MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This afternoon, in the White House briefing room, a reporter asked President Trump the question that's on the minds of most Americans - when will life go back to normal? This is how the president answered.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I hope very soon. We'll see. This is uncharted territory.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This is unchartered territory. And today, like so many days in the past week, members of the administration who are coordinating the response to the global pandemic try to answer other questions that have persisted since this virus took hold in the U.S.
KELLY: Like, when will there be a treatment?
CHANG: What's being done to prepare for the people who become critically ill?
KELLY: How fast is the disease spreading in the United States?
CHANG: And should the administration have acted sooner? To talk through how the president and his team have been responding, we're joined now by three of our reporters covering the story - NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, science correspondent Richard Harris and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.
Hey to all three of you.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.
CHANG: Hi. So Richard, let's just start with you. The briefing was heavy on science today, in particular about drugs that might be effective in treating people who get sick. Can you just walk us through what we learned?
HARRIS: Yeah. There has been quite a lot of buzz, and quite a few studies are underway involving some potential treatments. One is Chloroquine, which is an old malaria drug that's been used for decades, actually. That's being studied in China, South Korea and France, among other places. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said his agency is giving a quick thumbs-up to a clinical trial of that in the United States. Since it's already approved, doctors have already been free to prescribe it if they want. But so far, there's a lot of hype and hope, but not much evidence behind it.
Drug giant Bayer says it is making millions of doses of its version of this drug available in the U.S. And another experimental drug, Remdesivir, is not approved for any use, but it is already being tested in numerous clinical trials. And FDA commissioner again suggested the company that makes it, Gilead, could make it available to patients using an established mechanism called compassionate use. Again, we don't know if this drug is effective.
CHANG: OK, so some hope there, but we don't know for sure. Dr. Deborah Birx, who is helping coordinate the federal response - she also talked today about who is getting sick. What have we learned about who the virus is mostly affecting now?
HARRIS: Well, we know that the people most likely to end up in the intensive care unit or at the highest risk of dying are people over the age of 65. But Birx keeps reminding younger people how important it is for them to avoid congregating.
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DEBORAH BIRX: The acts of selflessness that I am seeing are so impressive across the board. But if even 10- or 15% of the population decides that what they're doing today is more important than the health and welfare of the rest of the Americans, they can spread the virus in a very strong way because you know the level of contagion.
HARRIS: And younger people are still at some risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday reported that there have been about a hundred hospitalizations among people aged 20 to 44. There are few deaths in that group, but obviously, health officials want to limit hospitalizations so they can focus on the most seriously ill.
CHANG: OK. Franco, let's turn to you now. The president was pushed quite a bit today on what the administration is doing to ramp up medical supplies, support for the hospitals. A lot of time was spent on face masks. What is the administration going to be doing to address all this?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's a big issue. Vice President Pence actually addressed this. He talked about companies like Honeywell and 3M increasing their production of masks. But he also thanked some other industries for donating the masks that they have.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It is encouraging, as we called out yesterday, to see construction companies all across America that are, as we speak, checking their supplies and donating those industrial masks to their local hospitals.
ORDOÑEZ: Later in the day, Vice President Pence also urged governors to place orders for these so-called N95 masks after some changes in law to the liability laws that make it possible for hospitals to use these industrial masks.
I can tell you, though, that some of the governors they spoke to - they spoke to them via teleconference at FEMA - they were very frustrated about not having enough supplies, including masks. The South Dakota governor, for example, said commercial suppliers have been canceling their orders. President Trump, though, responds that his - and his aides keep saying that supplies are there, so we're seeing a disconnect.
Later - I mean, pardon me - earlier during the briefing, Trump also said he had enacted or had the Defense Production Act - Defense Powers Act. And this will help distribution. But he is also saying, quote, "We're not a shipping clerk." And he really wants states to order their own supplies.
CHANG: Another thing I want to ask you - you know, for the second day in a row, the president has escalated his attacks on China. So what do you think is going on there?
ORDOÑEZ: Yes. There's no question at all that he's turning up the temperature on China. It was only January when Trump said China was working very hard and that President Xi was doing a good job - not really now, though. Trump said today, if we had known about it, that this could have been stopped right where it came from. And he very pointedly said, China. And he made those comments while explaining why he's asking Congress for a new trillion-dollar aid package. He said, quote, "the world is paying a big price" for what China did.
CHANG: Well, he's also making the claim that China withheld information about the coronavirus. Richard, is the president right on that front?
HARRIS: No, he's not. He actually said, you know, if we'd only known about this a couple of months ago, we could've been in better shape. But actually, the first known case in Wuhan were diagnosed in mid-December. And on December 31, China alerted the World Health Organization. It was a really fast turnaround.
Chinese scientists rapidly posted the genetic sequence of the virus, which enabled the CDC and other health authorities to make a test for it. And biologists who've been studying the mutations in this new virus say it couldn't have been around for much longer than that. So the Chinese actually were pretty prompt in alerting the world about this.
CHANG: Now, Scott, let's turn to you. This is the one day - or one day where we're not talking about some steep plummet in the financial markets, despite some ominous signals about the job market. We got some unemployment numbers today. What did those numbers show?
HORSLEY: They show that initial claims for unemployment jumped last week by 33%, which is ominous, as you say. But it's just a hint of what we're likely to see in the weeks ahead. Those numbers reflect last week, and that was really before the dramatic moves by the government to try to contain this pandemic - you know, closing bars and restaurants and so many other places where crowds might gather. So we're likely to see more claims going forward.
Even so, the stock market did end the day in positive territory. It bounced around a good bit, but the Dow closed up nearly 200 points, or about 1%. And the government has been taking some steps to try to put some Band-Aids over this gaping economic wound.
CHANG: Well, let's talk about some of those Band-Aids. We got a little more detail today about direct payments that the administration wants to send to people. What can you tell us about those?
HORSLEY: The administration wants to send every adult a thousand dollars, along with $500 for every child. And it's talking about sending a second payment in about six weeks. Senate Republicans have crafted their own bill that calls for a one-time payout of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. Those payments would be reduced, though, for people making more than $75,000 or couples making more than $150,000. The payments would also be reduced for people with little or no income tax liability.
On Fox Business this morning, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described direct payments as a kind of economic life preserver as the government tries to confront the pandemic.
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STEVEN MNUCHIN: This is not going to go on forever. We are going to beat this. And while we're doing that, we understand there are impacts on hardworking Americans. And the president is determined that we are going to support them.
HORSLEY: The administration's also talking about another $500 billion to help businesses over the hump. And while Congress is weighing those ideas, the Federal Reserve is pulling out its emergency powers to try to keep credit flowing and prevent the kind of bank run that would make this situation even worse.
CHANG: OK. Franco, last question to you. You know, we've grown accustomed to hearing from Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIH during these daily briefings. He was noticeably absent today, so much so that where is Dr. Fauci was trending on Twitter. So do you know? Where is Dr. Fauci?
ORDOÑEZ: Yes. This was the second day that Dr. Fauci was not at the briefing. So in times like this, people get very curious and very quickly. The vice president's spokesperson, Katie Miller, did come out, though, and said that Dr. Fauci has several media hits scheduled today, but that he would be back at the briefing tomorrow.
CHANG: OK. That was NPR's Franco Ordoñez, Scott Horsley and Richard Harris. Thanks to all three of you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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