A man fainted because of the extreme heat inside a protective suit, while the Lofa County Health Department team buried his sister in 2014 in Voinjama, Liberia, during the Ebola outbreak. One writer wonders if the United States is prepared for a pandemic. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Piles of dead bodies. Decontamination zones and overstretched hospitals. It’s the stuff of nightmares: the physical indicators of a pandemic associated with outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola in countries such as the Congo. But what if one of those pandemics — yellow fever, perhaps, or an emerging pathogen scientists don’t even know about yet — landed in the United States?

It’s not a matter of if, writes Ed Yong in a long-form feature for the Atlantic, online and on newsstands, it’s when. In “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?”, Yong takes a clear-eyed view of the worst-case scenario: a public-health system caught off guard by a pandemic that spirals out of control.

Too often, he writes, a large-scale epidemic takes over public attention, then fades into obscurity when the danger subsides, taking public funding and the wherewithal to build better safeguards with them.

That’s true in the United States, where outbreaks of illnesses such as anthrax and SARS took over the national consciousness, then disappeared as if in a puff of smoke, along with funding for research and planning on what to do if they return.

Yong builds a convincing case for a national lack of preparedness that, unless remedied on many fronts, could spell disaster when a new pandemic comes knocking. He worries about President Trump’s ability to take on an outbreak, especially given that he has left key positions unfilled.

“At some point,” he writes, “a new virus will emerge to test Trump’s mettle. What happens then? He has no background in science or health, and has surrounded himself with little such expertise.”

What does happen then? Read Yong’s meticulously researched story for a sense of the stakes. It’s a warning we all need, even if it’s hard to accept, and Yong’s storytelling turns a necessary lesson into gripping reading.