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News Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine, HHS Spokesman, Hurricane Aftermath


The director of the CDC made it very clear during testimony before senators yesterday - wearing a mask, he said, is the No. 1 most important way to beat the coronavirus.


That's right. Dr. Robert Redfield went on to say that if all Americans wore a mask, the virus could be contained in as little as six weeks. He is urging Americans to mask up because he says it's going to be a while before a vaccine is going to be available.


ROBERT REDFIELD: I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.

GREENE: Now, when President Trump was asked about Redfield's comments yesterday, he said the CDC director, quote, "made a mistake," and he directly contradicted his own health agency on the timeline.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We think we can start sometime in October.

GREENE: Again, just worth pointing out that even if some kind of vaccine is ready in October, it would not be available to the public.

MARTIN: We've got NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: So the president is clearly pushing for a vaccine before the election. But his own CDC director is saying that is just not plausible, right?

LIASSON: Right. This isn't the first time the president has been at odds with his own administration's scientists. He said the government expects to be able to begin distributing a vaccine, quote, "sometime in October," once approvals are given, although he also said it could be a little later than that. He said at least 100 million doses should be available by the end of this year.

But the issue is that the CDC director, Robert Redfield, said it wouldn't be widely available to the public, as you heard him just say, until the second or third quarter. Trump was asked about this contradiction, and it sounded like he was throwing Redfield under the bus. Here's what he said.


TRUMP: When he said it, I believe he was confused. I'm just telling you - we're ready to go as soon as the vaccine happens.

MARTIN: I mean, that's just not true (laughter). I mean - but even if they come up with the vaccine - and October is pushing it - it has to be manufactured and it has to be distributed.

LIASSON: That's right. And other of the president's scientists, including Dr. Scott Atlas, said exactly that. But the president also contradicted Redfield on masks. You heard Redfield say masks are more important than the vaccine. Donald Trump says, no, that's not true; masks are not as important as the vaccine. Look; the president has been ambivalent at times about masks. And sometimes he's been opposed to them. Yesterday he said masks were a mixed bag.

But the president has said he wants to be a cheerleader - he wants to give people hope. Yesterday he described the vaccine as very strong, powerful and successful. That sounds like a typical Trump pitch. But saying that a vaccine is just around the corner, maybe even before the election is - also has the potential added benefit of helping Donald Trump's campaign. And he has focused on this relentlessly positive message even if it contradicts other parts of his administration.

MARTIN: Which we heard from the Bob Woodward - excerpts of his book, revelations that President Trump downplayed the severity of the virus because he says he was trying to, you know, make people feel better about it.

LIASSON: Right. And you know, the pandemic has now become a real fault line in the culture wars. If you agree with the president that the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, you're on one side of the line. If you agree that it's still a serious public health crisis, you're on another one. Do you think that keeping the economy closed is worse than the virus itself? Where do you stand on masks? It's all become politicized.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson for us this morning.

Mara, we appreciate it. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. The Trump administration's attempts to undermine and discredit government scientists does not only come from the president himself.

GREENE: Yeah. A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services is taking a leave of absence after coming under fire for remarks on social media accusing government scientists of sedition. Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump loyalist, was hired just five months ago to serve as the chief spokesperson for HHS.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Pien Huang with us to talk about this story. Good morning, Pien. Thanks for being here.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start off. Can you give us some background on Michael Caputo and his role at HHS?

HUANG: Sure. So Michael Caputo is a longtime Republican strategist, and he's worked on President Trump's 2016 election campaign, and he's considered to be very loyal to the president. And back in April, he took a job as the top communications official with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the department that oversees the CDC, the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, which are all agencies that play key roles in the pandemic response. And he's thought to have been hired to give the president more control over the health department.

MARTIN: And is that what he ended up doing?

HUANG: Well, for a few months now, public health experts have been really worried that Caputo's been working to politicize and discredit government scientists. And a couple concrete things have surfaced recently. So there have been emails that show Caputo and his science adviser, a man named Paul Alexander, were actively trying to edit and delay weekly scientific reports published by the CDC. And Alexander complained that papers about the risk of coronavirus in kids, for instance, were hit pieces on the administration that would undermine the president's school reopening plans. And that has caused a big outcry. Doctors and researchers say it looks like the administration was trying to block science for political gain.

