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News Brief: Election Nears, As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Restrictions Return

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And here we are, the last day of this seemingly endless campaign season. And, David, at this point, it's probably good to talk a little bit about expectations, right?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, definitely - because you have President Trump, he keeps saying there should be a result tomorrow night. But actually, our election system just isn't built that way. The election is over after the votes have been counted. And judging by early voting data and the number of absentee ballots requested, there are likely going to be an historic number of votes to count. So that's the reality. And nevertheless, though, President Trump keeps saying that he would like fewer votes to be counted. Here he was talking to reporters on a campaign swing through North Carolina last night.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's a terrible thing when people are - or states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over because it can only lead to one thing. And that's very bad.

GREENE: Now, those comments have led to concerns that the president might try to claim victory whether there is a decisive result on election night or not. Joe Biden responded with this at a campaign stop in Philadelphia.

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JOE BIDEN: President Trump is terrified of what will happen in Pennsylvania. He knows the people of Pennsylvania get to have their say - if you have your say, he doesn't stand a chance.

MARTIN: NPR's Tamara Keith is with us this morning on this Election Day eve. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So precious few hours left for both of these candidates - how are they spending these - this time?

KEITH: They are going to squeeze every second out of it. It's, you know, a sprint to the finish. President Trump is going to have five rallies in four states today. Former Vice President Biden has events in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Ohio being a late add. So they're going to be all over the place (laughter).

MARTIN: They're doing it.

KEITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: So let's talk about some of the messaging here. Everywhere he goes, President Trump has been undermining people's faith in mail-in voting. I wonder, what stands out to you about how he's talking about that and what his campaign has been saying about this now, the day before the election?

KEITH: You know, in a lot of ways, this seems like the conclusion of a long arc. The president has been trashing vote-by-mail for months. His supporters listen to him, and they didn't vote by mail as much as Democrats did. And most of them are expected to vote in person on Election Day. As it happens, Election Day votes are counted in some key states earlier than vote-by-mail ballots. Yesterday, Jason Miller, who's a campaign adviser, was on TV, and he said that the campaign thinks that they will be ahead in a lot of states on election night. But then he falsely claimed that Democrats are going to try to, quote, "steal it back" when, in reality, votes that come by mail are the same as votes that come in person. Some just might take a little longer to count. When I was out with the president on Saturday as he campaigned in Pennsylvania, he said it would be, quote, "bedlam in our country" if there was a long wait for results.

MARTIN: And again, the election is not over until the votes are actually counted. So you've already outlined sort of the effect of this, especially the undermining of mail-in voting - the president's supporters, he expects, to just show up on Election Day. What have been some of the other effects of this messaging?

KEITH: Yeah. The president's also been telling his supporters to go watch the polls, which is causing Democrats to warn against voter intimidation. We've also seen progressive groups organizing protests for tomorrow night, including near the White House, out of concerns that the president will try to declare victory without having won. And then there are these Trump caravans, including one that surrounded a Biden-Harris bus in Texas, forcing them to cancel events.

MARTIN: OK. So, Tam, the candidates, we've said they have precious few hours left. What are their closing arguments?

KEITH: Well, on Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden did hit back at Trump, stating flatly, the president will not steal this election. As for his closing argument, it's a lot like his opening argument. He has been remarkably consistent, talking about the soul of the nation, though also talking about coronavirus and what he sees as the president's failures on that. President Trump, for his part, is repeating a line that he has been saying for a while now, which is this idea that he's done more in 47 months than Biden has done in 47 years in public life, sort of running as an outsider, even as he's been president for four years and saying on the coronavirus that he wants everything reopened and back to normal and that we're turning the corner, even though, as we know, the numbers don't look great.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: So we described this election as historic because of the deep political divisions in this country right now. But of course, this is an election that will be written about for generations because it's happening during the most devastating pandemic to strike this country in a hundred years.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, the polls are going to close on Tuesday night just as the United States faces record-high levels of the coronavirus. There were nearly 100,000 new cases documented in just one day over the weekend.

MARTIN: No better person to talk to than NPR's Allison Aubrey, who joins us now. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do the numbers tell us right now? Not...

AUBREY: You know...

MARTIN: ...Good news.

AUBREY: Right. New cases have been averaging about 80,000 per day. That's about a 40% increase compared to mid-October. And with this, Rachel, has come an increase in deaths. Over the last several days, nearly 1,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID per day on average. And perhaps the best measure of where we're headed - hospitalizations. Some hospitals are filling up. For instance, hospital beds in metropolitan areas including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Baltimore were at 80% capacity or above as of last week. And cases continue to rise in these areas.

MARTIN: So are we likely to see new restrictions?

