Hospitals on Life Support

With U.S. hospitalizations now surpassing last winter’s peak, here’s a look at what the data is telling us about the severity of the Omicron wave:

  • Hospitalizations can be a more instructive metric than case numbers. One of the primary concerns throughout the pandemic has been overwhelming hospitals. With previous variants, hospitalizations followed infection numbers along a predictable curve. Omicron is trending differently—which makes tracking case numbers less useful for predicting hospital overwhelm. 
  • So what does the data say? Hospitalizations have increased more than 50% in the last two weeks, but at a much lower rate than case numbers. At the same time, the U.S. is on track to triple its previous case record. As NYU epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder explains it, “Let’s say you’re getting twice as many infections and it’s half as deadly, well, twice as many but half as deadly means the same exact number of deaths.” Although it’s worth noting that data does not always distinguish between patients hospitalized because of COVID and those who test positive for COVID after being admitted for other ailments.  
  • Hospitals are severely overwhelmed. Due to Omicron’s lightning-fast spread and the fact that more than a third of Americans are still not fully vaccinated, hospital systems in nearly 25 states have begun postponing elective surgeries. Despite the name, elective surgeries are not always optional and instead often refer to lifesaving treatment for serious illnesses. 
  • Got COVID? Come to work anyway. Hospitals were already facing huge shortages of health care workers before the Omicron surge, and now they’re hemorrhaging staff who are themselves suffering breakthrough infections. COVID-positive workers are being asked to return to work if they have no or mild symptoms in order to compensate for critical staffing shortages. 
  • And it’s not just hospitals. Employee shortages are disrupting basic public services everywhere—trash pickup and subway delays in New York City, bus schedule reductions in the District, police and fire personnel shortages in Los Angeles, security checkpoint closures in Phoenix and teacher absences from Connecticut to Hawaii. Not to mention anticipated tax refund delays.

The Vote on Voting

Sen. Chuck Schumer is expected to force another vote on elections and voting rights legislation as early as this week. Schumer knows he doesn’t have the votes to move forward on the measure. When Republicans block the bill, Schumer will apparently launch his effort to change the Senate’s procedural rules—now with support from President Biden and Vice President Harris, who are headed to Georgia today to advocate for the legislation and some rule changes. 

It currently appears Schumer does not have the support of Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema to make meaningful changes to Senate rules or perhaps any changes at all. So while small changes may be made to Senate rules through this process, those changes are highly unlikely to result in any ability to pass voting rights legislation. 

Schumer is under enormous pressure to pass voting rights legislation. Easier said than done under the circumstances. As states enact more stringent voting rights requirements, many fear that will make it increasingly difficult for Democrats to get elected. Democrats traditionally rely on votes from more urban and minority voters, many of whom struggle the most with restrictive voting laws. 

Additionally, progressives view voting rights as the civil rights struggle of the modern era. Much like with Build Back Better, Schumer is struggling to reach a deal with Manchin and others which will make or break a long year in advance of the 2022 midterms.

January 6: One Year Later

More than half of U.S. adults (57%) say events like the storming of the Capitol are likely to happen again in the next few years a year after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. FGH’s Research and Insights team looked at recent polling around the anniversary to gauge cross-party attitudes towards the attack and its aftermath:

  • Nearly three quarters (72%) say the people involved in the attack on the Capitol were mostly threatening democracy, while 25% think they were protecting democracy. 
    • 58% of U.S. adults think Donald Trump bears a great deal or a good amount of responsibility for the attack, whereas 41% believe he has just some responsibility or none at all. 
  • Over half of U.S. adults (51%) think the legal punishments for people who broke into the U.S. Capitol have not been harsh enough while 19% think they have been too harsh and 28% believe they have been fair. 
  • 63% say the event last year has at least temporarily changed the way Americans think about their democratic government, with Democrats (81%) more likely than Republicans (52%) to agree. 
  • 89% of Democrats believe the incident at the U.S. Capitol last year to be an insurrection, compared to half that—45%— of Republicans who say it was a political protest. An additional 35% of Republicans say it was unfortunate but not something to worry about in the future. 
  • Fewer Republicans consider the January 6 attack a threat to democracy in 2022 (18%) than they did in 2021 (24%). They are also less likely to blame Joe Biden for the attack than they were a year ago, with 33% placing a great deal of blame on him in 2021 compared to 26% who feel the same in 2022. 

