Cartoon – Importance of Change

How a Results Oriented Outlook Conquers Negative Thinking | Neways Center

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/09/pandemic-intuition-nightmare-spiral-winter/616204/

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral - The Atlantic

As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …

1. A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.

Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protectionAs Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.

Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…

2. False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.  

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …

3. The Comfort of Theatricality

Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and regular Atlantic contributor. The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.

Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. It also applies to the porous and inefficient travel bans that Trump and his allies still tout as policy successes. These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency. And by emphasizing solutions that can be easily seen, it exacerbated the American preference for …

4. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But tattered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says. Chicago fenced off a beach, and Honolulu closed beaches, parks, and hiking trails, while leaving riskier indoor businesses open.

Moralistic thinking jeopardizes health in two ways. First, people often oppose measures that reduce an individual’s risk—seat belts, condoms, HPV vaccines—because such protections might promote risky behavior. During the pandemic, some experts used such reasoning to question the value of masks, while the University of Michigan’s president argued that testing students widely would offer a “false sense of security.” These paternalistic false-assurance arguments are almost always false themselves. “There’s very little evidence for overcompensation to the point where safety measures do harm,” Bergstrom says.

Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to faila pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. “If you put 10,000 [students] in a small space, eating, sleeping, and socializing together, there’ll be an explosion of cases,” Robinson says. “I don’t know what [colleges] were expecting.” Perhaps they fell prey to …

5. The Normality Trap

In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.

The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. “If schools are a priority, you have to put them ahead of something. What is that something?” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “In an ideal world, they would be the last to close and the first to open, but in many communities, casinos, bars, and tattoo parlors opened before them.” A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept, which predisposes people to …

6. Magical Thinking

Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.

This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus, because they were previously exposed to its milder, common-cold-causing cousins. Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity—whereby the virus struggles to find new hosts, because enough people are immune—could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.

Neither claim is implausible, but neither should be grounds for complacency. No one yet knows if the “cross-reactive” T-cells actually protect against COVID-19, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected. Herd immunity, meanwhile, is not a perfect barrier. Even if the low thresholds are correct, a fast-growing and uncontrolled outbreak will still shoot past themPursuing this strategy will mean that, in the winter, many parts of the U.S. may suffer what New York City endured in the spring: thousands of deaths and an untold number of lingering disabilities. That alone should be an argument against …

7. The Complacency of Inexperience

When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh, a public-health professor at Harvard. “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurtingmental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.

If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics, including several in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.”

Even when the virus began spreading within the U.S., places that weren’t initially pummeled seemed to forget that viruses spread. “In April, I was seeing COVID patients in the ER every day,” Karan says. “In Texas, I had friends saying, ‘No one believes it here because we have no cases.’ In L.A., fellow physicians said, ‘Are you sure this is worse than the flu? We’re not seeing anything.’” Three months later, Texas and California saw COVID-19 all too closely. The tendency to ignore threats until they directly affect us has consigned the U.S. to …

8. A Reactive Rut

In March, Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern. It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.

This reactive rut also precludes long-term planning. In April, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me that “people haven’t understood that [the pandemic] isn’t about the next couple of weeks [but] about the next two years.” Leaders should have taken the long view then. “We should have been thinking about what it would take to ensure schools open in the fall, and prevent the long-term harms of lost children’s development,” Redbird says. Instead, we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.

These errors crop up in all disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic has special qualities that have exacerbated them. The virus moved quickly enough to upend the status quo in a few months, deepening the allure of the hastily abandoned past. It also moved slowly enough to sweep the U.S. in a patchwork fashion, allowing as-yet-untouched communities to drop their guard. The pandemic grew huge in scope, entangling every aspect of society, and maxing out our capacity to deal with complexity. “People struggle to make rational decisions when they cannot see all the cogs,” says Njoki Mwarumba, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Full of fear and anxiety, people furiously searched for more information, but because the virus is so new, they instead spiraled into more confusion and uncertainty. And tragically, all of this happened during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Trump embodied and amplified America’s intuition death spiral. Instead of rolling out a detailed, coordinated plan to control the pandemic, he ricocheted from one overhyped cure-all to another, while relying on theatrics such as travel bans. He ignored inequities and systemic failures in favor of blaming China, the WHO, governors, Anthony Fauci, and Barack Obama. He widened the false dichotomy between lockdowns and reopening by regularly tweeting in favor of the latter. He and his allies appealed to magical thinking and steered the U.S. straight into the normality trap by frequently lying that the virus would go away, that the pandemic was ending, that new waves weren’t happening, and that rising case numbers were solely due to increased testing. They have started talking about COVID-19 in the past tense as cases surge in the Midwest.

