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A year of pandemic has shown us that Yellowstone County must have healthy people to support a healthy, vibrant economy.

Business owners and employees need to be healthy to do their jobs. They and their customers must have confidence that their health is safeguarded when shopping, dining and working in our community.

That’s why business leaders have relied on local public health and infectious disease experts to guide us in this time of COVID-19. An ongoing public-private partnership with RiverStone Health kept everyone updated with the best medical and public health guidance through tele-town halls for businesses, email, local media and countless phone conversations. Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development have collaborated with local businesses and public health leaders to keep businesses in Yellowstone County open and safe. We listened to each other.

This hasn’t been easy. When cases of COVID-19 surged last fall and our Billings hospitals were straining to add dozens of beds and staff to care for all the seriously ill patients, our public health officer established protocols to slow the virus spread. By asking everyone to temporarily curtail some activities that can contribute to rapid virus spread, our public health officer acted without delay to protect individuals and businesses from greater harm.

Within weeks of the new protocols starting, the number of new COVID-19 cases began decreasing. Our hospital intensive care units gradually saw fewer patients. The number of Yellowstone County COVID-19 deaths reported each month started dropping.

Now that safe, effective vaccines are available to more Yellowstone County residents every week, we can see the eventual end of the COVID-19 pandemic. We all look forward to returning to more normal business and community activities.

But we cannot be complacent. One lesson from COVID-19 is that public health is vital to our economy. It’s important to know our county health agency, RiverStone Health, didn’t have sufficient resources to respond to the pandemic. More than 100 temporary workers had to be hired and trained quickly. Long time employees had to be redeployed to new jobs. Public health struggled to obtain the large quantities of masks, gloves and gowns needed to keep caregivers and patients safe. Public health technology had to be upgraded to handle the enormous number of COVID-19 cases. Supplies of safe, effective vaccine still lag behind demand.

Going forward, we must recognize the value of public health and sustain it for future emergencies. Public health’s mission is to improve the lives, health and safety of the entire community. Public health works to prevent illness and injury.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that each year, poor health costs the U.S. economy about $3.2 trillion from premature deaths and the lost productive potential associated with diseases. The five diseases with the biggest economic impact are, in order, musculoskeletal disorders, mental disorders, neurological disorders, substance use disorders, and diabetes and kidney disease.

Conversely, McKinsey estimates, each $1 spent on health improvement can yield $2 to $4 in increased GDP (gross domestic product).

The public health system in Yellowstone County has worked amazingly well in extremely challenging circumstances. Public health decisions should continue to be made by public health experts with the skills and knowledge that are required for their jobs. Their expertise was essential, and their leadership needs to stay intact.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the De Beaumont Foundation recently invited a large group of top U.S. business leaders to discuss the connections between commerce and public health. The resulting report, issued in February, concluded:

“Businesses and communities will not recover until COVID-19 is effectively managed. Communities need not make a choice between lives and livelihood. Both can and should be addressed simultaneously using science and common sense to guide decisions.” 

Steve Arveschoug is executive director of Big Sky Economic Development. John Brewer is president/CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.