Build Back Ever?

The path forward for Build Back Better following Sen. Joe Manchin’s rejection of the House-passed version before Christmas remains extremely murky. And given the apparent gulf between Manchin and the White House, Senator Schumer’s intention to spend at least the first half of the month on voting rights and additional Byrd Bath work required, a quick resolution of the issues and floor consideration in January seems unlikely at this time.

Although the White House and Sen. Joe Manchin stayed in touch over the holiday break, there are no reports of substantive progress.

Over the weekend, Manchin publicly signaled he is prepared to restart negotiations on a $1.75 trillion package provided the White House either removes the enhanced child tax credit or significantly reduces the income limits for eligible families. Child tax credit payments to families who make up to $400,000 ended yesterday.

But Manchin reportedly continues to voice additional concerns—for example, that the true cost of the House bill is closer to $4 trillion if all provisions are extended for ten years and that the package could further accelerate inflation.

After promising in a December 20 Dear Colleague letter that the Senate will consider a revised BBB “very early in the new year….and to keep on voting on it until we get something done,” Senator Schumer’s Jan. 3 letter to his members makes no mention of BBB and instead focuses solely on voting rights, indicating his intent to press for action on or before January 17.

CDC Says…?

The Omicron variant’s rapid spread has ushered in a new winter wave with new guidance, new confusion and new complications for returning to “normal” as the pandemic enters a third year.

Despite the CDC’s much-memed recent guidance halving recommended quarantine times, employers once intent on bringing workers back into the office in January 2022 are once again pushing back their return-to-office plans. Executives are reckoning with the uncertainty by abandoning arbitrary telework timetables in favor of telling their personnel “We’ll get back to you” once it’s safe to reassess in-person, hybrid and fully-remote work models.  

While the push for in-person work is losing steam, COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot mandates are gaining momentum. Major U.S. cities have rolled out vaccine requirements for indoor establishments and some institutions, including universities, are necessitating booster shots.

For K-12 education, the CDC endorsed the test-to-stay approach that allows students who have been exposed to coronavirus to remain in school as long as they continue to test negative. Faced with rapid surges in cases, school districts are grappling with the choice to return to remote learning or push through the outbreaks armed with mask mandates and take-home COVID-19 test kits for teachers and students.

The CDC recently announced new guidelines for healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19. The guidelines shorten isolation time and allow healthcare personnel to return to work even if they are “mildly symptomatic.” The agency’s subsequent announcement shortening isolation guidelines for people with improving or no symptoms sparked confusion and criticism that economic motivations are eclipsing public health concerns.

Lawyers and Communicators: A Winning Combination for 2022

We all know that high-profile crises can land businesses in the crosshairs of regulators, prosecutors and judges, both domestic and foreign.

In the newly-published fourth edition of Latin Lawyer’s The Guide to Corporate Crisis Management, Finsbury Glover Hering experts provide perspective on the crucial role communications play in managing a crisis and how legal counsel and communications advisors can work together effectively to avoid pitfalls. In the end, a tightly aligned legal and communications strategy is the best way for companies to advance their legal and reputational objectives and mitigate risks.

For companies – especially those operating on an international scale – the challenges are exacerbated by a media environment in which information travels faster and further than ever before. Stakeholder expectations of how businesses respond are similarly heightened. Add to that specific regional factors in certain jurisdictions, such as increased focus on and public opposition to corruption and widely varying and unpredictable legal, regulatory, political and judicial regimes, and you have a particularly perilous, volatile situation.

Even with skilled legal counsel, pressures like these can lead to communications missteps that might create, worsen or prolong a crisis. A lack of close coordination between a company’s communications and legal advisors easily can turn a seemingly contained issue into a high-profile, potentially costly reputational disaster where one need not exist.

Accreditation: An extract from the fourth edition of Latin Lawyer’s The Guide to Corporate Crisis Management. The whole publication is available at https://latinlawyer.com/guide/the-guide-corporate-crisis-management/fourth-edition.

The Known Unknowns

Omicron’s Christmastime cameo underscores the difficulty of making predictions in this pandemic era. Nevertheless, FGH experts firmwide have identified trends across sectors that are likely to shape the events of 2022 (including but not limited to ”PARENTS GO FULLY UNHINGED).”

