VINAY KOTAMARTI: This is Vinay Kotamarti from Dallas, Texas. I have my first day as a practicing physician tomorrow - very nervous, but the NPR podcast has been a welcomed distraction. This podcast was recorded at...
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
2:06 p.m. on July 7.
KOTAMARTI: Things might have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be here providing health care to Dallas.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That is impressive.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you for protecting us. Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.
SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Also here, Allison Aubrey. I am with the NPR science team.
KURTZLEBEN: Allison, as always, it is excellent to have you on the show.
AUBREY: Thanks, guys.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. We're happy to have you back amid some less happy circumstances. We wanted to do a check in with you today because as our listeners may know, we have some big spikes in coronavirus. We are very close to 3 million total cases of COVID-19 in the United States. That is a scary number. More than that, we're now at a new high for new cases in a day, which means the outbreak is spreading more quickly than ever in our country.
Allison, can you put these numbers into perspective for us? Three million, these, you know, tens of thousands - they can just sound like an abstraction to a lot of people.
AUBREY: Sure. I mean, I guess one way to think of it is that, as Anthony Fauci has said, we are knee-deep in the first wave. We never kind of conquered the first wave. Now there's a resurgence in cases, well over 50,000 a day. And every day for the last few weeks, the seven-day rolling average of new cases keeps breaking records. So, I mean, deaths have declined or remained stable as this number of cases have soared. But some health officials fear that the downward trend in deaths, which is sort of a lagging indicator because it takes weeks for people to get sick and then die, could reverse itself. I'd say the picture around the country varies. More than 30 states have reported increased case counts. And there also places doing really well. If you look at the map, a lot of green areas in New England and, of course, the hot spots in Florida, Texas and Arizona.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, and you mentioned deaths there and how that might reverse itself. Right now - I was just looking this morning - the daily death count is quite a bit lower than it used to be. Is it clear why that is happening? Because President Trump, other people are suggesting that it means that the disease might be somehow less deadly now or that we have a better handle on it.
AUBREY: Well, a big piece of this is that there are more infections among younger people now. And younger people don't tend to die from COVID-19, certainly not at the same rates as older people. Also, people may be seeking care earlier. That could be part of it. And, I'd say, there've been some improvements in treatments.
SNELL: Well, you know, from a political perspective, we're hearing, you know, news that people are not dying that much used as a justification that perhaps things are getting better and that this is, you know, regionally somehow different, that people don't necessarily need to shut down economies and return home again. Is that exactly what doctors are saying?
AUBREY: You know what? No. How doctors see this is you don't pit the economy against public health, right? You do the right thing in public health, right? You take the steps you need to take to get infection levels down so we protect the community, you know, the most vulnerable members of community as well.
KURTZLEBEN: You know, Allison, one other refrain that we've heard since the start of this pandemic is that testing is just the big key or one of the big keys to keeping coronavirus under control. How are we doing on testing right now?
AUBREY: You know, we're really back to lengthy delays in getting test results. In the past several days we've seen long lines in places, including Florida, Arizona, Tennessee. Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest commercial testing companies in this space, now says that since the end of June, demand has continued to rise around the nation, particularly in the South, the southwest and these regions that we know are hot spots, and that demand is outpacing capacity. So as a result, the average turnaround time is about four to six days unless it's a priority case. And this can be a problem. I mean, if we don't know whether someone is infected, it's hard to do contact tracing in an effective way, and they may be out there infecting other people.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, so, Kelsey, I want to turn to you because we have these spikes in different states now. With all of this growth, could we see any kind of new action out of Congress, either to control the virus or to boost economic stimulus?
SNELL: Well, the answer is probably at this point. So we're in one of these weird times where Congress, as we've talked about a million times on this podcast - and I feel like I am a broken record in saying this - Congress doesn't like to get things done unless they have a crushing deadline right in front of their faces.
SNELL: And in this case, the crushing deadline is that at the end of the month, the expanded unemployment benefits run out. And that is something that both parties are looking at pretty anxiously. You know, there is some growing agreement, particularly we're hearing from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over in the Senate that there is some appetite for some kind of unemployment benefits to be part of a package that would come together sometime this month. But he says he's not up for extending the $600 in federal assistance that unemployed people are eligible for right now. He says he doesn't want to be paying people a bonus to stay home from work. So that is going to probably be a significant sticking point because Democrats are worried that if people don't have additional unemployment money, if there isn't additional financial help for people that increases in poverty rate or food insecurity could start ticking up. They don't see a reduction in the need.
I will also note that McConnell was back home in Kentucky this week. And he was doing a whole bunch of events around coronavirus where he was talking about masking and other things. And one of the things that he said that really, really stuck out to me is he was talking about economic impact payments, so those direct payments that many people received in the first round of, you know, big stimulus checks. He said that I think the people who have been hit the hardest are people who make about $40,000 a year or less, and he said that many of them work in the hospitality industry.
So you're hearing two things that hit there from McConnell. One, he's throwing out a specific number - $40,000. Mitch McConnell doesn't throw out numbers willy nilly. He's been thinking about this one, and there's a reason why he picked it. And the fact that he mentioned the hospitality industry gives us a little bit of an idea of where Republicans are thinking. So we're just waiting for Congress to come back into town next week.
KURTZLEBEN: I see. So he's trying to - it sounds like he's trying to draw some hard lines around who needs aid and who does not maybe need aid. Is that fair to say?
SNELL: Yeah. And I think that it also is a part of Republicans trying to keep the overall cost of the next round of coronavirus aid to a minimum. We've heard people talking about keeping the number under a trillion dollars, which, remind people, Democrats already - Democrats in the House already passed a $3 trillion bill that they say was probably not enough. So we - (laughter) to be clear, we're not in a space where Republicans and Democrats are on the same page about what this economy and what people need might be.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to leave it there. Allison, thank you, as always, for joining us. We're going to let you get back to your day job. So thank you, as always, for joining us.
