ALEX: Hi. This is Alex (ph).
MARGARET: And this is Margaret (ph).
ALEX: And we're coming to you from San Francisco.
MARGARET: We got married two weeks ago and were very diligent on our honeymoon to not look at our phones or to read the news.
ALEX: Needless to say, we have a lot of catching up to do.
MARGARET: This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
2:11 p.m. on Monday, March 30.
ALEX: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.
MARGARET: Things have definitely changed in the past two weeks. Alex and I will be enjoying newlywed life sheltered in place at our apartment.
ALEX AND MARGARET: OK. Here's the show.
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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I hope they honeymooned somewhere safe.
DAVIS: They picked a really weird time to stay out of the news.
KEITH: But on the plus side, their wedding wasn't canceled.
DAVIS: Well, that is very true. Congrats to the newlyweds.
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And we're joined today by Richard Harris, who's been covering the coronavirus outbreak with the NPR science team. Hey, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey.
DAVIS: So let's start with looking back. Two weeks ago, President Trump at the White House went into the briefing room and announced an aggressive plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus, telling people to stay home for 15 days and avoid groups of more than 10 people. Last night, on Sunday, the day before the 15th day, Trump again at the White House told the country to stick with that plan until the end of April. Here's what he had to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The peak, the highest point of death rates - remember this - is likely to hit in two weeks. Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all.
DAVIS: Tam, what was behind the president's and the White House calculation to extend the request for Americans to essentially stay at home and shelter in place?
KEITH: The single most important thing behind it is that a lot of Americans will die if this doesn't happen. The number of cases of the disease in the United States is rapidly rising. The death toll is rapidly rising. And they've looked at models that say it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
That two weeks that President Trump talked about where it might peak - that is significant because just days earlier, he was saying that he wanted to have the country reopened, churches full by Easter Sunday, which is about two weeks away. Now he's saying no, no, no, no, don't go to church. Don't gather. We need to keep this locked down for longer.
And part of this is that he really wavered over those 15 days, going from resolute - saying we need to do this; we'll worry about the economy later - to then saying that he was afraid that the cure would be worse than the disease and that more people could die from economic suffering than would die from the coronavirus. It seems clear now that he was persuaded by seeing some really stunning and scary numbers.
DAVIS: And last night, the president talked about how bad the outbreak could get and talked about some pretty dire numbers. This is what he said.
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TRUMP: If we could hold that down, as we're saying, to a hundred thousand - it's a horrible number - maybe even less, but to a hundred thousand so we have between a hundred and 200 thousand - we altogether have done a very good job.
DAVIS: Richard, he's talking about a hundred thousand deaths there. I mean, those are some pretty stark numbers. What does that tell you about how much longer we have to go here?
HARRIS: Right. Well, it depends how we behave how much longer we have to go. The - if people really do lock down effectively for another two weeks, the models - some of the models, at any rate, do say that that's when the disease will peak. But peak is just the beginning of the end, really, or it's - if that, even, because then there's a really long period of time where the disease is still spreading; it's just spreading at a slower rate. This thing sort of has to fizzle out, and that's going to take a long time. But obviously, the longer it takes to get to the peak, the more the total numbers will be in the end, particularly for the big peak.
KEITH: Sue, let me just say that, like, that number - President Trump standing up there in the Rose Garden and saying it would be - we would've done a good job if a hundred thousand Americans die - that is a huge - he has come such a long way from what was just a little bit more than a month ago when he was saying, oh, there are 15 cases now, and pretty soon, we'll be down to zero.
DAVIS: Well, Tam, it also seems like we know it's serious because we know how much the president doesn't want to be doing these things because of those economic concerns. Of course, there's going to be political concerns there, too. But for him to be at this place seems to actually have the effect of sending a very serious message to the country about how serious this is because we know how much he didn't want to do it.
KEITH: Yeah, 'cause he said over and over again last week how much he wanted to reopen, that the country wasn't meant to be shut down. And we saw, as we've talked about on the podcast before, the number of people unemployed in the country just shot up at the highest, fastest rate ever. And you know, it's alarming to watch the economic impact of this, but it is also alarming to watch the public health impact of doing nothing or not doing enough. And Richard can explain this better than I can, but the numbers we see now are a lagging indicator.
HARRIS: Absolutely. Yeah. And - because it takes a while for people between the time they get infected and the time that they actually show up and get their test results, particularly since test results tend to get delayed right now by quite a while. And part of this, I think, is that even if you're just looking at something from the very narrow window of economics and politics, the reality is if you let up now, it's going to get much worse again.
And so you haven't - you can pretend you've declared victory, but the country will know if, you know, you're having thousands of thousands more people dying and hospitals overwhelmed and all the rest of that stuff. So part of this is he doesn't need to choose sides between politics and the economy and health. In fact, they're all completely linked together.
KEITH: And advisers to the president that we were talking to last week were saying, yeah, I mean, you can't fix the economy without fixing the virus. And so President Trump - his political fortunes - and he knows this very well - are completely tied to how he and the rest of the country is able to deal with the coronavirus.
DAVIS: Richard, is the social distancing that we've all been doing for these past 15 days - is it helping? Is it working? And is this plan to ask Americans to continue to stay home - is that - what science is that based on?
HARRIS: It's based on good science. And what's interesting was when they announced the 15-day plan, at about the same time, Tony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health sort of guru on all matters related to coronavirus, said the reality is we probably won't see a bending of the curve in that time. We won't actually see the effects of that in 15 days. So it was a peculiar deadline to have to begin with. I sort of wondered if it was partly just to warm people up to the idea that they're going to have to go home and stay home for a while.
