News Brief: Next Phase Coronavirus Guidelines, $2 Trillion Rescue Measure

Mar 27, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 8:19 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What would it take for some parts of this country to reopen?

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump has been pushing that question this week. You remember earlier in the week, he talked about people going to church on Easter Sunday. That's April 12. But then he admitted that he doesn't have the data to show that would actually be safe. And then yesterday, he tried again. He wrote a letter to state governors, saying that he wants to create some guidelines that would let some counties in this country go back to normal life.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's going to happen pretty quickly. A lot of progress is made, but we've got to go back to work. We may take sections of our country. We may take large sections of our country that aren't so seriously affected. And we may do it that way. But we've got to start the process pretty soon.

INSKEEP: So he says. And we will talk through the practicalities now, starting with NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would it be so hard to open parts of the country and leave others locked down?

DETROW: Well, if you want to know which counties are safe, you need to know more about who has the virus and who doesn't. And you would need a lot more widespread testing than is available right now. There's more information and more tests than there were before. But it's been notable - in recent days, when the president makes these types of statements, sets goals like Easter, the experts on his task force are very quick to say this needs to be based on data. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's one of the key people on that task force, was pretty blunt about this talking to Noel yesterday.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: To be honest, we don't have all that data now uniformly throughout the country to make those determinations. But that's a major primary goal that we have right now - is to get those data because you have to make informed decisions. And your decisions are informed by the information you have.

DETROW: So this initial 15-day window ends on Monday. And there's been a lot of attention on that. And will the president shift course? But there is no indication that this granular county-level data will be available in the next few days?

INSKEEP: So we're looking pretty far ahead on the timeline, then, at best. And aren't these decisions made by governors anyway?

DETROW: Yeah, the governors have been driving this since the beginning. Earlier in the week, President Trump was praising Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York for taking aggressive steps. And since then, at times, he's gotten back into partisan sniping mode with Governor Cuomo. But as the president has been pushing to loosen restrictions, governors from both parties - notably Larry Hogan in Maryland, a Republican - in states where cases are going up, they're saying more is needed, not less. And in New York in particular, they are expecting that dreaded wave of patients overwhelming hospitals right around the same time that the president is saying we could be in the clear, you know, around Easter.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We've got to remember the president commands enormous attention. Any president does. This president is especially talented at doing so. And what is the effect when the president takes that megaphone and talks of things he would like to do that sound desirable but that just can't happen right now?

DETROW: You are starting to see some signs that this is going the way that nearly every other national issue has in recent years - something that's viewed entirely through partisan lenses - or at least some signs that that's starting to maybe happen. So even as you have a lot of Republican governors facing this crisis, pushing back on what the president is saying and saying more is needed, a lot of his allies are starting to push for this Easter timeline, as well, and express skepticism online and on TV about the severity of coronavirus and repeating what the president has said at times that maybe this isn't as bad as the flu or even car crashes - messaging like that. The direct counter-response is opening up business as usual before it's time could make this a lot worse on the health front and on the economic front.

INSKEEP: So it becomes something people can argue about that divides them. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

KING: This whole discussion about whether some places can go back to normal more quickly than others leads back to a question that we've been asking for months. Where is the information from testing?

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins the discussion now. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's follow up on what Scott just said. Is there enough information to begin selecting a region that's safe, for a county that's safe, even?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, public health experts say it is encouraging, you know, that the administration is talking about coming up with some kind of specific criteria to make these kinds of determinations and that it would be based on hard data. But as Scott suggested, they're pretty much scratching their heads on how we might get enough good, reliable data like that anytime soon. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo from Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I just don't think there is a way right now for us to even know which counties are high-risk and which counties are low-risk to be able to say, here is where people do not have to worry about getting the virus. We just don't have that kind of data.

INSKEEP: Although the administration points out they've done, they say, more than 500,000 coronavirus tests and many more in the pipeline pretty soon.

STEIN: Right. You know, and all this testing will certainly help and may eventually get us there. But remember, this is a big country. So, you know, half a million tests is still just a drop in the bucket in terms of what a huge nation like the U.S. really needs. And giving places a false sense of security could be dangerous. It could be kind of just setting the stage for them to become the next New York. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo again.

NUZZO: Telling places that aren't yet hard-hit, don't worry - you're essentially sort of inviting chaos and stress.

INSKEEP: How did we get to this point of being an undertested country?

