Quick, decide: If 20 percent of a city’s police department is infected or quarantined because of the coronavirus, how should the remaining officers decide which problems to take on? Already, some police departments are closing buildings to the public. No more walk-ins. Others are focused on providing only essential services, such as investigating violent crimes, and are leaving the investigation of nonviolent or property crimes for another day. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who on Monday begged criminals to “chill,” has been roundly mocked. “Until the coronavirus is resolved,” Turner said, “criminals take a break, okay. Stay home. Stay home and don’t commit any crimes.” But he was only saying out loud what mayors and police chiefs around the country know: that their ability to protect public safety may be substantially diminished. In a society that can no longer satisfy all public-safety demands, where do you place a phone call about a marital argument that could escalate against the possibility that a police officer will be infected? Should a late-night dispatcher be left to determine which calls to ignore, or should someone higher up the chain—someone accountable to the public—establish a basic policy?
Also decide: Which patients should doctors and nurses prioritize for life-saving efforts if hospitals simply become overwhelmed? Who wants to write that policy? Across the United States today, states are revising their triage standards in anticipation of seeing more COVID-19 patients than a limited number of health-care workers can adequately treat with the supplies they have at hand. This is not only an ethical dilemma that can be left to individual doctors and hospitals; governors and legislators must determine what sort of liability protection hospitals should get if such triage standards have to be applied and patients are denied care. Public officials should and inevitably will be drawn into arguments about what those standards should be. “Focus on the otherwise healthy patients who are most likely to recover”—the general standard enshrined in state plans examined by The New York Times—is an easy thing to say. But many patients’ health status aligns with economic and social status. Racial disparities abound. Older people and those with disabilities are rightfully concerned that triage standards may exclude them. As doctors confront one wrenching decision after the next, will governors help establish moral and legal norms—or look the other way?
Then decide: Should schools even try to open anytime soon?