“It’s like mass gaslighting,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University. “We were put in a situation where better solutions were closed off but a lot of people had that fact sneak up on them. In the absence of a robust federal response, we’re all left washing our hands and hoping for the best, which makes us more susceptible to magical thinking and individual-level fixes.” And if those fixes never come, “I think people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”

That might, indeed, be Trump’s next solution. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s new adviser—the neuroradiologist Scott Atlas—is pushing a strategy that lets the virus rip through the non-elderly population in a bid to reach herd immunity. This policy was folly for Sweden, which is nowhere near herd immunity, had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates, and has a regretful state epidemiologist. Although the White House has denied that a formal herd-immunity policy exists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed its guidance to say that asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test” even after close contact with an infected personThis change makes no sense: People can still spread the virus before showing symptoms. By effectively recommending less testing, as Trump has specifically called for, the nation’s top public-health agency is depriving the U.S. of the data it needs to resist intuitive errors. “When there’s a refusal to take in the big picture, we are stuck,” Mwarumba says.

The pandemic is now in its ninth month. Uncertainties abound as fall and winter loom. In much of the country, colder weather will gradually pack people into indoor spaces, where the coronavirus more readily spreads. Winter also typically heralds the arrival of the flu and other respiratory viruses, and although the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed an unusually mild flu season, that’s “because of the severe precautions they were taking against COVID-19,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s not clear to me that our precautions will be successful enough to also prevent the flu.”

Schools are reopening, which will shape the path of the pandemic in still-uncertain ways. Universities are more predictable: Thanks to magical thinking and misplaced moralism, the U.S. already has at least 51,000 confirmed infections in more than 1,000 colleges across every state. These (underestimated) numbers will grow, because only 20 percent of colleges are doing regular testing, while almost half are not testing at all. As more are forced to stop in-person teaching, students will be sent back to their communities with COVID-19 in tow. “I expect this will blow up outbreaks in places that never had outbreaks, or in places that had outbreaks under control,” Murray says. Further spikes will likely occur after Thanksgiving and Christmas, as people who yearn to return to normal (or who think that the country overreacted) travel to see their family. Despite that risk, the CDC recently dropped its recommendation that out-of-state travelers should quarantine themselves for 14 days.

But many of the experts I spoke with thought it unlikely that “we’ll have cities going full New York,” as Bergstrom puts it. Doctors are getting better at treating the disease. States like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have managed to avoid new surges over the summer, showing that local leadership can at least partly compensate for federal laxity. A new generation of cheap, rapid, paper-based tests will hit the market and make it easier to work out who is contagious. And despite the spiral of bad intuitions, many Americans are holding the line: Mask use and support for physical distancing are still high, according to Redbird, who has been tracking pandemic-related attitudes since March. “My feeling is that while things are going to get worse, I’m not sure they’ll be catastrophic, because of situational awareness,” Bill Hanage says.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be teeing up a vaccine announcement in late October, shortly before the November 3 election. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, told NPR that it’s “extremely unlikely” a vaccine will be ready by then, and many scientists are concerned that the FDA will be pressured into approving a product that hasn’t been adequately tested, as Russia and China already have. Many Americans share this concern. A safe and effective vaccine could finally bring the pandemic under control, but its arrival will also test America’s ability to resist the intuitive errors that have trapped it so far. Vaccination has long been portrayed as the ultimate biomedical silver bullet, separating an era when masks and social distancing mattered from a world where normality has returned. This is yet another false dichotomy. “Everyone’s imagining this moment when all of a sudden, it’s all over, and they can go on vacation,” Natalie Dean says. “But the reality is going to be messier.”

This problem is not unique to COVID-19. It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian Howard Segal.* Instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.

A third of Americans already say they would refuse a vaccine, whether because of existing anti-vaccine attitudes or more reasonable concerns about a rushed development process. Those who get the shot are unlikely to be fully protected; the FDA is prepared to approve a vaccine that’s at least 50 percent effective—a level comparable to current flu shots. An imperfect vaccine will still be useful. The risk is that the government goes all-in on this one theatrical countermeasure, without addressing the systemic problems that made the U.S. so vulnerable, or investing in the testing and tracing strategies that will still be necessary. “We’re still going to need those other things,” Dean says.

