U.S. Coronavirus Cases Hold Steady: Politics Podcsat : The NPR Politics Podcast The United States isn't experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus—because the first wave never ended. While original hotspots of the outbreak, like New York and New Jersey, have seen declines, population centers in the south, including Texas, are seeing record numbers of cases. White House coronavirus task force member Anthony Fauci testified about the pandemic yesterday on Capitol Hill.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, science correspondent Richard Harris, and KUT reporter Asley Lopez.

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U.S. Coronavirus Cases Holding Steady

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U.S. Coronavirus Cases Holding Steady

U.S. Coronavirus Cases Holding Steady

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DAVID: Hey, y'all.

NATHAN: This is Nathan (ph).

IZZY: This is Izzy (ph).

EMMA: This is Emma (ph).

DAVID: And this is David (ph). And I'm spending my quarantine teaching my kids how to play...

NATHAN: Guitar (playing guitar).

IZZY: Mandolin (playing mandolin).

EMMA: And piano (playing piano).

DAVID: ...And steadily grooming them for a future public office.

EMMA: Wait. What?

IZZY: This podcast was recorded at...


(Laughter) 2:07 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24.

NATHAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this...

DAVID: But I'll still be prepping for Emma 2030.

EMMA: Dad, seriously, what are you talking about?

DAVID: On with the show.


KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: They are going to come out of coronavirus with a family band (laughter).

KEITH: You know, we were going to try to do guitar lessons but that lasted about a week. Oh, well. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And we are joined again by Richard Harris of NPR Science team. Hey, Richard.


KEITH: And, Richard, it seems like we're in a moment - right? - like with the coronavirus pandemic. The president continues to push to reopen the country. He's beginning his campaign again. But coronavirus is not gone, not at all. And we're starting to see cases peak again in the U.S. Can you just tell us where we are?

HARRIS: Right. You know, we've been hearing all this talk about a first wave and a second wave. Well, you know, we're still in the first wave. In fact, we're kind of on a mesa right now in terms of cases. It went up and is sort of staying up. There are now about 2.3 million cases reported in the United States, although let's remember the real number could be 10 times higher than that. Deaths stand at more than 121,000, though that's almost certainly an undercount as well. So - and the trends are not looking that great, either. The case numbers are going up. The deaths are not going up right now, but there's a time lag. So there's a lot of nervousness that the death rate will go back up - start going up again.

KEITH: Yeah. It almost seems like we're now back to a point very close to where we were at the peak in terms of the number of new cases per day. They're just, like, in a different place.

HARRIS: That's true. You know, and maybe I should give you a little global context as well. There are 9.3 million cases globally and 478,000 deaths. The U.S. is still at the top of that board, unfortunately. And even though things are getting worse in South America, particularly Brazil and Chile, but let's remember that in Europe and Asia, where things were looking pretty grim for a while, things have gotten actually quite good there. And they seem to be well under control. So I guess you could say this is American exceptionalism but really the wrong kind.

KEITH: So we wanted to go from that big-picture view to focus in on a single state, a state that yesterday had its highest case total yet. That is Texas. So we've brought back Ashley Lopez from member station KUNC in Austin. Hey, Ashley.


KEITH: So we last talked to you on May 6. And at that time, the outbreak hadn't really taken hold in Texas yet. And the governor had decided against having the major restrictions like we've seen in other states. But things seem to have changed now with the caseload there in Texas.

LOPEZ: So I think the last time I talked to y'all, we had about a thousand new cases a day. And yesterday, it was more than 5,000 new cases in a day in Texas, which is just like a huge jump from the last time we spoke.


LOPEZ: Yeah. And, I mean, a lot of it is concentrated in the major cities, obviously. But, you know, here in central Texas, I'm seeing spikes in like the rural counties, too. So it's like, you know, I feel like the - a lot of the states that were going through this before have now - are now seeing, like, cases decrease. But like, Texas, which was kind of chugging along with not that much of an exceptional rate of cases, is now in their position. And so it's been a huge shift here.

KEITH: It was only just about a week ago when President Trump was talking about wanting to have one of his rallies in Texas because Texas was doing such a great job and Governor Abbott had reopened the state so much. Yesterday, Governor Abbott had a press conference, right?

LOPEZ: Yeah. He took the time to acknowledge that there was a spike, and he said it was unacceptable. I think that was, like, the basis for that press conference, which is to urge people to do the things that epidemiologists have been saying, which is like wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance, stay at home if you can. I mean, that was basically the whole message that he was giving. It's like, you guys, things have gotten out of control, and it's up to you to slow the spread. But, I mean, little was offered in terms of concrete statewide policy to do anything about this.

SNELL: So are the mask policies in Texas being done at the local level instead? Are things being enforced like rules to wear a mask when you go into a grocery store?

LOPEZ: Yeah. There is no statewide policy. And I think that's what, like, local leaders in, like, the various major cities here are really up in arms about. You know, and it's been back-and-forth about how much, like, power even local governments have to enforce these policies. At first, you know, the governor made it seem like this was all up to local leaders to decide, like, what, like - best suited their city in terms of, like, what would curb the spread. And then, you know, once businesses started complaining because in some of these bigger cities they did take, you know, some more drastic policies in terms of requiring face masks, you know, then the governor took away that power. And now that there's another spike, like, now they can go back to, you know, penalizing businesses for not enforcing mask policies. So it's kind of where we are right now, where it's like city by city.

KEITH: So actually, I feel like what you are saying - if we just changed the words, we could be talking about what's happening on the national level, if it were states instead of cities. You know, like, the federal government does have guidelines, but the states aren't necessarily following them anymore, right, Richard?

