News Brief: COVID-19 Cases Surge, CDC's Black Employees, Breonna Taylor Case
NOEL KING, HOST:
We're going to start today by looking back. In April, you'll remember, we watched in horror as New York state set a record. It was the epicenter of the pandemic. And this was the record - 12,000 cases per day.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, New York cases are declining. And Florida, with a similar population size, is shattering even New York's record. The state reported 15,000 cases yesterday. Daily numbers are also going up in Texas, Georgia, Arizona and many other states besides.
KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been following the story all along. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So when you put it in that context - it's more than New York state. These numbers in Florida are really staggering.
AUBREY: That's right. I mean, to put this in perspective - as Reuters put it, if Florida were a country - think about this. If Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the U.S., Brazil and India. Now, despite this, the state's Department of Education said last week schools should reopen for in-person instruction. Two Disney theme parks have reopened. And two more may open this coming week.
KING: It makes us wonder what is going to happen in Florida, whether these plans will continue. But as Steve pointed out, cases are going up not just in Florida.
AUBREY: That's right. We're seeing coronavirus cases and deaths increasing in many states around the country. Now, remember, the recent surge in cases in many states has been led by younger people, who are, of course, much less likely to die from the virus. But what we are seeing now is what many experts, including former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, anticipated. Eventually, it spreads into the wider community.
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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Inevitably, what happens is if the younger people go out and get infected because they're not taking those precautions, it's going to get back into a more vulnerable population. And that's what we're seeing right now. You're seeing rising cases in nursing homes. So tragically, we're going to see deaths start to rise. And that's why I said two to three weeks until you see deaths get back above 1,000.
AUBREY: Meaning, about a thousand deaths a day. So it is critical that states continue to test and isolate infected people and for everyone to do their part.
KING: How are states doing with testing?
AUBREY: Well, I mean, we're back to delays. In addition to people with symptoms getting tested for the virus, there's more widespread testing. People getting elective procedures are getting tested. Back-to-work protocol people are getting tested, testing in nursing homes. Now, small labs are working around the clock. But the demand is really adding up. I mean, people are waiting, at times, five to six days or up to a week to get a commercial test result back. A Trump administration official acknowledged this over the weekend. Here's Brett Giroir of the coronavirus task force on NBC.
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BRETT GIROIR: We need to decrease the time to turn around those results. The big surge is because we're testing everyone in nursing homes. That's a really, really good thing. But that's millions of tests per month to protect our elderly. And we're going to fix that problem.
AUBREY: He says, we're going to hear more from the administration soon on this.
KING: And now some states are saying that people have to wear masks, right?
AUBREY: That's right. More than 20 states have some kind of mandate. Louisiana and Kentucky are two recent examples. A notable exception is Florida. Though, many areas of the state do have masking rules in place. It's estimated that if more Americans wore face masks, we could save thousands of deaths. But we know there's still some resistance. And enforcement can be an issue, too. In some states with mask orders, such as West Virginia, there's no formal enforcement directive included in the order.
KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.
AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.
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KING: OK. So one big still unanswered question - why is COVID-19 hitting people of color harder in this country?
INSKEEP: Employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a theory. More than 1,000 of them have signed a letter saying it comes down to structural racism, including within the agency itself.
KING: We have exclusive reporting from NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hi, Selena.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So what is in this letter that more than 1,000 CDC employees signed?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The letter talks about the disproportionate impact of COVID on people of color, that CDC should declare racism as a root cause of those disparities. And then it says, yet CDC must clean its own house first. It goes on and says, we can, quote, "no longer stay silent to the widespread acts of racism and discrimination within CDC that are, in fact, undermining the agency's core mission." And then it outlines seven remedies, from disrupting the old boys club that promotes mostly white employees to increasing Black representation in senior leadership and more. And we've published the full seven-page letter at npr.org.
KING: This seems extraordinary given that we are talking about people who currently work at the CDC. Who are the thousand-plus people who signed to this?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's right. I talked to Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who was a medical officer at CDC for 14 years. And she's still in touch with current employees. And she told me 1,007 employees had signed as of Sunday. The agency has an 11,000-person workforce. So that works out to be 9% of the whole agency that has signed onto this so far. And the number is still growing.
So Jones said you had to be a current employee to sign. You can only sign once. Any employee could sign, not just people of color. So it's not clear what the racial breakdown of the signatories is. And I should note that these signatures were added after the letter was presented to Agency Director Robert Redfield.
KING: Has the CDC official issued any sort of official response?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So CDC gave NPR a brief statement acknowledging that the letter had been received by Redfield and that he had responded, and that the agency is committed to creating a, quote, "fair, equitable and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns." My understanding is that Redfield did not respond to the specific requests for action in the letter.
KING: I know that you talked to some people who used to work at the CDC about these allegations. What did they tell you?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's right. So no current employees at CDC would speak to me about this even on background. And my sense is that they're really nervous. But I did talk to Jones, who I mentioned earlier. Here's what she said about her initial reaction.
CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: When I saw the letter, it was a feeling of resonance. It was a feeling of resonance. I know that this is no exaggeration.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I also talked with Greg Millett, who was a senior scientist at CDC. And he's now at amfAR, the foundation for AIDS research. The letter resonated with him, too. Although, he personally had a better experience there. And he also says he watched, then and now, CDC unwilling to engage with the reality of racism in public health. And in the coronavirus pandemic, that's a huge problem, he says.
GREG MILLETT: CDC has been MIA on race and COVID-19. That, to me, is shameful.
KING: What do the data say at this point about how this virus is affecting people of color differently?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the data is incomplete. But it looks like Black and Latino people in the U.S. are at least two times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people and at least three times more likely to get sick. And CDC has really seemed to drag its feet on this. Jones says if Black scientists at the CDC aren't being empowered to do substantive work on the disproportionate impact of COVID on their own communities, then it's going to be a huge problem. We're squandering genius, is what she says. And she says CDC should seize this moment to do better, she's just not confident that it will.
KING: Wow. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you so much.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
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KING: Four months ago today, Louisville police officers shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in her apartment.
INSKEEP: Protesters have chanted her name. But nobody's been charged in her death. And now her family is saying there may be more to the story of why the police raid her apartment in the first place.
KING: Amina Elahi of member station WFPL in Louisville, she's been following this story and is with us now. Good morning, Amina.
AMINA ELAHI, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right. So we have covered this story on and off. But there have been developments. It's been four months now. What, at this point, is the official story about what happened to Breonna Taylor?
ELAHI: Breonna Taylor was killed during a middle-of-the-night police raid in her apartment. That raid was linked to a broader narcotics investigation that focused on her ex-boyfriend. But that night, she was at home and asleep when police arrived after midnight with her boyfriend at the time. His name was Kenneth Walker. He heard loud banging and the door being broken down. So he and Taylor woke up and were approaching the door when the officers wearing plain clothes entered their home.
Walker, her current boyfriend, then fired a warning shot, thinking the police were intruders. And that shot struck a sergeant in the leg, after which he and two other officers fired back. And Taylor was hit by multiple bullets and died soon after in her hallway. She wasn't a target of the investigation. And nothing illegal was found in her apartment. In fact, the man police were looking for had already been taken into custody that same night across town. So protesters across the country have called for the officers involved to be fired, arrested and charged.
KING: And has that happened?
ELAHI: Not really. One of the officers, Brett Hankison, was fired last month for his actions in the shooting. Hankison is appealing his firing. But the other two officers are still on paid leave. The attorney general of Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, is reviewing the results of the police department's internal investigation. And there's also a separate FBI investigation into the fatal shooting. But we don't know when either of them will be complete.
KING: And there has been a really interesting development here, which is that the police say they were executing a warrant. But over the past week or so Breonna Taylor's family and their lawyer say that something else was actually going on. What are they alleging?
ELAHI: Well, a lawyer for Taylor's family, who's representing them in a civil suit, alleged in a court filing last week that her killing was a result of aggressive police actions. And they claim it was driven by a plan to gentrify the majority-Black neighborhood where her ex-boyfriend, who was the focus of the drug investigation, where he lived. And that's turned up the heat on the mayor.
So here in Louisville, lawmakers have already been planning to investigate Mayor Greg Fischer's actions and decisions. And that's just increased since these allegations came out. So on Friday, Fischer attended a ribbon cutting for a new apartment complex several blocks away, which protesters quickly shut down. Take a listen.
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GREG FISCHER: When you think about what we're trying to do here in the city and what we're trying to do to the country, there's really nothing more fundamental than people having a stable, affordable home.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fire, fire, gentrifier. Fire, fire, gentrifier. Fire, fire, gentrifier. Fire, fire, gentrifier.
ELAHI: Soon after the protesters began shouting, the mayor walked away from the podium and stopped the news conference. Now, city council members are demanding the administration turn over all documents related to Taylor's killing and the gentrification plan. But since the attorney general of Kentucky and the FBI have asked officials not to release documents while their investigations continue, it's not clear when council members or the public will learn more.
At the same time, on the state level, lawmakers are considering banning no-knock warrants, which were used in the raids that night when Taylor was killed. The city of Louisville did that last month. Some experts say those kinds of warrants can be very dangerous for both civilians and police as evidenced by what happened that night back in March.
KING: Amina Elahi of member station WFPL in Louisville. Thanks, Amina.
ELAHI: Thank you.
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KING: And there's another story we're following this morning. The AP is reporting that China is imposing retaliatory sanctions and banning some U.S. lawmakers from entering China. That's because those lawmakers criticized the Communist Party's policies toward minority groups in China. The lawmakers are U.S. senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Representative Chris Smith and the Trump administration's ambassador for religious freedoms, Sam Brownback. We'll continue covering this story on NPR.
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