32. Making Public Health Protection Our Business

Contagious Conversations  /  Episode 32: Making Public Health Protection Our Business





Claire Stinson: Hello, and welcome to Contagious Conversations. I'm your host, Claire Stinson. Every episode, we'll hear from inspiring leaders and innovators who make the world healthier and safer for us all. Contagious Conversations is brought to you by the CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit that builds partnerships to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention save and improve more lives.

Joining me today is Stephen Massey, co-founder of Meteorite, a social impact firm. Stephen is a social entrepreneur and communications expert who builds unlikely partnerships for social good. Over the past two decades, he has led integrated cause marketing campaigns in the U.S. and abroad on a wide range of social issues, including public health, civic engagement, climate change and early literacy. In this episode, we discuss the important role that business plays in keeping their employees and communities safe during public health crises. We also discuss how our Health Action Alliance partnership helped strengthen and accelerate the COVID-19 response. Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen Massey: Thanks so much. It's great to be here, Claire.

Claire Stinson: You are described as a social entrepreneur and communications expert who builds unlikely partnerships for social good. Tell us more about your background and why partnerships are so important.

Stephen Massey: Well, Claire, here's where it started for me. When I was 22 years old, I landed in Moscow, Russia, determined to help turn the tide on HIV/AIDS in that country. I had studied the region, and I knew that Russia was experiencing one of the world's fastest-growing rates of new HIV infection. I was full of youthful optimism, but I didn't know the language. I didn't have, really, any experience in public health, and I only had a small network in the country. I knew that to have impact, I would have to build alliances and partnerships with sectors that could influence leaders in the Russian government.

The business community, and in particular, Russia's oil and gas sector, was really being heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS, with lots of young men getting infected. This sector also happens to be the heart of the Russian economy. I worked to build alliances in the private sector who understood the business impact of this growing public health crisis and who were really prepared to do something about it.

Claire, when I arrived in Moscow back in 2002, the Russian federal AIDS budget was just about $1 million a year, which is virtually nothing for a country of its size and a problem of such great scale. Over the four years that I was there, the coalitions that we cultivated with Russian business motivated leaders in the Kremlin to expand the Russian government's annual investment well beyond $100 million per year. What's more, we were able to mobilize Russian businesses to educate workers about HIV risks, and we worked with media companies across Russia to begin raising awareness about HIV, interviewing HIV-positive people on television, incorporating storylines about HIV in popular TV shows and fighting stigma associated with HIV.

That's not to say that when I left Russia in 2006, there weren't still some major problems, including criminalization of vulnerable populations and major gaps in access to treatment, but I was really proud that over the four years that I was there, we were able to break the silence and began to move the needle in ways that provided life-saving information to millions of people and significantly expanded investments in HIV prevention and care. The business community was really at the forefront of that.

From there, I was invited to help lead the Global Media AIDS Initiative, which was a joint effort organized by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Kaiser Family Foundation to build on many of the things that we had created in Russia and mobilize media companies and other private sector partners around the world. Over the course of five years, I had the great pleasure of helping build partnerships and coalitions with more than 300 media and entertainment companies all over the world, reaching roughly 80% of the world's population with HIV messaging.

Claire Stinson: Wow. It sounds like you've had a real impact all over the world. That's quite a background. It sounds like you also have extensive experience with partnerships, so let's talk about the Health Action Alliance partnership. Last year, the CDC Foundation and our partners were proud to launch the Health Action Alliance, which is a partnership between leading business, communications, philanthropic and public health organizations to improve the health of employees, customers and communities. Can you talk about the role of the Alliance?

Stephen Massey: Absolutely. The CDC Foundation reached out to us at Meteorite because they knew we were a leader that builds coalitions with the business community. Claire, it was really clear from the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic that business had to be at the center of the response. Most American adults work, and employers across the country had to adjust their operations literally overnight to keep their workers and their customers safe. In those early days of March 2020, businesses were on the front line of the public health response, delivering health information to their workers and adjusting conditions in their factories and their stores and their warehouses to keep their workers and their customers safe. It was really the ingenuity of the business community that allowed our country to operate during the darkest days of 2020. Frontline workers kept our grocery stores stocked with food, of course. Our planes and trains kept running, and our healthcare system kept functioning.

