A top priority: shielding the poor from economic distress. Congress should make direct cash payments—mailed checks or direct deposits—to low-income households in places with severe outbreaks. Hourly wage workers should not feel compelled to show up to work sick because they need to pay bills. Congress can help these Americans recover and keep other people healthy by financing their time away from work.

In states experiencing severe outbreaks, Congress should waive the requirement that people receiving unemployment insurance payments look for work. Better that such unemployed workers receive financial assistance for rent, mortgages and groceries than to risk spreading the virus by applying and interviewing for jobs. Congress should also waive work requirements in the food-stamp program.

Children in low-income families will miss subsidized meals if schools are closed. Federal subsidies to those households should be increased to account for lost breakfasts and lunches. This might help relieve some of the pressure on low-income parents, who might otherwise feel the need to go to work even if ill.

Cash-strapped states may be reluctant to divert spending from other priorities toward health care, especially as more people use services.