HARRIS: Right. And things get better and things get worse. I mean, look. Let's look at New York state, which was, of course, the site of the worst outbreak. They've finally gotten things under control. Things are so much better there than in Arizona or Texas or some of these other states now that - Governor Andrew Cuomo is now telling people, if you're going to come here, if you must come here from a high prevalence state, we're asking you to quarantine yourself for 14 days. So people are not necessarily paying that much attention. And the situation changes. It gets better. It gets worse. And that's a tough situation for even - for the best messengers to make consistent messages.

KEITH: All right. Well, Ashley, thank you so much for your reporting.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you.

KEITH: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, testified before Congress and had a warning.


KEITH: And we're back. And yesterday we heard from a man who has not been on TV as much recently as he had been before, but he's back. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Coronavirus Task Force, National Institutes of Health, leading infectious disease expert for the United States was testifying on Capitol Hill. Richard, what did he have to say?

HARRIS: Well, because I think he's been sort of muzzled a little bit, he was eager to have a chance to get out the public health message that Ashley was talking about a few minutes ago, things like, you know, reminding people how important it is to wear masks and to have social distancing. And over the course of the hearing, we also did get a few flashes of drama. And for me, one of the most memorable moments was when Republican Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia tried to get Dr. Fauci to defend President Trump's actions.


DAVID MCKINLEY: As late as March 31, there was no consensus on wearing masks. And the president, as you know, relies on your expertise. Do you now regret not advising people more forcefully to wear masks earlier?

ANTHONY FAUCI: OK. We're going to play that. Let me explain to you what happened back then.

MCKINLEY: Should be a yes or no.

FAUCI: No, there's more than a yes or no by the tone of your question.

HARRIS: Yeah. In fact, he went on to explain that, back in March, public health officials were worried about the extreme shortage of masks for health care workers, who clearly need them the most. So they decided not to recommend it for the general public. It's also true that the evidence has been building since then that even a homemade mask can block particles that could contain the coronavirus. So they are apparently helping to control the spread of the disease.

SNELL: Well, also, masks have become political in a lot of ways, and so it's more than just whether or not they work or if people believe that they work. It's become a demonstration of politics in some ways.

HARRIS: Absolutely. He talked about that on Morning Edition today and saying that was regrettable. And it's part of the sort of the American spirit of, you know, we're individuals, we do what we want. And he says this is something that requires a collective response, and Americans aren't so good at that.

KEITH: Kelsey, something else that came up in that hearing was about the racial disparities in who has been hit hardest by the pandemic in the U.S.

SNELL: Yeah. Fauci was asked if institutional racism was in some way to blame for the fact that we're seeing higher death rates and basically higher rates of contraction of the coronavirus in the Black community. And he said that the response and the effect on the Black community has been a double whammy. He explained that there are a number of reasons why, that there is - some of it is that there are higher instances of health comorbidities, as he referred to them, so additional health problems that are more prevalent in the Black community. And he said that Black adults are more likely to be essential workers or unable to social distance or have jobs that don't involve sitting in front of a computer, which you can do from home. And it was a very clear statement from Fauci that he does believe that institutional racism is part of the reason why the effects of the coronavirus have been so much more drastic for the Black community.

KEITH: You know, we were talking about this earlier in the pod. But the U.S. response has been really piecemeal, with each state - and in some cases each locality - making a lot of independent decisions, not a lot of top-down guidance or even discussion about coronavirus coming from the White House in the last month or two, other than sort of cheerleading states that reopen. Richard, what did he say about that?

HARRIS: Well, that question did come up again in the hearing. And Fauci basically said there are places where it's appropriate to do that. And the example that came up a couple times was whether it's safe to reopen schools. And they said, you know, that is really situation dependent. But it is true that even though the federal health officials have put out guidance that is not always followed, it doesn't - it's not compulsory. And, of course, what one state does does impact what happens elsewhere. So it's not as though states can just be free to do whatever they want and not have consequences for the nation as a whole. So that's one reason that people have argued that the federal response should have been a lot more stronger and assertive and directive.

SNELL: I am so interested in the fact that we are having a multi-front conversation about federalism right now. We are having that conversation about health crisis. We're having that conversation about policing. There are a lot of questions that people are going to have to grapple with about whether or not they feel comfortable with, you know, of more powerful federal government. And in some ways, that will be on the ballot when people go to vote in November because Democrats have been by and large advocating for a much more powerful role for the federal government.

KEITH: So I think that what the numbers that we've seen, the rising caseload, the spikes in various states, particularly in the Sun Belt in the last week or so has shown us is that this isn't over. Like, coronavirus is not in the rearview mirror. But congressional action has been sort of in the rearview mirror there. There didn't seem like there was a lot of momentum to do something new to extend unemployment benefits or continue to help businesses that are struggling. Is this changing at all, Kelsey?

SNELL: Well, we have heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he views another round of coronavirus aid as a July issue. But we are already seeing that the things on the list of responses that McConnell and the White House would like to address is very different than what Democrats want to address. We don't know if there's agreement about more direct payments. We don't know to what extent Democrats and Republicans will be able to agree on extending unemployment benefits.

The White House has talked about it being a very jobs focused bill, but Democrats are saying that there needs to be additional funding for things like rent support because they anticipate that there could be a rent crisis if people stop getting unemployment benefits and are unable to pay their rent and unable to go back to work. They are also talking about a federal role in paying for child care because they say that the country can't get back to work if families are sitting at home taking care of their kids. So it's - it is not going to necessarily be an easy path to more coronavirus aid.

KEITH: All right. Well, I think we will leave it there for now. But there's a lot more to talk about. And we're going to keep watching it. Thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: Hey, anytime.

KEITH: And every week, we end this show with Can't Let It Go, where we talk about the things from the week we just can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. We want you to let us know what you can't let go of by sending a recording of yourself to nprpolitics@npr.org.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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