Is The Coronavirus Pandemic Getting Better? : The NPR Politics Podcast Six million Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus and more than 185 thousand have died. Cases nationally are trending downward, but the Midwest is seeing a youth-driven surge. And while the number of people seeking unemployment money has continued to tick downward, the absolute numbers of folks out of work remain high when compared to January.

This episode: political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, science correspondent Allison Aubrey, and economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

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The Pandemic Is Slowing Nationally, But Still Severe

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The Pandemic Is Slowing Nationally, But Still Severe

The Pandemic Is Slowing Nationally, But Still Severe

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/909325454/909342769" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DARREN: Hello, NPR POLITICS listeners. I'm Darren (ph) from Sydney, Australia. It's 3 a.m. in the morning, and I'm in my garbage truck collecting food waste from local businesses to take up for composting. There's nothing I enjoy more at this time of the morning than a hot cup of coffee and catching up on U.S. politics with my friends from NPR. This podcast was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

2:06 p.m. on September 3, 2020.

DARREN: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KURTZLEBEN: That is fantastic.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: That's nice. So he's collecting garbage, but he likes listening to us (laughter).

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For composting, no less - I love that.

KURTZLEBEN: Hey, there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And we have a special guest today. We have Allison Aubrey from NPR's science desk.

Hey. Welcome, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: We are overdue for a coronavirus check-in, we realized, which is why we have you here. So let's get started. Let's start with the basics, with the numbers surrounding coronavirus. And...

AUBREY: Sure.

KURTZLEBEN: ...At least at a glance to me, a nonexpert on this, they look pretty grim. What we have is 6 million Americans who have been diagnosed with the disease and 185,000 who have died. So tell us, Allison, what does the trend surrounding those numbers look like?

AUBREY: Well, you know, the big picture is that the number of new cases are declining. I mean, we still have about 40,000 new cases a day. That's the average over the last week - so a lot of people. But that is significantly less than the nearly 60,000 people a day documented back in July, so that's actually good news. Public health experts say it's also encouraging that hospitalizations are declining. Deaths are declining a bit compared to previous weeks. But look; there's still concern about regions where cases have been on the rise. There are spots in the Midwest, for instance, in Kansas, the Dakotas and in Iowa.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And I just came back from Iowa, which is now a hot spot. And I'll add that the mask-wearing was suboptimal there (laughter). But this gets at a big thing, which is just how regional this coronavirus pandemic has been - a hotspot here, a hotspot there. So how should we look at that declining but still high trend you mentioned with regards to that game of whack-a-mole we seem to be playing?

AUBREY: Right, right. There's just great variability depending on where you are in the country. One metric to assess this is the positivity rate. So how many tests are coming back positive in your area, in your state? The lower, the better. New York is now down under 1%, which is very good. Sunbelt states have come down, too. But if you look at South Dakota, there's been a positivity rate close to 22%. And in Iowa, it's at about 18 or 19%. So Iowa had been averaging about 500 cases a day until last week. These totals have been closer to a thousand cases a day in recent days. And experts are pointing to outbreaks on campuses there - so University of Iowa, Iowa State - also to late summer gatherings of young people - so teens and young adults, as we've seen in so many states.

There was this great article in Vox by Emily Mendenhall about Iowa Great Lakes, where everything was open this summer. There were lots of young adults gathered in close quarters, many, as you point out, not wearing masks. So when, you know, you look at these hotspots, you can't ignore the behavior of people. We know how this virus spreads - right? - by close contact with others. If people don't take precautions, the virus will continue circulating widely. And the challenge with young adults, particularly, like, college-aged adults, is that often they just don't feel like the stakes are very high. Right? They know people who got it and were barely symptomatic. So that's a challenge.

KURTZLEBEN: Let's talk about one big part of the White House response. Let's talk about what they're saying about a vaccine and, particularly, Operation Warp Speed, which is the program that is intended to, as the name would suggest, speed along the creation and manufacture of some sort of a COVID-19 vaccine. What do we know about the timeline for that right now?

RASCOE: Well, we know that they are saying that they are moving very fast. The White House was answering questions about this today, but they say they are also looking at safety. They are making preparations in advance. So they're, you know, preparing and buying up potential candidates for vaccines and trying to get the supply chain ready so that whenever they do get the go-ahead on whichever one gets it, that they could send it out or distribute it quickly. Like, that is the idea.

The president is saying that they could have, you know, something by fall, possibly before this election that's coming up. The president has faced a lot of criticism about his handling of the coronavirus. That was a big part of the Democratic National Convention, was saying that they felt like he failed on his handling of this pandemic. And so now you have him making some big promises about the vaccine and how soon it will be here. And they may be hoping that it will help him ahead of the election. And if it doesn't pan out, he doesn't really lose that much because the election will likely be over by the time we find out.

AUBREY: Well, I mean, we know the CDC is now telling states to get ready for distribution as early as mid-October. And this is really, you know, a bit of wishful thinking (laughter), I'd say, in terms of a timeline. It's pretty clear, if you listen to what FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has said over the last week, that a vaccine could possibly get emergency use authorization for some groups of people before all the trials are wrapped up.

