The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump needs to put commanders in charge of this war

President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ONE MONTH ago, President Trump expressed great confidence in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said, “that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Now the United States has more than 100,000 cases, the most in the world, and more than 1,300 deaths — and the pandemic is expanding. The “job” Mr. Trump has done is disastrously inadequate, failing to lead the government or marshal the country to face this crisis.

Mr. Trump says he feels like a “wartime president.” The most important thing he can do now is to manage the pandemic as if in wartime: put it in the hands of commanders who know how to fight it. The president needs to draw from the country’s rich and talented pool of seasoned experts. He should immediately put someone in charge of the ongoing first wave, which may yet last for many weeks, and he should name a second person to begin planning for the transition period that follows, an immensely complex task. Then he should get out of their way.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Mr. Trump cut off travel from China early on. But instead of taking advantage of the reprieve that might have given the country, he entered a state of denial – “I think it’s going to work out fine,” he said Feb. 10 — and failed to prepare. The result is shortages and bottlenecks of tests, masks and hospital beds, leaving the United States today in the sad situation of health-care workers wearing plastic garbage bags and construction goggles for protection. Mr. Trump then sensibly called for social distancing, a move that requires cooperation from everyone, but soon seemed to have second thoughts and impulsively declared Easter as a nice target date for a return to work. The most fundamental point of crisis communications — a clear, straightforward and credible message— has been sundered.

In the near term, New York should not be bidding against Louisiana for vital supplies. The federal government must bring order and efficiency out of this chaos, overcome shortages, kick-start production and ensure the safety of health-care workers. It also must communicate clearly to the American people — and to all 50 governors — why social distancing and school and business closings are essential to break the chains of virus transmission. If we lose faith, the virus wins.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

When the infections abate, a restive country will want to restart the engines. Mr. Trump said in a letter to governors this past week he would separate counties into high, medium and low risk based on data about infections. This reflects a necessary strategy of stratification for a transition to normal. But to accomplish it requires far more precision than red-yellow-green traffic lights at each county line. It will demand widespread testing and surveillance capacity, which the United States currently lacks. Failure to begin planning now could lead to rolling, dangerous new outbreaks for months on end.

Follow Editorial Board's opinionsFollow

The nation and the world need leadership. The enormity of the pandemic emergency is too great to be resolved separately by 50 governors and 3,142 counties. Nor can the coronavirus be stopped by a president who moonwalks the truth and selfishly personalizes every transaction. Please, put commanders in charge of this war — a war we did not ask for but cannot afford to lose.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: There are reasons to be optimistic regarding the coronavirus

Joseph G. Allen: Don’t panic about shopping, getting delivery or accepting packages

George T. Conway III and Carrie Cordero: What did Trump and Congress know about the coronavirus, and when did they know it?

Stuart Stevens: Republicans like me built this moment. Then we looked the other way.

Marc A. Thiessen: This virus should be forever linked to the regime that facilitated its spread

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.