin storms to understand how COVID-19 does its damage and how to stop it. There are several other treatments under evaluation, too.

Bottom line: fatigue, denial and surrender were bigger factors in reopening decisions than I expected. The economy still isn’t fully reopened and we may need to wait for a vaccine to move back toward normalcy.

#2: Hybridization (virtual/in-person mix) will be the new reality
Grade: A+

I’m proud of this prediction. At the time I made it, the consensus was that everyone would return to the office by summer and get back to school in September. That hasn’t happened. Instead, as spaces reopen, hybrid models are emerging everywhere to reduce density and decrease risk. You see it with schools, businesses, physician offices and clinical trials. Remote work and school are still happening, but work from home is no panacea.

I expect hybridization to outlive the pandemic as individuals and organizations learn that a mix of in-person and remote is best for most activities. But patients may have to assert themselves to receive the full benefits of hybrid care, because healthcare organizations have a tendency to revert to what works for them rather than what’s most convenient and affordable for patients. Telehealth was used for almost 70 percent of total visits in April before dropping to around 20 percent in the summer. Some patient-centric leaders, such as Boston Children’s Hospital have maintained rates at close to 50 percent.

#3: Public health post-COVID-19 will be like security post-9/11
Grade: B

When I started traveling again soon after 9/11, the sudden jump in security at airports, office buildings and public spaces was staggering. In the following months and years, security became a huge industry and an obsession.

In April, I wrote:

“Now that COVID-19 has struck, we can expect public health to be similarly elevated. It will become a pervasive part of our economy and society. Expect temperature –and maybe face mask and hand washing– checks at the office, school, and any public venue.  Contact tracers may call or visit our homes or scrutinize our cellphone records. Event managers and employers will need to hire a health team and devise a health/safety plan to prevent outbreaks and provide confidence.”

I’ve certainly seen this in the private sector. For example, many private schools require daily health attestations, temperature checks, masks, outdoor eating, etc. Stores announce, “no mask, no service” policies in their windows. Some states and counties have good contact tracing programs, but unlike 9/11 there is no nationwide approach, and no Homeland Security equivalent.

As more venues reopen I expect that this trend will continue. What’s not yet clear is whether public health will receive additional funding and just how central it will be to our future. Much depends on how quickly and completely the current pandemic is brought under control, whether new health threats emerge soon, and who occupies the White House in 2021.

#4: Federal government will grow even more powerful relative to everything else
Grade: A-

This prediction was paradoxical. Those I reviewed it with at the time found it novel and counter-intuitive. After all, the feds failed to prepare for the pandemic and threw everything onto the states. The CDC embarrassed itself with its testing approach and then was sidelined.

But the federal government has essentially unlimited spending power, which it used to prop up the economy with the $2+ Trillion CARES Act, and the stock market (via the Federal Reserve). Meanwhile, states had to come begging –quite literally—to the president for help, and our world-leading universities and colleges found themselves in desperate straits and unable to reopen.

In short, the federal government’s failures have weakened the rest of US society much more than the federal government itself has been weakened.

The reason I give myself an A- instead of an A is that I didn’t address what would happen relative to the rest of the world. The US federal government has lost international standing during the pandemic with its poor response. The country was rated as the most prepared for a pandemic –but botched things anyway. The withdrawal from the WHO weakened our hand, and our slow economic recovery means we’re losing ground on China and others.

#5: The end of immigration
Grade: A

Crises present major opportunities for governments to enact policies they wouldn’t be able to get away with in normal times. The current Administration has made no secret of its disdain for immigration.  It had taken some dramatic steps before the pandemic, such as curtailing the H1-B program for highly skilled workers and attempting to build a wall along the Mexican border.

In April, the president tweeted his intention to suspend all immigration. That’s about as dramatic as it gets and would have drawn much more fire even a month or two earlier. But with lockdowns and travel bans throughout the world, and a virus floating in the air, it was harder to argue against. Consider some of the additional actions taken against immigration during the pandemic, including bans on asylum seekers and refugee resettlement, a ban on international students coming to the US if their classes were not in person (rescinded after pushback), and more restrictions on H-1B lottery winners.

The pandemic has also made the US a less attractive destination for would-be immigrants, even without all of the explicit actions. That won’t be reversed quickly.

What’s next?

There are big questions for the next few months and years, including:

  • When will vaccination make a decisive difference? This includes when vaccines are approved, how quickly and rationally they are distributed, how well they work and for how long, and what the uptake is.
  • What will the economy of the early 2020s look like? Will travel and leisure return? Education at all levels? Office work? What new industries will emerge?
  • What will be the US’s role in the world? Much of this hinges on the results of the 2020 election and its aftermath.

I’ll offer my commentary on these topics as the situation continues to unfold. Check the Health Business Blog and HealthBiz podcast for updates.

In recent months, my strategy consulting firm, Health Business Group has helped our healthcare and life sciences clients factor the implications of the pandemic into their growth and M&A strategies. Would you like to discuss your own organization’s plans and how Health Business Group can help? If so, please email me:

September 21, 2020

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