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Coronavirus Updates: Projecting The Curve, Government Responses

Apr 6, 2020
Originally published on April 6, 2020 6:33 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In New York today, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo shared this news. For the second day in a row, his state did not see a large rise in COVID-19 deaths.

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ANDREW CUOMO: Total number of hospitalizations are down. The ICU admissions are down, and the daily intubations are down. Those are all good signs.

KELLY: All good signs, yes, though not exactly good news when the state still has thousands of new cases confirmed every day. And it is unclear whether this marks the disease's peak in New York or not.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nationwide, the death count has now surpassed 10,000. Detroit and Louisiana in particular have significant outbreaks, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warns those hot spots may not see their peaks for another week. Here to catch us up on all of that are NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Good to have you both back with us.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

RASCOE: Ayesha, let's begin with you. It seems like the administration is pushing two different ideas right now. Here's the president today, saying he sees light at the end of the tunnel - something he's said a lot recently.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let's win this, and let's get our country open as soon as we can. I think it's going to be sooner than people think. Things are going really well. - again, light at the end of the tunnel.

SHAPIRO: But then just yesterday, the Surgeon General Jerome Adams said this on NBC's "Meet The Press."

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JEROME ADAMS: The next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment. It's going to be our 9/11 moment. It's going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives. And we really need to understand that if we want to flatten that curve and get through to the other side, everyone needs to do their part.

SHAPIRO: Such a stark difference between those two statements - how does the administration reconcile this?

RASCOE: It seems to be a matter of emphasis. The White House task force is saying that they think that the peak of the outbreak is going to hit certain places in the next six to seven days. And it seems like officials want to prepare the public for how bad it's going to get. But the surgeon general and the president are also saying that there will be an end to this. And that message is the message that Trump seems to want to focus on. That's what he was focusing on today when he was talking about things might wrap up sooner than people think. But when he was asked whether he thought that he would be able to lift social distancing recommendations by April 30, he wouldn't answer that question. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's on the task force - he warned that the country probably wouldn't be able to get back to where it was pre-coronavirus until after there's a vaccine or the virus is totally under control. But Fauci said that he does think the U.S. may be able to move out of these extreme social distancing measures before that, as new cases start to slow down.

SHAPIRO: Richard, turning to you, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services today issued a report that was very critical of the federal government's response. It was based on a survey of hospitals from late March. Tell us about that.

HARRIS: Right. Among other things, it documented a problem we've been hearing a lot about - delay in getting tests and getting test results. Hospitals told the inspector general that they frequently had to assume people were sick with coronavirus while waiting up to a week for test results. And, you know, that meant using up a lot of masks and gowns and not being able to discharge people who got better to go to nursing homes because they couldn't show that they were no longer infectious. Now, a reporter at the White House briefing asked President Trump about that report tonight. He gestured to some of the experts standing behind him and gave this response.

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TRUMP: It's wrong. And they'll talk to you about it. It's wrong.

CHRISTIE GRIMM: But this is your own government.

TRUMP: It's - well, where did he come from? The inspector general - what's his name?

GRIMM: It came from the inspector general report...

TRUMP: No, what's his name? What's his name?

GRIMM: I don't know his name off the top of my head.

TRUMP: Well, tell me his name. Let me know. OK.

GRIMM: But...

TRUMP: If you find me his name, I'd appreciate it.

HARRIS: For the record, her name is Christie Grimm (ph).

SHAPIRO: Well, has testing improved?

HARRIS: Well, the president keeps touting the total number of tests, and that number is growing. And the backlog for tests waiting to be run has shrunk since the inspector general's hospital survey. But there - often, there still is a substantial delay. Testing is still not a smoothly operating system, according to the people on the ground.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, to the question of medical equipment, the president's spending a lot of time talking about what he's doing to get supplies to states. Here's what he said on Saturday.

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TRUMP: Areas in the country that are not experiencing large-scale infections are requesting supplies beyond what their present circumstances require. And we talk to them, and we tell him. And we explain it. And for the most part, they're good with it. We think we're right.

SHAPIRO: Governors and hospitals are saying that this is their top issue. Why is President Trump pushing back?

RASCOE: Well, there just are not enough of these critical supplies and pieces of equipment to fill all the requests. Trump is arguing that officials are asking for more than they truly need, that they're asking for things just to be on the safe side and that the government is having to tell them no. He's also saying - at the same time, he said today that all the governors are happy, at least when they talked to the administration about these issues. Of course, some governors, obviously, disagree with that and say the federal government is not stepping up the way that it should for a national emergency. There are some states that are giving equipment back - Washington state and California, for example. Trump thanked them today. They're giving it back so FEMA can send it to where it's needed most right now. Trump did confirm that this hospital ship, the USNS Comfort in New York City, will be switched over to be used for patients with the virus. It was originally designated for people who don't have the coronavirus, but there are so few people able to use it that they had to make this change.

SHAPIRO: And looking at the curve of the infection and death rates, Richard, what are the scientific forecasts telling us about the epidemic trends? How likely is it to peak this week or next?

HARRIS: Well, the main model that is tracking this is from the University of Washington. And it finds - you know, it varies state by state, but New York does seem to be heading toward a peak this week. In fact, the number of new cases has been flattening out over the past few days. Whether it's a peak or just a plateau that may be extended is yet to be determined. The models that forecast the day when most hospital resources are needed is April 15, which is the middle of next week. So the overall trend is based on people staying home, though, and through the end of May not through the end of April, which is what the president's directive is at the moment. So if people go out sooner than that, the modelers say it could actually only take a couple of weeks for the epidemic to reignite.

SHAPIRO: But I take it there is some evidence of social distancing is working in some places.

HARRIS: Yes, there is evidence, not only from shoehorn in China but increasingly other places, like regions of Italy where the curve has really been bending downward. Here in the United States, that's especially notable in Washington state. Christopher Murray, who heads up the University of Washington model, said phone data - mobile phone data shows that people really - personal mobility has been going down for longer than - even than the state has had a stay-at-home directive. And that's because big companies like Amazon and Microsoft acted very fast with their employees, telling them to work from home. And lots of other companies followed suit. The model now shows Washington's curve has flattened out and, in fact, already may be past its peak, which really looks more like a hill than an Alp (ph).

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, I understand there's also some good news from the CDC today about the coronavirus in children.

HARRIS: Indeed; the new study finds that children here, as in China, are far less vulnerable to the coronavirus. Fewer than 2% of cases are in people under 18, even though that age group makes up 22% of our population. And kids are unlikely to end up in the ICU or lose their lives. But, you know, it's also true that kids are much less likely to run a fever and so on, so they may be spreading the disease without anyone noticing that they're infected, so that's all the more reason to keep schools closed and maintain social distancing.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Richard Harris and Ayesha Rascoe.

Thank you both.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.