Pandemic Recovery on Track Despite Challenges, Economists Tell Congress

A congressional hearing on the future of the U.S. economy had an air of optimism as experts told lawmakers continued aggressive Covid-19 testing, widespread vaccine distribution and a commitment to rebuilding the hardest-hit communities is the ticket to recovery.

President Joe Biden applauds as a person receives a Covid-19 vaccine shot at a vaccination site in Alexandria, Va., last week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) –  The path to pandemic recovery is emerging with the U.S. on track to vaccinate most adults by the end of this summer, but economists warned Congress on Wednesday the road to normalcy must be meticulously planned for the nation to fully mount its comeback.

Some 123 million Americans have already received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and some 76 million have been fully vaccinated so far.

Under former President Donald Trump, the White House’s federal pandemic response was largely panned by legislators, epidemiologists, health care experts and a huge swath of voters alike.

Testing for the virus during the outbreak’s initial year – a critical means to understanding its spread – was slow to roll out as Trump shied away from centralized testing initiatives in favor of leaving states to mount patchwork responses to the once-in-a-century health crisis.

But to the former administration’s credit, George Mason University economics professor Alexander Tabarrok told Congress’ Joint Economic Committee on Wednesday, its vaccine manufacturing project, Operation Warp Speed, was instrumental in bringing America back from the brink.

“There are 3 billion courses of vaccine that will be distributed this year and that is a conservative estimate. That will be worth $17.4 trillion to the world economy and Operation Warp Speed should be credited with a significant fraction of that success. Certainly not all, but a significant fraction,” Tabarrok said. “It’s not too late to do more. If we could get an additional 1 billion courses, it would be worth $500 billion to $1 trillion for the world economy depending on how quickly it can be brought online.”

President Joe Biden’s administration smashed through its goal of 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days, reaching that figure in just 58 days. Now, the U.S. is on track to give 200 million shots by the end of this month despite a recent pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Dr. Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious disease at New York University, told lawmakers that even with the temporary halt of Johnson & Johnson – prompted by the emergence of blood clots in just six of more than 6 million cases – the U.S. remains on track to have enough supply of vaccine to innoculate every adult by the end of May.

Continued access to tests, the monitoring of infectious spread and the routine distribution of vaccines will be the nation’s way to a recovered economy, Gounder emphasized, but the healing will be made harder if the U.S. doesn’t find a solution to problems currently staring it in the face.

“We need better therapeutics for Covid,” Gounder said.

There is no “slam dunk solution” to treating people who have Covid-19 now or will contract it in the months ahead. For the most part, doctors can right now only rely on “old steroids” like dexamethasone. Once more Americans are vaccinated, dealing with “Covid survivors” could become a new issue.  

“How do we accurately assess who is a Covid survivor and then be prepared to manage all of the health, disability and rehabilitation needs those people have? We need to be preparing on all of these fronts,” Gounder said.

To expedite recovery, the Biden administration may also want to start making a serious investment in nasal vaccine technology. Vaccine hesitancy is already a significant hurdle to achieving herd immunity. But a nasal vaccine, Gounder and Tabarrok both agreed, could speed things along. They said it solves the problem of people refusing to get vaccinated due to a fear of needles and research into nasally administered vaccines has shown that stimulus to the mucosal immune system, where the virus attacks, has long-term medical benefits.

Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at NYU, told members of the Joint Economic Committee that if Biden wants to return the U.S. labor market back to a bull run, there must be a multipronged approach in play.

“Aggressive stimulus will be part of this, the infrastructure bill could be part of this. There could be other things like targeted subsidies for employment. There are many things we could do, but we have to get away from unemployment rates as our metric of success and get to the more important measure of employment rates,” Romer said.

Belinda Archibong, assistant professor of economics at Barnard College, expanded on Romer’s recommendation, saying that a blanket policy for pandemic recovery would do little to address the complex effects of the crisis and, in particular, the way it disproportionately impacts people of color.

Women, especially Black women, have been pulled out of the workforce because of the pandemic, often taking on the primary caretaking responsibilities of their households. And as women of all backgrounds have left the job force in droves, it has widened the gender gaps in capital investment, the labor market and education, Archibong said.

The administration must start thinking about those responses to the post-pandemic era now and implement policies very soon, she said, suggesting rewards or initiatives targeted in areas where women do a lot of unpaid care work. Without ample response, the economic drag will continue long beyond 2021.

“This can persist for years,” Archibong said.

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