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News Brief: Coronavirus Restrictions And Orders, Presidential Campaign


How much farther can Americans go in order to help contain the pandemic?


For the next few weeks, at least parts of a national strategy are clear. Americans are advised to stay home. Many states have made that advice mandatory. Florida's governor acted much later than most, but finally issued a stay-at-home order yesterday. Still, a White House projection of 100,000 dead or more, even with perfect compliance, prompts talk of better guidelines or better testing.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk through the options. Allison, good morning.


INSKEEP: And she's talking to us from home, we should note.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, Allison, the United States fell disastrously behind on testing. What's happening now?

AUBREY: Well, this week, a new 15-minute test is being rolled out. It runs on a device that some doctors already have in their offices to do, say, a quick strep test or flu test. So if this goes smoothly, this could really speed up diagnostic testing. But there's also a different kind of test, an antibody test. And that's to determine who's been exposed or infected.

Dr. Deborah Birx played this up during the White House briefing last night. She says she's been in touch with a bunch of universities, asking them to develop these tests quickly.


DEBORAH BIRX: So in a day or two after development, they could screen their entire hospital. I think that would be very reassuring to the health care workers who have been on the front line.

AUBREY: And that's because the way this test works is it doesn't always pick up early viral infection, but it can tell if someone has ever had the virus, even if they were maybe asymptomatic. So this is important because if you've already had the virus, as Birx points out, you're likely to have some immunity.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and maybe face a little less risk. Do doctors better understand who's most at risk?

AUBREY: Well, so far, the CDC has found that 78% of people hospitalized in the ICU with COVID in the U.S. had at least one chronic or underlying condition. Some of these are very common. A third had diabetes. Thirty percent had heart disease. Twenty-one percent had chronic lung disease, which includes asthma and COPD. So people with these conditions are most at risk. But we should point out, this is unpredictable. The CDC has also found in their early snapshot that 20% of patients hospitalized were under the age of 44.

INSKEEP: Wow. So the key here is to avoid getting the virus in the first place, no matter who you are. And is there anything that people can do beyond the social distancing advice we've heard about and just washing your hands?

AUBREY: Well, you could cover your face when you go out in public. The CDC says it's reviewing its face mask policy. And that's because a lot of people who get the virus are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms or pre-symptomatic. So maybe wearing a mask will help stop people from unknowingly spread the virus. The current policy is that only sick people or those caring for a sick person need to wear a mask.

But some pretty high-profile folks have challenged this. The former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has said, if we all wear masks when we go out, it could be beneficial. He points to places where masks are used widely, such as Hong Kong and South Korea. And these places are thought to have done well in controlling the epidemic.

INSKEEP: Although, Allison, I've heard so much about a shortage of the proper kind of masks that work. If somebody handed me a mask, I'd want to hand it right off to a medical professional.

AUBREY: That's right. And that's why this is a very difficult question. As you point out, there definitely are shortages. And that's why some people are making their own masks. The president is even suggesting that people wear a scarf over their face. Now, it's not clear how much protection this offers. So when it comes to how to cover your face or making your own mask, Scott Gottlieb says the CDC should provide guidance on the proper way to do this, the best way.

INSKEEP: Just so we're clear, no evidence a scarf helps me?

AUBREY: Not a published study to show that, no.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

Now let's focus on the latest big state that has told residents to stay at home.

MARTIN: Yeah. Florida's governor is telling residents to do exactly that, stay in their homes except for essential activities. Ron DeSantis held off on that step until yesterday as the state reached a total of 7,000 cases.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why did Florida's governor wait so long?

ALLEN: Well, for more than a week, Governor DeSantis has been saying, you know, Florida is a very big state. And there are some counties here that still have few, if any cases in the central and northern part of the state. Most cases are in the south part of Florida. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have the majority of them. And those and other populist counties around the state have imposed stay-at-home orders for some time. DeSantis felt it didn't make sense to order a shutdown in these rural counties that are far from the population centers.

INSKEEP: Although, apparently, now he thinks it does make sense.

ALLEN: Well, there's been mounting criticism for weeks of his reluctance to issue the order. And it was led by Democrats in Florida who thought the state should follow the lead of states like California and New York, which nearly two weeks ago imposed stay-at-home orders. And other states have followed suit. Public health experts also joined in the call.

This week, the White House task force cited modeling done by a University of Washington epidemiologist which showed that deaths and the health care crisis will be even worse if Florida doesn't order a lockdown. So then DeSantis says he talked to members of the White House task force and President Trump and decided to issue the order. He said he made the decision after President Trump extended for 30 days the White House social distancing guidelines.


