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Coronavirus Updates: President Trump Resumes Coronavirus Task Force Briefings

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is back. After a three-month hiatus, President Trump resurrected his briefing about the coronavirus tonight. And there was a big shift in his tone.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better - something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is. It's the way - it's what we have. You look all over the world, it's all over the world.

CHANG: This change comes as the virus surges in Southern states, and the White House looks at polls showing negative ratings for how the president has handled it. Tuning in to tonight's briefing is NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin, congressional correspondent Susan Davis and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. They join us now.

Ayesha, let's start with you. What was President Trump's message in today's briefing?

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: The big message was really just what we already played, was him saying that it's going to get worse before it gets better. In the past, he had talked in these kind of optimistic terms about the virus, saying that, you know, the U.S. just needs to put out embers here and there. Here, he's acknowledging that this is a really big issue. But Trump was still trying to make the case that the administration is on top of everything. He did call for more action from the public than he has in the past, making his most forceful push for wearing face masks. Here's what he said.

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TRUMP: When you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask. Get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They'll have an effect. And we need everything we can get.

RASCOE: And he was trying to put into perspective that this is this global problem. But what he didn't do was really explain why the U.S. has had such a surge when other countries seem to have the virus mostly under control.

CHANG: Interesting. Selena, I mean, we're seeing the president basically changing his messaging on masks. It's still a divisive issue across the states, though, isn't it?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: That's right. I mean, Trump has said he does not think there should be a federal mask mandate. And he personally, for months, has resisted wearing masks in public, changing his tone tonight for the first time. Across the country, as you said, there have been battles playing out, for instance, between Georgia's governor and Atlanta's mayor, who disagree about whether masks should be required in public. And at the same time, the science on mask wearing is starting to yield some really compelling results about how effective masks are. So for one, it seems like masks might protect the wearer from getting seriously ill if they're exposed not just the people around the wearer. And NPR's Nurith Aizenman has been reporting on models that suggest if 95% of people started wearing masks, it could decrease the number of deaths by tens of thousands over the next few months and even help hotspots like Texas avoid going into lockdown again. But right now estimators put the percent of people wearing masks at about 40%.

CHANG: That's still a long way from 95%. Ayesha, you have watched a lot of these briefings by now. President Trump really seemed to change his message today, as we said. Why do you think he's doing that now?

RASCOE: Before all of this, the White House had really wanted to turn the page on the pandemic and put the focus on the response from states. But now Trump is way down in the polls, and this seems to be some acknowledgment that the White House needs to change its approach. The virus is surging in the South. This is a top issue for voters. And some advisers look at it as a good idea to be seen as leading on this issue. Here's Trump's senior adviser Kellyanne Conway.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: I believe it because the pandemic continues, and he's done a solid job leading our country through it. His approval rating on the pandemic was higher when he was at the podium. It was at 51% percent in March. And I think people want to hear from the president of the United States.

RASCOE: One thing that's really important to stress here, though, is, you know, how long will President Trump keep up this message? In the past, he's occasionally made these kinds of somber announcements about the virus, but he has not been consistent. And even in this briefing, he said he believes the virus will just disappear one day.

CHANG: OK. Sue, I want to turn to you now because negotiations are underway between Congress and the White House on a fifth pandemic relief package. Where does this bill stand at this moment?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is going to formally introduce a bill this week that's going to be the Republicans' starting point in negotiations with Democrats. House Democrats, about two months ago, have already passed a $3 trillion pretty sweeping measure that would address sort of what they believe are the priorities right now. McConnell doesn't want to spend that much money. We know his bill is expected to cost around $1 trillion, and they want to try and get a deal in just the next three weeks. Some of the top lines things that he said would be in there is he wants $105 billion to get out to schools to help them for reopening for in-person learning. They want to give businesses ways to get reimbursed if they have to make safer workspaces; things like putting up plexiglass or having more PPE in your office space. And he said, yes, they do support a second round of direct payments to Americans. They also want a lot more money for testing and vaccine development. And McConnell said he does have a redline here. He's been saying this for months now - that he will not bring a bill to the floor of the Senate unless it has liability protections in there to protect businesses, health care workers, schools from lawsuits related to the pandemic.

CHANG: And I understand that there's been some tension between the White House and the usual cast of loyal Republican allies on the Hill.

DAVIS: Oh, yeah.