As it became clear that vaccines would become available in late 2020, I think we all knew that our country faced perhaps the greatest public health challenge in a generation. How were we going to scale vaccination to 300 million people quickly and efficiently, especially in the context of widespread politicization and misinformation? The CDC Foundation knew that business had to be at the center of that response, and it was in the interest of business to do so. After all, vaccines were the path to reopening our workplaces and our economy.

Claire, COVID-19 vaccines was one of those exciting areas where business and public health aligned. We knew that, working together, business and public health could accelerate the pace of vaccinations and improve vaccine access for vulnerable populations. That's why we created the Health Action Alliance, to align business and public health, and democratize access to best-in-class tools and resources and training that would help employers engage as full partners in the rollout.

Over the past 18 months, the Health Action Alliance has worked with nearly 4,000 employers from every state in the U.S. to help them do just that. These businesses were foundational to turning the tide against COVID-19 and educating their workers about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and improving access for millions of us. They were really instrumental to keeping workers and communities safe.

Now, let me give you a few examples. Land O'Lakes, one of the companies in our network, recognized that getting back to work meant that families and communities needed to be vaccinated, and they needed to fight disinformation. We worked closely with Land O'Lakes to help them develop a comprehensive workplace vaccination policy, making it easier for their employees to get vaccinated onsite and offering paid time off to working parents who wanted to vaccinate their children. Now, this proved to have a major impact on the rural communities where Land O'Lakes operates because vaccination rates in those areas were trending lower.

Claire, one of the things that I'm most excited and proud of is that when children became eligible for vaccines, the Health Action Alliance, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, and more than two dozen other partners, launched a comprehensive campaign to encourage employers to support parents who wanted to vaccinate their kids. As a result, we were able to reach out to companies like Uber and ask, ‘Look, do you have a paid-time-off policy for parents to get their kids vaccinated?’ When they looked into it, they realized that they didn't. Just two weeks later, they rolled out that very benefit to their employees, and many companies followed suit. That's the kind of impact that we've been able to have over the past 18 months, Claire, bringing business and public health together, address COVID-19, advance and accelerate the pace of vaccinations and improve health equity across the country.

Claire Stinson: Thank you for sharing those examples. Those are really powerful. The importance of the relationship between business and public health has been emphasized through this, clearly, and the impact is so great. What's it been like for you personally, given your background, doing these partnerships for social good?

Stephen Massey: Well, it's been one of the greatest challenges of my career, but also one of the most rewarding. I really believe that partnerships are critical to addressing important social issues. I think that it's critical not just in the sphere of public health, but certainly in a public health emergency. Helping to build and sustain those types of partnerships is both personally rewarding and also challenging. I want to acknowledge the tremendous leadership and support from the CDC Foundation and the other partners that helped create the Health Action Alliance, including the Business Roundtable, the de Beaumont Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Ad Council, that really made this work possible.

Claire Stinson: Well, thank you for saying that, and we're grateful for your partnership. It sounds like the Alliance is having such an important impact and such a far reach with this impact. The Alliance is planning to release a pandemic preparedness plan for business. It is described as a plan to manage health risks and future-proof your business. Talk to us about this plan.

Stephen Massey: Yeah. Well, Claire, in order to future-proof businesses and communities against pandemics and other crises, the time to take action is right now. I suspect many of your listeners already know this because, as leaders in public health, they understand that pandemic preparedness takes time and it takes sustained commitment. Really, there's no better time than right now to begin preparing for the next pandemic. Here's why.

It's important that we all learn the lessons from COVID-19 while they're still fresh in our minds, while many businesses still have their emergency response teams in place. Now is the best time to capture the learnings from COVID-19. Now is the best time to cultivate and strengthen the relationships between business and public health that were forged during the pandemic, and now is the time to continue to build trust before it slips away.

Our pandemic preparedness plan for business guides companies and public health leaders to do just that. It's informed by more than 30 leaders from the business community and public health departments across the country, along with insights that we gathered from over a year of programming with company executives and experts who shaped our nation's COVID-19 response.

Claire, you asked why it's so important, and here's why. Every leader we've spoken to has told us that preparing for future pandemics takes time, and companies should not lose momentum. Claire, only a very small number of companies had pandemic response plans in place before 2020. During the pandemic, three out of four large companies created internal pandemic response teams, but according to a recent survey, just about half of them plan to keep those teams in place going forward.

