Navajo Nation And COVID-19; Origins Of The N95 Mask To speed up the process of developing a coronavirus vaccine, the Trump Administration says the government will invest in manufacturing the top candidates even before one is proven to work.

As parts of the country reopen, different rules apply across state and even city lines, leaving business owners trying to figure things out for themselves, 'All Things Considered' host Ari Shapiro reports.

Demand for goods and services plunged in April according to new data. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith of The Indicator reports on pent-up demand and what that means for the future of the U.S. economy.

The Navajo Nation has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the United States. NPR's Code Switch podcast examines why Native Americans have been so hard hit by the coronavirus. Listen to their episode on race and COVID-19 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and NPR One.

Listen to Throughline's episode about the origins of the N95 mask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and NPR One.

Find and support your local public radio station

Submit a question for "The National Conversation"

Sign up for 'The New Normal' newsletter
NPR logo

The Government's Vaccine Push; Businesses Struggle With Reopening Rules

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Government's Vaccine Push; Businesses Struggle With Reopening Rules

The Government's Vaccine Push; Businesses Struggle With Reopening Rules

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The president says the U.S. has 14 possible vaccines in development. And even before scientists know if one works...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're getting ready.

MCEVERS: ...The government plans to invest directly in manufacturing.


TRUMP: So that when we get the good word that we have the vaccine, we have the formula, we have what we need, we're ready to go, as opposed to taking years to gear up. We're gearing up.

MCEVERS: Meanwhile, new data shows retail sales cratered in April, and more than 36 million people lost work in just the last eight weeks.


NANCY PELOSI: We have a monumental need for our country at this sad time.

MCEVERS: On Friday, Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, approved another massive relief bill. Over in the Senate, though, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the bill as a liberal wish list.


MITCH MCCONNELL: This is a totally unserious effort.

MCEVERS: We don't know when the two sides might agree on more relief. Coming up, why economic demand will not come back overnight, and why the Navajo Nation has more cases of COVID-19 than almost any U.S. state. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Friday, May 15.

The Trump administration finally released long-awaited guidance from the CDC designed to help businesses figure out how to reopen safely. An early draft was leaked to the press weeks ago, and The Associated Press published a copy. It was 63 pages. The new official guidance is six pages, and it comes weeks after some businesses have already reopened.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're going to just go - it's ready.

MCEVERS: One of those is Ed Brownell's pizza business in and around Kansas City.


ED BROWNELL: I'm the CEO of Spin Concepts, Inc. And we operate 15 Spin pizza restaurants.

MCEVERS: He told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro he's had to navigate a bunch of different rules for reopening that change every time you cross a city or county line.


ARI SHAPIRO: Can you give us just one example of that, specifically?

BROWNELL: Kansas City, Miss., stores originally were going to open - I don't remember the date - a couple of weeks ago, and they were going to open at 50% capacity. And then the mayor came out and decided he was going to put his own rule in effect. He came out with what he's called the 10/10/10 rule. Basically, we can only allow 10 people or 10% of our total capacity in the restaurant, and if they're there longer than 10 minutes, we have to log their name and contact information.

SHAPIRO: For contact tracing, in case somebody tests positive.

BROWNELL: Right. And, you know, that's probably the most onerous.

MCEVERS: Of course, a system like that depends on whether or not customers are willing to give their personal information. And on top of all that, businesses also have to look out for their own employees.


LAURA MOORE: Absolutely. Getting supplies that are already on back-order or are already being held for first responders or essential industries.

MCEVERS: In Indiana, salon owner Laura Moore decided to delay opening because she couldn't find enough protective equipment.


MOORE: I mean, it makes it really difficult to protect our team, and that's just not something that we're willing to compromise.

MCEVERS: She's talked to other salon owners who've done the same thing.


SHAPIRO: Was there any point when this community of barber and salon owners were talking about when, as a group, you want to reopen, that you all said to yourselves, we're not epidemiologists, we're not public health experts - this is crazy that we're the ones trying to figure this out for ourselves?

