200,000 Americans Are Dead — And It Will Take More Than A Vaccine To Halt Pandemic : The NPR Politics Podcast It is hard to conceptualize 200,000 lives lost. Hundreds more die each day. And a vaccine, with partial efficacy and patchwork adoption, won't be enough to end the pandemic. That would take more testing, contact tracing and social distancing. Also, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was honored in services at the high court.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, science correspondent Allison Aubrey and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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200,000 Americans Are Dead — And It Will Take More Than A Vaccine To Halt Pandemic

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200,000 Americans Are Dead — And It Will Take More Than A Vaccine To Halt Pandemic

200,000 Americans Are Dead — And It Will Take More Than A Vaccine To Halt Pandemic

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EVAN: Hi. I'm Evan (ph).

AIDEN: And I'm Aiden (ph).

AIDEN AND EVAN: And we're from Bel Air, Md.

AIDEN: We just finished up our first week of virtual school.

EVAN: And now we're relaxing by watching one of our favorite shows, "The Simpsons."

AIDEN AND EVAN: This podcast was recorded at...


2:07 p.m. on Wednesday, the 23 of September.

AIDEN AND EVAN: Enjoy the show.


KEITH: Those children are a lot more enthusiastic about virtual school than I am, I can tell you that.


KEITH: Deep breath. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And we are joined by Allison Aubrey of NPR's science team.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Great to be here.

ORDOÑEZ: Woohoo.

KEITH: Yeah. So we have you here on a dark occasion, which is that 200,000 Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus. And it's not over yet. In fact, that number is up to 201,200 as we speak. It's a number so large that it is hard to wrap your head around. It's the population of Tallahassee, Fla., and Montgomery, Ala. So, Allison, early on in this pandemic, it was hitting big population centers. The cases were concentrated. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Now it's spread out in small cities and towns and suburbs and college towns. But still, around 800 Americans are dying every day from COVID.

AUBREY: That's right. You know, early in the pandemic, when it was concentrated specifically in New York City, most Americans did not know anyone who had died or been sick with COVID even. I mean, it just felt like a distant threat to many people. But in recent months, we've seen this distinct shift, right? Cases dispersed all throughout the country, as you mentioned, including many small towns from the Sunbelt, including hotspots in the Midwest now. So it just feels like it's touched all of us.

KEITH: Yeah. And it's even touched your own family, right?

AUBREY: That's right. My father-in-law died from COVID complications earlier this summer. And, you know, like so many families who've dealt with this, the hardest part - we just knew he would have to die alone. He'd been in a long-term care facility, so we could not go to see him. We couldn't hold his hand. We were able to speak to him on the phone. We just received a copy of his death certificate. And when I saw COVID-19 printed there as the cause of death, I thought, wow, you know? Eight months ago, this term did not even exist.

KEITH: Yeah. And now it is the third leading cause of death in America at this moment, this year.

AUBREY: That's right.

KEITH: Franco, we talked about this a bit yesterday on the podcast, but there is this stunning lack of recent government action when it comes to responding to the pandemic.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it does sometimes feel like there is a bit of acceptance with the number of people who have - who are dying and some of the lack of action. I mean, we have talked about the fact that extended unemployment benefits have expired, and we're not seeing more urgency to get that addressed. You know, from the White House, President Trump is clearly looking to turn the page, you know, focusing on the election instead of, you know, those millions of people who have lost their unemployment benefits, who are still out of work. You know, it's not that things aren't being done. There's clearly important work being done on vaccines and therapeutics. There are commissions working on distribution plans for when those things are available. But also, there's kind of, like, the public message and, you know, the imagery and the messaging is clearly that the virus shouldn't stop the country. And, you know, he's still accusing governors of shutting down their states for political reasons instead of public health reasons. And as you noted at the top, this is at a time when we've reached 200,000 deaths, which was just unimaginable a couple months ago. And the deaths are still going up.

KEITH: Yeah. The president keeps talking about - well, you know, it only affects some people. It only affects people that have other conditions or that are old, so, you know, like, it doesn't really affect everybody. Or if you're young, then you'll be fine. And that would seem to be at cross purposes with some of what the public health community is saying, Allison.

AUBREY: Well, absolutely. I mean, it is true that, you know, the older you are and the more chronic conditions you have, the higher at risk you are. But many, many Americans have these comorbidities. I mean, obesity is one of the risk factors linked to more serious illness. We have a country where, you know, more than a third of the country is obese. So a lot of people are at high risk here. And there are also instances of people having, you know, very serious illness that don't have any of these comorbidities. So there's an unpredictability to this virus. And clearly what we've learned with 200,000 deaths is that it's very severe.

KEITH: President Trump has been very focused on the development of a vaccine and promising a quick timeline on that, and we'll get to that. But, you know, I think that the science has come a long way since the very early days of the pandemic. Scientists have learned a lot. There are some drugs to treat the coronavirus. I mean, there's nothing to cure it. But there - it's different now than...


KEITH: ...It was six months ago, I guess.

