Apple, Google On Contact Tracing; Should Kids Return To School? Career government scientist-turned-whistleblower Rick Bright testified before Congress Thursday that without a stronger federal response to the coronavirus, 2020 could be the "darkest winter in modern history."

Schools might not open everywhere in the fall, but some experts say keeping kids home is a health risk, too.

Apple and Google want to develop technology to track the spread of COVID-19 while protecting individuals' privacy, while some states like North Dakota are developing their own apps.

Plus, tips on social distancing from someone who's been doing it for 50 years: Billy Barr's movie recommendations spreadsheet.

Listen to the NPR Politics Podcast's recap of today's hearing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and NPR One.

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Whistleblower: U.S. Lost Valuable Time, Warns Of 'Darkest Winter In Modern History'

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Whistleblower: U.S. Lost Valuable Time, Warns Of 'Darkest Winter In Modern History'

Whistleblower: U.S. Lost Valuable Time, Warns Of 'Darkest Winter In Modern History'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the early days of this pandemic, as, the first few cases of COVID-19 were being diagnosed in the U.S., a career public health official named Rick Bright got an email. It was from the owner of a mask supply company. And I should just say, you are about to hear an expletive, one that we are not going to bleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK BRIGHT: I'll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our mask supply, our N95 respirator supply was completely decimated. And he said we're in deep s***, the world is, and we need to act.

MCEVERS: Bright says he relayed those concerns up the chain of command and got no response.

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BRIGHT: From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis.

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MCEVERS: Coming up, more from whistleblower Rick Bright's congressional testimony and why he says the U.S. could have been more prepared for the coronavirus...

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BRIGHT: Some scientists raised early warning signals that were overlooked, and pages from our pandemic playbook were ignored by some in leadership.

MCEVERS: ...His warning about next winter and a vaccine timeline and, later, the unintended costs of keeping kids home from school. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Thursday, May 14.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNA ESHOO: The subcommittee on health will now come to order.

MCEVERS: In his old job, Rick Bright was the head of a federal agency called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA. It supports development and procurement of vaccines and helps the government plan for things like a pandemic.

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BRIGHT: I believe we could have done better.

MCEVERS: Bright doesn't run that agency anymore.

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BRIGHT: I believe there are critical steps that we did not take in time.

MCEVERS: He told a congressional subcommittee today that he was demoted, pushed out of his old job, after he raised concerns early this year that the federal government didn't have enough personal protective equipment for health care workers...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIGHT: And those urges, those alarms were not responded to with action.

MCEVERS: ...And that the government wasn't acquiring or distributing enough of a then-promising drug called remdesivir.

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BRIGHT: There was no action taken on the urgency to come up with a plan for acquisition of limited doses of remdesivir.

MCEVERS: Bright says he was sidelined from the process.

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BRIGHT: I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion, and I was removed from those meetings.

MCEVERS: And eventually, he was pushed out, after he resisted an effort by other Trump administration officials to fast-track the distribution of an unproven drug with potentially dangerous side effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIGHT: That, I believe, was the straw that broke the camel's back and that escalated my removal.

MCEVERS: That drug was hydroxychloroquine, a drug the president and his allies promoted a lot in the early weeks of the pandemic. A federal agency recommended against its widespread use in late April. It's not clear if President Trump himself ordered Bright's removal or knew about it. The administration did refuse to make any witnesses available to the House subcommittee, saying it was too partisan. And before he left for a trip to Pennsylvania on Thursday, Trump was asked about Bright.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I never met him. I don't want to meet him. But I watched him, and he looks like an angry, disgruntled employee.

MCEVERS: And one of the most striking parts of Rick Bright's testimony wasn't about what's already happened; it was about what could happen later this year and next.

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BRIGHT: Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.

MCEVERS: The virus could overwhelm our health care system, he said, if a second wave hits during peak flu season. And while the lack of a coordinated national strategy has made testing a big issue, imagine the same problem, he said, with a vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIGHT: If you can imagine this scenario this fall or winter or maybe even early next spring, when vaccine becomes available, there's no one company that can produce enough for our country or for the world. There's going to be limited supplies. We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that we can not only fill that vaccine, make it, distribute it, but administer it in a fair and equitable plan.

FRANK PALLONE: And that's not the case at this point?

BRIGHT: We don't have that yet, and it is a significant concern.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Our colleagues at the NPR Politics Podcast have more from Rick Bright's testimony in their latest episode. There's a link to that in our episode notes.

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MCEVERS: A lot of us could soon be using our smartphones to help keep the coronavirus from spreading. Public health agencies are hoping apps will be able to help with contact tracing. But how much personal information should our phones share to keep us safe? That debate is playing out right now in North Dakota. Here's NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

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SHANNON BOND: More than 30,000 people in North Dakota have downloaded a new app called Care19. If you let it, the app tracks your location using your phone's GPS signal. Vern Dosch is leading North Dakota's contact tracing efforts. He says the app can identify coronavirus hotspots. That's important as the state reopens for business.

VERN DOSCH: I mean, we want to know if, all of a sudden, contact tracing identifies that we've had a lot of positives at a particular grocery store.

BOND: But Dosch wants the app to do even more, like keep track of who a user has come close to, not just where they've been.

DOSCH: We feel that in order to do our very best to protect the citizens and to do a very good job, a very thorough job of contact tracing, we need to have every tool that we can.

BOND: So Dosch was excited to hear that tech giants Apple and Google are working on a new contact tracing system. A note - Apple and Google are both NPR sponsors. Their system uses Bluetooth to measure proximity between people, and it will work across 3 billion iPhones and Androids around the world. But there's a catch - letting GPS report your every movement to the government, that's really creepy to a lot of people. Apple and Google won't let any government do that if it wants to use their technology.

