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Coronavirus Update: States Are Trying To Ensure Safe Reopening

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As states begin to slowly open back up, there are two big questions facing local leaders - when and how to reopen safely. The when is spelled out in the White House's Opening Up America Again guidelines, and it relies heavily on testing to determine when the virus is in retreat. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, told the Senate today that his agency's goal is to ramp up testing technology so fast that we'll be able to test millions of Americans every week by the end of the summer.

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FRANCIS COLLINS: I must tell you, senators, that this is a stretch goal that goes well beyond what most experts think will be possible. I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable to knowledgeable individuals. The scientific and logistical challenges are truly daunting.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Meanwhile, the question of how to open up safety - safely, such as specific advice to businesses - well, that's described in much less detail in the official White House guidelines. The CDC drafted a long list of more specific suggestions for certain businesses and religious institutions, recommending disposable or digital menus at restaurants, for example, or soloists instead of choirs at religious services. But the administration said the CDC's advice was too specific and sent it back for revisions. At the same time, millions more Americans joined the ranks of the unemployed last week. Thirty-three and a half million jobs have now vanished in just seven weeks.

To talk more about all this, we're joined by NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Good to have you all three here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Selena, you watched that Senate hearing today with the head of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, who we just heard from. Give us the highlights.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, first off, it looked really different than the House hearing held yesterday. Many senators joined virtually. So you saw them questioning from their kitchens or with kids - pictures of their kids in the background. It was also much more partisan in tone than yesterday's hearing in the House. The topic was a "Shark Tank"-style competition. That is a reality TV reference. This is an NIH competition to give $500 million in grants to developers of promising new diagnostic testing technologies. Collins said there were hundreds of applicants already, and it was very promising. Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray of Washington, said new technology was kind of besides the point. Here's part of her opening remarks.

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PATTY MURRAY: The problem is not lack of innovation. It is lack of national leadership and a plan from this White House. You can innovate the fastest car in the world. It still won't get you to where you're going without a good driver and good direction. And when it comes to testing, this administration has had no map and no one at the wheel.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about the administration's road map here. Franco, as states begin to reopen, is there going to be more detailed guidance coming out about how to do things safely?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the CDC actually has been working on this. There were some draft documents given to the White House task force, but the task force actually rejected the draft because they felt it was, quote, "overly prescriptive." The draft was leaked to the Associated Press and other media outlets. In it, there were very specific ideas for child care centers, camps, restaurants and even mass transit providers.

SHAPIRO: Can you explain what the task force meant when it said the CDC guidelines were overly prescriptive?

ORDOÑEZ: I can try. You know, a senior administration official told me today that it's not the role of the federal government to tell specific entities, whether it's schools or churches or businesses, how they should go about doing things, especially in a country that is so diverse. A second official said, you know, what works, for example, in rural Tennessee might not work in urban New York City. I was also told that the task force does welcome a revised version that would, quote, "kind of zoom out a little bit," but that hasn't happened yet.

SHAPIRO: Well, it seems like businesses are actually seeking guidance, right? Scott Horsley, you've been talking to some of them. Is that what you're hearing?

HORSLEY: Yes. I mean, it's certainly true that businesses are wary about overly prescriptive directions from Washington. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, has said they don't want strict regulations. But it's also true the CDC has a lot of expertise that industry people do not have. And I have certainly heard from businesses who are frustrated that they're not getting the kind of specific direction from Washington that they need and want and, instead, are having to sort of figure things out for themselves. Today a group of grocery manufacturers and other trade associations wrote to the vice president, pleading for, quote, "specific, uniform federal guidance" on things like when and how they should be testing workers at factories for COVID-19 and what to do if a worker tests positive.

SHAPIRO: Beyond testing, another big part of safely reopening is contact tracing. And, Selena, you did a survey of all 50 states on their contact tracing workforce plans. And you have an update today. What did you find?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So we found some dramatic new plans in the 10 days since we first published the survey. We now have data for 44 states and D.C. showing plans for a workforce of 66,000 contact tracers. That is still not as many as public health experts have called for, but it's much more. It's nearly double what was planned just last week. And we've updated our map and our state lookup tool at npr.org so you can see what's planned there.

SHAPIRO: Well, another number that was updated today was the unemployment number - 3.2 million people filing just in the last week. Scott, it seems like the economic pain from this pandemic just keeps growing.

HORSLEY: It does, Ari. You know, last week's claims were down from the week before, but they're still really high by historical standards. I spoke with a longshoreman in Florida, Carmine DiBiase (ph), who ordinarily works loading and unloading cruise ships. Of course, that work pretty much dried up in the middle of March. Only in the last week or so did the DiBiase finally start receiving unemployment benefits, and he knows there are a lot of other people who are still waiting.

CARMINE DIBIASE: They're desperately counting on the money. And to have to wait five and six weeks to get a payment, that's why there's lines at the food banks. People are hurting. They don't have money to go get groceries 'cause they've been so slow making out these payments. I hurt for them, and I get angry for them at the same time. It shouldn't be this way.

HORSLEY: Tomorrow we're going to get official jobs data from the Labor Department. That's expected to show historic job losses during the month of April and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

SHAPIRO: You know, I'm thinking states are paying unemployment benefits to tens of millions of people while their tax revenue is going way down from all the businesses that have shut down. What's that doing to state budgets right now?

HORSLEY: It's stretched to the breaking point. I mean, states ordinarily have enough money set aside to cover something like a year's worth of unemployment benefits in a typical recession. But, of course, this downturn is anything but typical. In Colorado, for example, there's been a more than tenfold increase in the amount of money they're paying out in weekly benefits. California was the first state to have to borrow money from the federal government to cover its unemployment costs. It will not be the last.

SHAPIRO: Selena, just to circle back to today's Senate hearing, there was also testimony from Gary Disbrow, the acting director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, BARDA. Earlier this week, his predecessor, Rick Bright, filed a whistleblower complaint saying that he was ousted from his position in retaliation for speaking out. Tell us about that aspect of the hearing.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. So as a refresher, Bright's complaint said he was pressured by the White House to promote unproven treatments for COVID-19, like hydroxychloroquine, and that higher-ups put cronyism over science. Collins and Disbrow deflected on this a bit in the hearing. They said it was a personnel matter. But most - but both of them did promise to fully cooperate with any investigations. And in response to a question about whether the cronyism charges had merit, Disbrow defended BARDA. Here's what he said.

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GARY DISBROW: I am still confident in the way that we make our investment decisions, that they're based on science and based on the best technology that we can bring forward.

SHAPIRO: There was also some news today about someone at the White House testing positive for the coronavirus. Franco, what have you learned about that?

ORDOÑEZ: The person was a military aide who works at the White House. This is at least the second person there who has got a positive result. The first was an aide to the vice president. You know, President Trump said today that he had actually very little contact with the aide, but he says now that testing at the White House was going to happen once a day instead of once a week. He added that he's been tested twice in the last two days, including after this person tested positive. The vice president has also been tested. Both of them have tested negative.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Franco Ordoñez, Scott Horsley and Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks to all three of you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAUTIOUS CLAY SONG, "COLD WAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.