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News Brief: COVID-19 Testing, Promises And Lockdowns


Easter had been when President Trump wanted to reopen the country, but that didn't happen. And instead, there were virtual church services and small Easter dinners instead of big ones.


So how much longer do Americans stay at home? On ABC's "This Week," FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn held out some hope to reopen some things on May 1.


STEPHEN HAHN: We see the incredible resiliency of the American people with respect to social distancing, hand-washing and all those mitigation factors. So that gives me great hope, but I think it's just too early for us to say whether May 1 is that date but more to come on that as we learn more information and as our planning proceeds.

INSKEEP: Hope is one thing, but widely cited computer models assume that Americans must stay home longer than that to limit the spread because the virus will still be present. The government's own public health experts say they need a system to trace and contain the disease before people can return to work safely.

MARTIN: All right. So let's talk about what that system might look like with NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.


MARTIN: So we have heard this a lot lately, contact tracing, which is something that health officials are now saying we need to have in place before we open up at all. Explain what that means, contact tracing.

BRUMFIEL: So, basically, it's just exactly what it sounds like. When somebody tests positive for a disease - can be any disease, really - public health officials call that person. The first thing they ask about is how they're doing and whether they need more medical help. But once they've done that, they ask who they've been in contact with. Then they can call those contacts and ask them to go into quarantine to make sure they don't spread the disease if they've been infected. It's not exactly rocket science, but it does require an awful lot of phone calls and follow-ups.

MARTIN: It also requires trust, right? There's no enforcement mechanism. You just hope that these people do self-quarantine. How would it work on a national scale?

BRUMFIEL: Well, right now, there's about a half million people in the U.S. and that's just too many to contact trace all of them. So first of all, we need to have this lockdown. It needs to last long enough that the number of active cases goes down. But assuming those cases do drop, you're absolutely right. Trust is essential, and that's why it's probably going to come down to state and local governments, governments that people work with every day. Massachusetts, for example, is starting a statewide program to trace COVID-19 patients and their contacts. And they're going to hire around a thousand people who can call people and, you know, make sure that they're doing the right things. They're going to start tracing as soon as they can, but they need to be trained first.

MARTIN: Right. So can we be ready in a matter of a month or even two months?

BRUMFIEL: It's going to be really tough. I mean, first of all, we're - nationwide, we're talking about hiring tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. Tracing doesn't require super specialized training. You can have people who've never done it before do it, but they do need to be plugged into some sort of system. That system needs to include widespread - and this is important - rapid testing so that tracers know who to call and could call them before they make other people sick. It needs to include a system, you know, like a computer database that allows them to do their jobs. And, I mean, you also need to be able to support people who you're asking to quarantine themselves. I mean, if you're going to tell people not to go to the grocery store for 14 days, then you better have a plan to get them groceries if they need them, medicine, stuff like that. So you put all this together, and you're talking about this huge national effort. I mean, it's like building the Hoover Dam or something. But governments should be able to do that.

MARTIN: Is there technology that can help?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. We all carry these brilliant tracking devices known as cellphones, and they should work to help, but, of course, there's a lot of privacy issues around them.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. We appreciate it, Geoff. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So it was a month ago today that President Trump made this announcement about the coronavirus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To unleash the full power of the federal government in this effort today, I am officially declaring a national emergency - two very big words.

INSKEEP: It was March 13 when the president spoke those two words promising to mobilize public and private resources. He pledged a sweeping national campaign of screening, drive-through sample collection, lab testing. Although that would take a huge effort across a big country. Lives were in the balance with each passing day. And one month later, few of those promises are fulfilled.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak has been tracking those promises and joins us now. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So what did the president say would happen, and then what has happened?

MAK: Well, some members of NPR's Investigations team went through every promise the president made on that March 13 Rose Garden address. He promised that retailers would make drive-through tests in critical locations. But when we contacted the retailers who were there, we found that discussions have not led to any widescale implementation. Walmart has opened two testing sites. Walgreens has opened two in Chicago. CVS has opened four sites. Target has not opened any. In fact, the company said that it had no formal partnership with the federal government and suggested they were waiting for governments to take the lead. So rather than a massive wave of testing at these retailers, we found a grand total of eight sites.