For our final edition of 2021, here’s what we’re watching as we move into the new year:

  • CONGRESSIONAL GRIDLOCK: Even with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, they have struggled to accomplish legislative goals both large and small.  With the midterm elections at the end of 2022, it’s likely that the problem will get worse, not better. 
  • MIDTERMS AND BEYOND: The political process is on a short clock. Anything Biden hopes to pass after about March is very doubtful. The entire system is paralyzed and hostage to Trump, who will presumably not announce for 2024 until after the November 2022 election. Observers bet Democrats will lose one or both houses, so no one wants to take a risk— meaning the entire system is on pause. 
  • PROMISES TO PROGRESS: Two years after corporate commitments were made in DEI across many sectors, mounting pressure will fall on companies and leaders to demonstrate substantive advancements, and there will be dwindling patience among key stakeholders for inertia and excuses.
  • RACIAL RECKONING TO RETRENCHMENT: But expect to also see significant backlash on DEI education and criticisms of “woke capitalism” in response to companies’ stances on divisive topics. We expect this movement will grow and opposition will intensify from government and private sectors as the nation moves into midterm elections where “culture wars” concerning policing and critical race theory issues will feature prominently on the ballot and in public debate. 
  • INFLATION: The administration is feeling the inflation squeeze as the president’s approval numbers have declined along with inflation spikes. They have doubled down on their messaging focused on market concentration in the sectors where we have seen higher inflation such as agriculture and food. Furthermore, the Administration has pointed to consolidation in agriculture markets – particularly the meat processing industry – as one of the catalysts of rising prices and urged Congress to hold hearings on concentration. 
  • WHITHER BIG TECH: New investigative stories and policymaker efforts proliferated this year showing the dangers of tech to mental health, the lives of children and teens, democratic norms, information hygiene and more—even while it’s clear virtual living is here to stay and potentially intensify if (when) the metaverse becomes a reality. These concerns collide starkly with the absence of a meaningful mechanism to rein in the platforms’ control over privacy, information flow and the overall narrative.
  • CLIMATE SOS: With Build Back Better hopes dashed, it’s once again up to business and local government to step into the breach on climate action while congressional Dems and the administration regroup. And as climate-fueled extreme weather continues unabated, we may see greater pressure on lawmakers to act.
  • RECKONING ON CRYPTO: The swirl of debate in Washington over the regulation of cryptocurrencies will come to a head in 2022, answering the burning question of how far regulators will go to knock down the wall between banking and the ballooning digital asset industry and bring the latter under their supervision. A lean too far left could stifle innovation, undermine U.S. competitiveness and threaten the supremacy of the U.S. dollar in the digital currency markets. A lean too far right could leave risk spiraling in the shadows. But punting indefinitely is increasingly a non-starter.
  • UNION BOOM: A strong job market and the lingering consequences of the pandemic have driven a boom in union activity. An ongoing dispute at Kellogg, for example, has generated social media backlash and caused President Biden to weigh in. With nearly 200 large union contracts representing more than 1.3 million workers set to expire by the end of 2022, industry should be prepared for continued pressure from workers and scrutiny from the markets, policymakers and informed consumers.
  • WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION: We haven’t even scratched the surface of understanding the long-term effects of COVID on kids’ learning— especially on disparities in learning. But emotions about education are already higher than ever in recent memory, whether over masks, school closures or what’s being taught in the classroom. Parents’ unprecedented visibility into their children’s lessons, along with highly toxic and suspicious political divides, combine to send debates over curriculum— including around race and age-appropriate material— to white-hot levels and into political races up and down ballots.
  • IN-PERSON RETAIL, RIP: The gradual move from in-person to online shopping was accelerated during the pandemic and will continue in 2022. Larger retailers, facing severe supply chain issues, will encourage that move as they pull an increasing number of items from their shelves. Smaller stores, on the other hand, will be left highly vulnerable to shifting consumer habits and continuing COVID waves.
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Expect to see more leaders talking about respect. The new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz won by running on a message of dignity for all workers, providing a template for how the center-left can turn back the tide against populism. With voters sour on big business– and employee activism rising–large companies need to redouble their efforts to demonstrate respect and dignity, no matter the role.
  • AND FINALLY: 2022 will be the year that we at FGH and our newly merged partners at Sard Verbinnen truly come together as one merged firm, with combined practice groups in 25 offices across the globe under a new brand. Look for our new name to come in the new year!