Editorial: America is facing a deadly coronavirus pandemic. Stop playing politics and protect us

President Trump and senior officials addressed coronavirus preparedness at a news conference Wednesday evening.
(Andrew Caballero-Rerynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

For the good of the country, Congress and the White House need to rise above their usual partisan sniping and name-calling and show a little unified leadership as the United States readies itself for the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

We know it will be hard, given the level of bitter polarization in Washington, but Democrats and Republicans owe it to the American people to swallow their differences. That’s what rational, responsible governments do in cases of war, natural disaster and, yes, a mass outbreak of infectious disease.

There’s a lot riding on the ability of the federal government to get things done fast to support states like California that are on the front lines fighting this new and frightening infection, which has killed more than 2,800 people, most of them in China, and has spread to 47 countries. An outbreak in the U.S. seems all but inevitable now that the first case of community transmission was discovered in Northern California on Wednesday. Transmission without a known connection to someone who is sick or traveled to a place where people are sick marks a concerning turning point in any disease outbreak.

One thing that needs to happen now is the accelerated production of the estimated 270 million face masks needed to protect healthcare providers; another is to get working testing kits out to the states to confirm suspected cases. California, which has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the nation, has only a few hundred virus testing kits, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. That’s not nearly enough when at least 8,400 people in California are being monitored for the infection because they’ve traveled to places where it is widespread.

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President Trump made the same point about working together during a news conference Wednesday night, when he walked back some of his recent bluster about the coronavirus being no big deal. Instead, he tried to assure the country that he and his team had things completely under control. (To make that point he waved a printout that he said was a list from the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore ranking the U.S. as the most prepared country to handle an epidemic.)

“We should be working together,” he said when asked about criticism by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the partisan debate about the right amount of federal funds needed to properly prepare. Pelosi “shouldn’t be making statements like that because it’s so bad for the country,” he said.

We agree with the call for bipartisanship wholeheartedly, but we were dismayed that the president then undercut his own point by trash-talking Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and all of the Democratic candidates for president on whom he inexplicably placed blame for the recent stock market drops. Honestly, can he not hear himself?

Trump then announced he was putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus response. OK, we’ll see whether that means an intensified focus on the problem; we hope it does. But Pence must offer better, less ideological leadership than he did as governor of Indiana during an HIV epidemic in 2015. That outbreak was traced to drug users sharing infected needles, and public health officials recommended that the state institute a needle exchange program. But Pence, a religious conservative, disagreed with the experts and delayed action until the outbreak was well underway. That resulted in 173 more infections than might otherwise have occurred, according to a 2018 study.

During times of crisis leaders put aside their differences for the good of the country. This is one of them.