MARTIN: And then tell us about this video that Michael Caputo made - this Facebook video over the weekend. Right?

HUANG: Right, yeah. On Sunday, Caputo went on a rant against government scientists on Facebook Live. He, in the video, described a conspiracy where - in which, quote, "deep state" scientists are keeping Americans sick with COVID-19 to improve the Democrats' chances of winning November's election. He also accused government scientists of sedition and said that they were sacrificing lives for personal gain.

Robert Redfield, the CDC's director, was asked about these yesterday at a hearing, and he echoes what a lot of other people are saying when he says that they're completely false.


REDFIELD: The CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women - highly competent, dedicated 24/7 to use their skills to protect the American public and the world from the health issues.

HUANG: There's no credible evidence for Caputo's claims that scientists are purposefully endangering the public.

MARTIN: So Caputo is now taking this leave of absence. I mean, his role wasn't insignificant. And this is the agency that is leading the push to contain the coronavirus. Where does that leave HHS?

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, he was, for five months, the agency's chief spokesperson, and he is now taking a two-month leave of absence for health reasons. That actually means that he's out of the administration through November's elections. And his science adviser, Paul Alexander, is also out. It leaves the deputy, Ryan Murphy, in the position for the time being. And it's been a difficult time for some of these agencies. For example, people who work at CDC have told me that morale is really low because of how their work has been politicized over the past few months.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Pien Huang for us on this story.

Pien, we appreciate it. Thank you.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: All right. We're going to turn now to the Gulf Coast. Sally has been downgraded to a tropical depression from a hurricane, but that storm is still bringing incredible rain and heavy floods.

GREENE: Yeah, really. I mean, early yesterday morning, Sally smashed into Gulf Shores, Ala., as a Category 2 hurricane at that point. At least one person is dead. Another is missing. In Pensacola, Fla., hundreds of people had to be rescued after catastrophic flooding trapped them in their homes. The storm has been slowly moving inland, bringing torrential rain that can last for hours on end.

GRANT BROWN: We have power line poles that are laying on the ground with wires over roadways.

GREENE: That's Grant Brown, a longtime resident of Gulf Shores, Ala., and also the town's public information officer. We should say, half a million people lost power here.

MARTIN: For the latest, we have got Sandra Averhart of member station WUWF in Pensacola with us.

Sandra, good morning. Can you just tell us the situation where you are? What's gone on in Pensacola?

SANDRA AVERHART, BYLINE: Well, we started yesterday. Actually, it was the culmination of several days of rainfall. We had torrential rain. We had historic rainfall - more than 20 inches in most areas, up to 30 inches in some isolated areas. In addition to the rough surf and storm surge, this was a flooding event. And at the height of the storm, hundreds of swift water and high water rescues had to be made - the report we got last briefing from Escambia County officials, 277 such rescues.

MARTIN: I mean, storms can be unpredictable. But I mean, was the area prepared for this storm?

AVERHART: Well, we've been watching and waiting for this storm for several days, of course. It was a very slow-moving storm and had stalled. Initially, we were told by weather officials, of course as we were watching the track - it was tracking toward the Mississippi-Louisiana coastline and the Pensacola area was outside the cone - just outside. We knew it was going to be a rain event. Our local officials were ready. They did issue voluntary evacuations that seemed to come a little late in the game for some of our residents. But they were ready. They had crews and equipment on standby, which they told us early on. And they were ready when the storm came.

MARTIN: How long is it going to take to restore power?

AVERHART: Well, that, we don't know. At the height of the storm, about half of Gulf Power Company - that's the company that serves northwest Florida, including Escambia, Santa Rosa counties, Okaloosa - about half of their 470,000 customers were without power, the good number of those in Escambia County.

MARTIN: And Sally isn't the only tropical system threatening the Gulf, right? I mean, what else is out there right now?

AVERHART: Right. This is the height of the storm season, and we've got at least five systems out there in the Atlantic right now that we're watching. And we're almost up to Z. This is the first time since 1971 that we've had these five storms - or had five storms in the Atlantic threatening all at the same time.

MARTIN: Sandra Averhart of member station WUWF giving us the latest on the storm damage in Pensacola, Fla.

Sandra, thanks. We appreciate it.

AVERHART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.