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A COVID Reality Check

Written By Jon Budington

February 5, 2021

Every Friday afternoon, I hold a company-wide Zoom meeting. We begin with a review of the latest news on COVID. New developments and understandings set the stage for what we talk about. Like most businesses, our plans for the future track closely with developments in the ongoing pandemic. That future is hard to plan for right now.

I organize the endless stream of predictions into a Goldilocks structure. Some are hoping for a “roaring 20s” decade, where COVID challenges are behind us and we live every day in blissful excess. I put those predictions in the “too soft” bucket. Others see a dark future, where the disease continues to overwhelm our efforts to contain it. I believe those predictions fall in the “too hard” category. So what does “just right” look like? For that, I rely on facts, reason and the news to develop my best guess.

Today’s big stories revolve around vaccines. Shots in the arm are rolling out—albeit imperfectly—across the globe. As of yesterday, about 119,000,000 doses have been administered worldwide. While we are far from a vaccination-based herd immunity, it’s a hopeful start. But the good news on vaccines has been dampened by recent data on new COVID variants. The virus is spreading at a rate that allows for adaptation, reducing the efficacy of vaccines. The new strains are also increasingly more contagious and potentially more dangerous. Vaccines are essential, but it doesn’t appear they will provide a magic bullet for eradicating the risks of COVID.  So are the too dark predictions correct? Probably not.

A good friend and infectious diseases doctor explained the role vaccines play in this drama. Many of us get hung up on the preventative efficacy data of vaccines. “How protected am I with two shots of Moderna?” Medical experts are certainly looking at those numbers, but they are equally focused on a vaccine’s ability to prevent severe COVID cases, hospitalizations and transmission. There is ample data showing that current vaccines are preventing hospitalizations and deaths, even if they don’t fully protect us from contracting the virus. This is very good news, and there is more.

Less prominently reported, but equally important, is the development of new pharmaceutical treatments for COVID. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies AstraZeneca, Brii Biosciences, GSK, Lilly and Regeneron are all developing monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID. Some of these therapies are also being looked at in preventative settings, for people who may not be good vaccine candidates. Data suggests these treatments significantly improve severe case outcomes. This shift in resources at some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments points to a larger, less discussed truth. Our future might require learning to live with COVID rather than eradicating it. And that leads me to my biggest concern—the psychological impacts of this pandemic.

Last weekend, I was watching a movie with my family. It was a comedy, so I was surprised by my anxiety and discomfort during one of the scenes—a party with too many people and no masks. I laughed out loud at that realization, but then it dawned on me that this might be the biggest problem for all of us. Good behaviors like avoiding crowded spaces and mask wearing have become habits. As I wrote in an earlier post, habits are what businesses are built to serve, and I believe they have fundamentally changed.

We’ll get back here someday. Credit: New Line Cinema

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve reached out to some of you to solicit your thinking on topics like the future of in-person meetings, the changing value of membership organizations, and plans for our office spaces. Refreshingly, no one was waiting for a return to “normal” and most are working on the opportunities created by these changes. I hope to share some of those ideas in future posts.

So my “just right” prediction is an optimistic one. I believe vaccines will slow the spread of the disease and lessen the severity of new COVID cases. New treatments will help people build confidence in their ability to fight off a case of the virus. Over time, our need for social interaction will help us overcome our newly formed habits. In the meantime, strong businesses will avoid the temptation to wait this out and instead work to align their models to these new realities. I’m hopeful that one day, we will again feel comfortable participating in a dance scene like the one in Wedding Crashers. Until then, stay safe.