MARTIN: Eight around the country.

MAK: That's right.

MARTIN: Wow. There was also supposed to be this website that was going to coordinate screening, testing and results, right?

MAK: Right. The president and his team promised Google was working on this website that would integrate screening, facilitate a nearby drive-through testing location and then send you back your results all in one.


TRUMP: It's going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.

MAK: Well, that never happened. Google was technically never the lead. A sister company to Google called Verily, owned by the same parent company, has rolled out a pilot project primarily at the direction of the California state government. They now have six testing sites, but they're only available to California residents in five counties in that state.

MARTIN: All right. So those are examples of public-private collaborations or at least attempts at those collaborations. What about promises that the federal government actually made?

MAK: Well, the president promised to waive interest on student loans held by the government and relax certain health care regulations, and he did do that. But on other issues, he was unable to fulfill his promises because he promised things he didn't have the power to do unilaterally. Here's an example - the president said he would waive license requirements so that doctors could practice in different states. But medical licensing is a state issue, and the president does not have the authority to waive this. He said he would purchase large amounts of oil for the U.S. strategic reserve, but he has not yet secured funds from Congress to do so and still hasn't. So it never happened.

MARTIN: So many promises left unkept. What has the White House said?

MAK: Well, the White House did not formally respond on the record for the story, although some agencies provided context. Ultimately, the last month has showed how many of these grand goals set out when the national emergency started haven't been met.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim. We appreciate it.

MAK: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, and it's been on strict lockdown. But today, the government there is opening a door of sorts.

INSKEEP: The doors to some businesses. Some companies are allowed to go back in business, including thousands of workers in sectors like construction and manufacturing. They're heading back to work after two weeks of what many in Spain called hibernation. The Spanish government has published safety guidelines for companies to follow, although many health experts say this return to work is happening too soon.

MARTIN: All right. So is the hibernation over? Joining us from Spain is Lucia Benavides. Hi, Lucia. How's it going?


MARTIN: I'm doing OK. So why now? Why is the Spanish government moving to reopen some businesses now?

BENAVIDES: So the government is basically saying that the situation in Spain is contained enough to where more people heading to work won't result in a spike of infections. The spokesperson for the country's health emergency coordination center says she doesn't believe that the spread of infections will increase. But in order to ensure safety as thousands of workers head back to work, police officers this morning began handing out 10 million face masks to people onboard metro and buses. And the Spanish government had to approve this measure. They did so on Monday, but it was actually met with some opposition within lawmakers. Some are criticizing the prime minister and his administration for putting economic interests above the health of its citizens.

MARTIN: Well - and it's not just lawmakers, right? I mean, as we said earlier, it sounds like there are some health experts who are worried this is happening too soon.

BENAVIDES: That's right. Yeah. The Spanish government has been seeking advice over coronavirus measures from a team of health experts. And one of them actually told Spanish media that they were not consulted. He expressed concern over this decision and said that the sensible thing would have been to - for the shutdown to be extended. And there are other health experts, including from Spain's main institution for scientific research, that said that these rollback measures are being taken prematurely. And they say it's important to roll back on these measures with mass testing and by isolating those who have tested positive. And Spain isn't at that point yet.

MARTIN: I mean, we talk about Spain being one of the countries really in the world that's been hardest hit. What's the data say right now about the rate of infections and deaths?

BENAVIDES: Yeah. Spain is the second - or has the second-highest number of cases after the U.S. and the third number of deaths after the U.S. and Italy. But the number of new coronavirus infections is beginning to slow down. And on Sunday, there were around 4,100 new cases, which it was down 663 from Saturday. The number of daily fatalities is also decreasing. It peaked at 950 deaths in 24 hours on April 2, but since - in the past week, the numbers have stayed mostly under 700. And, you know, a lot of, you know, hospitals have been lacking in equipment, which resulted in health care workers getting sick. And now we're beginning to see more of the emotional and psychological toll on these health care workers who are showing symptoms of depression.

MARTIN: All right. We'll leave it there. Lucia Benavides reporting from the suburbs of Barcelona. Thank you.

BENAVIDES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.