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News Brief: Pfizer Vaccine, Election Probe, Calif. COVID-19 Cases

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the world is one small step nearer normal.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The U.K. has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for widespread use. Matt Hancock, Britain's health secretary, says that high-priority groups could be getting vaccinated as early as next week.

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MATT HANCOCK: We can now see the way out, and we can see that by the spring, we're going to be through this. We're going to be through this. But let's not let up and lose our resolve now.

INSKEEP: NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is covering this story. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sounds like British regulators agree with Pfizer's claims about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

LANGFITT: It sounds like they do. And we'll be hearing more this morning. I think people are going to be fascinated to hear from the regulator exactly why they're so confident. Normally, these things take years. And, of course, this has been done in very short order. So people will be focusing on that a lot and to see what the regulator has to say. Apparently, this came after clinical trials in which more than 20,000 people got the vaccine and the company says it's up to 95% effective. And here, the United Kingdom has ordered 800,000 doses coming just next week from Belgium where it's being manufactured. It'll be two jabs 21 days apart, and then the United Kingdom will go from there.

INSKEEP: This is all going to be really useful for Americans to watch since in this country we're maybe just a few weeks behind. So maybe we can learn from the early British experience. Who is going to get the vaccine first where you are?

LANGFITT: Well, exactly who you would expect. It will start with the elderly, people in nursing homes. If you remember, we've reported on this, the nursing homes were decimated in this country. Actually, cases were exported from hospitals to nursing homes because there weren't enough beds, so they're going to really try to help nursing homes here, the people who care for them. Then I think you're going to go for health care workers and then sometime next year, bulk vaccination for the broad population of this country.

INSKEEP: This must be a promise of a complete change within a few months in a country that's pretty much locked down.

LANGFITT: It is. It would - it'll be a huge change. We're actually coming out of lockdown today. So the timing of this would seem to be not coincidental. And people have the same lockdown fatigue, I guess, that many Americans have. But I think it's sort of at a psychological and political level. If this works and if what they say is true and this plays out over the next coming months, I think it's going to be a big boost for people. Everyone here's been pretty much depressed since March. We've been in and out of - coming out of the second lockdown. It'll also give more confidence to businesses and investment and things along those lines. So I think this will be really important to watch also for other countries to see what the U.K. does right, what mistakes it makes and also what kind of impact it has on the broader society.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, let's talk about that, Frank, because I was looking at this chart of countries and how badly their GDP had been affected by the pandemic this year. And, of course, you know, China's leveled off and the U.S. is quite bad and the U.K. was calamitously bad.

LANGFITT: It was. And I think what we're seeing is, right now, the numbers have been going down and we are going to open up restaurants and pubs in some parts of the country. But I just think, you know, business is all about certainty. And if people have confidence that things are going to get a lot better in four or five months, then businesses will start reinvesting, I think. There is a deep hole in terms of debt to dig out of, but this is going to really help people and brighten people's moods and, you know, optimism.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks for the update.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt.

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INSKEEP: In this country, Attorney General William Barr directly contradicted the president yesterday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barr gave an interview to The Associated Press, and he declined to endorse the president's falsehoods about the election. Barr said his Justice Department has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

INSKEEP: So let's turn to NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did the attorney general come to that conclusion?

LUCAS: Well, what Barr said in this interview with the AP was that federal prosecutors and the FBI have looked into specific claims that they have received about the vote and its integrity. And he said that they haven't found any evidence at this point of widespread fraud. He mentioned one claim in particular that has been made by supporters of the president, which is that voting machines were somehow programmed to flip votes in Biden's favor. Barr said the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security both looked into those allegations, and he said that they have not found anything to substantiate them.

INSKEEP: And as a matter of fact, officials in places like Georgia have pointed out they've done hand recounts of the paper ballots, which would contradict that entire conspiracy theory. But hasn't the president himself been sharing tweets about that conspiracy theory? That's a big difference.

LUCAS: What Barr is saying here does not line up at all with what Trump has been saying in the baseless claims that the president has been making, in particular on Twitter, that this election was somehow stolen. And this is particularly notable coming from Barr because Barr has been such a close ally, such a close adviser of the president. You may recall that just this past summer, in the runup to the election, Barr was out there right alongside the president pushing false claims about what they said were the dangers of mail-in voting. And now here you have the attorney general after the election coming out and contradicting the president's repeated claims - false claims, we have to say - that the election was somehow rigged and stolen.

INSKEEP: What is the Trump campaign saying about that?

