News Brief: A Roundup Of The Latest Coronavirus Stories President Trump signs emergency aid package. Two members of Congress test positive for COVID-19. Sen. Richard Burr's coronavirus comments raise eyebrows. And, Trump takes action at U.S. borders.
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News Brief: A Roundup Of The Latest Coronavirus Stories

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News Brief: A Roundup Of The Latest Coronavirus Stories

News Brief: A Roundup Of The Latest Coronavirus Stories

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hopefully, at this point, most of us are trying to heed the advice from public health officials. Stay home, and if you can't, stay 6 feet away from the next person. But even so, some transmission of COVID-19 is inevitable.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. And now two House members are the first lawmakers to announce that they have tested positive for the coronavirus. They say they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. We're talking about Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and Utah Democrat Ben McAdams. Both congressmen have been on the House floor in recent days, including on Saturday, when Congress was voting for an emergency aid bill. We should say President Trump has since signed that bill into law.

MARTIN: We've got NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis with us. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we're going to get to the emergency bill in a minute. But first, let's acknowledge that it's pretty likely everyone has or will be touched by this pandemic at some point, including members of Congress. What can you tell us about the situation for these two lawmakers who tested positive?

DAVIS: Well, they both disclosed their diagnosis last night. And they said that they started to become symptomatic on Saturday night, the evening after they took that vote. Mario Diaz-Balart said he never left D.C. He started to feel symptoms. And so he stayed in his apartment here because he said his wife has a preexisting condition. And he was mindful that he didn't want to go home and travel with it.

McAdams is back in Utah. He gave an interview to his local paper. He told them that he felt pretty sick, that he was having coughing and it felt like a, quote, "belt tightening around his chest." Neither said they know how they contracted it. But I don't think these diagnosis (ph) come as a surprise, I think, considering especially the close quarters of Capitol Hill. People were bracing as a matter of when and not if members would start to be diagnosed.

MARTIN: Right. So we mentioned that they were on the House floor to vote recently. So, presumably, they were in close contact with hundreds of people. Are there efforts now underway to trace everyone else who might have been affected as a result?

DAVIS: Yes. McAdams said in his own disclosure he could recount 12 members that he had had direct contact with. Capitol Hill has an attending physician, someone who works directly with lawmakers. They put out a statement last night saying they're working with both of them to, essentially, retrace their steps, figure out who they would have been in contact with. Already there have been five additional lawmakers who have disclosed not that they are symptomatic, but that they had contact with one or the other of those members. And they've announced self-quarantining until March 27.

This includes two members of the Republican leadership team, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and their chief deputy whip, Drew Ferguson, who's a Republican from Missouri. The question that we have now - right? - is, will the House reconvene and when? They are scheduled to come back into session next week. We don't have answers yet as to whether that will be postponed or if they will essentially call the House back into session next week.

MARTIN: All right. So let's talk about this emergency aid bill. President Trump has signed it. What does it include?

DAVIS: The three major things in this wave is it includes mandates for free testing for people. It expands unemployment insurance benefits and a new paid sick leave guarantee that should help out millions of workers. Reminder, this is the second bill. Congress already approved about an initial wave of 9 billion. They're already working on a third wave estimated to be about a trillion dollars that should be coming soon that will be made up of small business loans and probably direct payments to American workers.

MARTIN: How fast, Sue, will Americans feel the impact of these...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Stimuli?

DAVIS: That's a good question. Lawmakers I talked to say weeks, not months. Part of it is they need to put in these sort of new infrastructures in place to get these systems out. But the Senate is saying they are not going out of session until they pass this next wave because they know that people need help, essentially, right away.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Susan Davis. We appreciate it. Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: All right. So we heard several Republicans and the president himself actually downplaying the coronavirus for weeks. But one senator actually issued an early warning that the coronavirus could disrupt everything.

GREENE: Yes. That senator is Republican Richard Burr. He's the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And we know about his warning because NPR's Tim Mak got his hands on a secret recording of Burr talking with business and civic leaders last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BURR: There's one thing that I can tell you about this, it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.

GREENE: So as you can hear, this was a more urgent warning than most Americans were hearing at that time. The Republican senators' comments are raising questions about why an audience at a private luncheon on Capitol Hill would be getting a more frank assessment of this situation than the general public.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Tim Mak with us now. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: Where'd the tape come from? And who was he talking to?

MAK: So he was talking at a luncheon organized by the Tar Heel Circle. And that is an organization that consists of businesses and organizations from North Carolina. And that's the state that Senator Burr represents.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MAK: Now, membership in the Tar Heel Circle can cost between 500 and $10,000. Burr was talking candidly about his assessment about how bad the coronavirus might become in the United States. And the tape comes from an attendee who became alarmed about Burr's dire warnings, so began to record.

