Originally published in the Sacramento Bee

By Dianne Feinstein 

It’s no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 is the most challenging public health crisis of the last 100 years.

No outbreak has spread so quickly and affected such a wide range of people — not SARS, not H1N1, not even HIV/AIDS. Yet after seven months of rising cases and at least 147,000 dead Americans, we still have no comprehensive national strategy. This must be immediately rectified.

A national strategy must be based on recommendations from public health officials, infectious disease experts and economists. The bottom line is that it needs to be guided by science and data, not politics.

So where does that leave us? The following six-point plan reflects broad consensus among a wide range of experts on what a national strategy should entail. If the White House can’t develop and implement such a plan — based on science and data — Congress should step into that void.

First, we need a national mask mandate. Masks work, period. Public health experts told us this months ago and numerous studies back that up.

The United States this week topped 4 million positive cases and the rate continues to increase. My home state of California, even with early and strong action, topped 400,000 coronavirus cases and last week overtook New York as the state with the most infections.

We can get those numbers under control with masks.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said we could stop the current surge in cases in just a couple months if everyone wore a mask. Even President Trump, after months of refusal, said mask use is “patriotic.” And while 28 governors have implemented mask mandates, widespread reluctance remains.

A national mask mandate would ensure a blanket rule that face coverings are required. Leaving this up to governors hasn’t worked well enough. We need a national mandate.

Second, we need a national testing plan. We know individuals who aren’t showing symptoms are still unknowingly spreading the virus. Testing can help stop that.

If we had the capacity to test millions of Americans each day, we could quickly get asymptomatic transfer under control and stop the rapid spread.

So far the White House has handed the responsibility for testing off to state and local officials. To make matters worse, President Trump has said we should test fewer people so our case numbers artificially drop. It’s time for the federal government to stop passing the buck and accept responsibility for ensuring that testing is available to everyone.

Third, we must add a national component to contact tracing to track those who have been infected. Whether this is a federal program or vastly more support and guidance for states, it needs to get done.

So-called contact tracing begins when an individual is diagnosed. That person is contacted by an official and their steps are traced back to each person with whom they recently had close contact. Those individuals are then notified and asked to self-isolate and take other precautions. This has the added benefit of assisting with early detection, which can save more lives.

Unfortunately, contact tracing isn’t cheap. It’s manpower intensive. The federal government needs to step up and provide funding, as well as consider deploying AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteers.

Fourth, we’re once again facing shortages of lifesaving personal protective equipment and testing supplies. The president needs to finally overcome his reluctance to implement his authority under the Defense Production Act and support a national PPE effort.

It’s appalling that hospitals and clinics are again facing shortages of masks, gowns and other safety items. And many states and local governments don’t have enough testing equipment, forcing them to compete against each other for supplies.

The president has the ability to ease these shortages. He should have fully implemented the Defense Production Act months ago to fill these gaps, but better late than never. Doctors and nurses shouldn’t have to risk their lives because safety equipment isn’t available, and no one should go without a test.

Fifth, we need to ensure that the patchwork of economic assistance programs that have been lifelines for small businesses and millions of laid off workers are continued.

One example is the additional $600 in unemployment benefits that was part of the CARES Act. This assistance allows millions of families to pay rent, cover their bills, buy food and contribute to the economic recovery we so desperately need.

Congress must extend this benefit and others, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped many small businesses. These programs aren’t cheap, but the alternative is an even bigger hit to our already wounded economy. That’s not an option.

And sixth, we must immediately develop a national plan for vaccine distribution.

Vaccines are still months away from final approval, but once one or more is available, it will take weeks if not months to produce and distribute.

We need a plan in place on how to accomplish that. Who gets the first doses? Health care workers? Front line service employees? High-risk individuals? How will the vaccine be distributed and stored? Who will pay for it? These and many other questions need answers now, not once we have a vaccine in hand.

The fact that we don’t have a national strategy yet is beyond irresponsible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play catch-up. And if the White House won’t take on this responsibility, Congress should step in to move ahead with a plan based on science and data.

Our lives depend on it.

Dianne Feinstein is California’s senior United States Senator and the former mayor of San Francisco.