STEIN: Well, you know, first, there was the defective tests. Then there weren't enough tests. And now we're running into another problem. We're running short of the stuff we need to do the flood of testing that's finally becoming available. Specifically, I'm talking about three things - you know, the swabs we need to collect the samples from people's noses, special shipping materials we need to keep the samples safe until they get to the labs for testing and the chemicals needed to actually extract and analyze the genetic material from the virus. That's snarling the testing and delaying the results and forcing labs to turn people away. And ironically, the big ramp-up of testing is actually making things worse.

Here's Joanne Bartkus. She heads the state public lab in Minnesota.

JOANNE BARTKUS: Think of chocolate chip cookies. You need flour and sugar and eggs. And we've got enough flour to make, you know, 24 cookies. But the host has just invited 500 people to our party. And now we're going to be short of sugar. And then we get sugar in, and then the eggs are gone.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you got to have all the ingredients. I get that. Let me ask one other thing, though, Rob. You've just told me there's a shortage of testing. And yet in spite of a shortage of testing, the United States is now reporting more cases of coronavirus than any other nation on Earth, including China. What does that mean?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, it's always hard to know how accurate any of these numbers really are - you know, the numbers coming out of China, our numbers. But a lot of public health experts say that with all the testing issues and other problems, the U.S. kind of squandered a window of opportunity to get ahead of the pandemic. And China fought the pandemic very differently than the U.S. has so far. In addition to massive testing, China deployed legions of health workers to track down and isolate every case and quarantine all their contacts. That's something that, you know, underfunded U.S. health departments haven't been able to do, and it's hard to imagine they'll be able to do anytime soon.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks.

STEIN: No problem, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Stein.

Now, the House is set to pass the largest emergency relief package in American history.

KING: Yeah, that's right. Two trillion dollars - roughly $2 trillion will be injected into the U.S. economy. The Treasury Department will use 500 billion of those dollars to help out corporations, which is a lot of money. So who is going to be overseeing it?

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak joins us next. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to note this was a big division in Congress when they were debating the terms of the bill. The president said, I'll do the oversight. Don't worry about that. Democrats said, actually, no, no, no, no. We need somebody independent to do that. So who's going to do it?

MAK: Well, the bill creates what is called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. That's made up of existing inspectors general from various government agencies who will work together to conduct investigations and audits into these programs. The legislation also allocates $20 million for the Government Accountability Office. It includes a special inspector general for pandemic recovery to focus on that $500 billion in Treasury Department funds you just heard about. And finally, there is a congressional oversight commission that will be required to report to Congress every 30 days about the impact of the bill.

Liz Hempowicz works at the Project on Government Oversight. And she praised the frequent reporting requirements in the bill.

LIZ HEMPOWICZ: It does allow you to also do kind of that real-time oversight that's going to be really important in a situation like this where the money is being spent very quickly.

MAK: So they've kind of woven oversight into the heart of this bill to try and reduce the chance of corruption.

INSKEEP: Sad to say, I suppose, the people who worked on this were able to draw a not-so-distant experience. It was just a little over a decade ago that there were gigantic stimulus bills to save the country from the Great Recession.

MAK: Right. So here's one example - Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren played a role in the TARP bailout. She chaired an oversight panel for that experience. And so she played a role also in getting the congressional oversight commission into this bill. Here's an example of how that happened. On Monday evening, as you mentioned, Steve, President Trump answered a question about funds in the coronavirus legislation.

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TRUMP: Look. I'll be the oversight. I'll be the oversight. We're going to make good deals. We make good deals.

MAK: That alarmed Warren, who, according to a source close to the senator, called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that night to see if they had locked in better oversight provisions in the bill. And other lawmakers are also taking credit for some other provisions related to accountability. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, also offered ideas for the committee of inspectors general we talked about.

INSKEEP: OK, so they've ended up with these several different forms of oversight. What are outside groups saying about how strong they'll really be?

MAK: Well, so there are some holes that watchdog groups have identified. One group points out that the bill doesn't prohibit corporations from using the funds for political purposes. And another realized that four of the inspectors general on the commission we've been talking about are acting IGs, so they haven't been confirmed by the Senate and have other jobs that they also have to do on top of their oversight responsibilities.

MOLLY CLAFLIN: There's going to be fraud. There's going to be waste in some of these recovery funds. And there certainly will be profiteering. I think every CEO in America is going to want to get their hands on a piece of this check.

MAK: That's Molly Claflin, the chief oversight counsel at the watchdog group American Oversight.

CLAFLIN: But I think this bill at least gives Congress, the GAO and the inspectors general the mechanisms to try to hold things accountable and make sure the funds are spent in the most responsible way to benefit the American people.

MAK: So government accountability groups are generally optimistic with these oversight provisions.

INSKEEP: In any case, there will be some independent oversight. We'll see how it works out. Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.