Between these reasons and the time needed for manufacturing and distribution, the pandemic is likely to drag on for months after a vaccine is approved. Already, the event is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who studies disasters. “Famines and complex humanitarian crises are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning outLong-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.

The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …

9. The Habituation of Horror

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racismschool shootings and police brutalitymass incarceration and sexual harassmentwidespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

 

 

 

 

The Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America (Part 1): The Market Response

Click to access CBC_72_08052020_Final.pdf

 

[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]

In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.

Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray
Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient
and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.

In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.

In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward
unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.

Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.

Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.

For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic,
operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.

Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.

This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.

It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.

COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME

Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.

COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.

The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.

The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.

Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.

The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.

The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.

Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.

Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.

 

THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE

Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.

Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,

providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.

They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.

Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.

If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of
overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%

Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible.
Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”

While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority
(over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.

The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.

The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.

This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.

As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.

COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and
balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better
outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.

 

MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION

Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with
many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.

As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding
their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial
payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.

COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.

Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or
strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.

Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources
to efficient companies that generate compelling value.

As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will
experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps
that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.

 

WINNING AT VALUE

The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those
discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e.
attributed lives).

This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:

 A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.

 A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.

 A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.

 An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.

Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.

Experience with managing risk-based contracts.

 A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.

Aligned or incentivized physicians.

Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.

Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.

 

While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is
something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
branding.

Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.

CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO

America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order
requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.

The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.

COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.

Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the
inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.

The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate
profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.

This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.

Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).

Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American
communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.

Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.

 

 

 

Mask resistance during a pandemic isn’t new – in 1918 many Americans were ‘slackers

https://theconversation.com/mask-resistance-during-a-pandemic-isnt-new-in-1918-many-americans-were-slackers-141687?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201680716207&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201680716207+Version+A+CID_c211e1b0b6c4b69b3a29a9d1624a2ab6&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=Mask%20resistance%20during%20a%20pandemic%20isnt%20new%20%20in%201918%20many%20Americans%20were%20slackers

Mask resistance during a pandemic isn't new – in 1918 many ...

We have all seen the alarming headlines: Coronavirus cases are surging in 40 states, with new cases and hospitalization rates climbing at an alarming rate. Health officials have warned that the U.S. must act quickly to halt the spread – or we risk losing control over the pandemic.

There’s a clear consensus that Americans should wear masks in public and continue to practice proper social distancing. While a majority of Americans support wearing masks, widespread and consistent compliance has proven difficult to maintain in communities across the country. Demonstrators gathered outside city halls in Scottsdale, ArizonaAustin, Texas; and other cities to protest local mask mandates. Several Washington state and North Carolina sheriffs have announced they will not enforce their state’s mask order.

I’ve researched the history of the 1918 pandemic extensively. At that time, with no effective vaccine or drug therapies, communities across the country instituted a host of public health measures to slow the spread of a deadly influenza epidemic: They closed schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and isolated and quarantined those who were infected. Many communities recommended or required that citizens wear face masks in public – and this, not the onerous lockdowns, drew the most ire.

Mask resistance during a pandemic isn't new – in 1918 many ...

In mid-October of 1918, amidst a raging epidemic in the Northeast and rapidly growing outbreaks nationwide, the United States Public Health Service circulated leaflets recommending that all citizens wear a mask. The Red Cross took out newspaper ads encouraging their use and offered instructions on how to construct masks at home using gauze and cotton string. Some state health departments launched their own initiatives, most notably California, Utah and Washington.

Nationwide, posters presented mask-wearing as a civic duty – social responsibility had been embedded into the social fabric by a massive wartime federal propaganda campaign launched in early 1917 when the U.S. entered the Great War. San Francisco Mayor James Rolph announced that “conscience, patriotism and self-protection demand immediate and rigid compliance” with mask wearing. In nearby Oakland, Mayor John Davie stated that “it is sensible and patriotic, no matter what our personal beliefs may be, to safeguard our fellow citizens by joining in this practice” of wearing a mask.

