No one should draw the conclusion that it is time to let up. On the contrary, the changing dynamics of infection and hospitalization show that social distancing to break the virus transmission is working where attempted and ought to be redoubled. If people relax, the consequences could be a dangerous second wave. Most of the population is still vulnerable — and such cities as New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago are now experiencing their own sub-epidemics. Deaths are still climbing; they lag some weeks behind the levels of infection.
It is time to seize the moment and create a strategy for the coming months, a phase two when the United States will shift from fighting the house fire to managing some kind of stabilization, if not normalcy. Some significant work has been done by think tanks, but the administration appears engulfed in managing the daily crisis. President Trump should appoint a skilled manager and leader to take on phase two. To neglect planning could risk chaos later on. Mr. Trump’s overeager insistence that reopening will be “sooner rather than later” has not been accompanied by a strategy to get there.
In any return to normalcy, comprehensive diagnostic testing will be required to isolate the sick and help certify those who can go back to work safely. Can an administration that presided over a movable feast of half-measures now create a national testing network that will be orders of magnitude larger? As The Post reported Wednesday, states are going their own way in the absence of leadership from Washington.
At the same time, a recovery strategy will require serology testing on a scale never attempted before to determine who has been infected and might be immune by looking for antibodies in serum. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Brett P. Giroir reassured members of the media on Tuesday that “we will have millions on the market by May,” but similar promises about diagnostic tests were unfulfilled, and there are concerns about the quality of serology tests now being rushed out. Another layer of uncertainty is whether the coronavirus will leave behind enough recovered people with immunity to restart the economy. Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the percentage of the population infected and showing antibodies in Europe is between 1 and 15 percent, but he thinks it may be lower in the United States. If only 5 or 10 percent of the population is immune, the remainder are still at risk of infection, and the virus is not controlled by a vaccine or drug therapy, then what are the paths to recovery this year?
This is a Rubik’s Cube challenge entwining public health issues, economics and social behavior, and it deserves more attention than it is getting.