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Surgeon General regrets early pandemic messaging from administration

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U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams sat down with Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani to discuss the new surgeon general report, and also discusses how employers are key to healthy communities, as well as how the Trump administration handled the pandemic early on.

Video Transcript

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Joining me now is US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. Dr. Adams, thank you for joining me today. Again, I know there's a lot going on still with the pandemic continuing. But there's also a lot to look ahead, especially when we talk about what's been going on with the vaccine rollout and other things.

But first I want to get to a report that you have authored, which focuses on something that really got a really big spotlight during the pandemic during 2020. And that was health inequities. And in this report, you talk about the role of businesses.

And I believe that in the past several years, we've really seen a shift in the way that corporate America looks at their role in this, whether you talk about corporate social responsibility or just sort of one-off programs where they partner in the community.

And your report looks at that. But my question to you is, a lot of the things that we know are wrong with the system are known as systemic racial issues. And so I wonder, why put the spotlight on businesses, when the government also has such a large role to play in this problem?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, that's a great question. And as you mentioned, I'm putting out a Surgeon General's Report unlike any ever before. It's entitled "Community Health and Economic Prosperity Engaging Businesses." And it's not to say that government doesn't have a role, or that each and every one of us doesn't have a role.

But it really starts with the premise that the US has what we call a health disadvantage. We paid more for health care than any other nation by far. But yet we have not so great health outcomes. And this actually impacts our business bottom line. US businesses paid more than 20% of US health care costs.

And so what we're trying to help businesses and communities understand, and COVID has shown this in stark detail, is that businesses cannot prosper for long when they exist and an unhealthy community and with unhealthy stakeholders.

You look at the fact that we've got record unemployment. We had the highest decline in economic output ever in 2020. And why did that happen? It happened because of poor health secondary to COVID that existed in our communities superimposed on top of poor health that already existed in communities.

And I just want to finish by saying that you highlighted an important point to this, that we do have to look at bias racism. We've got to look at giving everyone an opportunity. And this report lists exemplars from across the spectrum who really lean into these social determinants of Health to make sure everyone has an opportunity to be healthy.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I know that this is an interesting time to have this discussion, because like I mentioned, during the outbreak, we've seen a lot of the issues come to light.

But we've also seen, in large part, because of the administration's decision to utilize some of these major companies for, whether you're talking about testing, or distribution of vaccines, or just distribution of other protective gear and manufacturing of that, there's been a very heavy spotlight on corporate America and on these businesses.

We've seen them take on that role. Is it different to be able to do that? Is there something that you saw from that experience, versus if we had relied solely on government to respond to the pandemic?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, a lot of our capacity in the United States lies in the private sector. A lot of the ability to innovate lives in the private sector. And quite frankly, a lot of the decision making is driven by the private sector. This report started well before COVID, even though it's particularly timely, with my own personal observation that health was often pitted against business.

And unfortunately, when health gets pitted against business, usually health loses, whether you're talking about the fact that we still have cigarettes out there, which we know harm people, and whether you're talking about climate change, or whether you're talking about the conflict that we still see play out between the economic harm of COVID and the health harms of COVID.

And I want people to understand, they're not oppositional. They are one in the same. And healthy communities are more prosperous. But unhealthy communities are less prosperous. And what we want to do as we recover from COVID is help everyone understand that you can do things like The Wonderful Company, which instituted a $15 minimum wage, American Express, which gives up to six months of leave to new moms.

There are so many examples out there, which we really lay out in this report with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and the UVA Darden School of Business to help businesses understand the roles that they can play in creating healthier communities and a healthy bottom line.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. Looking forward now, though, we know that there is this week an incoming new administration in the middle of a pandemic. It's a very unique time for you to be in your position. If you were to look to talk to your earlier self around this time last year or maybe even a couple of months, what would you do differently compared to what has been done in order to change the trajectory of what happened in this country?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, one of the things that I think we really need to do, and if I had to do it over again, I would double down on this, is really emphasizing the uncertainty of new and evolving infectious diseases.

In many cases, we believed that COVID would behave the same as its cousins have behaved in the past. And that caused us to make some statements early on that were based on the science as we knew it at the time, but which also caused individuals to then feel like we weren't being honest with them when we had to change our recommendations.

I would also do what we're doing with this report and really help people understand even if they aren't worried about health harms themselves, help them understand that when we create healthier environments, and in COVID's case, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and watching your distance, and getting vaccinated, that when we do these things, we actually keep restaurants open. We keep businesses and schools open.

We in turn are more prosperous individually and as a society. So it really comes all back to we're all in this together. When we all create a healthier environment, we all benefit.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: That'll do it. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, thank you so much for the time.

JEROME ADAMS: Thank you. Check out my report at SurgeonGeneral.gov, and everyone stay safe. The finish line is in sight. We've just got to keep running through the tape.