Alabama Re-opens, Value of Antibody Tests, Hong Kong Braces For Crackdown : Up First Alabama is reopening despite a shortage of intensive care beds in Montgomery. A surge in demand for antibody tests runs the risk of giving people and employers a false sense of security. As Beijing tightens its grip, Hong Kong reacts.
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Alabama Re-opens, Value of Antibody Tests, Hong Kong Braces For Crackdown

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Alabama Re-opens, Value of Antibody Tests, Hong Kong Braces For Crackdown

Alabama Re-opens, Value of Antibody Tests, Hong Kong Braces For Crackdown

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On Memorial Day weekend...


And in many places, the weather and some coronavirus data look good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But remember...


DEBORAH BIRX: There's a lot of healthy people out there with COVID that look healthy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force with words of caution as parts of the country open up. We'll take you to one place with loosening restrictions but full ICUs.

SIMON: And how do you know if you are one of those people who looked and felt healthy but had the virus? We dive into the science of antibody tests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Also, tension in Hong Kong as China boldly moves to bring it in line.

SIMON: So please stay with us. We'll give you the news you need to start your weekend.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: More states are announcing plans to loosen coronavirus restrictions allowing additional businesses, public recreation areas and schools to open back up.

SIMON: Like Alabama, where some cities are still seeing a significant rise in COVID-19 and an extreme shortage of medical resources.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kyle Gassiott is with Troy Public Radio in Montgomery, Ala., and he joins us now.

Good morning.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Alabama's Republican governor was among the last to issue a stay at home orders and the state has been quick to start reopening, what restrictions are being loosened exactly at the moment?

GASSIOTT: OK. So earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey announced that coming out of a stay at home order retail stores and restaurant dining rooms could open with limited occupancy and gyms, hair salons and Alabama beaches opened, as well. Now, this week, the governor added to that entertainment venues, such as theaters and bowling alleys, schools, daycares and summer camps. And she also said the practice for athletic activities, such as football, could begin immediately. And then on June 15, competitions for those sports could start.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. That's a lot. Why is the governor moving to reopen so quickly?

GASSIOTT: Well, Lulu, Governor Ivey is doing this for economic reasons and basically just the financial health of the state. Some really dire unemployment numbers came out Friday showing nearly 217,000 people have lost their jobs in the last two months with an unemployment rate at nearly 13%. And that's the worst it's been here in three decades. Ivey said that over a billion dollars has been paid in unemployment compensation, and that was motivating her to act.


KAY IVEY: Standing by now while businesses collapse while we've got hundreds of thousands of folks that are hurting and suffering is not an option.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Kyle, Alabama's economy is hurting but the state is also facing some other real challenges in the rate of coronavirus infections and medical capacity, right?

GASSIOTT: Yeah, Lulu, in that same press conference Ivey said the numbers about the rate of infections she and the state health officer were seeing were not good and that there were legitimate concerns about a large number of people needing hospital care and not being able to get it because these places would just be overwhelmed. So you have health experts wanting to slow this down and government leaders pushing this forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And where you are at, Montgomery, the capital, we saw this week that there were alarmingly few ICU beds available. What can you tell us about that?

GASSIOTT: Yes. Montgomery is on a list compiled by the White House of hotspots for the coronavirus, and a day before Ivey's press conference. Mayor Steven Reed held an event where he said that between the four hospitals that serve the city and the surrounding area, there were virtually no empty ICU beds.


STEVEN REED: We're at a very critical point in our health care system's capacity to manage this crisis. The added capacity that is not sustainable. And that puts everyone, our neighbors, our family, our friends, our church members, our colleagues and co-workers in harm's way.

GASSIOTT: And it's important to remember, Lulu, ICU beds aren't just for coronavirus patients, right? People who have had a heart attack or gunshot wounds or car accidents - they need them, too. So there are real challenges in health care here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's a very difficult calculation. Are the authorities there planning to lift more restrictions with that kind of data available to them?

GASSIOTT: Well, the current phase we're in is called Safer At Home. And that's set to expire on July 3. But the governor's reminded everyone she can change that date if necessary. After that, the next phase is called Safer Apart. And while the guidelines for that have not been made public, it sounds like more of the burden falls to residents to keep themselves safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kyle Gassiott of Troy Public Radio in Montgomery, Ala.

Thank you so much.

GASSIOTT: You're welcome, Lulu.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Antibody tests - more and more people are seeking them out to see if they've developed immunity to the coronavirus because that can offer some peace of mind.

SIMON: But possibly also a false sense of security. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now.

Morning, Rob. Thanks for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Morning, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin with a reminder of what antibody testing is and moreover what it isn't.

STEIN: Yes, so antibody tests are blood tests to look for proteins in the blood called antibodies - that the immune system produces to fight off the virus. But it takes some time for the immune system to do that. So antibody tests are not used to try to spot people who just got infected or to figure out if a sick person has COVID-19. That's done with another kind of test that looks for genetic material from the virus in saliva or nose and throat swabs. Antibody tests are used to see if someone was exposed to the virus in the past and might have developed some immunity to the virus.

SIMON: What does some immunity mean if somebody test positive for the antibodies?

STEIN: So, you know, Scott, that's the big question. The short answer is no one knows. It could turn out that the antibodies are protective or maybe just provide some protection, you know, like people with antibodies could still get sick but just not as sick. Or it could turn out that they only protect people for a little while or not at all. It's just unclear right now. And even though the FDA has started cracking down on antibody tests, there's still a lot of questions about the reliability of some of them.

