MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The United States now leads the world in the number of recorded deaths from COVID-19. Some 22,000 Americans have been killed according to the latest tally from Johns Hopkins University. More than 10,000 of them are New Yorkers. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today his state may be turning a corner.
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ANDREW CUOMO: I believe the worst is over if we continue to be smart, and I believe we can now start on the path to normalcy.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
No one knows exactly what that path will look like, but Gov. Cuomo compared opening the economy to opening a valve.
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CUOMO: While you're opening that valve, watch the meter. What's the meter? The meter is the infection rate. And if you see that infection rate start ticking up, which would be undermining everything we have accomplished thus far, then you know you've opened the valve too fast.
CHANG: Now, to calibrate that reopening, he and five other Northeastern governors announced today that they will work together as a region. And then California, Oregon and Washington announced their own Western States Pact with a similar goal - all this while President Trump is expected to create a new task force to help him weigh this decision of when to reopen. Here to talk about all of this are NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and National Desk correspondent Quil Lawrence.
Hey to all three of you.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: All right. Quil, I want to start with you. As we said, New York and five other - or New York and some other Northeastern states are going to be forming a working group to plan how to and when to reopen, same with some Western states. But none of them right now are suggesting a reopening would happen anytime soon, right?
LAWRENCE: Right. They're just starting to plan, and they were very clearly not giving a timetable. It doesn't look like it will be soon. It - all of them concur that it has to be based on health conditions, not politics, they said. Cuomo announced that New York state today had passed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19, and he said he hopes that the worst is over. But he made it very clear that they're talking about months, not weeks.
CHANG: So what are these six states in the Northeast trying to accomplish?
LAWRENCE: They just want to coordinate whatever they do, and they pointed out that they can't really have an effective reopening without coordinating. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy gave the example that if the bars in Hoboken decide to open before the bars right across the Hudson River in Manhattan open, then people just go across the river. And it really...
LAWRENCE: ...Won't be effective. Even if they disagree, they will let each other know what they're doing differently. And Cuomo also said - Gov. Cuomo said any other state is welcome to join this consortium.
CHANG: And can you talk about kind of the milestone that this is all kind of happening at? I mean, this came on a day when Cuomo said he thought - at least he thought the worst might be over for New York.
LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, despite that high death toll, he said that the numbers are hopefully starting to plateau. He said that that's contingent upon everyone continuing to work hard at social distancing. But he said in order to reopen things, they need a massive rise in testing, and he made it clear that the federal government needs to do that. He said this regional effort - and, presumably, the West Coast regional plan as well - is all in the absence of a federal plan to do this. And he was clearly implying a vacuum of leadership on the federal level.
CHANG: Well, let's turn to the federal level. Ayesha, regarding a national plan, President Trump says this is his biggest ever decision about when - this decision about when and how to open up the country back up. Do we know how he will make that decision?
RASCOE: We don't, really. Trump has been talking a lot about wanting to transition back to a functioning economy, but he's also said repeatedly that he'd weigh advice from doctors on his coronavirus task force. And we saw this kind of same dynamic play out a few weeks ago when Trump had floated Easter as a possible opening date. But then...
RASCOE: He ended up extending his social distancing guidelines through this month. And then on - and then Trump did say on Friday that he'd be setting up this council to help make this decision.
CHANG: Right. We did talk about that on Friday, last Friday. Let's remind listeners what Trump had said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is beyond economic. This is really - I call it the opening our country task force or opening our country council so we don't get it confused with Mike's task force, which has done so great. And we're going to have the great business leaders, great doctors.
CHANG: So, Ayesha, do we have any more details about what this council's going to look like? Like, who will be on it, and how is it different from the coronavirus task force that Vice President Pence runs?
RASCOE: We don't yet know who will be on it, but it's supposed to be announced on Tuesday. And it's unclear how this new group is going to interact with the existing task force. One complaint from critics has been that there's just not one person in charge. You have Pence running the task force. You have Jared Kushner doing some side things with the private sector. So how does this new entity that's being set up fit in with that, and does it really just make things more complicated?
Of course, we should be clear. In terms of this council's authority, a lot of the decisions - stay-at-home orders, businesses closing, schools closings - came from the state and local levels. So ultimately, it's going to be up to states to decide when to reopen, not one decision that comes from the White House. But the White House can try to influence that through the bully pulpit and through guidelines and conversations with governors that have been affected.
CHANG: Well, Rob, let's get the public health perspective here. I mean, what do health experts say about what would need to happen first before any reopening can happen anywhere in the country?
STEIN: Yeah. There's a lot of apprehension about all this talk about trying to reopen things that it may just be far too soon. You know, there are these glimmers of hope from places like Washington state and New York, but the situation in New York is still pretty grim. And there are lots of worries that the worst could be yet to come in many parts of the country.
And public health experts say that whenever the worst looks like it might be over, the country still has a lot of work to do to make sure things are ready before we can reopen safely. I mean, one thing is to make sure that hospitals are prepared for any new waves of infection. Remember; the virus would still be out there, and lots of people would still be vulnerable. So hospitals have to be ready to avoid getting overwhelmed. And many are still scrambling on a daily basis for basic supplies like ventilators, masks and other crucial...
STEIN: ...Lifesaving equipment.
CHANG: And another thing that we've been hearing a lot about lately is this idea of contact tracing. Explain how contact tracing works and how far along we are.
STEIN: Right. You know, if things really do calm down, it'll be crucial to spot any new cases quickly and then move fast to stop any new outbreaks from flaring up. And that'll require this contact tracing, which basically means quickly identifying people who had any contact with any newly infected people so those contacts can be quarantined to break any new chains of transmission. And that will require thousands of workers at health departments around the country, you know, to isolate sick people and find their contacts fast and get them into quarantine and make sure they can stay there safely.
The CDC says it's working on a plan for that kind of massive undertaking, but some estimates say at least 100,000 contact tracers will be needed. And that could cost $3.6 billion just for one year.
STEIN: So we may need as many as 300,000 of these contact tracers to do the job right. So you can see it's a huge undertaking that we'd be facing.
CHANG: Right. Ayesha, I want to turn back to you. I mean, there have been some calls lately in right-wing circles to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's the top infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force. Things kind of escalated yesterday after a tweet from President Trump. Can you just walk us through how the White House has responded to all of this?
RASCOE: Trump tweeted a lot yesterday, and one thing that he retweeted that got a lot of attention was this tweet. He retweeted a tweet that included the hashtag #FireFauci. It followed an interview that Dr. Fauci gave on CNN yesterday in which he conceded that an earlier shutdown of the economy could have saved lives. But the White House is saying that President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Fauci has been and remains a trusted adviser to the president.
CHANG: OK. That is NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, health correspondent Rob Stein and national desk correspondent Quil Lawrence.
Thanks to all three of you.
STEIN: You bet.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ailsa.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.