LUCAS: Well, the president himself has not publicly responded to Barr's comments. He has been tweeting a lot about his election grievances, though. The response really came from the campaign's lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis. They said in a statement that the Justice Department hasn't really investigated anything related to voter fraud. And they say that they will continue their legal fight through the courts and state legislatures. That said, it's important to say here that over the past month, courts have looked at the Trump campaign's claims and courts have repeatedly dismissed them.

INSKEEP: Dozens of suits and I guess we should also note, since they made that claim about the Justice Department hasn't investigated, William Barr said, yes, we did investigate and we found nothing. However, Barr made this other disclosure about a different election. There's been this investigation involving 2016 and apparently that's going to go on.

LUCAS: That's right. The attorney general has appointed a man by the name of John Durham as special counsel. He did this in mid-October under the same regulation that Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, actually. And Barr says that he did this to make sure that no matter who won the election, Durham could continue his investigation. Remember, for around a year and a half now, Durham has been investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. We know at this point that this is a criminal investigation. So far, only one person has been charged. That is a former FBI lawyer who has pleaded guilty to altering an email. Barr told the AP that Durham's probe has narrowed over time and is now focused on the FBI's activities in the Trump-Russia investigation. But the bottom line is that appointing Durham as special counsel makes it harder for an incoming Biden administration to shut this investigation down if it wanted to do so.

INSKEEP: So they'll continue a probe that the outgoing president wanted investigating the investigators. Ryan, thank you so much.

LUCAS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

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INSKEEP: Just as we're seeing all across the nation, California is experiencing a dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Los Angeles County just reported a new record number of infections. California Governor Gavin Newsom gave this warning early in the week.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: If these trends continue, we're going to have to take a much more dramatic, arguably drastic action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: LA County right now leads all U.S. counties in both infections and deaths.

INSKEEP: Jackie Fortier is a health reporter with KPCC in Los Angeles and is up early to talk with us. Good morning.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Wow, such a contrast between the bright vaccine news and the dark news on the ground. What's happening where you are?

FORTIER: Yeah, we're just experiencing a huge surge in new coronavirus cases, like you said, across California, but particularly in LA. Health officials reported more than 7,500 cases just yesterday. That shattered the old record that we set just last week. Hospitalizations have tripled in the past month. We're seeing deaths really begin to rise as well. On average, 30 people are reported dead every day. California Governor Gavin Newsom, who we just heard from, also said on Monday that Southern California is forecast to run out of intensive care beds by mid-December. By Christmas Eve, ICU beds are forecast to be at 107% of capacity across the region.

INSKEEP: One hundred seven percent - so that's some number of patients with no bed or no regular bed in the ICU. What happens when they get to that?

FORTIER: It has not happened before, and there is no clear plan.

INSKEEP: OK, so how will they try to avoid getting there?

FORTIER: Yeah. So in response to that, they instituted a new stay-at-home order in LA County. It's a three-week order, and it started on Monday. It's really designed to keep people in their homes as much as possible. There's no gatherings with anyone outside of your household. It reduces capacity at stores. K-12 schools will continue but only at 20% capacity, which is what they've been doing anyway. Outdoor areas like beaches, parks, trails will all be open, but, of course, you can't gather together. Health officials are just really trying to find a sweet spot where they can keep people from gathering and spreading the virus but still allow some retail stores to remain open. It is much less restrictive than the stay-at-home order we had last spring. But that's really because business owners have pushed back hard against more restrictions. They're losing money, and without any federal funding to offset the closures, these business owners are getting very desperate.

INSKEEP: Wow. So they're doing as much restriction as is politically and economically possible. Now, you said LA is just about the worst situation in California, but the rest of the state isn't so great, I hear.

FORTIER: No, no. California is shattering records. On Monday, the state reported more than 21,800 new cases, which surpasses a previous high set a week ago. This is easily the worst situation that California has been in since the pandemic started. Hospitals across the state are near capacity. There may soon be another lockdown-type stay-at-home order across California. I talked to Governor Gavin Newsom a few weeks ago, and he told me that if the situation got bad enough, he would issue another stay-at-home order. But if he does, he will get fierce pushback. Businesses are OK with shutting down last spring because they had some federal funding. But without that, Newsom would face a pretty fierce fight with business owners this time around.

INSKEEP: And Congress has discussed more funding but has not approved anything yet. Jackie, thanks so much.

FORTIER: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Jackie Fortier is a health reporter with KPCC in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.