SIMON: If that's the case, what's the point of getting an antibody test?

STEIN: Researchers want to do a lot of antibody testing to try to get a better handle on the epidemic. There's been a big shortage of test to diagnose new infections. And that's left the country kind of flying blind and really knowing where the virus is spreading and how much it's spread. So antibody tests could be really valuable for getting a much better big picture of the epidemic. That said, antibody testing is now increasingly also being used to provide information to individual people to see if they might develop some immunity against the virus even if it's unclear what that means.

SIMON: Do we know who's trying to get these tests and how they're being used right now?

STEIN: Yes. So some employers are requiring employees to get antibody testing to either keep working or to come back to work. Some are using it to figure out how widespread the virus is, you know, on the - like, on their factory floors or in other workplaces and to try to get, you know, a better sense of how they could improve worker safety. And some labor unions are offering the testing to their members to give them some sense of security. And some people are just seeking out antibody test themselves because they're curious if that, you know, nasty illness they had a couple months ago was COVID and whether they might possibly have some immunity now. Just may be let down their guard just a little bit.

SIMON: But given all the uncertainty that you just sketched out about the tests, would that even be a good idea?

STEIN: Yes. So that's the issue. It makes many doctors and public health experts very nervous, you know, that people with antibodies will do risky things, you know, like, stop wearing their masks or start having big parties or go visit their elderly parents or grandparents and that employers may not take adequate steps to protect employees they think have immunity. You know, I've been talking to lots of people about antibody testing, and it's clear that there's a lot of misconceptions about what having antibodies means. Like, having antibodies mean you can't catch the virus again or you can't spread it to someone else. That's still possible.

All that said, some experts say there is a chance that the antibodies could offer some protection. So if someone in the family, for example, has to go to the pharmacy or grocery store or go back to work, maybe the one with antibodies could be the safest bet for that. It's just really important that they know it's no guarantee and they still have to be very careful.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein

Thanks so much for being with us.

STEIN: You're welcome, Scott.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tension in Hong Kong this weekend as China's legislature is poised to pass a law that may change the city forever.

SIMON: NPR's John Ruwitch has been following the reaction to this move by the National People's Congress, and he joins us now.

John, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What is this law and what would it do?

RUWITCH: So technically, it's not a law yet. There's been a motion tabled at the annual session of parliament up in Beijing, the National People's Congress to draft a national security law for Hong Kong. It's vague, but we do know this - it aims to criminalize secession, subversion, terrorism and activities by foreign forces that interfere in Hong Kong. And so all that might sound pretty reasonable in theory, but activists there fear that the law could actually have a sweeping and chilling impact on freedom of speech and rule of law in Hong Kong, which has a very different legal system from the mainland.

SIMON: John, any feeling as to why Beijing has decided to do this now?

RUWITCH: Yeah. When Hong Kong changed hands in 1997 from Great Britain to China, it was promised a high degree of autonomy under this governance model called One Country Two Systems, but it was also required to enact national security laws like this. And that just hasn't happened. The government there has not been able to do it largely because of widespread opposition. So Beijing has taken matters into its own hands.

The timing is interesting. And if you remember, starting last summer, there were large-scale protests that were driven by this sense in Hong Kong that Beijing was encroaching on its affairs already. And those protests have just started to reappear again with coronavirus under control in Hong Kong. And apparently Beijing's just had enough.

SIMON: And since it was submitted at the opening of the National People's Congress on Friday, what's been the reaction among people in Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Well, the Hong Kong government, of course, has come out in full support of it. Carrie Lam, the chief executive, which is basically the governor of Hong Kong, says that this law won't undermine One Country Two Systems, that it's important for Hong Kong security. But obviously, not everybody agrees. Activists, pro-democracy politicians, others I spoke with in Hong Kong have expressed fear, desperation, even anger about what it means for this city. And many are steeling themselves for a protracted fight over this. I spoke with Joshua Wong (ph), who is one of the highest profile political activists in Hong Kong, and here's what he had to say.

JOSHUA WONG: The announcement of National Law just turned Hong Kong to be One Country One System, which is a nightmare for Hong Kong. This announcement just enhance our intention ready for the fight and get out on the street again.

SIMON: He's pretty explicit. Based on your experience and reporting, what are the implications of this in the months ahead for the people of Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: There are so many ways to answer that question. In the short term, I would say more protests are a foregone conclusion in Hong Kong and potentially in other long summer of discontent. I remember last summer and fall there were huge protests, protests that drew as many as a million or more people onto the streets and sometimes devolved into these running battles between, you know, riot police and protesters with tear gas and Molotov cocktails.

You know, even though we don't know a ton about the law yet, we know it's going to get passed. So in the long term, people think that, you know, it will effectively nullify One Country Two Systems, like we heard Joshua Wong say. And it just raises questions about rule of law and the freedoms that set Hong Kong apart from mainland China.

SIMON: NPR's Jon Ruwitch.

Thanks so much for being with us.

RUWITCH: Thank you.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's UP FIRST Saturday, May 23. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. UP FIRST is Monday with news to start your week. And follow us on social media. We're @upfirst on Twitter. Keep an eye on this feed for the occasional special episode.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And for more news, interviews and also all kinds of fun, try us on the radio.

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