Health officials understood that radically changing public behavior was a difficult undertaking, especially since many found masks uncomfortable to wear. Appeals to patriotism could go only so far. As one Sacramento official noted, people “must be forced to do the things that are for their best interests.” The Red Cross bluntly stated that “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” Numerous communities, particularly across the West, imposed mandatory ordinances. Some sentenced scofflaws to short jail terms, and fines ranged from US$5 to $200.

Mask resistance during a pandemic isn't new – in 1918 many ...

Passing these ordinances was frequently a contentious affair. For example, it took several attempts for Sacramento’s health officer to convince city officials to enact the order. In Los Angeles, it was scuttled. A draft resolution in Portland, Oregon led to heated city council debate, with one official declaring the measure “autocratic and unconstitutional,” adding that “under no circumstances will I be muzzled like a hydrophobic dog.” It was voted down.

Utah’s board of health considered issuing a mandatory statewide mask order but decided against it, arguing that citizens would take false security in the effectiveness of masks and relax their vigilance. As the epidemic resurged, Oakland tabled its debate over a second mask order after the mayor angrily recounted his arrest in Sacramento for not wearing a mask.prominent physician in attendance commented that “if a cave man should appear…he would think the masked citizens all lunatics.”

In places where mask orders were successfully implemented, noncompliance and outright defiance quickly became a problem. Many businesses, unwilling to turn away shoppers, wouldn’t bar unmasked customers from their stores. Workers complained that masks were too uncomfortable to wear all day. One Denver salesperson refused because she said her “nose went to sleep” every time she put one on. Another said she believed that “an authority higher than the Denver Department of Health was looking after her well-being.” As one local newspaper put it, the order to wear masks “was almost totally ignored by the people; in fact, the order was cause of mirth.” The rule was amended to apply only to streetcar conductors – who then threatened to strike. A walkout was averted when the city watered down the order yet again. Denver endured the remainder of the epidemic without any measures protecting public health.

Mask resistance during a pandemic isn't new – in 1918 many ...

In Seattle, streetcar conductors refused to turn away unmasked passengers. Noncompliance was so widespread in Oakland that officials deputized 300 War Service civilian volunteers to secure the names and addresses of violators so they could be charged. When a mask order went into effect in Sacramento, the police chief instructed officers to “Go out on the streets, and whenever you see a man without a mask, bring him in or send for the wagon.” Within 20 minutes, police stations were flooded with offenders. In San Francisco, there were so many arrests that the police chief warned city officials he was running out of jail cells. Judges and officers were forced to work late nights and weekends to clear the backlog of cases.

Many who were caught without masks thought they might get away with running an errand or commuting to work without being nabbed. In San Francisco, however, initial noncompliance turned to large-scale defiance when the city enacted a second mask ordinance in January 1919 as the epidemic spiked anew.

Many decried what they viewed as an unconstitutional infringement of their civil liberties. On January 25, 1919, approximately 2,000 members of the “Anti-Mask League” packed the city’s old Dreamland Rink for a rally denouncing the mask ordinance and proposing ways to defeat it. Attendees included several prominent physicians and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of the masks used in 1918. Today, we have a growing body of evidence that well-constructed cloth face coverings are an effective tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It remains to be seen, however, whether Americans will maintain the widespread use of face masks as our current pandemic continues to unfold.

Deeply entrenched ideals of individual freedom, the lack of cohesive messaging and leadership on mask wearing, and pervasive misinformation have proven to be major hindrances thus far, precisely when the crisis demands consensus and widespread compliance.

This was certainly the case in many communities during the fall of 1918. That pandemic ultimately killed about 675,000 people in the U.S. Hopefully, history is not in the process of repeating itself today.

 

 

 

Anticipating a post-pandemic “Renaissance Era”

https://mailchi.mp/da2dd0911f99/the-weekly-gist-july-17-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

The primary measures we’re using to control the spread of COVID-19—masks, social distancing, isolation—have changed little from those used to mitigate the Spanish Flu in 1918, or even the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. (In fact, the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, the forty-day period of time that arriving ships were required to anchor off the Venetian coast to prevent the spread of the Black Death.)

We were intrigued by a recent piece in the New Yorker that looks at another impact of the plague that ravaged the world in the 14th and 15th centuries: the Black Death likely ushered in an era of unprecedented social change and knowledge advancement. Devastated economies recovered to become stronger than before, with greater equality. With half of the population wiped out, workers’ wages rose, leading to the rise of a new class of artisans and innovators. With a shortage of adult men to fill jobs, women found meaningful employment in many trades.