But there is a little glimmer of hope in this. Just today, the Institute for Disease Modeling, which is out in Bellevue, Wash., looked at what was happening with social distancing in King County, which is the Seattle area, which has been doing it for quite a while and doing it quite aggressively. And their new data show that basically, the disease spread is slowing there substantially, as best they can tell - unfortunately not slowing to a rate that it's actually going to burn itself out. But it's heading in that direction, and it has been for the last two or three weeks.
So we have a demonstration that it really does appear that this tough action that Americans are being asked to take really does make a difference. It just takes a long time.
DAVIS: OK. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about the coronavirus outbreak.
And we're back. And what are the places in the country, Richard, that have been hit the hardest, and sort of what are we seeing happening there?
HARRIS: Well, obviously, New York has been just the ground zero here for it, and cases have been growing very rapidly there. There was a glimmer of hope today. The governor - Governor Cuomo today at a press conference said it looks as though the rate there is beginning to slow a little bit.
But it's cropping up elsewhere, and people are really worried about other places, including New Orleans - looks like Detroit is building up some substantial cases. Chicago area is a area of great concern. Some of the early cases, of course, were in Washington state and California. And the disease is still spreading there, but that's - doesn't seem to be growing there as rapidly as it is in other places.
And again, knowing what the count is right now is a lagging indicator. So a week or two from now, I think it's going to look a lot grimmer in places that it sort of looks maybe tolerable right now.
KEITH: Yeah, and I would just add to your list Florida, right?
HARRIS: Right. Yes, that's true.
DAVIS: My question for you, Richard, is because of this sort of patchwork of compliance and the way that we're seeing these cases still escalate, the U.S. is also now become the nation with the highest confirmed numbers of cases of the disease. And I think that comes as surprise, considering that it started in a place like China just that - just has tremendously more people than we do. But is it a sign that maybe we're not doing a great job of containing this outbreak?
HARRIS: Well, that's absolutely true. And unfortunately, what happened was the first case in the U.S. was in - it was in January in the Seattle area. And unfortunately, the United States really squandered the opportunity at that point to really step up and be aggressive about it.
And there was a sense of complacency - that things were not so bad, that there was only one case. It wasn't that big a deal. We would be able to control it and keep an eye on the contacts. And unfortunately, we discovered that that was not at all the case. But we were flying blind because testing was so poor and so unavailable that health officials in Washington state didn't really know what was happening until it was really out of control there.
And we're seeing that sort of replicated across the country. We're a big country. We're an unruly bunch of people, unlike China, where people are being told by the government what to do and when to do it. That's not the way that public health can actually be effective in this country. So those things add up together to make things much, much worse here than they were in China.
KEITH: Though I do wonder if China is being a model of transparency here.
HARRIS: That's a very important question. I don't assume that China is being a model of transparency, but I also think that if the disease were raging out of control there, that big a secret is not something they could keep under wraps. I mean, they may not be reporting honest numbers, but I don't think it's a conflagration there. I think that that would just be impossible for them to pretend otherwise.
DAVIS: I mean, each country has to confront it in their own way. But there's something uniquely American about us because, one, the state system - you know, we have 50 different states confronting it in their own ways - but also just the American nature, right? It's - like you were saying, Richard, about the cultural differences - I mean, telling people they can't leave their homes, individual rights - I mean, there's just this sense of, like, American culture that it's a lot harder for the federal government to tell everyone what to do and then have them comply.
HARRIS: It's also true that - the models suggest that if you don't have at least 75% - but preferably 90% - of people complying, these stay-at-home orders are really not very effective. It's a very imperfect system. If it's - if everyone's doing it, it's great. But unfortunately, if you have a lot of people ignoring it, it's not effective.
DAVIS: OK. So the president has asked all Americans to essentially stay at home as much as they possibly can for another month. But do we have any sense of whether this is the first and last time we're going to have to do this as a country? Are we going to have to do this again and again until we have a vaccine? I mean, what does the science tell us about this, Richard? And what's the White House prepping for, Tam?
HARRIS: Right. Well, I'll start with the science. And I think what it - it depends upon how carefully we sort of let up when we let up as a country. If people are not adequately tested and - then we could get hot spots flaring all over again, and we can be right back at the start. So people like Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, has been thinking about, how do you structure a sort of a gradual relaxation of these rules and so on? And one thing you really need to do is be super sure that you can test everyone to make sure that you're not having disease spread and you're unaware of it. It still means social distancing for a while. It's not - doesn't - it's not a - you know, one day you wake up, and everyone just goes back to normal.
KEITH: Yeah. And in terms of the White House, President Trump, while saying this will be over at the end of April - let's continue this through the end of April - he also is teasing out another date, saying, you know, hopefully we'll be able to get back to some semblance of normal by June. So it - in his rhetoric, he is sort of leaving a buffer in there for an extra month.
And the other thing that I would add is simply that - you know, that the first 15 days to slow the spread was quite a journey, with the president really wavering about whether he was fully committed to it or not. I would expect that the next month is also going to be a journey.
DAVIS: All right. We'll leave it there for today. But you can hear more from Richard and all of our colleagues on the Science Desk in NPR's Coronavirus Daily podcast. Please give it a listen.
Richard, thanks so much.
HARRIS: Pleasure to be here.
DAVIS: And we'll be back tomorrow. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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