The recent surge in covid-19 cases is filling up hospitals across the United States. The problem is expected to get much worse, as hospitalizations usually increase several days after a spike in diagnosed cases. Unfortunately for the country, President Trump won’t act. Vice President Pence should.

Cases of covid-19 started to rise in early October and the increase hasn’t begun to level off. The United States now has more than 100,000 newly diagnosed cases each day, reaching a record-setting 170,000 cases on Friday. This in turn means the number of people hospitalized for the disease has grown, increasing nationally by more than 25 percent in the past week. This new outbreak is hitting rural areas in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states the hardest, where many hospitals have neither the capacity nor the expertise to handle the crisis.

Most of the current discussion deals with how to stem the rise in cases, but that won’t help the sick patients who are going to need care soon. Lockdowns and mask-wearing might reduce cases in a couple of weeks; they won’t do anything to make people who already have the virus well. In a few days, many parts of the country could be frantically trying to find hospital beds for critically ill patients.

The federal government could offer these areas a lifeline. Imagine a president who was acting swiftly, deploying U.S. military units to construct field hospitals in hard-hit areas. Such a leader could also use federal vehicles and planes to transport sick patients on emergency airlifts to urban hospitals that have spare capacity. They could open the Navy’s floating hospitals for business today and bring sick patients to them. They could even negotiate with Canadian leaders such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford to make Ontario’s hospital beds available in case U.S. capacity is taxed. A grateful nation would applaud this type of swift, decisive leadership.

Trump is, alas, not that man. He’s had multiple opportunities to rise to the occasion during the pandemic and show the strong, compassionate leadership the country craves. Instead, he is focusing his attention on his paranoid jeremiad against nonexistent mass voter fraud — more intent on staying in his job than doing it. It’s sad that even the compassionate and intelligent people he’s close to, such as first lady Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump, can’t seem to use the influence they have to move him to action.

Pence, however, is not beset with regret or consumed with wild conspiracy theories. He is a serious and compassionate man who surely understands the gravity of the situation and has the administrative ability to oversee a federal emergency effort. He has also spent four years patiently building and wielding influence within the White House, including as head of the administration’s Coronavirus Task Force. He’s not the president, but perhaps he can persuade the president to let him act like one now.

Pence should also be cognizant of the political moment. Many polls show that he leads the prospective field of potential Republican nominees in 2024 if Trump does not run again. He would surely cement that status if he were to visibly head an effort designed to save American lives. Such a role would also subtly distance himself from the man in whose shadow he has toiled. While Trump fiddled and America burned, Pence rounded up the local fire brigades to douse the flames.

The alternative could be awful for the country and for the political future of anyone in the administration. Imagine what will happen as hospitals fill up and patients are turned away. People will die in the richest and most powerful country in the world because their government isn’t doing everything in its power to save them. At current rates, it’s not hard to imagine seeing children who have lost their parents for lack of critical care, or hospital administrators begging for someone to save their charges. It would be like the news coverage of the suffering after Hurricane Katrina, but a thousand times worse.

A flood of stories such as this will force the administration to act, but it will already be too late.

Politicians react to events; leaders shape them. We know which of these President Trump is. What about you, Mr. Vice President?

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