Science and medicine moved from a spiritual and astrological orientation to a more knowledge-based approach. The “quarantine enforcers” birthed a public health infrastructure. And so the Renaissance was born. But the author also points out that great upheavals, whether caused by disease, depression or war, lead to radical social adjustments—which can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Our current pandemic offers glimpses of both possibilities. Will distrust of science, government ineptitude, and political divisiveness become further entrenched? Or will society emerge stronger, with advances in technology and medicine, a stronger economy and a renewed social system that addresses deep-rooted inequality—our own post-pandemic Renaissance? It’s up to us.

 

 

 

Healthcare CFOs weigh-in on the challenges ahead

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/pwc-covid-19-cfo-pulse-survey.html

What CFOs think about the economic impact of COVID-19

How finance leaders see a return to work

Business perspectives on what it will take to shift from crisis mode are solidifying. US finance leaders are focused on shoring up financial positions, as US businesses head into a period of even more operational complexity while they orchestrate a safe return to the workplace. Back-to-work playbooks put workforce health first, as companies set course for a phased-in return to the workplace that will not be uniform across the US or internationally, findings from the survey show. Returning employees and customers are going to experience a work environment that will differ in marked ways as a result. Another change likely to endure post-crisis is the strong role corporate leaders have taken within their communities, placing a renewed emphasis on environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts going forward.

The actions CFOs are taking show how US businesses continue to adjust to very difficult current conditions with an eye toward an evolving post-COVID world. The level of concern related to the crisis is holding steady. It is high but stabilizing, with 72% of respondents reporting that COVID-19 has the potential for “significant impact” to their business operations vs. 74% two weeks ago.

Key findings

Back-to-work playbooks reshape how jobs performed
49% say remote work is here to stay for some roles, as companies plan to alternate crews and reconfigure worksites.

Protecting people top of mind
77% plan to change safety measures like testing, while 50% expect higher demand for enhanced sick leave and other policy protections.

Substantive impacts expected in 2020 results
Half of all respondents (53%) are projecting a decline of at least 10% in company revenue and/or profit this year.

Cost pressures intensify
A third (32%) expect layoffs to occur, as CFOs continue to target costs, while 70% consider deferring or canceling planned investments.

Economic events shaping CFO response last week

This survey, our fourth since emergency lockdowns took effect in the US, reflects the views of 305 US finance leaders during the week of April 20. It was a week when oil futures traded below $0 as energy markets confronted downshifting global demand, Congress replenished emergency funding of $480 billion for small firms and healthcare systems, and everyone heard the call to get ready to go back to work as the US and Europe firmed up plans to ease quarantines.

Post-crisis world taking shape in plans to reboot the workplace

Health and safety are top priorities for leaders as they prepare to bring people back to on-site work. More than three-quarters (77%) are putting new safety measures in place, while others are taking steps to promote physical distancing, such as reconfiguring workspaces (65%). Findings also show where the virus may have longer-lasting impact on ways of working. Half (49%) of companies say they’re planning to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow. That’s even higher (60%) among financial services organizations.

Takeaways

Among the small percentage of companies that are beginning to bring people back, returning to work will not mean a return to normal. Companies should consider how to help frontline managers lead with empathy, to communicate transparently and make decisions quickly so employees understand where they stand, have access to the resources available to them, and can share feedback to ensure they feel safe and get what they need. Tools such as workforce location tracking and contact tracing can help support employees with suspected or confirmed infections, while also helping to identify the level of risk exposure. Companies looking to make remote work a permanent option will need to enable leaders to manage a blended workforce of on-site and remote workers during the next 12 to 18 months.

Given that many people may be wary of returning to on-site work, there’s an opportunity for companies to create more targeted benefits to help make the transition easier. Paid sick leaves and worker protections, help with childcare, private transportation to and from work, or other benefits could help employees who may need extra flexibility or who want additional support as they prepare to come back.

Forecasting substantive impacts on 2020 performance

A majority of respondents (80%) continue to expect a decline in revenues and/or profits in 2020. Projections by sector vary, with consumer markets likely the hardest hit: one-third (32%) of CFOs expect a 25% or greater decline in revenues and/or profits this year, compared to 24% of respondents in all sectors.

