By Jack Cumming

Horror gripped my heart as I saw my 5-year-old son sled through the fresh snow directly at a tree. Bamm … he hit that tree. We rushed him to the nearby hospital. He checked out fine. There was no discernible brain damage.

“What happened?” I asked him. “Why did you hit the tree?” His answer shook me. “I couldn’t decide which way to turn.”

The Will to Decide

How often does failure to decide inhibit action that could make a difference? You know businesses where decision alternatives are discussed and discussed before any action takes place. You also know how entrepreneurs make quick decisions and then turn on a dime if the first decision proves to be flawed.

Decision paralysis seems to be an affliction of established organizations. We’ve seen it on full display in the current disease-triggered economic crisis. Some erred on the side of caution and threw economics and social well-being to the winds to avoid any chance of infection. Others, notably Sweden in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, put normalcy before concerns about the threat.

The Swedish Option

The Swedish idea was that the pandemic would run its normal course and that widespread infection would move quickly and seamlessly toward the mass immunity that’s characteristic of the endemic diseases with which we live every day. Most of the rest of the world — and especially the senior living world, after the unjust stigmatization of Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington — chose the more conservative course. The Swedish experience suggests that ignoring the virulence of the initial strain was unwise. The cautious approach made more sense. The early impacts were deadly.

Now we have a new challenge. The circumstances are different. Just when we thought we had slithered past the first tree that blocked our sled run, we find ourselves heading toward a new tree. Plus, our speed has picked up. The disease is accelerating. Which way do we turn — toward lockdown, or toward encouraging community spread?

Given that senior living was the first industry to encounter a heavy death rate, it’s not surprising that officials are opting for caution. No one will criticize caution … except, perhaps, for those seeking political advantage, but that’s a different context altogether.

Omicron and the Workforce Challenge

Recently, Senior Housing News reported on how the rapid spread of omicron is exacerbating the workforce challenge. That workforce challenge seems to be a major-sized tree standing right in the path now of our out-of-control sled ride. It’s no longer up to senior living executives to decide for themselves how best to respond. The regulators have taken that discretion away, so we’re back in near lockdown mode.

Observation, however, shows that compliance is far less universal today than it was in those fear-laden weeks in March and April 2020 when we were first coping with the unknown. People are tired, more than tired, exhausted by the strictures that have taken so much from us.

The happy news is that omicron is far less deadly than the earlier viral variations. Even the most elderly, to whose care senior living is committed, are less vulnerable than they were then. Perhaps the current state of strict rules with lax compliance is the best approach for the moment.

We are also blessed with vaccines. Vaccines provide a controlled immunity-strengthening infection. There may be a sore arm or a day of fatigue. Omicron does seem to impact even those who are vaxxed and boosted, but that impact is relatively mild. It’s different for those who didn’t trust the vaccine. They are now the ones grappling with uncontrolled infection. They are crowding our hospitals. The path of wisdom seems to confirm that it’s better to submit to a controlled vaccine infection than to wait for universal omicron.

Vaccine for the Unvaccinated

We can hope, though, that omicron is a vaccine for the unvaccinated. If all plays out as it may, despite the unpredictable course of this threat to humanity, mild omicron infections (severe only in the unvaccinated) will now give us the global immunity for which we have yearned. We can live with a mild flu-like endemic even if it recurs every winter to inject itself into our lives.

Returning to our metaphor of a sled ride careening toward a tree, now may be the time for the Swedish approach. But operators need to stick with the course of compliance. In the meantime, let’s see if our political leaders can have the wisdom to cut down that tree and remove its stump before we all crash.

Tested and Proven

2022 is a year of great promise. We have learned how to make decisions quickly as science evolved and experience informed our knowledge. Senior living has been tested and proven. The industry withstood the challenge admirably. Our nation may have pushed the fiscal spending accelerator a bit too hard, and we will pay for that with a spate of inflation. Still, there has been no time in near memory when opportunity has offered so many choices.

Let’s not overdo the decision processes. If we make a choice and get it wrong, we can shift direction and learn from our mistakes. Such a time for action can advance our enterprises, our industry, our economy, and our world. There’s a reason why entrepreneurs are rewarded while risk avoiders stagnate. Wisdom is the author of great decisions. That’s found in leaders. Let’s not get stymied by process. Sometimes the boss just has to make a choice.

The Rest of the Story

By the way, my son grew up to become a highly successful missionary and clergyman. He’s also a consummate intellectual. He still weighs pros and cons, and he still has trouble deciding which way to turn when a tree looms ahead.