The coronavirus is an even bigger and more deadly storm. The steps we take — or fail to take — in the coming days will determine just how lethal the disease will be in terms of citizens’ lives and the health of our economy.
President Trump has already acted to protect public health and our economy. The travel bans from China and Europe have turned off the flow of people from world virus hot spots. His declaration of a national emergency frees up increased funding for the states. The lifting of regulations will increase the availability of testing, as will the partnerships with the private sector. The agreement with House Democrats on an initial coronavirus package is an important first step to ease the impact of the pandemic.
More must be done to prepare for increasing case numbers and to effectively communicate what must be done to reduce the threat. I fear Americans are not yet taking this virus seriously enough. One need only look at the French Quarter in New Orleans and airports such as O’Hare International in Chicago to see ample evidence of this fact. Leaders must change this behavior.
The following need to be urgently done to reduce the risk of the virus and deal with the spread:
The president should direct governors to close all educational institutions, K-12 and higher education, until at least May 11. While young people are less susceptible to the virus and its ill effects, they may be potentially lethal carriers capable of spreading the virus more broadly. Distance learning should be used where available, but reducing transmission is priority one.
The stress on our health-care system is not yet calculable, but we should prepare for the worst. As a condition for receiving emergency aid, every governor should be directed by the president to submit plans this week to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to take over facilities for use as supplemental hospitals in case the need for our approximately 924,000 hospital beds nationwide exceeds capacity in any state.
Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, available through the national emergency declaration, should be used to purchase ventilators, masks, hospital beds and other medical supplies to address the coming crisis. None of this will be wasted; they can and should be stored for any future crisis.
The president should also direct governors to prohibit attendance at public facilities, including restaurants and bars, until at least May 11, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Exceptions should be made for supermarkets and pharmacies. Public gatherings pose the biggest threat for community spread. There are still too many Americans going out to restaurants, bars and other public areas as if this is business as usual. It is not. Every public gathering adds to the risk, at least for the next month.
As in past disasters, the president should use the Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to enable governors to support local businesses and help prevent permanent closures. These businesses must be saved. These programs worked very well in the aftermath of Sandy.
The CDBG programs must also be used to arrange for the availability of mental health counseling in each state. If there is significant loss of life, family members and friends will face a real mental health crisis. We must be prepared to help each other cope with this unprecedented crisis and prevent further deaths.
These are the most immediate needs. We also must support, through federal action, the airline industry and our travel and leisure industry. They will bear the brunt of many of our urgently necessary social distancing policies.
Finally, all public officials, through their words and actions, must reinforce the urgency of the threat. When I told people in New Jersey to “Get the hell off the beach” in preparation for a hurricane, they knew I meant it and followed my lead. Now is not a time for subtlety. We must forcefully communicate the grave nature of this threat and work together to stop it.