AUBREY: You know, we're already seeing some. In New Jersey, parts of Illinois, there are new restrictions on businesses. Last week, a judge in El Paso County, Texas, issued a type of shutdown order on nonessential businesses. In Maine, bars were set to reopen this week. But of course, that's not happening. And Governor Janet Mills announced other measures, including lowering the limits on indoor gatherings.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said yesterday, we're probably going to need more aggressive actions to control the spread around the nation.

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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Things are getting worse around the country. I think Thanksgiving is really going to be an inflection point. I think December is probably going to be our toughest month. But when you look at what's happening in states right now, you're seeing accelerating spread. We're right at the beginning of what looks like exponential growth in a lot of states. This is very worrisome as we head into the winter.

MARTIN: So (laughter) in other sort of depressing news, the CDC recently put out this new report talking about just how easily the virus can spread from person to person in the same household, right?

AUBREY: Yes. Yeah. The study found that after a first person is diagnosed in a home, at least one more person is quickly infected in well over half the cases. Important to note here, Rachel - even with children who are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, the study found that when kids 12 and younger tested positive for the virus, they ended up spreading the virus to someone they lived with about 53% of the time. That's why people who have COVID or suspect they have COVID are urged to stay in a separate bedroom, use a separate bathroom if possible and to wear masks, especially in shared spaces. And remember, the incubation of the period is up to 14 days. My son, who was exposed to the virus at college, tested positive on his 14th day of quarantine.

MARTIN: No way.

AUBREY: Yes. Thankfully - just as he was getting ready to leave - thankfully, he is asymptomatic. But the point is, Rachel, you cannot shortchange this isolation period.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So just like in the U.S., COVID numbers in the U.K. are on the rise.

GREENE: Yeah. The government there imposed tough restrictions earlier this year to try and slow the spread of the virus. Now with COVID case numbers spiking yet again, England is heading into another lockdown on Thursday, which is expected to last four weeks.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt with us. Frank, good morning. Tell us about these new restrictions.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, Rachel. Just listening to Allison Aubrey, I almost feel like we are the ghost of COVID future here...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: ...In the United Kingdom. I mean, it's so familiar, what Allison was just saying.

MARTIN: Yeah.

LANGFITT: So what we're going to see on Thursday - pubs, restaurants, bars shutting down, nonessential retail. It's not going to be severe - as severe as the first lockdown, so schools and universities will stay open. But there is going to be, of course, another economic hit here. The government will continue to give money to people who are furloughed up to 80%, I think, of their salaries. It's worth pointing out that the problem is not just here in the United Kingdom. It is spreading in other parts of Europe. France went into a lockdown on Friday. Germany goes into a partial lockdown today.

MARTIN: So - I mean, this is a change, right? Not long ago, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said a second lockdown would be a disaster. So what changed for him?

LANGFITT: Numbers are out of control. And I think that his scientific advisers have been very clear to him about the risks. So one government estimate that the prime minister talked about on Saturday - up to 50,000 cases a day. That's from a low in the summer of maybe 600. We could have a far higher peak sooner at the rate that we're going here in the United Kingdom if something isn't done. The prime minister talked as high as 4,000 deaths a day, which is, I think, much more than we saw last time. And it could overwhelm the system, just as Allison was talking about. And so Boris Johnson, on Saturday night, he talked about one section of England, what would happen there to the hospitals if nothing was done.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: The current projections mean that hospitals in the South West will run out of capacity in just a matter of weeks unless we act.

MARTIN: Which obviously would be bad - so let's talk a little bit about what this is going to look like. You said that it - these restrictions aren't going to be as severe as the lockdown measures that happened in the spring. Schools are still going to be open. I mean, how did the U.K. find itself, though, in this same place seven months later?

LANGFITT: Yeah, this does - this is sort of really painful 'cause it does feel like we've been here before. And even listening to the prime minister on Saturday - and he's saying the same things he said back in March. So one thing, clearly not enough social distancing - I'll give you an example. Just recently on Saturday night, cops had to break up a rave in Bristol with 700 people. So, I mean, I guess wanting to have fun before lockdown.

The - another thing (ph) - fascinating research has been done by researchers in Switzerland and Spain that shows that perhaps a majority of the new cases in recent weeks are connected to a variant of the virus that was actually - appears to have been imported to the U.K. from Spain by British travelers over the summer after lockdown was lifted. Now, that doesn't mean that that variant is driving the second surge, but it does mean that it did come in here and maybe not enough was done to prevent this.

Just this morning, I was on the phone with Emma Hodcroft. She's an epidemiologist at the University of Bern (ph) in Switzerland. She's the lead author of the study. And I asked her how she felt about this discovery.

EMMA HODCROFT: It's a feeling of disappointment because it shows that even though we did try hard over the summer, it wasn't enough.

LANGFITT: And now people are stocking up. I just want to get my hair cut on Saturday, and the barbershop was full.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt from London. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.