CHANG: I'm thinking of the president's demand for a payroll tax cut. How serious are these tensions?

DAVIS: You know, they're significant. And they're notable at a time when, you know, Republicans on the Hill are generally pretty allied behind the president. McConnell was pretty candid today that they don't have much agreement on this payroll tax issue. The president wants it. He says he could veto the bill if it's not included. But Republicans generally just don't think it's a good idea because it mainly helps people who are currently employed. The administration has also been at odds with senators over how much money to spend on testing. Republicans on the Hill want a lot of money - reportedly around $25 billion, if not more - and the White House has been pushing back on that. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt has been sort of leading the charge for more money. And he told reporters today he thinks the White House is going to back down, in part because they share the goal of getting kids back to school.

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ROY BLUNT: I think if you expect schools to reopen in person, you've got to have tests that allow that to happen. And they frankly have to be better in terms of their quickness and responsiveness than the tests we've had up till now.

DAVIS: You can hear him there that, you know, Republicans have been a lot more candid about the testing reality, saying it's not great and it's still not where it needs to be. And I do want to note that McConnell has taken a much starker tone than the president. He's been out there for months saying, wear a mask; social distance is important, and life won't get back to normal until we have a vaccine.

CHANG: And, Selena, turning back to you now, there was new research from the CDC today that gives us some idea about how widespread the virus really is beyond what we know from testing. What were the findings from the CDC?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's right. The research published today took data from across 10 different areas of the country, and it looked at whether people who got blood drawn for other reasons - not because they were sick with COVID - had coronavirus antibodies. In other words, they were infected in the past. So CDC analyzed these samples and found the number of people who had coronavirus who didn't know it were high - like, as high as 13 times higher than testing rates showed, depending on the site. So what that suggests is that people who have COVID without symptoms can spread it and that there is a lot more virus circulating than we can see just from the confirmed cases and tests.

And this isn't a completely new idea. The director of CDC has said true infection rates might be 10 times what we know from testing. But it underscores the challenges here. Despite progress, testing delays are back. It can take many days to get a result, and that has knock-on effects for the virus spreading through a community unchecked. And I want to say one hopeful note, that the number of new cases found through testing in the U.S. is trending a bit downward - around 60,000 new confirmed cases yesterday instead of the high of 75,000 we saw last week.

CHANG: OK, modestly good news. I mean, you've also been reporting on the CDC and a change that was announced last week. This change requires hospitals to report their data - data like number of ICU beds, number of COVID cases. They have to report that data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services instead of to the CDC. Can you just bring us up to speed on this development?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So there was initially concern that this new reporting system being used for this data, which is called HHS Protect - it's run by a private company called TeleTracking. The initial concern was that the data wouldn't be public or that it would be manipulated to, for instance, make the pandemic look not as serious as it really is. So the news is that researchers I've talked with recently have been relieved that the data from the new platform does appear to be public. HHS said yesterday in a call that there are gaps in data they've collected so far, but they hope that those gaps kind of close and the reporting improves over time. Some hospitals told NPR they found the new reporting tool confusing and hard to use, and they're really frustrated that they have to try this new system right now. They were also only given a few days to change their workflows. And as late as last week - late last week, a hundred public health groups urged HHS to reverse course and give control of this back to CDC. But that doesn't seem to be the plan. HHS really seems to be doubling down, and there was a call with reporters just yesterday to show off the new platform.

CHANG: Ayesha, Trump also said his administration is in the process of developing a strategy for COVID-19 in the coming months. Let's take a listen.

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TRUMP: As one family, we mourn every precious life that's been lost. I pledge in their honor that we will develop a vaccine, and we will defeat the virus.

CHANG: What do we know about how these efforts are going?

CHANG: Well, we know that the development of treatments and vaccines that's already in the works - that's been a focus for the administration. But, look; it's six months into the pandemic. And the U.S. does not have a national strategy for the virus. It seemed like today that Trump was trying to take a more proactive posture for the federal government. It's not clear, though, what concrete actions will actually be taken by the White House. And these are critical months going up to election. People are trying to figure out how school will work, whether they will have a job, what this economy is going to look like. And that seems to be why Trump has been focused or has been forced to kind of tackle this again because polling right now shows people are trusting his opponent more than him.

CHANG: That is NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. We also heard from health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin and congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thanks to all three of you.

RASCOE: Thanks you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.