Takeaways

Outlooks for financial results have held relatively steady in the survey over the last month, and are probably indicative of actual impact. Companies have had the time to evaluate the effects. CFO projections for declining revenue and profits coincide with a widening realization that the US economy is in recession. Since mid-March, jobless claims have soared past 26 million, and Congress passed relief packages of $2.5 trillion. CFOs are evaluating a wide range of scenarios that cover the health situation, the shape of the economic recovery, the spillover into the financial markets, and the resulting impacts on their business. This crisis is setting a new benchmark standard for “unknowable.”

Cost pressures intensifying

CFOs are considering additional ways to scale back on planned investment and/or other fixed costs amid volatility in demand. A third (32%) expect layoffs to occur in the next month, up from 26% two weeks ago. Protecting cash and liquidity positions is paramount. Financial impacts of COVID-19, including effects on liquidity and capital resources, remain the top concern of CFOs (71%). Over half (56%) say they are changing company financing plans, up from 46% two weeks ago.

Among other actions, 43% plan to adjust guidance, which is consistent with responses two weeks ago. This figure will likely increase as companies go through the earnings season over the next two to three weeks. Separately, 91% of respondents are planning to include a discussion of COVID-19 in external reporting. Depending on the type of company, this can mean inclusion in financial statements and/or in risk factors and MD&A results of operations, earnings release or MD&A liquidity sections.

Takeaways

Many CFOs have focused on how they can manage their cash pressures to ride out the crisis. Common approaches have included stop-gap measures, such as hiring freezes and tightening controls on discretionary costs to put an end to travel and events, or the use of contractors. Findings show that these types of cost actions are likely to continue, and they remain at the top of the CFO agenda.

Of those who say they’re considering deferring or canceling planned investments, 80% are considering facilities and general capital expenditures. At the same time, investment programs in areas that are considered important to future growth — including digital transformations, customer experience, or cybersecurity and privacy — are less likely to be targeted. CFOs will increasingly look for ways to prioritize costs in these areas, as businesses grow more confident in recovery prospects — even though current demand is subdued.

Priorities to de-risk supply chains

As companies continue to wade through mitigation efforts and start to think about recovery, many are planning changes to make their supply chains more resilient. Findings show CFOs prioritizing specific actions: 56% cite developing alternate options for sourcing, and 54% say better understanding the financial and operational health of their suppliers.

Takeaways

Findings confirm an emphasis on de-risking supply chains, as companies prioritize the health and reliability of their supplier base among changes they’re planning as a result of COVID-19. In particular, there is a focus on managing risk around supply elements, such as reducing structural vulnerability with other sourcing options.

Some companies are starting to invest in creating data-backed profiles of their supplier base so they know where and when to look for second sources. Others are increasing communication with suppliers to better understand financial health. For many, conducting deeper financial and health reviews of suppliers will become a regular part of their business reviews. Physical supply chain relocations will likely happen only as a last resort, given the costs involved. However, automation of certain elements of the supply chain — to eliminate time-consuming manual tracking efforts and check tariff structures, for example — will likely become more common as companies seek better data to make more informed decisions.

Strategies yet to change, but tech likely to drive M&A

The impact of the outbreak on mergers and acquisitions (M&A) strategies remains mixed. While 40% of respondents say their company’s M&A strategy is not being affected by COVID-19, compared with 34% two weeks ago, one in five say it’s too difficult to assess what changes, if any, will need to be made to strategy. CFOs within the technology, media and telecommunications industry stand out in particular. They are less likely to report decreasing appetite for M&A due to COVID-19, compared with peers in other sectors, and 55% say the crisis hasn’t changed their M&A strategy.

Takeaways

These findings highlight the fundamental strengths of the tech sector and suggest it will be among those driving M&A in the months ahead.  Tech giants, in particular, have large cash reserves. Moreover, demand for some tech products and services is strong as businesses return to work — 40% of CFOs say they will accelerate automation and new ways of working as they transition back. Additionally, technologies such as drones, artificial intelligence and robotics, will likely enjoy wider adoption in the post-COVID-19 environment. This leaves tech better-positioned to weather the pandemic’s economic fallout and to execute on inorganic growth strategies. M&A is likely to recover faster than the US economy, with tech among the cash and capital-rich sectors leading the charge. PwC studies show that a combination of factors has been driving a decoupling of deals from the broader economy.

