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News Brief: Virus Warnings Delayed, Nurses' Safety, Mortage Payments Missed


NPR has new reporting on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan that was meant to contain the coronavirus before it got out of control in the United States. Now, back in February, let's remember, most people could not get tested. There just weren't enough tests. The CDC's plan at the time was that six cities would get tests.

They would test even people with mild symptoms to see if they were infected and determine if the virus was spreading. The problem was the CDC was just really slow. So what happened? Well, we want to ask NPR science correspondent Lauren Sommer, who has been looking into that question. Hi, Lauren.


GREENE: So remind us, first, how this was supposed to work.

SOMMER: Yeah. So these cities - and the ones the CDC announced in mid-February were Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, with Honolulu added a little bit later. They all work with the CDC already to track the flu. So the idea was to piggyback on that system and run some of those flu samples from patients for coronavirus, too. It's what's known as sentinel surveillance. Now, the idea was to test patients with mild symptoms who didn't meet the CDC guidelines for testing at the time. I mean, remember, this was early on when coronavirus testing was extremely limited.


SOMMER: That's because most states, they couldn't run the CDC's tests in February because of problems with the test kits. So there was a lot of concern that if people were getting coronavirus in their communities, it would go undetected because almost nobody could get a test. But even a month after the CDC announced this, only one of those cities actually had any test results from these surveillance projects.

GREENE: Wow. So this just wasn't getting up and running at all in the way it was expected. So talk about what was behind these delays.

SOMMER: Yeah. And a good city to look at is Los Angeles. County health officials there were in discussions with the hospital to do this testing. But the hospital's board declined, actually, over concerns it would stigmatize the hospital if it was found there, because remember, I mean, there was only one case in the county at the time. Testing only got underway when another hospital reached out.

LA County-USC Medical Center felt like they were flying blind, they told me, not being able to test mild patients. They ran the surveillance testing, which showed coronavirus was spreading in the community. That was information that officials used. They put in one of the earliest orders in the country for residents to stay home, which happened three days after the testing wrapped up.

GREENE: So what was happening in these other cities?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, most were also struggling to get it going. You know, for example, New York City, they didn't get results from this sentinel testing until March 31. Now, I couldn't get more information about why it took so long. I mean, the city is obviously overwhelmed right now. But at that point, the surveillance was just too late to be useful. There were already 40,000 cases. Seattle tried to get going in February by using an academic lab. But the CDC didn't approve it at the time. And it took another month to get started after that.

GREENE: So Lauren, I know there's no way to really know. But can we speculate about what difference this might have made if this testing had gotten going when it was supposed to?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to say, of course. I asked the CDC that. They said they didn't think it would have made a difference. And the delays were happening because it was an entirely new virus they were dealing with. But from what I found, it's clear that having this hard data that the community spread was happening, it really spurred some cities to act. And according to epidemiologists, you know, weeks, even days, made a difference. You know, the places that had those earlier stay-at-home orders, they seemed to have done better and avoided having their medical systems be overwhelmed.

GREENE: All right. NPR science reporter Lauren Sommer. Lauren, thanks a lot.

SOMMER: Thanks.


GREENE: So as we know, nurses are regularly risking their lives to treat coronavirus patients.


Yep. And a union that represents many of those nurses just released a survey. And the survey says more than 80% of nurses say they still don't have enough protective equipment.

GREENE: Yeah. And health reporter Will Stone got a first look at the survey. And he joins us from Seattle. Hi, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us more about what you're seeing in these responses from nurses.

STONE: It's a snapshot of what nurses are going through. The Service Employees International Union surveyed more than a thousand nurses, who they represent. The big takeaway is that most don't feel safe. More than 80% said they still don't have enough protective equipment like masks and gowns. And we know a lot of Americans have had trouble being tested. But these are health care workers. And 85% of the nurses said they can't get tested quickly.

And the vast majority say their hospitals don't have enough staff for a surge of patients. Obviously, it's a concern that we're a few months into this pandemic and nurses are still reporting problems with safety gear, with testing and with staffing. And we know from a CDC report that at least 9,000 health care workers have gotten infected with the coronavirus. And 27 have died from this disease. And that's probably a big undercount.

GREENE: I mean, this is stunning, right? You've got the union, obviously, concerned about keeping their workers safe, which is a huge concern. But these aren't just any workers. These are nurses on the front lines. What is - what do these responses tell us about the rest of the country?

STONE: Well, I talked to the president of SEIU about the implications, about how states like Georgia are moving toward relaxing stay-at-home guidance so that some people can go back to work. The president is Mary Kay Henry. And she says, figuring out if we have enough supplies to protect health care workers has to be part of the planning.

MARY KAY HENRY: We need to lift the restrictions when it's safe. But we're still in a crisis. I've heard from health care employers. We are going to crush registered nurses and health care workers if we return to work too soon and the pandemic crests again.

