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News Brief: Coronavirus, Michigan Primary, Mortgage Rates Drop

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New cases of the coronavirus are emerging around the country.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At least 12 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, which is the disease caused by coronavirus. Vice President Pence says that producing enough testing kits to meet demand is a challenge.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We still have a ways to go to ensure the tests are available for any future cases.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Allison Aubrey in studio with us. Allison, can you just start off by telling us where these new cases are coming out in the U.S.?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Sure. Yeah. Well, really, all over the country. I mean, there are now confirmed cases in 20 states. Yesterday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency after three people tested positive. All three are in Montgomery County. That's suburban Washington, D.C. There's a husband and wife in their 70s, a woman in her 50s. They're believed to have contracted the virus while travelling overseas.

Tennessee has confirmed its first case. Colorado announced its first presumptive positive case. And in California, Governor Gavin Newsom says at least 21 people aboard a cruise ship that is being held off the California coast are showing symptoms. A helicopter dropped test kits to the ship.

MARTIN: So we have heard a lot this week about how slow and limited the testing has been, which has made it hard, right...

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: ...To know exactly how widespread it is.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: What is the Trump administration trying to do to fix that?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, I mean, to start with, the president is expected to sign an $8 billion emergency spending bill to combat the virus. The money can be used for lots of things - to develop a vaccine but also to help state and local health departments with testing. And when it comes to expanding the testing, some academic hospitals are developing their own tests. Commercial options are now expanding very quickly.

Quest Diagnostics says it will launch a coronavirus test on Monday. The company says it will be in a position to receive samples from hospitals, physician offices. And the other big company in this space, LabCorp, says it now has a test available. It can be ordered by doctors, other health care providers. The results can take three to four days. And positive results will be reported to local health officials and to the CDC.

MARTIN: OK. So that may have been slow to start, but at least it's ramping up now.

AUBREY: Exactly, picking up very quickly.

MARTIN: All right. So I want to turn to another aspect of this whole thing because we've seen school closings in Washington state, which has been the epicenter of the American epidemic.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: A lot of districts are making contingency plans. But kids aren't really vulnerable to coronavirus, right? So what's this about?

AUBREY: Well, yeah. Well, there are a few confirmed cases among teenagers here in the U.S. And infectious disease experts say, as testing ramps up, we'll probably see more. But generally, kids don't seem to be as vulnerable to this virus. That's what we've seen in China. When they get infected, they tend to have very mild symptoms. But it's still important to diagnose them and here's why. Andrew Janowski told me - he's an infectious disease physician at St. Louis Children's Hospital. He says, look, it's still important to diagnose them.

ANDREW JANOWSKI: These children can actually be shedding the virus even if they have very minimal symptoms. So children may be important in the chain of spreading this virus because they may be mildly symptomatic or have no symptoms and be able to spread it to others.

AUBREY: So, I mean, experts say it's possible that children with underlying medical conditions may get really sick if they get coronavirus, so, certainly, a lot more to learn here.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks so much, Rachel.

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MARTIN: More states are voting in the Democratic primary coming up, and Michigan is the biggest.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Senator Bernie Sanders is heading there today, adding stops in the state over the weekend as well as he tries to win it. Former Vice President Biden has picked up a lot of momentum. The candidate who receives the majority of Michigan's delegates will get a significant boost.

MARTIN: All right. We've got NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea with us from Detroit, a place he knows well. Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Indeed. Good morning.

MARTIN: So explain why Michigan is so very important for Bernie Sanders in this moment.

GONYEA: Recall that Sanders won the Michigan primary in 2016. It was a big upset victory. It was a turning point for his campaign. And it gave Sanders staying power for the rest of the primary season four years ago. This year, Sanders needs Michigan to help him regain some kind of momentum - especially in a delegate-rich state - after Joe Biden's unexpectedly big showing in those Super Tuesday states. So Sanders is really hoping to repeat the 2016 magic and make up some big ground in delegates.

MARTIN: You've been talking to voters, as you do. Can you introduce us to one couple I understand you met?

GONYEA: I can. This was in one of Detroit's blue-collar suburbs, Garden City. This is Larry and Antonia McCool (ph). He's 58, a member of the carpenters union. She is retired, a former fast-food restaurant manager. Now, they get along great, I'll say that...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GONYEA: ...They just disagree. She likes Joe Biden. After earlier supporting Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, she thinks Biden can win.

ANTONIA MCCOOL: We are in a situation where everything is on the line. I mean, Trump has gone to so many extremes to take our democracy away that it is absolutely essential that we get a Democrat in the White House.

