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Reinforce The Pandemic's Partnerships For Innovation

10/24/21 AT 6:30 AM
Beating Covid-19 has certainly taken longer than most of us were hoping, but we've turned the corner, and it's never too early to begin the critical exercise of assessing "lessons learned."
Clearly, in numerous critical areas, we were unprepared for the pandemic's arrival. Nevertheless, as a nation, we rallied -- and the ways in which we did so, properly reinforced, will see us through the end of this public health emergency and leave us better prepared for the next one.
The most distinctive characteristic of our rally to beat Covid-19 was the partnership for innovation. We learned we needed to do many things differently -- and that we needed to coordinate our efforts across sectors that don't always work together easily or well. Going forward, we need political leaders and their industry counterparts to reinforce the partnerships that have developed and strengthen the climate for innovation.
No one relishes thinking back to the early months of the pandemic when uncertainty and fear were running high, but even then, as we learned what we needed the hard way, we worked together to make it happen.
Take for example the acute problem of the shortage of personal protective equipment. The United States had failed to restock and was dangerously dependent on foreign suppliers. But within weeks, new suppliers quickly stepped up, converting production lines to manufacture masks and gloves. Boutique distillers retooled to replace depleted supplies of sanitizer. Local governments and hospitals made clear they would purchase supplies as soon as they became available -- and made good as American supplies of PPE started flowing again. 
Faced with what looked like a vital shortage of ventilators for Intensive Care Units, government authorities encouraged automakers like GM and Ford to retool production lines to make up the gap. They did. When hospitals looked like they might be overrun, federal and state authorities worked together to add beds and create emergency ICUs.
We can and must do better to avoid being caught short by shortages again. Some PPE makers are now in danger of failing because demand has let up. Let's end the boom-bust cycle with a steady commitment from federal, state and local officials to stock up and keep surge capabilities available. Add to that the pre-existing challenge of getting a handle on health care costs, incredibly important, but we need smart policies that won't leave us unprepared for emergencies. An essential part of that is making sure hospitals don't get caught short-staffed due to the cuts being suggested in current legislative proposals. 
Another problem posed by this pandemic has been how to get people the consistent and coordinated care they need when medical offices and clinics have had to close doors to avoid becoming clusters for the spread of the virus. The ability to pivot to telemedicine has no doubt saved lives and health care dollars. Medical practices quickly invested in technology that would allow a contactless connection between doctor and patient when appropriate, and Medicare moved to provide coverage as well. We need to keep this option open by renewing and expanding insurance coverage for telemedicine.
Perhaps the single most important partnership for getting us through the pandemic was the one between the federal government and pharmaceutical industry to create, test, produce, and distribute vaccines as quickly and safely as possible. The "lesson learned" here is that we all benefited from an existing ecosystem promoting innovation that was already feeding world-class research facilities, leading-edge technology, and top scientists. The federal government swiftly moved to streamline the approval process for vaccines, including the extension of Emergency Use Authorizations.
We must preserve this ecosystem for innovation and avoid dramatic cuts to health care providers in the midst of a pandemic. We need to build agility and capacity into our public health and health care structures to anticipate the crucial aspects of a swift response to the next outbreak.
We have also learned that the need for partnership extends beyond our borders. Though underfunded, COVAX -- the global initiative to inoculate the world against Covid-19 directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization -- is a model to build on.
Let's not go back to Square One. Instead, let's recognize and fortify these partnerships for innovations that will protect us into the future.
Kenneth E. Thorpe is a professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.