Ironically, the officials now urging citizens to keep calm understand far more acutely than the general public how much else can go wrong. A municipal police chief in the Boston area recently urged me to imagine that a school district closed for even three weeks. Take just one child, raised by a single parent who is a police officer. The child is home, so the parent must stay home. Other officers in the same patrol will be affected even if they don’t have kids in school. Shifts will change, nonessential functions will be put off, and the department will have less flexibility to respond to problems unrelated to the epidemic—even as, with more teens unsupervised, rates of car accidents and certain crimes could well increase.

Emergency-response officials are hesitant to play out these dangers in public. This police chief asked me not to identify him because, like so many others in positions of responsibility, he worries that misgivings like his will become self-fulfilling prophecies—that citizens will panic if their local authorities give voice to their own doubts.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and his administration have vacillated between ignoring the threat and making wildly unrealistic promises about it. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised 1.5 million coronavirus tests, but The Atlantic reported Friday that, according to all available evidence, fewer than 2,000 had been conducted in the United States. Trump himself is simply lying about basic facts about the COVID-19 response; despite the testing kit shortfall, he has publicly stated that everyone who wants to get tested can get tested.