CEO Corner: The link between public health and the economy

Thursday, August 26, 2021

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August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Although it’s one of the more obscure month-long campaigns, it’s clearly taken on added importance given Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy and the alarming outcomes for the unvaccinated (i.e., nearly all – 93-95% -- infections, hospitalizations, and deaths currently from Covid-19 are among unvaccinated persons).

EDASC strongly encourages all eligible individuals to get the Covid-19 vaccine and take proper safety precautions when in public. The vaccines have proven safe (over 5 billion doses administered worldwide thus far), and the Pfizer vaccine has been fully approved by the FDA with the Moderna vaccine likely soon to follow.

But why, you may ask, should an economic development organization be concerned with public health? Why does EDASC strongly and vocally support getting vaccinated against Covid-19 and following masking and social distancing protocols?

Here’s the simple truth: public health directly affects us all, individuals, families, businesses -- and particularly affects us as a society. The very definition of a pandemic is that it’s not individual. There are many instances where individualism may be appropriate, but we have acknowledged the difference between you eating burgers and getting coronary artery disease (doesn’t directly impact others) and you smoking and blowing smoke on others (second-hand smoke is a proven carcinogen and can make nonsmokers sick too). That’s why we accept rules prohibiting smoking in public buildings. We also accept seatbelt and helmet laws because they prevent injuries that would otherwise have a serious public economic and societal impact. We accept laws preventing speeding and drunk driving because of the risk to others. Drinking at home alone, while maybe a bad idea, is not legally prohibited. Getting drunk and beating someone up is.

We accept vaccine requirements for entering public school and even university. If we have learned anything at all during this pandemic, we should understand that individuals and businesses can and must contribute to ending the most serious threat to public health – and as a result the economy -- in our lifetimes. Just last year our businesses closed at unprecedented rates and unemployment and poverty skyrocketed because of Covid-19.

Millions lost their jobs, their homes, and over 600,000 Americans lost their lives. Clearly, this pandemic has been the greatest threat to our economy and many of our businesses in our lifetime. It hurts the workforce. It causes business closures. And it prevents many businesses from operating because they are all interconnected by supply chain: customers, suppliers, shipping, finance, marketing, construction, services, etc.

We all recall businesses immediately being shut down for many months as soon as the lockdown began in March 2020, and even when they began to reopen it was at a fraction of capacity. In fact, the real economic recovery didn’t begin until large numbers of Americans began receiving the vaccine and feeling safer to move around in public with a greatly reduced risk of getting sick from Covid-19. Unemployment spiked to a disastrous 14.8% nationwide in the spring of 2020 (closer to a peak of about 18% here in Skagit County), and fell to 12.5% last July and 5.5% by June 2021).

Gross Domestic Product nationwide rose 6.4% in the first quarter of 2021 as more people became vaccinated. Getting vaccinated against Covid-19 provides immediate and measurable health benefits. It is also a critical component of the country’s economic recovery, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

The report surmises, “More widespread vaccinations not only keep people healthier but they also lower health care costs, make it easier for people to return to work, and increase overall economic activity.”

The fact that now nearly 62% of the eligible US population has received at least one dose and over 52% are fully vaccinated (Washington state’s numbers are 67% and 60%, respectively), has allowed many businesses and families to recover economically as well. Last week alone nearly 1,000 Skagitonians received their first dose of the vaccine. But we still have a long way to go.

We all remember how concerned everyone was in 2020 about the fate of our small businesses. Where is that concern now, though, when it comes to wearing masks and getting vaccinated, which are the keys to making sure businesses can stay open and prosper? Getting vaccinated should be considered an investment in society’s health and economic recovery. In addition, vaccination reduces Covid-related stress, health care costs to employers, employees and society, and lost individual and enterprise income (and as a result, municipal resources too). With emerging requirements, vaccination also improves opportunities for education and employment.

Few are as acutely aware of the importance of widespread vaccination to businesses as those in the tourism and retail sectors. Travel spending declined 42% in 2020, representing a $500 billion loss and $64 million loss in federal, state and local tax revenues from March-December 2020. The restaurant industry, arguably the hardest hit of all, saw more than 110,000 establishments closed temporarily or for good by December 2020, and the pandemic eliminated nearly 2.5 million jobs nationwide at year’s end. For business owners in general, the first two months of the pandemic saw the largest drop in numbers in history, across all industries, and it was more severe for minority- and women-owned businesses.

Over one in four Americans generate their livelihoods from small businesses as either an owner or employee, and they deserve our support. These small businesses also impact other businesses of all sizes, and a far greater proportion of American families. Small businesses can help by understanding and educating themselves and employees on the scientific facts around Covid-19 and the vaccine, by creating a Covid-19 plan and protecting their team, and by becoming ambassadors in the community for overcoming this public health challenge, according to Forbes magazine.

Right now, vaccination and taking other methods to prevent the spread of Covid and its severe medical impact are the best things we can all do, both for our health and our businesses and economy.

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