STONE: And, she says, it's the federal government that's responsible, ultimately, for making sure the hospitals are well-stocked, not just for nurses, but for all essential workers. She wants the Trump administration to take the lead, require more production of masks and of tests.

GREENE: Well, I know you've been talking to nurses for weeks now. What are you taking away from the conversations you have with them?

STONE: Many of them are scared and worn down, like Maria Gray (ph). She's a nurse in Missouri. She told me she lost her job at the hospital after demanding a better mask. I actually spoke to her as she was driving to a vigil for a nurse who she worked with who died after treating a coronavirus patient.

MARIA GRAY: As a nurse, you give so much to serve others. You care so much about others. And you should be protected to do your job, you know? So it really hurts. It just really - it really hurts.

STONE: And she's not alone in those feelings. Now, there has been, you know, a lot of public support - people donating masks and cheering health care workers. But a lot of nurses are still feeling abandoned by their managers, by the government. And they don't know when things are going to change. And the talk about reopening makes them afraid it might even get worse.

GREENE: Reporter Will Stone. Thanks so much, Will.

STONE: Thank you.


GREENE: So 3 1/2 million homeowners are skipping their mortgage payments because they have been hurt financially by this pandemic.

KING: Yeah. That's according to new numbers out this morning. Now, Congress told lenders to let homeowners miss payments or make partial payments for up to a year if they needed to. But a lot of people are now being told that those missed payments will ultimately result in a giant bill that they won't be able to afford.

GREENE: And NPR's Chris Arnold has been looking at all of this. Hi, Chris.


GREENE: Talk about some of the experiences that people are going through here.

ARNOLD: The best way to introduce you to this is to introduce you to one couple that I talked to on Long Island. And Jasmine Esposito (ph), she lost most of her income. She worked on, like, music events and tours. And that's all shut down, of course. And her husband, Frank Gallo (ph), worked for the LIRR - the Long Island Rail Road. He had his hours cut. And so they called up their lender, Freedom Mortgage.

And they said, you know, look; Congress has this program. Help us. And we need some help. And they were told, OK, look; you can skip three months of payments. But at the end of that, you're going to have to pay that all back. So you have your fourth month of payments plus the three. Four payments all at once. In their case, that's $14,000.


FRANK GALLO: Fourteen-thousand dollars in one shot - to come up with a balloon payment of that much.

JASMINE ESPOSITO: It's not possible.

GALLO: Yeah. It is impossible.

ESPOSITO: Where's the - this pile of money is just going to magically appear from somewhere, you know?

GALLO: If everyone's, you know, lost their job at this point - so I said, how is that helping? That's doing the exact opposite. That's putting people in further debt once we get out of this.

ARNOLD: And, you know, Frank is exactly right, the way he's looking at it. Congress set up this program because it's good for the economy. If we want a quick recovery, we need people financially intact so they can go out and spend money and resume their regular lives, not mired in unnecessary debt.

GREENE: Yeah. You say Frank is right. It sounds like he's right. Like, if this program was set up to actually help people, it doesn't sound like it's turning out that way at all if you're expected to pay this massive sum, all of a sudden.

ARNOLD: Right. It's not the way it was supposed to happen, right? And why is this happening is not entirely clear. I mean, some advocates think that some of what's going on is that some of these mortgage companies are trying to scare people away from the program kind of intentionally. Because if too many people stopped paying, that creates cashflow problems for them. And Congress didn't come up with a good way to pay for this and - you might argue.

And others say, no. Look; it's just a big, tangled mess with a lot of different rules. And call center workers working from home in a big ball of confusion. We talked to Freedom Mortgage, we should say. They say, quote, they're "fully complying with the CARES act." And also, they say, that to help people, the company is now offering, quote, "all options currently allowed by the various government agencies."

GREENE: So are there other options? Like, is there a way to fix this in a way that will actually help people?

ARNOLD: Yeah. You know, one thing that I'm hearing that's gaining traction is to make this much more simple, and that Congress could tweak this program and just have one default automatic repayment option that everybody gets put into it. And it's one of the existing options. Frankly, this is what most people should be getting already - the vast majority of people. It's what homeowners like best. And what it is is you take the missed payments. And you move them to the back of the loan term. So David, let's say you missed six payments. You got a 30-year loan.

Now you got a 30-year loan plus six months. So way down the road, you would make those payments and pay them back and, you know - or when you refinance or sold your house. And so then you could go back to just making your regular monthly mortgage payment, the one you could afford. People don't have to be scared, because a lot of them are running away from this program and spending their retirement and ending up in debt. And that's not good for them. It's not good for the economy. And it's not what Congress intended.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks for that report, Chris.

ARNOLD: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.