Business recovery timeframes have extended

Organizations are realizing the business recovery from the impacts of the virus will take longer. The March measures of manufacturing and services activities show sharp drops. Demand is not only declining, it’s shifting. Moreover, even as some US states start to reopen, difficulties in setting up testing could keep some states in a holding pattern. As a result, for CFOs, the time required to return to “business as usual” the moment that COVID-19 ends continues to lengthen. Currently, 48% believe it will take at least three months to return to normal, up from 39% two weeks ago.

Takeaways

As reality sets in and companies understand the true impacts to their operations, CFO perceptions of the length of time to business recovery has extended. According to our analysis of how companies gauge their response to the crisis in PwC’s COVID-19 Navigator diagnostic tool, the expected impact of COVID-19 on businesses globally remains high, with consumer markets and manufacturing the most susceptible among industries. Put another way, businesses that are less reliant on a large, complex supply chain to deliver products, or are able to work relatively effectively while remote, are also likely to be among the least exposed.

Consumer-facing companies reconfigure physical sites as shutdowns start to lift

Companies in consumer-facing sectors continue to contend with both sides of the demand equation, as consumers sheltering in place focus single-mindedly on essential products to the exclusion of other offerings. Consumer markets (CM) CFOs are more likely to list a decrease in consumer confidence and spending as a top-three concern than they were two weeks ago (66% vs. 50%). For CM CFOs, consumer confidence trends translate almost directly to revenues, with 32% projecting an adverse impact on revenue and/or profit of at least 25% in 2020, compared with 24% of respondents across all industries.

In response, almost three-quarters of CM CFOs (73%) are considering deferring or canceling planned investments, targeting mostly general capital expenses, such as facilities. They also say technologies that can improve their understanding of changes in customer demand are a top-three priority as they plan changes to their supply chain strategies (41% vs. 30% for all sectors).

CM CFOs are planning workplace safety measures (86% vs. 77% for all sectors) and reconfiguring work sites to promote physical distancing as part of their transition back to on-site work (77% vs. 65% for all sectors). They recognize that consumers want the assurance of a safe physical environment above all else, especially because the majority of CM products and services require a physical component, despite the continuing shift to online.

Takeaways

Consumer-facing companies continue to be among the hardest hit, as the public health crisis keeps the majority of consumers confined to their homes for now. As they grapple with immediate challenges, CM companies are pulling back on capital investments. However, most are still planning to shore up their digital presence in response to accelerated online demand that could last well beyond the recovery period.

Health system pivots to new ways of working

What’s on the mind of financial leaders in the health industry? As they plan to bring more of their workforce back on-site, they are more likely than leaders in other industries to be leaning on technology to help them manage staffing uncertainties. Fifty-four percent of healthcare CFO respondents said they plan to accelerate automation and new ways of working, compared with an average of 40% across all industries.

Healthcare organizations are simultaneously solving two critical issues: uncertainty about demand and protecting their workforce. Health organization CFOs (70%) were more likely than executives from other industries (an average of 50%) to report that they expect higher demand for employee protections in the next month. Meanwhile, consumer anxiety over their own safety is driving up uncertainty about demand for healthcare and medical products. Forty-one percent of healthcare finance leaders listed tools to better understand customer demand as a top-three priority area when considering changes to their supply chain strategies, compared to 30% of financial leaders in all sectors. Fifty-one percent of healthcare finance leaders said they are making staffing changes as a result of slowed demand.

Takeaways

survey conducted by PwC’s Health Research Institute in early April found that some consumers are delaying care and medications amid the pandemic. In this latest PwC survey of CFOs, healthcare leaders report uncertainty about how much of their business will return as the threat of the pandemic ebbs, making staffing decisions difficult.

As the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic, getting back to work is top of mind for US financial leaders overall, but this is an especially pressing issue for health leaders. They must plan for their own workforces, while dealing with an unfolding financial calamity — 81% expect their company’s revenue and/or profits to decline this year as a result of COVID-19. On par with other industries, they expect this decline, even though their organizations play central roles in addressing the human toll of the pandemic. One strategy is to use telehealth technology to virtually care for patients, thereby protecting patients and caregivers during the pandemic.

