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Dr. Larry Brilliant, known for his role in helping to eradicate smallpox, says we can defeat COVID-19 — if we can get our wits about us.

USA TODAY

Our View: The good news is that a reset is possible, short of implementing another nationwide lockdown.

A leading science institute forecasts that U.S. coronavirus deaths will exceed 200,000 by Election Day.

Dr. Deborah Birx, President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 response coordinator, says the epidemic has entered a new phase and is extraordinarily widespread.

“Right now, the virus is winning and Americans are losing,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And an America with 4% of the world’s population accounts for more than 22% of global lives reported lost to the disease.  

Never mind Trump optimism 

Never mind the president’s fanciful optimism. It is time to reset the nation’s fight against the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said Monday that America’s daily COVID-19 infection rate must fall to 10,000 by September — from the current 50,000 to 70,000, three times the rate of Europe — if the country stands any chance of gaining control over the virus, especially as colder weather will drive people indoors and flu season will compound the misery.

Scientists are racing to develop therapeutics and vaccines, but in the meantime the death toll will continue to climb and the economy continue to fall as the epidemic persists in what noted epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant described as whack-a-mole mode — ebbing slightly in some states while surging through others.

That’s what is happening as new cases and hospitalizations slip in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas; remain high in Georgia and Nevada; and rise alarmingly in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The good news — thanks to recommendations by Birx and Fauci, and institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the Association of American Medical Colleges — is that a reset is possible, short of implementing another nationwide lockdown.

Prioritize testing, PPE, transparency

Experiences in New York and abroad show that a place doesn’t need to do everything right to keep the outbreak in check. It just needs to do enough things right for a long enough time. Among the priorities:

Once and for all, fix testing. Fauci calls the testing situation in the United States “unacceptable, period.” The governors of seven states, three Republicans and four Democrats, said this week that they’d join to pressure manufacturers to ramp up production of rapid-detection tests.

Tests that take a week or more for results are virtually worthless. Rapid-detection tests are invaluable for quickly assuring that teachers, students, nursing home residents and workers, meat-packing and other manufacturing employees, and prison guards and inmates are COVID-free. And they could make contact tracing a practical reality for breaking infection chains. 

Ensure adequate supplies. The federal government, through the Department of Health and Human Services, must undertake an end-to-end supply chain analysis to identify bottlenecks and shortages in the manufacture of rapid-detection tests, and all necessary gear for fighting the disease (and for which their stubborn shortages persist): masks, gowns, critical drugs and a range of laboratory supplies such as reagents, swabs and medical-grade glass bottles and tubes. Where necessary, the federal government needs to invoke the National Defense Production Act to get the job done.

Build a COVID-19 infection barometer to guide the states. A crucial reason testing remains vital is that it reveals viral spread and whether more should be done to curb transmission — such as mandating face masks; closing bars, inside dining and other indoor activities; or even issuing stay-at-home orders. A manageable rate is where no more than 5% of tests in a given state are positive for at least 14 days, according to the World Health Organization. Only a dozen states hit that mark. Mississippi and Nevada are above 20%.

“When they see those first positivity (rates) go up in cases, you need to respond with significant mitigation efforts,” Birx told CNN

Hospitalizations and deaths are other key indicators. The federal government should develop criteria — based on rising positive testing rates, stressed hospital systems and other key indicators — for determining when to ratchet up mitigation. And states, with federal encouragement and (even) pressure, need to respond in kind and in unison, ending the patchwork of trial-and-error prevention that is failing.

Tell the truth. Everyone, including the president, is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts, to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The nation needs full transparency on the size and scope of the problem.

This means a full accounting of how states are grappling with the virus, to include a full range of such data as per-capita infections and death rates, hospitalizations, outbreaks within essential businesses, testing turnaround times and outbreaks among health care workers.

And it means allowing public health officials, especially those at the CDC, to pound home lifesaving messages about the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and washing hands. 

Americans are understandably weary of this outbreak, but the coronavirus isn’t tired of victims. The simple truth, as Fauci outlined for Congress last week, is that much of the nation never thoroughly shut down and too quickly reopened.

As a result, America has done much worse than much of the rest of the world. Now is not the time to give up until cures or vaccines arrive. It’s time to do better.

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