AUBREY: All right. Thanks so much for having me, guys.
SNELL: See you.
KURTZLEBEN: And after a quick break we're going to talk about Florida. We're going to talk about the coronavirus spike there and the politics of trying to keep it under control. We'll be right back.
And we're back, still with NPR's Kelsey Snell, but also with NPR's Greg Allen. Hi Greg.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi.
KURTZLEBEN: It's great to have you. You report out of Florida for NPR, which we were just talking about with Allison Aubrey. The state is really hurting right now in terms of coronavirus. It wasn't that long ago, it seems like, that Florida was doing OK. Tell us about what you're seeing down there.
ALLEN: Well, right. Yeah, I'm based in Miami for NPR. And, you know, and for quite some time, Florida did better than what many were predicting. For a long time people were saying Florida is going to be a target because we've got so many older people who live here. It took till mid-June until we got to 100,000 cases. But at that point it really took off. And that was - in the last two weeks, we've doubled that and gotten to 200,000 cases - over 200,000.
KURTZLEBEN: That is enormous.
ALLEN: It's the exponential movement that we've been worried about. And what's even worse, in some ways, is that the positivity number, the percentage of people who take tests and then come in positive, has risen also. Statewide it's 15%. In Miami-Dade County, where I'm based, it's over 20% - 22% I think is the last number I saw. So it means that more people are actually getting infected. It's spreading in the community - continuing to spread in the community. And that's a real problem.
SNELL: Hey, Greg, just to be clear, so what you're saying is that it's not just that there's more testing. It couldn't just be attributed to the fact that more tests are out there. It's that more people, when they get the test, are coming back positive.
ALLEN: I think that is a fact. But it's a fact that's not widely shared by everyone, including some political leaders. Our governor has, for weeks, maintained that it was just because of more testing. Eventually, he did come around to saying that no, there is community spread. And the percentage of the positivity rate is a sign that there's community spread. More lately, he's been kind of getting off that and saying well, you know, we think there was a lot more out there in the beginning and so everyone wasn't even being tested. So he still doesn't want to really embrace the urgency of the problem that many other people are seeing here in Florida.
KURTZLEBEN: So, Greg, is it clear what is driving this big spike down there?
ALLEN: Well, you know, I think the consensus at this point is that it's really behavior, and especially behavior of young people. Florida did - was one of the states to open early. And our numbers were good at that point, and you could justify opening in some ways. And they had strict rules for opening businesses, you know, when they started opening very slowly.
After Memorial Day, though, we saw cases begin to rise. And that was weeks after we began opening, so it's not like they started to rise right away. But then by mid-June, like we were saying, the spike really became intense. And what we're hearing from many people - local officials, medical experts - they really feel it's being driven by young people. Probably the biggest culprit people point to is things like house parties, from graduation parties, Memorial Day parties. And so that's all led Miami-Dade County to start rolling back some of these openings. Then they got a lot of pushback from businesses. They're getting such pushback now from the business community, it's very hard, they're finding, to reclose after you've opened up.
KURTZLEBEN: So, Greg, in terms of this reopening you're talking about and just the general state response to coronavirus - masking, how people talk about it, how scared they are - we've seen this on a national level and in polls, but I'm curious, what have you seen on the ground in terms of how politicized all of that has become, how partisan it has become?
ALLEN: You know, Governor DeSantis has - he does wear a mask now. Sometimes he wears it badly. He's gotten a lot of criticism on social media for not putting a mask on properly. But - although, he does support wearing masks on the local ordinances, he's resisted calls to impose a statewide mask mandate. And, you know, they've even done that in Texas with Governor Abbott, who's at least as conservative as Governor DeSantis is. So people are saying if Texas can do it, why isn't Florida doing it? But DeSantis says, well, this is a big state. We have some rural areas. Every local authority should make their own decision for their own county.
SNELL: I think this is super interesting because there seems to be this split that's happening now with Republicans about masks. You see a lot of other national Republicans, and particularly a lot of Senate Republicans, out there messaging on wearing masks, demonstrating mask usage, talking about it pretty aggressively, saying that it needs to be done and the people need to protect one another. And then you have the president, or you have, you know, the governor in Florida taking a really, really different approach. And I think about it in the context of the RNC, like you just mentioned. Earlier Allison Aubrey was talking about how a lot of these indicators are lagging - right? - that we - people get sick, but then they don't get tested right away and that, you know, these numbers won't roll in in real time. So I wonder how they'll be making decisions about a convention that is now just a little over a month away...
SNELL: ...Because the pitch was that you could have a convention in Jacksonville with no masks - that the president could have the celebration he wanted t have, that he couldn't have in Charlotte. And he could do that in Jacksonville, right?
ALLEN: Right. And I don't see how that's possible here if it's not possible there.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, Greg, we're going to leave it there. But thank you for talking to us, and please stay healthy down there.
ALLEN: Will do. Thank you so much.
KURTZLEBEN: One more thing. We have a whole new way for you to add this podcast to your daily routine. We have launched a workout playlist on Spotify. I've contributed to it already. Kelsey, I know you have.
SNELL: The best part about this is you get to try to figure out which one of us contributed which songs. It's a fun game.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, absolutely.
SNELL: It's also a good workout.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I'm learning that my coworkers have excellent taste. Our favorite workout songs are on there, and the playlist will be updated daily with the latest episode of the podcast. You can find a link to the Spotify playlist in the description of this episode.
I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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