In the military, commanders must make calculations about acceptable losses; the benefits of a mission have to be weighed against the certainty that some soldiers will be lost. We don’t have such language in the homeland-security world, but trade-offs are still inevitable. The wrenching decision to open up again—to accept more exposures to the coronavirus as the price of an earlier economic revival—is simply a judgment call. It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.
In the weeks to come, we should see a surge not only of patients, but also of supplies. The federal government has two main jobs right now: to get testing kits distributed nationwide, and to quicken the flow of money and expertise to support state and local efforts and expand the capacity of the health system. Go big or go home—the classic warning against half measures—is an old emergency-management maxim, and current circumstances give it an ironic twist: Because Americans are at home, the federal government needs to go big.
Managing the pandemic well doesn’t mean eradication; it means that our ability to mitigate how many people die—our ability to isolate those sick, test their contacts, care for them in available intensive-care beds with available respirators—is working.