MOORE: I mean, really, from the beginning, we were like, someone give us some direction here. And it's been pretty cloudy. But we're doing our best to navigate that.


MCEVERS: Ari Shapiro and the team at All Things Considered have a full report on reopening and the challenges for businesses around the country. There's a link to that story in our episode notes.


MCEVERS: And of course, even if businesses do reopen, there's no guarantee customers will come back or how fast. Here's Stacey Vanek Smith from NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator.


STACEY VANEK SMITH: Deb Compton could not be happier about reopening her dog grooming business at Pet Supplies Plus in Madison, Wisc.

DEB COMPTON: I am so excited. I'm like, do I still remember how? (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Pet Supplies' grooming services closed down in March, just as their peak season was ramping up. So weeks later, when it was announced that dog groomers were one of the businesses that could reopen in Wisconsin, Deb says customers started calling immediately.

COMPTON: We're slammed right now.

VANEK SMITH: This is what economists call pent-up demand. As the economy opens back up and businesses start taking customers again, businesses will see a surge in orders. And the size of that surge - how much demand comes back - is key. That will tell us how much permanent damage was done to the economy. So some demand is just lost forever. But what about going forward? Will demand come back to the level it was? Economist Jared Bernstein says no way. And there are a few reasons for this. The big one? Unemployment.

JARED BERNSTEIN: Most forecasts have the unemployment rate peaking out something between 15% and 20% - I'd probably be on the upper end of that range - sometime later this year.

VANEK SMITH: Twenty percent unemployment - that is double what the unemployment rate was at the very worst moments of the Great Recession. During the Great Depression, unemployment was at 25%. Deb Compton says she is really worried about this. So Deb is cutting back on her own spending.

COMPTON: I don't want to tap into my savings because you don't know where's your next check coming and when's this opening up.

VANEK SMITH: When people like Deb are worried about the future, it is the wise and rational move to save more money and spend less. It can create an economic situation known as the paradox of thrift. This idea comes from famous economist John Maynard Keynes. The paradox is what is good for one person is not good for the economy as a whole. When people spend less, that is really bad for businesses. And in this case, there's this whole other factor - COVID-19. Jared Bernstein says all of that combined could push many businesses and companies over the edge.

BERNSTEIN: I think demand on the other side of this is going to be a much heavier lift because we just won't have an economy in place that's capable of bouncing back.

VANEK SMITH: When it came to the paradox of thrift, economist John Maynard Keynes said the solution was for the government to step in and spend the money that consumers aren't spending, or get money to people so they will keep spending.


VANEK SMITH: And we have seen the government do both of those things in the last couple months. Economist Jared Bernstein says even with all of that, the damage from COVID-19 could be devastating. And we won't really know how devastating until much later this year.

MCEVERS: NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith.

Looking at a map, you might think the Navajo Nation would not be affected by the pandemic. It spans across three states - Arizona, New Mexico and Utah - and only 170,000 people live there. But that distance between people has not kept them safe. Turns out, the Navajo Nation has one of the highest infection rates in the country, and there are a lot of reasons why - chronic unemployment, many people living without electricity or running water, difficulty getting the right public health warnings to people and money. NPR's Gene Demby and Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch podcast talked about that on a recent episode.


GENE DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, and this is Code Switch.

DEMBY: So, OK, let's back up a little bit. The Indian Health Service was established by the federal government as part of some treaty agreements with hundreds of Native tribes. The IHS is supposed to provide public health care to people who belong to an Indian nation who have membership. But like so many agreements with Indigenous nations and the U.S. federal government, the U.S. federal government did not hold up its end of the deal.

LAUREL MORALES: The federal government spends about $3,000 per person on health care in Indian country while it spends closer to $9,000 on veteran health and $12,000 on Medicare.

