For struggling local economy, April may mean more than spring, panel says

The greater Washington economy is likely to keep struggling until April, when warmer weather and the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines turn the tide against the pandemic, a panel of public health experts said Monday.

COVID-19 vaccines are promising — so promising that some health care workers in the region may receive a vaccine by the end of the year. But questions still remain about how to distribute vaccines, what K-12 schooling will look like next year and whether enough COVID-19 tests are being administered. 

A panel titled “Reopening the Region: Vaccines, Testing, and Schools,” was hosted on Monday by the Greater Washington Partnership, a coalition of top employers in the region spanning Richmond, Va., to Baltimore, to discuss these issues.

The panel was comprised of Sylvia M. Burwell, president of American University and former secretary of health & human services; Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken School of Public Health at the George Washington University; J. Stephen Jones, president and CEO of Inova Health System; and Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte US. It was moderated by Greater Washington Partnership’s CEO J.B. Holston.

The panelists discussed the strong progress that has been made in the development of a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, with three vaccine developers announcing promising phase 3 trial results in recent weeks. Jones said he is optimistic about a potential vaccine; he anticipates being able to give the vaccine to some front-line team members at Inova by the end of 2020.

It will be up to individual state governments to decide what populations will receive the vaccine first, although Jones stated that he would prefer national guidance on the issue. He anticipates health care workers being at the top of that list in most jurisdictions. 

Goldman noted the role that vaccine distribution could play in the return to in-person schooling, as well. Because health care workers are unable to work if they’re leaving their children at home, vaccinating K-12 teachers should be a priority so that children can return to the classroom, she said.

Along with the current surge in COVID-19 cases has come an increase in demand for tests. Marylanders are waiting in hours-long lines to be tested, and the state continues to break its own testing records, with over 50,000 tests being administered on Saturday.

Holston noted that the United States should be testing at least 10 times more than it currently is, citing an estimate by Nobel laureate economist Paul Romer that 35 million tests per day would be necessary for Americans to return to work.

Holston asked Burwell if she felt it was too late to implement a program in the spirit of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s initiative to expedite the process of developing a vaccine, for COVID-19 testing. 

It isn’t, she said: “We need to be using every tool in the tool kit to the maximum.”

All four panelists pinned down April as the month they expect to see things begin getting better. Goldman believes this improvement will be attributable not only to the distribution of vaccines, but also to the return to warmer weather, which will decrease the number of indoor gatherings.

The Greater Washington Partnership also launched a Recovery Clearinghouse page on its website on Monday. The clearinghouse includes links to important news articles about COVID-19, broken down into subcategories, such as masking and herd immunity.

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