Daniel Weitzner is a research scientist at MIT. He's also working on Bluetooth contact tracing. He's not working directly with Apple and Google, but he understands why they're taking this stand.

DANIEL WEITZNER: We felt that the right thing to do was to start with the least intrusive approach that had a chance of being effective.

BOND: Lots of governments are closely watching this debate. South Dakota is already using North Dakota's app. European countries are split. Germany and Italy say they'll use the Apple-Google system, while Norway and the U.K. are building their own apps. In North Dakota, Dosch says he doesn't know what to do. One option - follow the tech giants' rules and make a second app.

DOSCH: I mean, I don't know that too many citizens are going to be interested in doing both apps.

BOND: Whatever North Dakota decides, the stakes are high. The scale of this pandemic is much greater than anything public health officials have faced in a century. That's why states are hiring tens of thousands of people to do contact tracing. Traditionally, it's a very intrusive process. Health officials spend hours on the phone with people going over where they've been and who they've seen. Technology could supercharge this. But experts say it's just not clear yet whether any of these apps will actually be useful to contact tracers.

JENNIFER NUZZO: In fact, that might actually now give you a much larger haystack to sort through in order to find your needle.

BOND: Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. She says contact tracing has always fundamentally been about human interaction, where public health workers are asking people to open up about their personal lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NUZZO: It really relies on trust, and it relies on the person being interviewed being willing to divulge that information to a public health official.

BOND: And no matter how much data it collects, no app can play that role.

MCEVERS: NPR's Shannon Bond.

Whether kids go back to school in the fall is a complicated and, like so many things, increasingly political question.

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TRUMP: I think they should open the schools. Absolutely. I think they should. And it's had very little impact on young people.

MCEVERS: President Trump said that on Wednesday in response to Dr. Anthony Fauci's warning about restarting schools this fall.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: We don't know everything about this virus, and we really better be very careful particularly when it comes to children.

MCEVERS: Fauci said there's still a lot to learn about the virus and its spread. And while most kids who become infected get mild versions of COVID-19, a small but growing number do get really sick. Now one of the nation's most prominent pediatricians has weighed in on the unintended emotional toll of keeping schools closed. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports.

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ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Nightmares, anxiety, tantrums, regression, even suicidal thoughts - children across the country have been struggling with the loss of their friends, their teachers and their routines under lockdown. Sarah (ph) lives in Northern California. Recently, she told her 5-year-old daughter Phoebe (ph) that it wasn't safe to take her on an errand to the post office.

SARAH: I told her no. And she's like, why? She's like, I don't care if I die.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Dimitri Christakis is the editor-in-chief of the Pediatrics Journal of the American Medical Association. And he says the serious effects of this crisis on children like 5-year-old Phoebe have been overlooked.

DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: The decision to close schools initially and now to potentially keep them closed isn't, I think, taking the full measure of the impact this is going to have on children, not just the short term but the long term.

KAMENETZ: The problem, Dr. Christakis says, isn't just learning loss, which is expected to fall particularly hard on low-income children with unequal access to distance learning. A study in his journal also documents a downturn in children's mental health under lockdown in China.

CHRISTAKIS: The social-emotional needs of children to connect with other children whether it's for physical activity, unstructured play or structured play, this is immensely important for young children in particular.

KAMENETZ: In his new editorial in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Christakis calls for an interdisciplinary expert panel to make school reopening a priority here in the United States.

CHRISTAKIS: I think we should sort of reason backwards from the expectation that children do start school, that that's an imperative. And then how do we make that happen safely?

KAMENETZ: Safety, of course, is the reason schools closed around the world in the first place. It's still considered very rare for children to become seriously ill from coronavirus. The more commonly discussed risk is children infecting others - their teachers, parents and grandparents. A new paper in Science, co-authored by Maria Litvinova, suggests that children are less likely to catch the disease but because they have so much close contact at school, cancelling in-person classes plays a key role in flattening the curve.

MARIA LITVINOVA: It's very difficult to explain to children that they shouldn't stay with their friends or talk with them or be close to each other.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Christakis is himself an epidemiologist by training, but he says that's exactly why experts from different backgrounds need to be consulted, so that the risks of reopening schools can be properly balanced with the risks of keeping them closed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. If you're feeling the cabin fever these days, Billy Barr has some pro tips.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILLY BARR: Yeah. I mean, this is no change for me. I mean, I come into winter with almost all my food already in.

MCEVERS: Barr is the only full-time resident of Gothic, Colo., an abandoned silver mining town way up in the Rocky Mountains. He's been living in isolation there for the last 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARR: I'm the mayor and the chief of police. I hold elections every year, but I don't tell anybody when they are, so it works out really well.

MCEVERS: Barr told reporter Rae Ellen Bichell with the Mountain West News Bureau that when you're alone for a long time, a good movie can pass the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARR: Oh, yeah. "The Princess Bride" is my pretty much favorite movie. I like Hugh Grant stuff like "Love Actually," "Notting Hill."

MCEVERS: Barr keeps a spreadsheet of his favorites with ratings. Right now, he's got 359 of them. There's a link to that and to reporter Rae Ellen Bichell's story on Billy Barr in our episode notes.

Before we go, every day we talk about the number of people who have died. As of today, it's more than 85,000 people just in the U.S. We want to know who they were and what they meant to you. If you'd like to share a remembrance of someone lost to COVID-19, record a voice memo, and share a memory that makes you smile or an anecdote that sums up who that person was. Tell us a specific story. Try to keep it under four minutes and, of course, please include their name, the date and place where they died and to reach you. You can send that voice memo over to us at the other show I host embedded at npr.org. That address is also in our episode notes. And for more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. I'm Kelly McEvers. And I'll be back with more tomorrow.

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