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After COVID-19 Hit The U.S., Our New Reality Started

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, we have hit a milestone in the United States, and it's a grim one. One hundred thousand people have died in this country from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The sense of loss has been profound. It's those who we have lost, all these lives which are not numbers. I mean, just think about how much grieving is happening among so many families in so many communities. There's also what we have lost - millions of people out of work, family members unable to see or take care of one another. And there are the gaps in treatment that have exposed inequities in our country. We want to reflect on this moment with journalists in different parts of the United States. We have NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in New York City and reporter Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in the city of New Orleans. Thank you all for being here to talk for a few minutes.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hello.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: You're welcome.

GREENE: Martin, I want to start with you, if I can. I mean, just think, this has been three months. It seems like a lifetime ago when we started hearing about the first report of a death from COVID-19. It was in a suburb of Seattle, Kirkland, right? And you reported on it.

KASTE: Yeah. It was Saturday, February 29. I remember - still seems like a long time ago, as you say - being woken up by a call from a source alerting me to the fact that we'd had our first COVID death now. And, you know, just to give you some background to remember that state of affairs at that point, we'd had some cases in the United States, especially in this region. But in part because of a screw up in the development of the test by the CDC, they couldn't test people as freely as they would like to. They had pretty stringent conditions to test someone. And then a window of opportunity opened up in the rules for a few days there right before that date. And a doctor - an emergency room doctor or emergency department doctor at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland took advantage of that, tested some of these really bad pulmonary cases he had in his ICU just on a hunch, and they came back positive. And one of them died while the test was coming back. And that was the first death.

I remember at the time saying on the air - and I think still that was really what happened - is it was like we just turned on the lights and suddenly looked around and saw that people were already dying of this disease in nursing homes, especially here in our region and later everywhere. And there was this hasty press conference that same day. I remember the public health officials here sort of getting us used to this idea of social distancing. And it started gradually, but within, you know, just about a week and a half here in Seattle, schools were shutting down and our new reality started.

GREENE: A new reality that spread to so many communities around the country. Hansi, New York City, I mean, the toll has been incredible. At the peak of the crisis, the per capita death rate in New York 10 times more than Washington state where Martin is. I mean, New York just became the epicenter. How has this all changed that city over these months?

WANG: This pandemic has really devastated the hospital system. It's become the norm now to see outside of many facilities, you know, refrigerator trucks storing the remains of people who have died from COVID-19 because the funeral homes are just so overwhelmed. And, you know, something that's unthinkable that the New York City, the city that never sleeps, that have a subway system operating 24/7, now we are closed every night for a few hours for cleaning, really disrupting folks who are still trying to commute and get around and do their jobs.

And, you know, the constant ringing from the sirens of ambulances in certain parts of the city, I - most New Yorkers will probably never forget that. That was the soundtrack of our lives in much of March and April. And certainly this has laid bare long-standing racial disparities in New York City in terms of who gets access to health care and what kind of jobs people have. And these are disparities that you find in other hot spots around the country as well.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, I'm glad you brought that up when you talk about racial disparities because, Tegan, that's one thing that you've seen in the state of Louisiana. I mean, African Americans are dying at alarming numbers.

WENDLAND: Yeah. At this time, about 55% of the people who are dying are black, and that's disproportionately high in a state with a population that's 32% black. And experts say there are a lot of reasons for that, but they agree that especially in the South, people of color have less access to health care. They face more food insecurity and higher rates of poverty. And all of those factors lead to more preexisting conditions, like heart disease and diabetes. I talked to one woman in New Orleans east, which is a hot spot. It's a predominantly black area and has a high population of low-income people. She's a singer, and she lost 20 friends and family members to COVID. She was hospitalized herself with the coronavirus. And she says she doesn't go on Facebook now because it just reads like an obituary.

So, you know, culturally, it's also just been really devastating. We have a tradition of celebrating death with second lines here, and now none of that can happen. The funerals are limited to 10 people, and that has made grieving really difficult in a city that likes to come together in hard times. So the city and state are deploying these mobile test sites now to some of the hardest hit areas. And Governor John Bel Edwards has convened this task force of public health professionals to look into some of the reasons for these disparities. Advocates here are really hoping for a long-term reforms.

GREENE: Hansi, what about in New York City? I mean, are they trying to do something about the racial disparities that we've seen there?