DEMBY: That's Laurel Morales. She's a reporter at the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaborative project that covers the Southwest. Laurel is based in Flagstaff, Ariz., near the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest Native tribes in the country. When we talked to Laurel in early May, there were about 2,750 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 88 deaths. Laurel said that's not counting some of the border towns near the reservation, so Navajo Nation by itself accounts for more than half of all the COVID cases in Indian country.

MORALES: Per capita, after New York and New Jersey, the Navajo nation is third in terms of infection rate.

BATES: Which would indicate to me that something is seriously wrong there.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, for one, the size means that for a lot of people, staying at home is just not a feasible option. So here's one example. There are only 13 grocery stores on this reservation. So day-to-day life means being out in the world for hours at a time to get the things you need to get by.

MORALES: I spoke to one woman - a Navajo woman who calls herself the runner in the family. And she's doing it all, you know? When the schools were providing lunches, she was picking up lunches for the kids at school and then a lunch for her mother, who's an elder, from the senior center, and then hauling water, which was a 45-minute drive, and then waiting in line to dump her trash because they, you know, they don't have any trash services running.

DEMBY: Every one of those places is a potential contact point for other people who may be infected.

BATES: And if the reservation is a food desert, that means people are going to be less healthy because of how hard it is to get the right kind of food - you know, healthy food.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. And we know that these underlying conditions from bad nutrition are one of the things that are helping accelerate this virus. There's another thing that is sort of catalyzing this crisis that is particular to Navajo Nation, and it's that, in a region the size of West Virginia, there are about the same number of IHS health care centers as there are groceries. So there are 12 IHS centers on the entire reservation, and most of those are outpatient clinics.

MORALES: And so there are three hospitals on Navajo that have inpatient beds and ICU units. And actually, our staff, you know, 24/7 and work, like, of what you would imagine a typical hospital to work.


DEMBY: So in Navajo Nation, the IHS is overextended, it's under-resourced. And Laurel said the IHS centers are full of really dedicated doctors and nurses who are creative and good at improvising, you know, because they have to be. But they're trying to fight the spread of a contagious virus that is stretching hospitals to the breaking point even in places with things like paved roads and running water. So it behooves us all to pay more attention to what's happening in Indian Country not just right now, but even after coronavirus recedes from the headlines.

MCEVERS: Gene Demby and Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture. That was from their recent episode, Ask Code Switch: The Coronavirus Edition.


MCEVERS: The pandemic has made the N95 mask a household name, and the company that makes it is 3M. The woman who designed it worked there in 1958.


SARA LITTLE TURNBULL: The fundamental question that existed in my life from the time I was this big was, why?

MCEVERS: Her name was Sarah Little Turnbull.


LITTLE TURNBULL: In any explanation that I got, I asked the question, why?


MCEVERS: 3M was trying to develop more products for housewives, so they asked Turnbull to design a bra cup made out of fabric that was non-woven, actually melted together, which was a new technology back then. At the time, Turnbull had some family members who were spending a lot of time in the hospital, and she watched nurses there fiddle with loose woven masks. So she convinced her bosses at 3M that non-woven technology could be used to make something better.


PAULA REES: They started to experiment with trying to do the medical mask, and the bra project seems to have just dissolved.

MCEVERS: Paula Rees, a design researcher and friend of Turnbull's, told NPR's history podcast Throughline that she was always looking for connections that other people couldn't see.


REES: She would look at a pot with boiling bubbles, and it would make her think about a glass process in chemistry that could help create new dishware.

LITTLE TURNBULL: What is glass? What does it do? What are the good features of it? What are the dangerous features of it? What else do you have to know about it? And it's a willingness to face one's own naivete.

MCEVERS: Our colleagues at Throughline have a new episode all about Sarah Little Turnbull and the design history of the medical mask. There's a link to that in our episode notes. For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. This podcast is produced by Gabriela Saldivia, Anne Li and Brent Baughman and edited by Beth Donovan. Thanks for listening. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.