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News Brief: Pandemic Roundup, Electoral College, Russian Hackers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are so accustomed to appalling news of the pandemic that it can be hard to absorb the very different news today.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine begin arriving at sites across the country today. Front-line health care workers at the George Washington University Hospital will be among the first Americans to get vaccinated. It's part of the Trump administration's COVID-19 vaccine kickoff event here in Washington.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is covering this. Alison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How many places get this vaccine across the country?

AUBREY: You know, about 145 sites are expecting to receive a vaccine shipment today, Steve; another 425 sites tomorrow. I've spoken to physicians in charge of coordinating distribution at several large hospital systems around the country. Here's Mark Newman of the University of Kentucky HealthCare system, which has thousands of employees.

MARK NEWMAN: We have our plan in place and we're ready and ahead of time. We got additional minus 80 freezers so we could - we can handle up to 100,000 doses of the Pfizer product at the minus 80. So we expect in the next few days to be able to start vaccinating our employees.

AUBREY: And this is really what I'm hearing from other large hospital centers as well. Newman says about 50% of employees say they absolutely want the vaccine as soon as possible, and about another 30% want a little bit more data but are interested.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, that is interesting to learn that even health care workers - that there is some skepticism there. We've been hearing about skepticism about vaccines generally, but millions of people are ready. So how do authorities decide who goes first?

AUBREY: Well, at Johns Hopkins, where they have multiple hospitals and tens of thousands of employees, they expect to receive today in their first shipment about 975 doses - so not nearly enough for everyone. To start, they've created tiers. Within the tiers, they're randomizing the process. So it's basically a lottery system to determine who goes first.

INSKEEP: And then can we expect more supplies to follow quickly?

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely. The head of Operation Warp Speed estimates the U.S. could vaccinate up to 100 million people by the end of March. And it seems the supply of vaccines will ramp up quickly. The federal government has purchased about 100 million more doses of the Moderna vaccine. Now, Moderna has already applied for emergency use authorization. And an FDA advisory committee meeting is set for later this week, Steve, so it could be approved very soon.

INSKEEP: This vaccine news comes alongside a dramatic increase in the number of deaths. We're now around 300,000 people dead in the United States alone. I'm troubled to even say this next sentence, but someone has put it on the page in front of me - 300,000 dead is like wiping out the city of Pittsburgh. And we're not done. How much worse could it get?

AUBREY: You know, this upward trend in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that began before Thanksgiving is just getting worse. I spoke to Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at Georgetown University.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Even before the Thanksgiving holiday, we were on a steep upward trajectory in terms of the number of new cases and in terms of the number of new deaths. And I realized that everybody has pandemic fatigue. We're tired of living like this. But I would also remind people that we are at basically a 9/11 every day in terms of the number of people that we're losing. And that number is going up.

AUBREY: You know, and, Steve, on a day we hit 3,000 deaths, that's about two people per minute dying from COVID-19. So, yes, the vaccine news is wonderful, but for right now, we need to stay vigilant with masking, social distancing. It's just absolutely critical.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks for your work.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In every State of the Union today, members of the Electoral College meet to cast ballots for president.

MARTIN: Their job is to reflect the democratic vote of people in their states. A majority is set to elect Joe Biden despite President Trump's weeks of efforts to subvert democracy. Courts rejected dozens of baseless lawsuits to overturn the vote. President Trump and most House Republicans signed on to a suit asking the Supreme Court to intervene. But the court declined to interfere with today's Electoral College vote. Even Amy Coney Barrett, the Justice Trump explicitly appointed to rule on his reelection, found no reason to hear the spurious case.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is covering the story. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So how does this process work today? This happens every four years, but normally we barely pay attention.

KEITH: That's correct. There are 538 members of the Electoral College. They will meet mostly in state capitols. These electors are chosen by state political parties, and they are really just there to take the popular vote tallies in their states and make them official. So this process will happen all over the country. At the end of it, Joe Biden will have more than 270 electoral votes needed to become president, but there is always one more step. And Congress meets on January 6 in a joint session to count these votes.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that happened four years ago. I was watching the video. The vice president is presiding in Congress as they affirmed the election of Donald Trump. And the person doing it then was Vice President Joe Biden.