RON DESANTIS: I think that's a signal from the president that, look, this is what we're going to be fighting for a month. There's not going to be any kind of return to normalcy. That's not going to happen.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess we should note, fighting for a month is optimistic at best compared to what other experts are saying. The governor is doing something else or declining to do something involving cruise ships. What's going on?

ALLEN: Well, we have these two cruise ships, the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, that are set to arrive later today. At least four people have died on one of the ships. And some 200 people have become sick at some point. Many countries have declined to allow the people to disembark. And so President Trump yesterday encouraged DeSantis to allow the passengers to disembark here.

But as DeSantis has said, this is a decision that's not going to be made by him but by officials in Broward County working with the CDC, the Coast Guard and border and customs control. And they're working on agreement that will allow healthy passengers to disembark and go home. But at the same time, they want assurances that the sick can be treated by the cruise line company and not take up beds in local hospitals. Here's what Governor DeSantis had to say about it yesterday.


DESANTIS: My concern is simply that, you know, we have worked so hard to make sure we have adequate hospital space in the event of a COVID-19 surge that we wouldn't want, you know, those valuable beds to be taken because of the cruise ship.

ALLEN: The company said yesterday that less than 10 people, in its words, need hospitalization. A local hospital has agreed to accept them. DeSantis said yesterday on Fox News that he thought that would work. The ships will be entering Florida waters this afternoon.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen with the latest from Florida. Greg, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And this next story reminds us how much the world has changed in a few weeks.

MARTIN: Right. Super Tuesday was just a month ago. The presidential campaign seemed like the biggest story of 2020. Some campaigning is still happening in different ways. For Vice President Joe Biden, that means talking to supporters on a new podcast.


JOE BIDEN: We can't hold rallies anymore. But we're not gathering in large public spaces. We're living in the new normal. But I want you to know that I'm with you. I'm on your side. And we're going to get through this together as a country. And...

MARTIN: Weeks ago, President Trump was still holding campaign rallies.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is reporting on how the campaign has changed. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. The president is not holding rallies anymore. But he is on TV almost every day.

LIASSON: Yes. He's on TV every day. He's instituted White House briefings that had stopped. It's a lot less noisy to talk to the press inside than out on the south lawn in front of the helicopters. But, you know, the White House press corps has been clamoring for regular press briefings and now they have them. And the president has recognized the power of these briefings because people are holed up in their homes in front of the television, desperate for information about the virus. And most of the briefings have been about the virus.

But yesterday, he started using them as a way to talk about other things, other issues. Yesterday, he talked about cracking down on narco-trafficking from Venezuela. It's an issue that's important to many of his voters in Florida, an important battleground state. And, look, no president wants to preside over hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of people unemployed. But for a president whose favorite metric is television ratings, how many eyeballs are watching him, this has been a huge opportunity. And he has boasted that the briefings have gotten "Bachelor"-finale-level ratings. It's like "Monday Night Football." Yesterday he said, did you know I was No. 1 on Facebook?

INSKEEP: Then there's the question of poll ratings.

LIASSON: Yes. He's gotten a bump. In a crisis, people want their president to succeed. And we usually see a rally effect. He hasn't gotten as big a bump as the governors and other democratically elected leaders around the world. And right now, it looks like the higher marks that he's getting for handling the crisis are not translating into an equally higher overall job approval rating. He's still in that 43 to 49% range that he's been in since he got 46.1% of the vote in 2016.

And we've got a long way to go, you know. The number of deaths is going to rise. The number of people unemployed is going to rise. And, you know, way back in the 1980s, Jimmy Carter also had sky high approval ratings at the beginning of the hostage crisis.

INSKEEP: A bunch of Democratic primaries have been delayed, which has made it impossible for Joe Biden to, for example, wrap up the Democratic nomination. How is that affecting things?

LIASSON: Well, you're right. In a lot of ways, this campaign is frozen. Even though, if you turn on your TV in a battleground state, you will still see lots of attack ads against both Trump and Biden. But, yes, Biden is being deprived of oxygen. He's kind of stuck in his makeshift TV studio in his basement. Most people are interested in hearing from Democratic governors, like Andrew Cuomo, who are on the front lines of this pandemic. So it is harder for him to fundraise and unite the party.

But there's also an argument that, right now, whatever Biden might say doesn't matter that much. This part of the campaign is a referendum on Trump and his leadership in this crisis. It will become a binary choice, but later on in the fall. So the campaign is going to get shrunk into a narrower window of time. And maybe some voters are going to be happy about that.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.