AUBREY: Absolutely. Physicians have more tools in the toolkit. There's evidence that the steroid Dexamethasone is helpful. The antiviral remdesivir is beneficial, is now used. More treatments are being investigated. So some hospitals are reporting a lower death rate. There's not great data on this yet, but, yes, there's evidence that these treatments do help. None, as you say, is a magic bullet, but doctors know a lot more than they did six months ago.

KEITH: So let's talk about vaccines just very quickly. President Trump is really - is, like, holding up the idea that there will be a vaccine ready to go, potentially even before a very special day - Election Day - and that by early next year, everybody will be able to get it. I think that is not exactly in line with reality. But on the other hand, does that solve everything? Is that emphasizing maybe not the best way to return to our lives?

AUBREY: You know, I mean, a vaccine is going to be really important. But because it's not going to eradicate the virus overnight, we're going to need a lot - to do the things that we have been doing. We're going to have to keep doing them, right? - the social distancing and the masking and looking for better treatments. And this is true because it's going to take months and months and months to get everybody vaccinated. There's also a lot of distrust about whether a vaccine will work. I mean, part of what has happened - as the president has been saying we're ready to go or everybody will be vaccinated by X date - is that people are, polls show, not too trusting of that. And if you don't have people who are trusting, then that's going to be really, really hard to have a vaccination campaign. It is so important that everyone get vaccinated, especially because if the vaccine is only, say, 50% efficacious, if you inoculate 100 people, only 50 people are going to get that full protection. So this is going to be a numbers game.

KEITH: All right. Well, Allison, thank you for dropping by the pod.

AUBREY: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

KEITH: And we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about services for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the high court.

And we're back with national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.


KEITH: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's casket arrived at the Supreme Court this morning ahead of a private ceremony in the Great Hall attended by her family, close friends and members of the court. What should we know about the services today, Carrie?

JOHNSON: You know, even before the service started, it was such a startling thing to witness - about a hundred of her former law clerks were lined up on the steps of the court, welcoming her to the court for what will be the last time. It was very moving. And then we had some remarks by a rabbi - Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt - who talked about how Ruth Ginsburg was born into a world that doesn't see you, that doesn't give you an opportunity or a clear path to an education. She pointed out that Justice Ginsburg had the ability to imagine a new world and make it real in her lifetime, which is very extraordinary.


LAUREN HOLTZBLATT: To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity or a clear path for education and despite this, to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different - that is the job of a prophet.

ORDOÑEZ: Carrie, can you tell us what Chief Justice John Roberts said?

JOHNSON: You know, this was a remarkable blend of the personal and the professional. John Roberts started by thanking and acknowledging Justice Ginsburg's children and her family members who were there. And he pointed out that she grew up wanting to be an opera virtuoso. But she came up rock star instead, and her stage actually was the Supreme Court itself.


JOHN ROBERTS: It has been said that Ruth wanted to be an opera virtuoso but became a rock star instead. But she chose the law. Subjected to discrimination in law school and the job market because she was a woman, Ruth would grow to become the leading advocate fighting such discrimination in court. She was not an opera star, but she found her stage right behind me in our courtroom. There, she won famous victories that helped move our nation closer to equal justice under law to the extent that women are now a majority in law schools not simply a handful.

JOHNSON: He closed by saying that Justice Ginsburg really fought very hard in many illnesses she had during her later tenure on the bench and that the strength of her fight and her force as a person really delivered an important message to other members of the court and the court family who had been ill themselves.

KEITH: So, Franco, although a lot of the attention at the White House for the last several days has been about who will replace Ginsburg, President Trump is actually planning to pay his respects, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. The president will visit the Supreme Court tomorrow to pay his respects. That's according to the White House. We don't know all the details yet. But, you know, the president has largely sought to be respectful of Ginsburg since her death despite, you know, some earlier clashes between the two. You know, he ordered the flags lowered and didn't address her death in a rally that was going on at the time of her death. You know, all that said, though, he did dismiss her, you know, reported dying request that she be replaced by the person who won the election in November. And as you noted, you know, he's clearly moving quickly ahead on that front.

KEITH: Carrie, you're reporting that the president has met with potential candidates.

JOHNSON: Yeah. He's met with Amy Coney Barrett, who's considered by some to be the favorite to get this job. She's currently in appeals court on the 7th Circuit, a former law professor, former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and someone who has a history of writings - with taking a kind of a dim view of abortion rights, writing that life begins at conception. She certainly seems to be the frontrunner at this point. We think that Trump is also going to meet with Barbara Lagoa, a Florida Cuban American who could help energize Latino voters in the race to come. And finally, I've been hearing that the president may also try to meet with Allison Jones Rushing, a very young judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals - only 38 years old, but someone who has amassed quite a pedigree clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas.

KEITH: Yeah, so what we know now is that the president will make the announcement at 5 o'clock on Saturday. All right. Well, that is it for now. We will be back in your feeds tomorrow.

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

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

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


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