So there are currently different vaccines in clinical trial. There are phase three trials, which are large studies where the vaccine is given to thousands of people to test not only its safety but how well it works. Three different ones are in phase three. Hahn has said, look; if a vaccine maker applies for EAU - emergency use authorization - before the end of the phase three testing, it may be appropriate to make a determination early depending on how the data looks. So I mean, I guess the best answer here is stay tuned.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, like you said, we will all be staying tuned, probably on the edge of our seats, to see exactly how that unfolds. Allison, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this.

AUBREY: Oh, thanks for having me. It's been great.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, it's time for a quick break. When we get back, we will talk about the economy and COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: And we're back. And now we're joined by another special guest, Scott Horsley, economics reporter extraordinaire. That's your official title, I think.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Sure. I'll take it. Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We started big-picture with Allison Aubrey talking about health. Let's do the same here talking about the economy. Scott, tell us in a nutshell - how does the economy look now compared to about a month ago?

HORSLEY: It looks a little better. I think the economy continues to sort of slowly recover from the very deep hole that we dug for it back in the springtime. But the recovery seems to also be losing some momentum. We're going to get a jobs snapshot from the Labor Department on Friday, and it's expected to show a slower job growth in August than we had in July. We know that July's job growth was slower than June. So things are improving, but it's not exactly the kind of rocket-ship recovery that the president's been talking about.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. It's maybe a more obtuse angle than that V-shaped recovery that he seems to want, it sounds like.

HORSLEY: Right. I mean, as of last count, there were some 29 million Americans who were collecting unemployment insurance in the middle of August. Let's say we added something over 1 million jobs in August. That means it would take, you know, 29 months at that rate to get back to full employment, and that's painfully slow. Hopefully it won't...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HORSLEY: ...Take that long, but that's kind of where things stand right now.

KURTZLEBEN: Well - so I want to ask you something similar to what we asked Allison just before now, which is - let's talk about this in terms of regional or state and local economies because, yes, we talk about these national jobless figures, but some places are doing far better than others and some far worse, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. I mean, no place has been spared the pain of this downturn, but there's a tremendous variation around the country both in terms of states and in terms of metro areas or counties. I mean, if you're a region that's heavily dependent on tourism, like Las Vegas or parts of Hawaii, you've really been hammered because people just aren't traveling and doing tourism like that in the coronavirus era.

On the other hand, there are communities that are more insulated from this. No one's completely immune from the economic fallout from this pandemic, but there are certainly communities that are doing better. I've been focusing on Owensboro, Ky., which in June actually had an unemployment rate that was lower than it had been back in January before the pandemic.

KURTZLEBEN: Wow.

HORSLEY: Trying to figure out what's kind of happening there. I mean, their unemployment rate right now is 5.4%. That's about half the national average. There are parts of the country where the unemployment rate's even lower than that. So everybody's hurting, but some are definitely hurting worse than others.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, a lot of people lost this governmental support in August. That extra unemployment money expired. How are things doing here in Washington in terms of coming up with a deal for some more aid?

RASCOE: It seems like there hasn't been a lot of movement on that front. There's been a lot of talk about it. I think both sides are, you know, kind of jawboning each other, but at this point, there hasn't been a lot of concrete action. As you said, that extra unemployment money, that $600 a week - that expired. They haven't reached a deal for more. The White House has tried to do some things, but all of those, as we've talked about before, are not necessarily full-blown quick fixes. And they're not - definitely not long-term solutions.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, it's hard to talk about all of this without also thinking about what comes two months from now - Election Day. Let's talk about what Biden and Trump are saying about the economic recovery on the campaign trail. Ayesha, you spend a lot of time at the White House. Let's start with you. What - how do those messages differ?

RASCOE: Well, what Trump is saying is that the economy is doing great. He's calling it a super V shape. He's not saying that it's just a V. It's a super V shape. But as we've talked about, that's not actually being borne out in the data. And his focus is really, people need to get back to work. People who are at risk, stay home. But everybody else, go to school. Go to football games. And let's get - you know, let's just get everything back going.

Joe Biden is taking a different approach. He's saying that we have to get the health - we have to deal with the public health issue first and that we have to get the coronavirus under control, and then that is what will ultimately boost the economy. And so that's what he's saying - of course, from the sidelines because he's not in office right now. But that's the argument he's making.

KURTZLEBEN: And Scott, we've talked a lot about Trump's messaging. Let's talk a little about what we just heard about what Biden is saying. Is that something that economists would agree with?

HORSLEY: I think economists agree that long term, we're not going to have a sustainable economic recovery until we get control of the virus. Now, as Allison was talking about, we're making some progress there. The level of new infections has come down since it peaked in July, although it's still really high compared to most other countries. We should start to see a decline in the death rate. All of that should be good for consumer confidence and make people feel better about going out and spending money or maybe going back to work.

On the other hand, there's a possibility that as more people start to get out there and circulate and shop and work and as kids go to college and are in larger groups, we could have a resurgence of the virus, and that could, you know, pull the plug on whatever modest economic recovery we're seeing. So long term, until we get a handle on this pandemic, we're probably not going to have a sustainable economic recovery.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, let's hope for the best. But we'll leave it there for now. Ayesha, you and I have to go get ready for NPR POLITICS trivia tonight. You've been brushing up, right? We know all the answers.

RASCOE: Well, we are very smart (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Duh (ph).

RASCOE: But yeah, it should be a lot of fun.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, if everybody listening wants to play along, it is happening tonight, Thursday night, at 8 Eastern. You can register at nprpresents.org.

Scott Horsley, thank you as always for chatting with us.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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