We think that's just not good enough. We need to make sure that everyone, from companies in the Fortune 500 to companies and small businesses on Main Streets across the country, are taking action right now to build the resilience and manage risk ahead of a future pandemic. Public health experts say that the next pandemic is likely to occur soon, possibly in the next decade, and according to a recent poll, about half of business executives agree. Preparing for a future public health crisis should be a critical part of every company's planning right now, well before the next emergency strikes. Our new plan guides companies, large and small, to get started.

Claire Stinson: It sounds like there is a real need for this plan, and it has some ambitious goals. We'll be right back with Stephen Massey.

The Health Action Alliance is a partnership between leading business, communications, and public health organizations to help employers navigate evolving health challenges, including COVID-19 and workplace mental health, and prepare for future public health emergencies. On its website, the Alliance provides free tools, resources, training and events to help companies deliver trusted, fact-based health communications to employees, advance health equity, and strengthen relationships with public health, for the benefit of workers and communities. Learn more at healthaction.org.

Now, back to our conversation with Stephen.

Stephen, what lessons have businesses learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and how can businesses be better prepared to keep their employees and communities safe during future public health crises? As you said, our leaders and experts are telling us that the next pandemic may be around the corner.

Stephen Massey: Well, there are so many lessons, Claire, that we've learned, but I think that, most importantly, the pandemic taught us that the health of a business and its people extends well beyond the walls of the workplace. Community health is absolutely essential to a company's pandemic preparedness and its ability to weather the impact of these types of threats.

Claire, I've listened to this podcast for some time, and I've heard previous experts on this podcast talk about the importance of social determinants of health. One of those experts, Dr. Georges Benjamin, president of the American Public Health Association, said it really clearly. In this country, your zip code matters more than your genetic code in determining your health. In fact, according to many public health experts, only about 30 percent of a person's health is determined by genetics and individual behaviors. 50 percent is actually determined by the social and economic factors in a person's physical environment.

In other words, Claire, community conditions really do matter, yet most companies direct the bulk of their health spending on their own workers, largely ignoring the community conditions in the areas where their workers and their families and their customers live. We both know that it's tough to log 10,000 steps per day if your neighborhood isn't safe or it lacks sidewalks. It's difficult to have a good diet when healthy foods aren't accessible or affordable in your community. That sets people up for poor health and makes them more vulnerable during a health emergency.

Data from the COVID-19 pandemic really reinforces this. Communities with better access to quality health coverage, to better access to primary healthcare, had lower rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Businesses located in those areas fared better, and their workers were healthier. So there's a clear business case to be made here, and there's a lot to learn about ways that businesses strengthen healthcare coverage and expanded wellness offerings for workers and their families during the pandemic. We believe that businesses and communities would be well served to build on that foundation going forward. In other words, to get ahead of a future pandemic, now is the time to expand investments in worker and community health, not to retreat to a pre-COVID level of investment.

I think a second important lesson that we learned is that a company's relationships really matter. Those relationships include the relationships between the employer and its employees, between the employer and other businesses, and between an employer and the public health department in their community. Now, these relationships are critical in an emergency, but they must be cultivated over time.

Claire, I'm sure your listeners will agree that there's been an erosion of trust in many institutions in our society, but what's so interesting is that employers, and particularly our own employers, your own employer, remain among our most trusted institutions. During the pandemic, for example, Americans turned to their employer as a trusted source of health news, second only to their physicians. That means that most Americans trust their employers to deliver health information above the information that they receive from the federal government or from their local public health department or the media or their social media feed. Among Americans with a really low level of trust in the healthcare system, their employer is the most trusted source.

This means that the trusted relationships that businesses have with their workers are critical during a public health emergency. We know that misinformation thrives in a vacuum, so leveraging the trust of your employees, the trust that they have in you, and extending that trust to local public health departments through collaborations and informational sessions and town halls and clinics, that will make it easier for your company to activate in an emergency and make it harder for misinformation to take root.

Companies with existing relationships with state and local government public health departments have reported that they could lean on those relationships quickly during the pandemic to restore their operations, and those relationships enabled private-sector-driven community health solutions. There's so many great examples during the pandemic when businesses stepped up to support public health. For example, GM converted automobile factories into ventilator production facilities almost overnight. Uber and Lyft met a critical need by transporting people to vaccine appointments. Retail pharmacies like Walgreens and Walmart and CVS brought vaccines into communities and into workplaces.