GONYEA: Now, her husband, Larry, just like he did four years ago, he supports Bernie Sanders.

LARRY MCCOOL: I hate to say it, but it's like Status Quo Joe. I mean, the fossils are coming out.

GONYEA: Bernie's up there in years, too.

L MCCOOL: Oh, Bernie's up there in years, but his train of thought is younger.

MARTIN: The fossils.

GONYEA: OK. Both say they will vote for the Democratic nominee - no question there.

MARTIN: So as we head into Tuesday's primary, what are you going to be watching for on the ground?

GONYEA: Well, there hasn't been a ton of polling. It has looked like a close race. But it seems clear that Joe Biden definitely has some momentum. Bernie Sanders is campaigning more heavily here. He's adding events. He's skipping other states so he can be in Michigan more. He is running sharp attack ads all over television. He's going after Biden for supporting NAFTA and other trade deals that are unpopular, especially with autoworkers and union members here.

There have been a wave of endorsements for Biden - the current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and former Governor Jennifer Granholm, just to name two very prominent ones. Recall, too, Biden has auto industry cred, having, you know, been part of that fight to save GM and Chrysler.

MARTIN: Just briefly, have you talked to any Warren supporters, I mean, anyone out there saying who they'll vote for now that Warren's out?

GONYEA: The mood is they wanted her to stay in...

MARTIN: Oh, they're still not over the departure.

GONYEA: ...This is all happening really, really fast.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Don Gonyea in Detroit ahead of Michigan's primary on Tuesday. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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MARTIN: There is a cease-fire in Syria for now. Turkey and Russia called an end to the fighting there, starting at midnight last night.

INSKEEP: This remains complicated, to say the least. Turkish forces have been fighting in Syria. They are fighting the Russian-backed Syrian regime in Idlib. The latest violence has pushed more than a million Syrian civilians toward the Turkish border, which is closed to them. And that creates what U.N. officials call the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world right now.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Jane Arraf on the line with us from near the Turkish-Syrian border. Jane, what do you see? What does it feel like? Is the cease-fire holding?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, Russia, which is Syria's ally, says it is. And Syrian opposition monitors also report that the airstrikes on either side, on both sides, have stopped. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hammered out the cease-fire yesterday in Moscow to stop the fighting in northwest Syria.

But just a few hours before it took effect, there was intense fighting, with Turkey retaliating for a Syrian strike on Turkish forces because there's really a lot at stake here. Idlib province is the last opposition-held territory in a war that's gone on nine years. And so, basically, what's happening now is described as a tense calm.

MARTIN: The humanitarian situation is so bad. What effect is the cease-fire going to have on those people?

ARRAF: You're absolutely right. It has been almost unbelievable. And we spoke with the senior U.N. official, Mark Cutts, who's the deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. He says the cease-fire is a good start but that more measures are needed to protect civilians. And he says, even if it holds, the suffering isn't over.

MARK CUTTS: Well, unfortunately, it's going to take a long time to rebuild. We're not going to see people immediately being able to return to their areas. Many of them come from towns and villages that have now been completely demolished. We have a very difficult period ahead.

ARRAF: So they're stranded because there's nowhere else to go. These are civilians who are trying to get away from the airstrikes and attacks, trying to keep their children safe. And they're pushed up against that border with Turkey. Here's Mark Cutts again.

CUTTS: These people are really now trying to get to a safe place. But Turkey is not taking in more refugees. There's a wall that they cannot cross. And they are stranded in a warzone. These are 3 million people who are trapped in a warzone.

ARRAF: So the big concern is shelter. It's warmer now. But there are thousands of people still sleeping out in the open, including a lot of children. There are more than 80 hospitals and health centers no longer operating, some of them hit by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. There's very little sanitation. There's no sign yet of the coronavirus there, but there are fears it could start.

MARTIN: But so just practically speaking, in the hours and days to come, where do they go?

ARRAF: This is so complicated because - partly because in nine years of war, almost 4 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey. So imagine 4 million people suddenly arriving, and most of them arriving in towns and cities where there's already a lot of poverty. So Turkey wants them out. It invaded Syria in October with the intention, partly, of pushing at least some of them back across that border. It wants them to go home.

But as the U.N. says, these people won't be able to go back. There's nothing to go back to. Their homes have been destroyed. The fighting and the displacement have destroyed farmland. The harvest is largely gone. They've been displaced multiple times. It has left people in a very desperate situation.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from the Syria border with Turkey. Jane, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

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