The Coronavirus Pandemic Can Still Be Controlled


“We are not going to control the pandemic,” the White House chief of staff said last weekend, admitting the Donald Trump administration’s failure to perform its most urgent job. This is timely, relevant information for Americans now going to the polls. But it’s also terribly dangerous thinking. Even as the country waits to find out if there will be a change in leadership, the U.S. government can’t simply give up trying to control Covid-19; far too many lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Without strenuous efforts to monitor outbreaks by testing and tracing, and leadership to persuade people to take basic protective measures — covering their faces, keeping their distance from others, washing their hands — all countries may soon face a “tsunami of cases,” as a World Health Organization official put it, that will overwhelm health-care systems.

“We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas,” Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, explaining the White House’s alternative thinking. But counting on pharmaceutical rescue alone, as Meadows suggests, would prolong the pandemic, possibly for years.

The fact is, vaccines and drug treatments are needed in concert with basic control measures, not instead of them. Although there is great hope that at least one of the many vaccines in development will be effective, there’s no guarantee. And even a successful vaccine can’t be expected to make Covid-19 go away. Shots may very well provide less than total protection — and many people will decline to be inoculated.

Meanwhile, the basic Covid-19 control strategies are easy to practice and plainly effective. Masks block the transmission of the virus from one person to another via droplets expelled when breathing or talking. This explains why mask mandates in many cities and states have saved hundreds of thousands of lives already. An estimated 130,000 more could be spared by March if everyone in the U.S. were to mask up, according to one new analysis. Otherwise, the American death toll stands to reach half a million by the end of February.

Even after an effective vaccine is developed, mask wearing, distancing, hand washing, crowd limitations, and testing and tracing will still be needed. As Anthony Fauci put it in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week, “Even if one or more vaccines have high efficacy and uptake in the population, it will take at least several months for enough people to be vaccinated to confer herd immunity on a population basis.”

It is pointless to hope that President Trump will come to grips with the coronavirus challenge. He rarely wears a mask himself, and he has falsely claimed that most people who do wear them contract Covid-19. He listens to the advice of someone who lacks expertise in infectious diseases and is willing to let the virus spread unchecked through the population. The president hasn’t met with the experts on his own coronavirus task force for months.

Yet Americans can’t wait for a change of leadership in Washington to control Covid-19. For now, state and local leaders need to help people better understand the need to protect themselves. As new and worsening outbreaks fill hospitals nationwide, starkly demonstrating the danger of allowing the virus to spread, the message should become easier to impart: Just wear a mask.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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