The road back will be even harder now than it was in March. The United States is experiencing multiple outbreaks from California to Florida that will seed more infections in the weeks and months ahead. The hope that summer’s warm weather would help, that the sacrifices made in March and April would be sufficient, that a miracle cure would arrive — all have been dashed. The United States faces a crisis unseen in recent generations, and if it deepens, the pain won’t be only in illness and death but also in education and economics.
It is time to return to first principles. We need a colossal effort, a Manhattan Project, to fight the virus, and we don’t have it. Experts have identified the best strategy: test, to find out who is sick; trace, to find out who may be sick; and isolate those who are suffering. Personal habits must accompany this: wearing face masks, hand washing, physical distancing and avoiding crowds in enclosed spaces.
The strategy worked in nations that pursued it with conviction, such as South Korea and Germany. But in the United States, testing began in chaos and still lags what’s needed to suppress or even mitigate the virus, according to a useful analysis just published by the Harvard Global Health Institute and NPR. To reach a goal of mitigation, or keeping the ratio of positive tests below 10 percent, would require 1.2 million tests a day; the United States is currently performing about 570,000. The analysis found 32 states are not doing enough to achieve mitigation; 18 and the District are doing enough. To suppress the virus, and get the positive ratio below 3 percent, would require 4.3 million tests a day. Suppression might allow some return to normalcy. “That’s what we all want — to get our lives back. But right now we’re losing to the virus,” says Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard institute. Contact tracing is also way behind what would be necessary.
President Trump’s negligent approach, leaving it to the states while declaring that everything is fine, has put the nation adrift in a viral sea. We must move beyond Mr. Trump’s devastating leadership vacuum. A few states have done better than most, but as the virus map demonstrates, the power of the pandemic is greater than the states can bear. The nation still needs a federal response. The virus is relentless and opportunistic — but the response has been patchwork and uneven. Unless that is fixed, we will be doomed to more suffering and terrible losses still to come.