WANG: City officials say they are trying to prioritize testing, for example, in communities where there are folks who have lower income, folks where they're predominately people of color. But, you know, one major underlying issue here is that this pandemic has really gotten to issues that have been long-standing in New York City. I spoke with C. Virginia Fields, the president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on Health based here in New York City. She told me she's really concerned that there are greater issues that need to be addressed. Let's listen to what she said.

C VIRGINIA FIELDS: Are we prepared as a nation to put in place systems that will address poverty, unemployment, racism? How do we address this through policies and budgets?

WANG: Now, these are long-term, long-range questions facing policymakers right now just as New York state is taking its first few steps to reopen. There's a slower reopening happening here in New York City. There's still a stay-at-home order in place, no set date for when New York City will join the rest of New York state. And it's unclear if we should be expecting, you know, for example, a second wave of the coronavirus.

GREENE: Yeah. And, sadly, whether these numbers - we could see them keep going up, even, as you say, the country reopening. Tegan, what does reopening feel like in New Orleans at this point?

WENDLAND: So we just started about a week and a half ago allowing about 25% capacity at restaurants and some other businesses because deaths have been on the decline, and all indications are that the shutdown has worked. But local and state budgets are really reeling from the loss of oil and gas revenue and also from tourism. We're a tourism-based economy. Many service workers are still out of work. We've got 300,000 people on unemployment right now. And this could really change the economy and culture here forever. You know, what is New Orleans without festivals and food? So people are anxious to know when things are going to get back to some kind of normal. We're watching closely to see how this plays out in more rural areas right now, as well, where it seems the virus has been a bit delayed. A lot of those areas face a lack of resources and hospitals. We're seeing that play out in Montgomery right now where the number of infections is rising and hospitals are running out of beds.

GREENE: Martin, there's been this sense that Seattle has kind of been one step ahead of the rest of the country in both suffering through those early deaths and figuring out how to flatten the curve. Does that mean that there's a feeling there that Seattle can return to something approaching normal life more quickly?

KASTE: Not necessarily. I mean, that's the thing about this disease. I mean, yeah, we definitely avoided disaster here. You know, we bent the curve early. I remember the first time I saw someone drawing that famous curve illustration. And we've got a lot of public health infrastructure in the city, the Gates Foundation, lot of people in the government who, you know, definitely push us in that direction. And I think it's pretty clear that saved a lot of lives, and we never exceeded capacity in the hospitals but at great economic price. And I think the question right now is, yes, you know, we peaked early in terms of the demand on hospitals. But at the same time, you know, as things came down, they never came down, like, real fast. And it's sort of bumping along. There's this death toll that keeps going in the background. There's a sense that, well, what do you do to reopen where you don't start increasing the numbers again?

And, you know, we do have enough testing here now. They say there are enough tests for people who want them. The question, of course, is the contact tracing. They've been building up the staff for that. And maybe by the end of June, they'll have enough people to be able to contain the increases that will happen as we go back to something approaching normal life. But, you know, there's a sense here that because they follow the data, not dates on the calendar, no one really knows what the horizon is for coming out of this.

GREENE: I just think about all this vocabulary we now have - social distancing, flattening the curve, contact tracing - that no one even - words no one even used before this.

KASTE: Yeah. We don't need to explain this anymore.

GREENE: No, not at all. Hansi, back to you in New York. Is there a moment or an image that has stayed with you in your mind as you've watched the city of New York live through this?

WANG: You know, I can't shake some reporting I did over the phone speaking with paramedics and EMTs working in New York City. These are the folks who are seeing really the scale of death that this pandemic has brought to New York City. And one told me, you know, it's as if when she enters a home in responding to a 911 call and she finds a patient who is suffering from COVID-19 or appears to be, it's as if she says the virus is speaking to her because she can see these signs of difficulty breathing, of people looking pale in the face. Just - she and other EMS workers are really witnessing the death that many of us only know about in terms of numbers. But these are folks who are seeing it day in, day out doing their job. And it's having effect on their mental health and their - how they go about their lives.

GREENE: Tegan, a final thought on something you've seen in your reporting?

WENDLAND: For me, it's really been seeing people, low-income service workers crowded at bus stops just down the street from me on Broad Street, many of them without masks, you know, they still have to go to their essential jobs as pharmacists or grocery clerks, and just the way that this pandemic has really laid bare the disparities here in the South.

GREENE: Tegan Wendland reports for member station WWNO in New Orleans; also NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in New York on this day when the death toll in our country from COVID-19 has hit 100,000. Thank you to all of you.

WENDLAND: Thank you.

WANG: You're very welcome.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.