MARTIN: So what else did Senator Burr have to say to that group?

MAK: Well, Burr warned well in advance that the coronavirus could be very disruptive. Thirteen days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe, and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers to the U.S., Burr warned those in the room to reconsider.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURR: Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential, or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?

MAK: And 16 days before North Carolina closed its schools due to the threat of coronavirus, Burr warned it could happen. And it's only now, three weeks later, that the public is learning in earnest about how the military might be mobilized to combat this threat. But Senator Burr invoked this prospect when talking about how the country might have to surge its medical capacity.

MARTIN: But, I mean, was he saying the same thing publicly? Or is this dramatically different?

MAK: Well, nowhere in press statements or other remarks did Senator Burr provide warnings about how bad he worried the coronavirus crisis would become. And I think what's interesting about this story is that Burr was providing a stark assessment about coronavirus to a small audience of constituents, which, as an elected official, he never told the general public about.

The story raises questions about whether Senator Burr was truly frank with the public about how bad the coming might - the coming weeks might be. And that same day, here's what the president said about the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear. And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens.

MARTIN: So you reached Senator Burr's office yesterday for comment, I understand. What'd they say?

MAK: Well, Senator Burr's spokesperson stressed that the Senate had - the senator has been a longtime advocate of public health preparedness, and that he's long worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront this - confront the spread of this crisis. Burr's spokesperson also said that every American should take the threat very seriously.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The Trump administration wants to keep as few people as possible from crossing its land borders to the north and the south.

GREENE: Right. And the administration says this is to control the spread of the coronavirus. But these measures also greatly reduce immigration into the United States. And as NPR's John Burnett has found, the government has already slowed the processing of immigrants here.

MARTIN: John joins us now on the line from Austin. Hey, John. Thanks for being here.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's take a look first at our northern border with Canada. What's going on there right now?

BURNETT: Well, President Trump said yesterday that by mutual consent, the U.S. and Canada will halt all nonessential traffic. Details are still scarce as to how this will be defined and enforced. But both governments are recommending their citizens return home as soon as possible. Here's the president at that midday press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: It's not affecting trade, so things like that. But just leisurely - let's go to a restaurant and have dinner, which a lot of people do. They come both ways. They go in both directions. That kind of thing we have ended on a temporary basis.

BURNETT: And it's important for both countries that it doesn't affect trade. The U.S. and Canada have one of the largest trading relationships in the world. Two billion dollars a day in goods and services cross the border. And still, there are health concerns on both sides of the border. Canada has fewer than 700 coronavirus cases. The U.S. now has more than 8,700. And, you know, British Columbia shares a border with Washington state, which has had...

MARTIN: Right.

BURNETT: ...One of the biggest outbreaks of COVID cases.

MARTIN: Right. All right. So that's Canada. What about looking to the south? What about the border with Mexico?

BURNETT: Right. Well, keep in mind, our neighbors are more afraid of us than we are of them. Mexico has around a hundred reported cases, far less than the U.S. Trump told reporters he does not foresee closing the southern border as he has the northern border. But he said he would invoke powers very soon that could ban asylum-seekers to keep out communicable diseases. Immigrant advocates are already promising a legal challenge, saying the White House is exploiting this pandemic to push its anti-immigrant agenda.

MARTIN: So what about asylum-seekers who are stuck in Mexico waiting for their cases to be resolved? How might this affect them?

BURNETT: Well, you know, there are some 25,000 migrants seeking asylum who are staying in these dangerous Mexican border cities. The worst is probably the sprawling refugee camp in Matamoros just across the international bridge from Brownsville, Texas. One of them is Yamalee (ph). She's a young mother from Honduras with three kids. And she asked us not to use her last name. She was interviewed inside of her tent.

YAMALEE: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: She says they're in a precarious living condition and feel very vulnerable to the pandemic. They're all living cheek-by-jowl in this park together. They line up in the chow line twice a day. Their tents are all jammed together. So 6-foot social distancing recommended by public health experts for them is a fantasy.

MARTIN: Right. That's not realistic. More broadly, John, how is the coronavirus affecting the overall immigration system?

BURNETT: Well, wow. I mean, coronavirus isn't just affecting the borders. It's slowing everything down. Lots of immigration courts and immigration offices have locked their doors. We got an email last night from ICE that said they're only going to arrest criminal immigrants. And they're changing their rules, too.

MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett reporting for us this morning. John, we appreciate it. Thank you.

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