Financial firms see fewer layoffs, but slower recovery

Financial services (FS) CFOs are bracing for a longer road back to normal. About a third (35%) now think it could take six months to get back to business as usual, up sharply from 15% just two weeks ago. They’re also more optimistic about the bottom line. More than a quarter (27%) of FS survey respondents expect revenue and/or profits to fall by 10% or less. Across all industries, only 18% felt as confident.

Takeaways

Banks are playing a critical role in helping stabilize the economy, as they work on the front lines to distribute CARES Act provisions. Along with insurers and asset managers, they also rely heavily on workers with specialized technical and institutional knowledge. This may explain why FS CFOs expect fewer layoffs (15% vs. 32% overall) or furloughs (17% vs. 44% overall) over the next month. Now, they’re trying to focus on keeping workers healthy and safe.

Conversations are starting to shift toward when and how to transition back to physical offices. For some employees, work may look very different: More FS CFOs are considering making remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it (60% vs. 49% overall). To better protect their employees, they’re also looking to evaluate new tools to support workforce tracking and contact tracing (32% vs. 22% overall) as part of the return-to-work process.

Deeper insight into health of suppliers is top priority for industrial products

The industrial products (IP) sector is in full-throttle cost-cutting mode. Nearly all IP CFOs (96%) report considering cost containment measures, compared with 87% two weeks ago. Some of this comes in the form of layoffs: 49% of IP CFOs expect layoffs to occur vs. 36% two weeks ago. The longer the crisis lasts, the longer the impact on recovery times for their business. When asked how long it would take for their business to return to business as usual if the COVID-19 crisis were to end today, 15% of IP CFOs said less than one month, down from 25% two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, they’re closely examining challenged supply chains. When asked to list their top-three priority areas when planning changes to supply-chain strategies, 66% of IP CFOs identified understanding the financial and operational health of their suppliers, compared to 54% of CFOs across all industries. A majority (56%) also cited developing additional and alternate sourcing options as a priority. And the extent of the financial damage is sinking in: 65% of IP CFOs estimate 2020 revenues and/or profits will drop at least 10%.

Takeaways

IP CFOs are signaling they’re in the thick of the crisis, as they absorb historical lows in production, with March US industrial output plunging to levels not seen since the end of WWII. Continued cost actions are still in the cards.

IP finance leaders are looking ahead to get back to business, with some already bringing workers back on-site. Some are expecting changes to the workplace. Thirty-nine percent of IP CFOs are considering making remote work a permanent option for roles that allow, and 31% are considering accelerating automation and new ways of working. While these are still early days for US producers in returning to work, bringing millions of workers back into the fold may well usher in more change management than the industry now expects.

Tech, media and telecom well-positioned to power the recovery

Technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) companies are well-positioned for recovery from the initial blow of COVID-19. As they stabilize operations in response to the crisis, the percentage of TMT CFOs anticipating revenue and/or profit declines is down 19 percentage points from two weeks ago to 65%. The data suggest that TMT companies are preparing for a future in which virtual work options gain greater acceptance over traditional office settings. TMT companies are more likely to reduce their real estate footprint as they transition back to on-site work (38% compared to 26% for all sectors), and 55% say they’re planning to make remote work permanent for positions that allow.

Of those who said they’re considering deferring or canceling planned investments, TMT companies are less likely to reduce digital transformation investments (13%) than all sectors (22%). Their increased optimism about digital investment as they strategize for the future is further borne out by the data: Two weeks ago, of those who said they were deferring or canceling planned investment, TMT was on track to reduce digital investments at the same rate as other sectors (25%).

Takeaways

The resilience of TMT companies is evident in their approach to this crisis. Bolstered by robust liquidity, the majority of companies in the sector are looking ahead to a recovery they will power by using both organic growth and M&A. In the wake of a crisis that has accelerated more widespread virtual connectivity, look for new emerging-tech-enabled business models to take shape.

Where to focus next

COVID-19 has put businesses under enormous strain to drive new ways of working. When the pandemic began, many companies put their people’s health and safety at the center of their decision-making, and they appear to be doing the same as they prepare to ramp up business. With most firms expecting to bring people back on-site in phases, leaders will need to help employees adjust to a changed environment while still managing the well-being, engagement and productivity of all workers. Purpose-led communication will continue to be critical to keep people informed, and leaders should demonstrate empathy while helping employees adjust to what will likely be an extended transition period.