The goal was, and remains: save lives and resume economic activity without igniting dangerous new flare-ups. Restoring the economy and the health of the nation both are priorities. Neither can be breezily ignored or dismissed.
The first requirement is to set reasonable expectations. Some degree of sheltering in place and social distancing will continue longer than expected, perhaps for months. Wearing masks, attending video meetings, keeping six feet away, grabbing takeout and avoiding crowds must be accepted as part of the daily routine for some time to come. These tactics have successfully flattened the curve and, so far, avoided the worst-case health-care meltdown.
Sadly, the time gained with this sacrifice has been largely squandered by President Trump. The next set of challenges are: test millions more people, identify the sick, trace their contacts, and isolate the ill so that those who are able can return to work and school. These elements — testing, diagnosing, contact-tracing, isolating — are tactics that work. But to perform them at needed scale is a far more complex challenge than what has been achieved so far. It now seems clear that a huge, national wartime mobilization to meet the challenge, which many have suggested, will not take place. It will fall on 50 state governors and on localities. They must make the best of it.
Diagnostic testing is the biggest gap. It is essential in the coming months to know who is infected, especially because a large number of people may be spreading the virus without showing symptoms. Mr. Trump and his aides promised millions of diagnostic tests but did not deliver. The number of tests has been rising, but far more slowly than will be needed. Key supplies, especially swabs and reagent chemicals, are in short supply. When the pandemic hit, the global supply chain was overwhelmed and has never recovered. Nations are battling for every shipment.
Mr. Trump made clear in the last week that he is not going to mobilize industry, World War II-style, for this purpose, and instead has pushed the testing problem to the governors. However, as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) told Mr. Trump on Tuesday at a closed White House meeting, states “can’t do international supply chains.” Mr. Cuomo said he wanted to “let the federal government take responsibility for that federal supply chain.” Mr. Trump said he agreed with the governor on testing. We hope he was serious. Rhode Island can’t compete against France. The federal government must help.
The just-passed stimulus bill provides $25 billion for testing, including $11 billion for the states, accompanied by a vague requirement that “not later than 30 days” after enactment, the administration must provide Congress with a “strategic testing plan.” While the funds will help, that plan was needed last month. Front-line health workers still need protective equipment. Recent reports suggest that institutions such as prisons, meatpacking plants, and probably many offices and other factories would be better protected with high-level surgical masks. Can we make more for them? The hour is late.
Fortunately, on contact tracing, state public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have expertise, and hopefully states can carry out the essential door-knocking. But here, too, they will need financial help.
Job losses in March and April have been appalling. Those who have suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves unemployed are surely suffering their own pandemic of anger and despair. The nation must be shown a realistic and persuasive road to economic recovery, not the fairy tale of Vice President Pence that in June, everything will be behind us. The reopening must be calibrated in a way that assures worker safety. That will demand creative thinking by employers about touchless surfaces, distancing in the office and factory, staggered shifts and more.
The American people responded with alacrity, cohesion and remarkable goodwill in the face of danger over the past six weeks. They deserve straight talk about what lies ahead. Clarity and transparency are vital. We are at the end of the beginning of the worst national crisis since Pearl Harbor. The nation’s success, its resilience and recovery, depend in great measure on public confidence that the sacrifices have purpose, that there is a path out and that we will stay on it. As Mr. Trump cannot instill such confidence, it falls to other officials — local, state and federal — to plan soberly and speak honestly. It falls to each of us to help, and keep faith with, one another.