KEITH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: This time around, Joe Biden becomes president and the president-elect gives a primetime address tonight. What might he say?

KEITH: So his transition team is saying that he will speak on the electoral vote certification and quote, "the strength and resiliency of our democracy." So that hints at where he's headed. The transition held a press briefing yesterday, and campaign manager turned future deputy chief of staff Jen O'Malley Dillon said that this will just be the latest instance of Biden winning this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN O'MALLEY DILLON: The electors will vote in a process determined by their own states throughout the day, and it will clearly reinforce exactly what's been true for weeks and weeks and weeks.

KEITH: And what stood out to me about this call yesterday was that the Biden team felt like they needed to hold a whole press briefing to talk about how he won, all the ways that he won, just to sort of reinforce the fact that he won as President Trump continues to deny the result.

INSKEEP: And we should note, the president went on Fox yesterday to say he is going to fight on, although his side has given no evidence in dozens of lawsuits. And the president continues to tweet conspiracy theories and lies. That's what he's got. That's what his case is. What does that say about the president's party now?

KEITH: Well, it's not clear how much of that was performative - like, they knew that this was going to fail, so why not show support for the president - and how much of it was a genuine effort by members of Congress to overturn the results of a free and fair election that also elected many of them.

INSKEEP: All of them. We should note, every single one of them was elected in that.

KEITH: Yeah. And, you know, the president, though, just keeps moving the goal posts. And many members of Congress had said, well, after the Electoral College votes. Well, now he's saying after those votes are counted in January.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks for the update.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. U.S. cybersecurity officials were braced for Russian interference ahead of last month's election, but they said that kind of attack never came.

MARTIN: Instead, it looks like Russia was busy elsewhere. It was apparently hacking U.S. government agencies not directly involved in the election.

INSKEEP: Wow. For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note this is hacking. It's covert activity. We may not have all the information, but what is known?

MYRE: Well, the leading suspect is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. It's the Russian equivalent of the CIA. And it seems, at minimum, they've penetrated computers at the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department. This has apparently been going on for months, and it was only recently uncovered by U.S. authorities. As you noted, we don't have many details, but the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged the breach, and it says they're working closely with agency partners regarding what they call this recently discovered activity on government networks.

INSKEEP: What information did the hackers get?

MYRE: Well, the government is making that kind of damage assessment right now. The email systems were hacked. Of course, that raises the questions was this just routine office email, or was it more important classified information? And while we're hearing about the Treasury Department and Commerce Departments initially being hacked, there are certainly concerns that it could have spread much more widely to other government departments and agencies.

INSKEEP: Any idea why Treasury and Commerce would be targeted by a foreign actor?

MYRE: Well, we don't know precisely. I mean, obviously, they would have valuable business and financial information, but it's also quite possible this was simply how the hackers found a way into the government networks. And there is certainly every expectation that other parts of the government would be targeted as well. The last major government hack perhaps of this scale was back in 2014, 2015, and the Russians were responsible for that as well. And that included hacking unclassified parts of the White House and the State Department.

INSKEEP: And we will repeat again, we don't know if this is classified or unclassified information that we're dealing with at Treasury and Commerce this time around. But, Greg, this is not the only news of suspected Russian hacking in recent days. Is this at all connected to an earlier report of hacking?

MYRE: It may be. And that earlier report just came out last week from a top U.S. cybersecurity firm, FireEye. It said some of its most valuable tools were stolen in an extremely sophisticated hack, something they said they'd never seen before. These are tools that the company uses to check the networks of its clients, which include the U.S. government. FireEye said it believed it was a state-sponsored attack and they didn't name Russia, but that was clearly the implication. And, yes, investigators are looking for a connection between that hack and this latest one. One possibility is that they were carried out through software updates that are widely used by government and private companies - certainly points to the fact that Russia is going after major well-defended, hard-to-hit targets.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.