Large corporations with large and extensive public health resources freely shared that information and messaging and education with other companies, smaller organizations in their networks. Stadiums and arenas were converted into vaccination sites. Media companies delivered facts. Local restaurants fed health workers. The list goes on and on.

During the pandemic, we saw that trust and relationships really matter, and that business and public health work better when they work together. I hope that businesses and public health leaders learn these lessons and build on this foundation going forward.

Claire Stinson: Thank you for making those points and for sharing those examples, all really, really important points. We have talked about in previous podcasts, as you mentioned, the importance of the social determinants of health, the importance of community, the importance of trust, and the relationship between business and public health is such a critical one, so this is such an important conversation right now. Talk to us about the role of businesses in protecting the health of their employees, as well as the role business can play in bolstering community health.

Stephen Massey: Well, I think, Claire, the pandemic really revealed what many public health leaders have been saying for so many years, is that the social determinants of health really do matter. Employers will be well served by investing in a stronger foundation for community health, for their workers, for the families of their workers, and for their customers.

What's true, though, is that virtually 100 percent of business investments in healthcare are directed at individual behaviors, disease management, health screenings and programs to reduce stress and burnout among workers. Now, don't get me wrong. These types of investments are critical, and they have an important, positive impact on employee health and worksite wellness, but they're just not enough. Nearly half of Americans have at least one chronic health condition, like diabetes or hypertension or heart disease. These illnesses not only reduce a person's ability to work and their quality of life, but they also increase their risk of hospitalization, long-term disability, and death.

It turns out that people with underlying health conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and will likely be at the greatest risk in a future pandemic. So if companies are going to improve employee health and make their healthcare spending more sustainable, they will really need to begin to realize the important link between chronic disease and community conditions. Focusing just on employees' individual health needs can only go so far, and employers really need to look beyond the four walls of their workplace to improve the health of the communities where their employees and their customers live.

Think about it this way. It's much harder for employers to hire healthy workers if the community where you're located has really bad air pollution, or doesn't have parks or sidewalks, or access to healthy foods. It's hard to attract and retain talent if your community has high rates of crime, a poor education system, or a lack of access to mental healthcare. During a public health emergency, of course, poor community health conditions make people more vulnerable to serious disease and death, and as we've seen, that can lead to permanent closures and supply change shortages and productivity challenges from employees who are navigating upheaval in their home and in their work lives.

Businesses would be well served not just to invest in their own workers, which they should absolutely do, but also to invest in the communities where they operate. After all, it's those communities that create a pipeline of future workers and create the conditions that allow existing workers and customers to thrive.

Look, businesses can't do this alone. What we have seen is that partnerships between business and public health and local governments can strengthen the quality of community conditions and improve lives for everyone, making your business stronger and healthier, and yes, even more resilient when the next pandemic strikes. I'll just say that many businesses rose to the occasion during the pandemic and significantly improved community health. Companies really did help save lives and fill gaps in underfunded and overstretched public health systems. Now is not the time to retreat from that. It's actually time to strengthen those partnerships between business and public health for the future. The actions that businesses take right now in the aftermath of COVID-19 are the beginning of the response to whatever threat the future holds.

Our pandemic plan for business is designed to help companies and public health leaders get started. Look, I encourage your leaders from the public health community to reach out to the largest businesses in your networks and in your communities to build relationships and begin that planning now. To the business leaders who are listening to our conversation today, if you have relationships with public health organizations, invest and strengthen them. If you don't, pick up the phone. Finally, I invite anyone listening who needs extra support or training or guidance to reach out to us. Our team at the Health Action Alliance is ready to help you get started, and we're available anytime at healthaction.org.

Claire Stinson: Thank you so much for sharing that and making those really important points. The Health Action Alliance has such an important mission, and it sounds like now is the time for businesses to be better prepared to keep their employees and communities safe. Thank you for being a part of this conversation today.

Stephen Massey: Well, thanks so much, Claire. It's been a pleasure to be with you.

Claire Stinson: Thanks for listening to Contagious Conversations, produced by the CDC Foundation and available wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to visit cdcfoundation.org/conversations for show notes. If you like what you just heard, please pass it along to your colleagues and friends, rate the show, leave a review and tell others. It helps us get the word out.

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