Health workers from Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment check in with people in Denver waiting to be tested for covid-19 on Thursday at the state's first drive-up testing center. (Michael Ciaglo/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

I sat down to watch Wednesday’s prime-time Oval Office speech hoping that President Trump would rise to the occasion by sounding confident, well-briefed and very much in command in his country’s hour of need. And then . . . well, you saw it. Or heard about it. Mistargeted initiatives, misstatements and plain old mistakes. And this was a prepared text, read from a teleprompter.

I’m a little anxious, and I suspect you are, too. That makes this a good time to offer a few words of reassurance.

I’ve been writing about the coronavirus threat for weeks, with an urgency that trended towards alarm. Now I want to tell you my small reasons for optimism that we might be better prepared than you think. Yes, even despite Trump’s erratic leadership.

I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be fine and that this is no big deal. It is a very big deal, and it won’t just be fine. In fact, it will be horrific unless every American pulls together to fight this virus. I am going to tell you that if we act now, we can still minimize the number of Americans who will die, and that as we do, the United States will have a number of advantages to help us fight the viral hordes.

Our first advantage lies in our health-care system. Yes, you read that right. The United States has gaps in its coverage that other countries don’t have — and I have repeatedly urged Congress and the president to close those gaps for the duration of this emergency. We also don’t have universal mandatory paid sick leave, which means that some workers will be tempted to work while sick.

But, in fact, these aren’t the gaps we most need to worry about; the government can (and should) pass emergency measures to provide paid sick leave, and to pay for coronavirus treatment as well as testing — as well, of course, as working with laboratories and regulators to ramp up our testing capability. That’s an easy problem compared to what Italy is dealing with now: more critical patients than they have ICU beds. Ventilators and trained critical-care staff can’t be mobilized as fast as government funds.

Fortunately, the United States already has a lot of ICU beds relative to its population. Our hospitals love to develop their expensive, intensive capabilities, and we’ve no central regulator who can stop them. Normally, this may be an expensive waste of resources, but right now, it could save a lot of lives.

The United States also has private-lab capacity waiting to be mobilized. And that’s vital, at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have been tripping over their own feet, as former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb pointed out on Twitter Thursday morning. We are lucky to have a robust private market which can, in cooperation with regulators, scale up to help us identify and isolate carriers, rather than a potential single point of failure.

Finally, Americans have a penchant for self-isolation. This starts at with our individual physical space; we just prefer to stand further from each other than people in many other countries. We don’t like to kiss or hug anyone except close friends and family. Our harassment laws make us leery of touching co-workers.

Then, of course, there are our huge stores whose aisles are practically boulevards; our economy-sized suburban office buildings; our airy single-family homes with self-contained ventilation systems; and the individual cars we pilot between those places rather than crowding onto mass transit. In ordinary times, perhaps these are an unnecessary drain on the environment, but at the moment, they make it more difficult for the virus to jump between us.

That is not to counsel complacency. If we don’t practice scrupulous hand hygiene and stringent social distancing, this virus will swamp all of our native advantages. We must be vigilant and prepared for a long fight. But if you’re tempted to panic right now, do remind yourself that Americans have a long history of being slow off the mark during a crisis — and then pulling together to mount an overwhelming response. Though we’ve squandered a great deal of time, we are also lucky enough to have had a head start. Now it’s up to us to get moving so we can regain our lead.

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