The JPMorgan Healthcare Conference came to a close Thursday afternoon, fittingly ending with a panel reflecting on the past, present and future state of the COVID-19 response.
One afternoon panel focused on the response to COVID-19 in two countries, the U.S. and Israel. It assessed what worked and what didn’t – and what needs to happen moving forward.
Speakers included Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, chief medical officer and chief innovation officer at Sheba Medical Center in Israel, and Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. The two experts deciphered and debated the American and Israeil responses to the pandemic, paying special attention to Israel’s quick-moving vaccine rollout.
Shah noted the obvious up front: That with 4% of the world population and 20% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths, “America has not performed well in its COVID-19 response.” He attributed it in large part to the country’s failure “to get accurate, quick, frequent and broadly available testing to the American public.
“If you look at almost every country that’s been effective, not at eliminating COVID as a risk but as managing through it, they started by having fast, frequent testing available to people tied to contact tracing and quarantine,” Shah explained.
One thing led to another, he continued, resulting in an extended lockdown that has caused “tremendous inequity, where families who depended on essential work had to continue to expose themselves to risk where others were protected and safe, and most American families were struggling financially.”
The quick development of a vaccine, Shah noted, certainly qualifies a huge success. But at the same time, he pointed to quicker-moving vaccination efforts in other countries: “There’s a huge difference in developing the product and actually distributing the vaccine in more vulnerable communities.”
The latter requires addressing vaccine hesitancy and safety concerns among members of those communities, as well as enlisting local leaders (as opposed to distant medical authorities) to provide trusted outreach. But it’s also a matter of logistics: Making sure vaccines are easy to get and that the cost of acquisition is somewhere between low and zero.
Under those circumstances, the effort would become something people view as a “national duty or service,” Shah added.
In early January, Israel was being touted as a “world leader” in its vaccine response, having vaccinated 10% of its population with the first dose of the vaccine by the first of the month. Within a few weeks, however, the country began experiencing bumps in the form of a tighter lockdown and variant spread – not to mention criticism that it wasn’t extending its vaccine program to Palestinians living under Israeli control.
But the initial success of the Israeli vaccination effort, at least, might be attributed to certain structural differences. Zimlichman pointed to Israel’s universal healthcare system and, specifically, the four HMOs that provide care to 100% of the country’s residents. Thus the government only needs to work with those four organizations.
Secondly, in Israel there is more of a sense of urgency around vaccinations, Zimlichman added.
“Understanding that vaccines are the only thing that are going to take us out of this mess, both from a healthcare and financial perspective, has really brought this to the front of news and talk of the day everywhere in the country,” he explained. “And it’s about a rush now for everybody to get vaccinated, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Finally, Israel’s central data repository for all of its citizens and residents allows healthcare providers to follow up with people, target at-risk populations and prioritize patients via a digital platform.
“The combination of data, a healthcare system that has a reasonable and manageable organizational structure, and a deep sense of purpose and urgency are the ingredients for success,” Shah said. “That’s what we need in the U.S.”
While America fell well short of its initial goal of 20 million inoculations by the end of 2020 – only one-quarter of that sum were vaccinated – the incoming Biden administration has set a new goal of 100 million vaccinations within its first 100 days.
“I believe that’s an achievable goal – but it’s only achievable if we get every company and every local authority to come up together with creative ways to dramatically expand access on the ground in community after community,” Shah said.
Later on Thursday afternoon, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the final keynote of the 2021 conference. During it, she touched on political issues beyond COVID-19.
Rice focused her hopes for the Biden administration, emphasizing the importance of leadership during challenging times and building trust among those you’re trying to lead.
“To be a leader during crisis times, it’s about not having your hair on fire,” Rice said. “If everything’s going wrong, if everything’s bad, you have to come in with a sense of calm.”
She also offered advice to corporate America on bridging the gap between its good intentions and the broader impact of its actions, particularly in the realm of diversity and inclusion.
“For corporate leaders, I would say do what you do best,” Rice said. “Create wealth, create economic growth, create jobs. Before you automate your workforce out of existence, think about how you can retrain them and upscale them. That’ll do more than any conference you can hold on equity and equality.”
Rice also commented on the pandemic’s impact on deepening inequalities.
“One of the reasons why you’ve had disparate impacts on different communities is because of already-existing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure in those communities making [people] more vulnerable to the ill effects of [COVID-19],” she continued, stressing the importance of “equaliz[ing] access to healthcare not just when you’re sick, but also when it comes to wellness.”