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Science & Environment

Coronavirus Updates: The Latest In The United States

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With pressure mounting on governors across the country to reopen their economies, the issue of testing people for coronavirus infections is as critical as it's ever been. And despite repeated assurances from the White House to the contrary, there is a struggle to meet demand for tests. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is in talks with national manufacturers who say they can't get materials they need to deliver tests to the state.

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ANDREW CUOMO: This is a quagmire. I don't know what's right or what's wrong with that national supply chain question, but that's where the federal government could help.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Meanwhile in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has looked abroad for help, specifically to South Korea. Today he announced a deal to purchase half a million tests.

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LARRY HOGAN: I don't know if it's going to demolish the curb, but it certainly is going to enable us to open in a much safer way and to help us to protect a lot of folks.

SHAPIRO: For more on testing and the economy, I want to bring in NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

Good to have all three of you here.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, there's been this drumbeat of concern that there is not enough testing yet to reopen the economy. What does the White House say about this?

RASCOE: President Trump and others in the administration have been really defensive about these concerns. Trump is even going so far as to imply that the media is hyping this or kind of using this as a personal attack against him. On Friday, the White House gave a detailed rundown of his position, and they did so again today. What they're arguing is that there's a lot of unused capacity all across the country and that Vice President Pence and other task force members had a call with governors about this earlier today, going over the details with the governors. Here's how Trump explained it at tonight's briefing.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll be doubling our number of daily tests if the governors bring their states fully online through the capability that they have. We have tremendous capability out there already existing, and we explained that to the governor today. Mike and all of the people explained it very strongly to the governors. They really get it now.

RASCOE: Vice President Pence said that there are enough tests for states to open up - again, going to that first phase that they had laid out - if they meet the other criteria laid out by the administration, including cases and hospitalizations going down for two weeks regarding the coronavirus. But I have to say, since the start of this outbreak, we've heard over and over again this very optimistic portrait painted about the testing situation. And testing certainly has gone up a lot, but on the ground, it has not necessarily matched up with what the administration is saying. And there are still people who can't get tests and feel they need them.

SHAPIRO: Richard, I understand we're learning more today about how much testing we need before more people can start returning to work and the country can start its first steps away from social distancing. What is the latest?

HARRIS: Right. Well, the White House now says there is enough testing capacity to take that first step into the recovery plan. But you know, public health officials see a much greater need than that. They would like to do enough testing to be confident that they are catching the vast majority of cases quickly so sick people can be isolated. South Korea has actually been fairly successful in using that strategy. And today on a livestream hosted by the medical journal JAMA, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a top infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, gave a sense of how far we have to go.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: How do you know you're testing enough people? Well, you probably know because you're not finding very much disease, right? In Massachusetts, the last numbers we had - 25% of people we tested were positive. South Korea - they have 3% positive rate.

HARRIS: So by that rule of thumb, we still need a lot more testing - some public health experts say at least 10 times more and maybe even more than that.

SHAPIRO: Richard, let me also ask you about some other news today. Los Angeles County announced the results of a study that estimates how many people have contracted the coronavirus. What did researchers find?

HARRIS: Right. They took a random sample of adults and looked in their blood for antibodies. Now, antibodies are signs that people had been previously exposed to the coronavirus, though I have to be careful to say we don't know whether those people are now immune. But we do know they've been exposed.

The survey found that about 4% of adults in Los Angeles County have been infected, which translates to about 320,000 infections in that one county alone. Compare that to the national number, which is - what? - three-quarters of a million. So it's a big - it's a really big number.

Now, these results have not been peer-reviewed, and they are preliminary. But if this finding stands up, it tells us two pretty interesting things. The first is that only 1 out of every 40 infections in the Los Angeles area has been formally diagnosed. That means there's probably a large number of mild cases out there, and the risk of death following an infection could be lower. But as Dr. Deborah Birx at the White House pointed out today, that also means there could be a lot more people out there who could be spreading the disease to others who are at high risk of developing serious disease.

And secondly, it tells us that the epidemic is still just beginning. And anyone thinking of just letting it burn out on its own - well, it has a long way to go.

SHAPIRO: OK. Claudia Grisales, turning to you, this emergency funding package that Congress is negotiating is expected to have some testing money, right? What's the latest there?

GRISALES: Yeah, that is going to be a central feature of this new bill they're talking about right now. At least that's the looks of it. The overall focus of the package when talks began were a new funding rush for these small businesses that have been drawing up this very popular program that was part of a previous coronavirus response bill. So far, they're looking at $300 billion to add to these small-business loans. There's concerns among lawmakers that larger businesses have grabbed this money, and so they're looking at how to make sure more of these smaller businesses qualify.

While they're having these discussion, Democrats have been arguing that there's additional concerns, including the testing. Twenty-five billion dollars so far is part of the discussions. That's what they're looking to launch this national testing program. And they also want to make sure that they add funding for hospitals as well.

RASCOE: And speaking of money for testing, there have been these calls for national testing to get off the ground - a national testing program to allow the economy to reopen. In the new guidelines, Trump leaves it up to states to decide whether they have the testing and other capacities - capabilities needed to reopen. But the problem is that all these states need to increase their testing at the same time, so they're competing with each other over supplies like swabs and reagents. And so that's why many governors are calling for federal coordination. And one of those governors is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Trump announced today that he will be meeting with Cuomo tomorrow in the Oval Office. So that could be a pretty interesting meeting because the governor and the president have been trading attacks and compliments for a while.

SHAPIRO: Claudia, explain what's delaying the deal in Congress. Negotiators have said they were close.

GRISALES: They did indeed, but they have gotten hung up on these final details they're trying to hammer out. For example, going back to the testing, Democrats want to make sure that this national testing program is installed in a way where states can access it. There's lots of concerns that they don't have enough tests, so they want to make sure this money is spent in a smart way to address those, as well as money for state and local governments. They want to see, again, if they can get a push for that, and that could raise more concerns for Republicans - will continue to blame Democrats for these delays. However, Democrats say they're going to continue to push, and they hope to get more of that money.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Claudia Grisales, Richard Harris and Ayesha Rascoe.

Thanks to all three of you.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HARRIS: Sure.

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