The president is right: The states should lead testing programs for the virus, collaborating with municipal leaders and county public health officials. The federal government should not be running a testing and tracing program. Such programs are always best run by the people closest to the communities where the programs are needed. And take note: President Donald Trump's restraint in this moment refutes earlier criticisms (including from me) that he has little respect for constitutional limits on his power.
The president is right on a second point too: We need to open up. I've hit my personal day 40. The word "quarantine" comes from the Italian for 40 days. This was the amount of time that the early modern world settled on as the standard unit for disease control. I think they knew something about human tolerance for restrictions on mobility and association. It will be very hard for all of us to push past this 40-day stretch of full adherence to stay-at-home advisories.
A strange feature of the current policy debate is that people seem to think that there's an argument about whether to open up or not. There is no such argument. We all want to open up; the only question is how.
THE REAL QUESTION
The core question is whether to open up in ways that leave us exposed to a second wave or to work as hard and as fast as we have ever worked to ensure that we open with the capacity to fend off that second wave. Boy, do I want the latter pathway. I never want to have to spend 40 days in quarantine again. Nor do I want my current 40 days to turn into 80. And I still have a job. It is so much worse for the many who no longer do. I get where the "liberator" protesters are coming from.
As we think about how to open up, the other thing we have to recognize is that about 40 percent of the economy has stayed open this whole time. That's how big the essential workforce is. Healthcare workers and public safety personnel and the people they often interact with - including homeless people, incarcerated people and residents of nursing homes - have not been able to follow the mandates of stay-at-home orders. They have been exposed to the virus at very high rates. The same is true for others on the essential jobs lists: people running laundromats, driving buses, working in grocery stores and delivering supplies. Since this part of the economy is already open, the first order of business ought to be to give everyone participating in it the tools for testing, tracing and supported isolation (TTSI) that they need to control the disease and restore a sense of safety. That will go a very long way to restoring a sense of safety for all of the rest of us, too.
We could within a week lay the foundation for setting this economy on a stable footing by embracing a massive ramp-up of diagnostic testing for the virus, including testing of asymptomatic people. Who needs to act? We need a whole-of-government response - that is, we need to activate all the layers of our federal system.
BRING ON THE MEGA LABS
Which brings us to a critical step Trump can and should take - and a bold one: We need to build 30 mega-labs around the country - laboratories able to handle millions of tests for the presence of the virus each day and to process them reliably, and fast enough to ensure that people in the workforce know they are infection-free. A commitment today to build those 30 mega-labs would transform the dynamics of this pandemic and our campaign against it. It would establish the United States as the world leader on virus response. It would launch us on an innovation trajectory.
We don't need to break laws of physics to do this, only laws of politics.
Can the governors do this themselves? Some might achieve it. Perhaps California could build on the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to achieve a mega-lab for the state. Perhaps Massachusetts, with its extensive biomedical infrastructure, could do it. But what about Georgia and Ohio? What about Minnesota and Colorado?
The Constitution permits Congress to set up interstate compacts that can deliver infrastructure of this kind. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is an example. The governors could still lead, and Congress can appropriate resources for an investment that would deliver a double dividend: pandemic resilience both now and for the future. But this course of action also requires presidential assent.
Mr. President, be bold. Build 30 mega-labs around the country setting this nation on a new course to combat this pandemic and all future pandemics. Build the labs, and I for one will cheer you on.
Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and co-author of the "Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience" report released April 20 by Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.