The next global pandemic may already be upon us. The Biden administration has declared monkeypox a public health emergency as the number of cases topped 6,600 in the United States. The rapid spread of the disease prompted the World Health Organization to classify it as a global health emergency. The last time the WHO took this step was responding to the emergence of COVID-19.
While the monkeypox virus is primarily spread through close contact with an infected person, our window to prepare for a mass outbreak is closing.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is that government at all levels needs to consult and collaborate more closely with business leaders to fight a pandemic. This will minimize economic disruption, maximize workplace safety and allow the government to mitigate public health consequences by responding quickly.
At the onset of COVID-19, business leaders had to adapt quickly, making decisions in an environment of uncertainty amid a rapidly evolving public health response. A costly lockdown became the default public policy option because the nation was unprepared.
Now, to help protect the economy, the public and private sectors should work together to identify workers who qualify as essential and how they can work as safely as possible in the event of a public health emergency.
It is important to note that both the public and private sectors have been able to achieve great successes in these tumultuous times. Public-private collaborations have enabled scientists to develop vaccines in record time. Private companies have relied on a decade of research partnerships, including with the National Institutes of Health, on a new type of vaccine – based on messenger RNA and produced synthetically – and took billions of dollars in risk . The result was a vaccine that offers high rates of efficacy and protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death. However, the vaccine distribution system can be improved, in particular by taking advantage of the existing strong contacts with patients in the private sector networks.
There have also been other crucial victories: the vastly expanded use of telehealth has helped many patients get the care they need, remotely. An ambitious regulatory reform program has allowed hospitals to adjust to surge capacity and has brought many healthcare providers back to work. We need to ensure that some necessary regulatory reforms that can help address this latest public health challenge remain in place.
Conversely, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed glaring flaws in our system and exposed how the United States has chronically underinvested in several dimensions of public health, especially given the acute vulnerability of their underserved communities.
The nation should move towards a health system that provides greater access, with a focus on the health disparities that the pandemic has so starkly exposed. We have seen this through the impact of COVID-19 on people with comorbidities such as diabetes and hypertension, those in nursing homes, and those with mobility-related disabilities.
A health care system that reimburses providers for maintaining health would increase overall levels of health and thereby better prepare Americans for future public health crises and address health equity issues. These constitute the second lesson.
The third is that it is essential to have accurate data. Sewage screening, for example, has given early warning of COVID spikes. Genomic sequencing was an essential tool for identifying new variants and developing ways to treat them.
A global public-private partnership for genomic sequencing, coupled with mRNA technology, would be a powerful way to treat and respond quickly to future pathogens and viral outbreaks.
The fourth lesson is that government at all levels must do more to prepare. For starters, the federal government should constantly upgrade and refresh the national stockpile of goods needed to fight a pandemic, such as personal protective equipment. It must also ensure that we have a strong supply chain for these items, which can be activated quickly in the event of a crisis.
The federal government should reform its public health communications so that they are consistent and clear. The CDC needs to more proactively implement scientific advice in real-world settings. It should create a business advisory board, modeled on the Department of Homeland Security’s Critical Infrastructure Advisory Boards, with representatives from a variety of industries, to advise on the economic impacts of public health regulations and help pandemic planning.
National and local authorities should consult with business to ensure public sector support for critical public health emergency infrastructure. American schools can also improve the way they teach health education.
The final lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic concerns how businesses themselves can better prepare. They should update their business plans now with lessons learned from the pandemic so they are ready to shift their operations as events change. They must assume their role as trusted sources of information for their employees during a public health crisis. Companies need relationships with trusted healthcare professionals who can guide their communications with employees.
Although these solutions are not necessarily easy, they are all common sense and based on recent experience. Infectious diseases are experiencing exponential and non-linear growth. We need to start applying these lessons now and hope that it is not already too late to benefit from them in our fight against monkeypox.
Ronald Williams is President and CEO of RW2 Enterprises, LLC and former President and CEO of Aetna. Mike Swinford is the CEO of Numotion. Both are directors of the Committee for Economic Development, the public policy center of the Conference Board (CED), and serve on the CED’s health care committee.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com comments are solely the opinions of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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