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Some States See Upticks In Coronavirus Cases, While Numbers In Others Are Going Down

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Mass protests across the country have public health officials concerned about the spread of the coronavirus, but even before the protests, several states had been seeing big jumps in the number of cases. The head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, registered his concern at a congressional hearing today. He shook his head as a congresswoman showed him photos of throngs of people at the Lake of the Ozarks and at the SpaceX launch.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: We're very concerned that our public health message isn't resonating. We continue to try to figure out how to penetrate the message with different groups. The pictures that the chairwoman showed me are great examples of serious problems.

MCCAMMON: The U.S. is still seeing roughly 20,000 new cases a day, and we're going to spend the next few minutes talking about where some of the emerging hotspots are. Joining me are Blake Farmer with WPLN in Nashville, WBUR's Martha Bebinger in Boston and KPCC's Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles. Hey there.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hello.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: Blake, I'm going to start with you. Southern states look like a real hotspot. What do you make of the numbers there?

FARMER: Well, yeah. It's not the effects of the protest yet, but no denying the connection and the timing with reopening. It's been, really, more than a month that folks have been back in restaurants or in barber chairs and in their gyms. Figures tracked by NPR show the number of cases in North and South Carolina this week are up by about 60% compared to two weeks ago. In Tennessee, where I'm based, we're up by 75% over two weeks ago. Georgia and Louisiana, they're steadier, but they were elevated already. They experienced some of the highest case counts and fatalities in the region at the height of recent weeks.

Now, I will warn you that it's really hard to compare even neighboring states because, you know, there are slight variations in testing and in reporting. But we are finding this sort of through line that states in the South that were quick to reopen feel this need to point out that hospitals are still far from overwhelmed. They also try to explain these big bursts of cases on some days. Like in Georgia one day, it was because of a backlog of reporting cases from this particular commercial lab. In Tennessee this week, a huge jump was blamed on mass testing at a prison that did yield hundreds of new cases.

MCCAMMON: And, Jackie, California is also seeing case numbers rise significantly - up nearly 40% compared to two weeks ago. What's going on there?

FORTIER: Over the last month, California has loosened its stay-at-home order, and more businesses have been allowed to open up, including big metro areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In most of the state, you can go get your hair cut. You can eat in a restaurant now. And, you know, people don't stay in the county that they live in. So more people are venturing out, going back to work, and that means more community transmission.

Health officials in Marin County in the Bay Area reported a spike in cases among essential workers, like folks who work in grocery stores, even though they hadn't lifted restrictions as much as their neighboring counties. There's also a lot of confusion about really what the rules are. You know, depending on which county you're in, there's different rules for where you need to wear a mask, for example.

MCCAMMON: And moving from coast to coast here, Martha, you're in Boston. The Northeast, especially New York City, has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. for weeks. What's going on there now?

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Well, most of the Northeast, Sarah, we're still seeing new cases. But the rate of increase is slowing. It's down 41% in New Jersey over the past two weeks, and it's down 33% in New York and 13% in Massachusetts. But that doesn't mean that the coronavirus is under control in these states, which, between them, have a quarter of all the COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. So New York is still seeing more than a thousand new cases a day. Massachusetts and New Jersey are averaging 500 to 700 new cases over the past week.

MCCAMMON: And, Jackie, I want to go back to you because when we look at the numbers across California, LA County really stands out. Why?

FORTIER: LA County is huge. It is home to more than 10 million people. Health officials are routinely reporting about a thousand new cases every day. That is partially due to a backlog in testing results. There has been a big push to have testing available to everyone, but that's only helpful if you get the results back within a couple days, and that is not happening. Slow lab results also really hinder contact tracing.

MCCAMMON: And, Jackie, we know there are a lot of disparities with this virus. How are the infections affecting different types of communities in LA?

FORTIER: Yeah, you're exactly right. Elderly folks, particularly people who live in nursing homes, have been hit very hard. About half of the people who have died from COVID-19 in LA County are nursing home residents. The health department was slow to test for the virus in nursing homes, and now we're finding that about two-thirds of the health care workers who have died from the virus were nursing home staff.

We know that people of color are being disproportionately affected. Latinos make up over half of the COVID-19 cases when they're only about 40% of the state's population. Black folks, especially in Los Angeles County, have been dying at a far higher rate than other people, and so have Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Those ethnicities have higher rates of underlying health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes, and doctors have told me that that makes them more susceptible, unfortunately, to the virus.

MCCAMMON: And, Blake, I want to go back to you in Nashville. Are you seeing ethnic disparities similar to those in California playing out in the South?

FARMER: Certainly. In Tennessee, we've been looking at these heat maps of the new cases. And one of the hottest zones for cases - it's really been for weeks now - has been in the largely immigrant neighborhoods of a part of south Nashville. You know, and there's really been a lot of concern that many of these folks are maybe essential workers who can't work remotely or at least folks who maybe can't afford not to work. And often, public health officials point out that, you know, they may even carpool to the same employer, and some of those job sites have had big outbreaks.

MCCAMMON: And still, despite these increases that we're seeing, states are finding some ways to bring down infection rates, even among essential employees who are going to work every day. Martha, what are states in the Northeast doing?

BEBINGER: Well, for example, you still can't sit down at a restaurant in New York City or anywhere in Massachusetts or New Jersey. It looks like that may be allowed in the coming weeks but only outdoors. So these states are all in very early stages of reopening after residents have been told to stay home for almost two months with everything but essential businesses closed.

And then there's the masks. In Massachusetts, some kind of face covering is required indoors and out if you can't stay at least 6 feet from someone. In New York and New Jersey, masks are required in public and when riding the bus or the train. And, Sarah, you don't see that in most states across the country.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. So what is your sense, Martha, of people's patience with these stay-at-home orders in New York and elsewhere? Are they working? Are people willing to continue, or are they starting to chafe?

BEBINGER: Oh, we're way past the chafing moment. But a poll out last week found twice as many New York residents worried about opening too quickly as compared to too slowly, and polls in New Jersey and Massachusetts have pretty much shown a majority support for phased openings. Now, people in cities across the Northeast are making a different calculation with the pull to protest the death of George Floyd and others, and it's not clear if we are going to see new cases tied to those demonstrations yet.

MCCAMMON: That's WBUR's Martha Bebinger, KPCC's Jackie Fortier and WPLN's Blake Farmer. All three are part of NPR's partnership with their member stations and with Kaiser Health News. Thanks to all of you for joining us.

FARMER: Thank you.

BEBINGER: Thank you.

FORTIER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOVELLER'S "A PINK SUNSET FOR NO ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.