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News Brief: PPE Shortages, ICE Whistleblower, 737 Max Report

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're getting close to another grim milestone here in the United States in this pandemic - 200,000 coronavirus deaths.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since the pandemic started, there's been a whole lot of talk about the need to manufacture personal protective gear in this country. President Trump made promises, so did the industry. But six months on, the U.S. still does not have enough critical equipment, like N95 masks. So why? Why can't America make what it needs?

GREENE: Well, NPR's Joel Rose has been looking into this. Joel's with us. And good morning to you, Joel. And take us through what you found here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, let's look at those N95 respirator masks. What we found is that the big domestic manufacturers have stepped up production. So far, though, they have not been able to meet this demand. Some smaller manufacturers want to help fill in that gap, but they're wary of taking on this risk because it is a really big investment to retool your factory to make N95 masks or other PPE. And they're just not sure that it will pay off.

GREENE: I mean, why aren't they sure of that? I mean, isn't it really clear that we need hundreds of millions of masks and a lot more PPE right now?

ROSE: For sure. But here is a story that I think explains what's going on. I talked to one factory owner, a man named Ranvir Gujral. He owns a factory in Michigan that makes fuel cells. Back in the spring, he retooled and started making PPE. He started with the easy stuff - plastic face shields and hand sanitizer - and found out that a lot of people had the same idea, that the market was glutted. And Gujral now has boxes of unsold face shields piling up on his factory floor, and he is now considering whether to retool his factory again, this time to make N95 respirator masks. But he's hesitating. After all, Gujral says, it could take six months for this new line in his factory to get going.

RANVIR GUJRAL: Are we going to still have demand? Are these customers still going to, you know, come to us? We don't want to be left holding the bag. This is a big enough move to, you know, put us out of business if it doesn't go well.

ROSE: Gujral says he's gotten no guidance from the federal government. And small manufacturers like him say they are just trying to figure all this out on their own.

GREENE: I mean, no guidance from the federal government - you listen to President Trump through this pandemic, he seems to suggest that, like, he's done a really good job of getting the industry to ramp up and produce stuff. What - is the White House acknowledging this problem that you're finding?

ROSE: Well, the Trump administration, as you say, has really been downplaying the severity of PPE shortages, pointing to the fact that the U.S. has ramped up domestic production already. And the White House says it wants people to buy American-made PPE because the U.S. has relied too much on overseas suppliers, especially in China. Here's President Trump at the Republican National Convention last month.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are taking our business out of China. We are bringing it home.

GREENE: Do manufacturers say that, as well - that we are bringing it home? I mean, do they agree with that?

ROSE: Well, they agree that it's a great opportunity that we have, to bring some of the PPE industry back to the U.S. But some manufacturers are worried that the administration is actually fumbling this opportunity to do that. I talked to Scott Paul. He is the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

SCOTT PAUL: We're not seeing that happen. In fact, we're behind in manufacturing jobs. We're importing more PPEs than ever.

ROSE: Paul would like to see more of a strategic plan to help small and mid-sized manufacturers to start making PPE besides just the giants of the industry, like 3M and Honeywell, who are already cranking out as many N95 masks as they can. But so far, that just has not been enough. The U.S. is still hundreds of millions of N95 masks short of the 3.5 billion that public health officials say we will need this year. And manufacturers say we're depending more than ever on imported PPE to make up the difference. And in the long run, they say, that could make us even more dependent on China, not less.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thanks for digging into this.

ROSE: Hey, you're welcome.

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GREENE: So over the past several years, we have seen those disturbing images of children in cages at migrant detention centers along the U.S. southern border.

MARTIN: Right. And now, because of a new whistleblower report, we are learning more about conditions inside one particular facility. The whistleblower is a nurse who worked at a privately run ICE detention center in Georgia. She says they were performing unnecessary hysterectomies on women held there and also knowingly putting their staff and detainees in danger of contracting the coronavirus.

GREENE: We have Susanna Capelouto with member station WABE in Atlanta with us this morning. She's been following this. Thanks for being here.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: No problem.

GREENE: So take us through what we're learning. I mean, where did this report come from? And tell us more about what it says.

CAPELOUTO: Well, it was submitted as a whistleblower complaint to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general by the advocacy group Project South. It's 27 pages long, and it talks a lot about how the Irwin County Detention Center in rural south Georgia does not follow CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19, that it's not keeping employees and staff safe, there's a lack of personal protective equipment, lack of hygiene - things like that. And these are issues immigrant advocates repeatedly have brought up about other facilities, as well.

But this report also mentions a completely new complaint where Project South gathered comments from immigrant women at the facility. And they were expressing their concerns about how many women at the Irwin center get hysterectomies. Now, this is then backed up by comments from Dawn Wooten. She's the nurse and the whistleblower behind the report. And she said that she and others at the facility questioned among themselves why an outside doctor, quote, "takes everybody's stuff out. That's his specialty. He's the uterus collector." Now, the doctor is not named in the report.

GREENE: Wow. OK. So this is coming from a nurse, Dawn Wooten, as you said. Do we know more about her?

CAPELOUTO: Well, she's worked at the Irwin County Detention Center off and on for several years. Her latest stint was from October to July. And she came to Atlanta yesterday to give a statement in front of the ICE office here. She did not address the comments about the hysterectomies, and she did not answer questions. But she did talk about how she started asking questions about why detainees were not tested and she complained that there was not enough PPE for staff.

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DAWN WOOTEN: I was called in one day, and I was demoted. And I know I was demoted because I raised questions about why inside of a silent pandemic. I was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive. We have families.

CAPELOUTO: Now, ICE records show 42 cases of COVID-19 at the Irwin County Detention Center, and it houses about 650 immigrant detainees.

GREENE: I mean, this is a horrifying whistleblower report, the things that she is saying are going on there. I mean, is ICE responding to these allegations?

CAPELOUTO: They Sen a statement. And it says that they don't comment on issues before the inspector general. And they said they take all allegations seriously, but then they said that anonymous and unproven ones should be treated with skepticism.

GREENE: Well, I mean, we know how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is treating this. She's demanding an investigation into what we're learning. What other reaction has there been?

CAPELOUTO: Well, here in Georgia, people are asking - especially the Democrats - are asking for an investigation into this matter on the local level. But everybody wants answers here.

GREENE: Susanna Capelouto with member station WABE in Atlanta. Thank you so much.

CAPELOUTO: You're welcome.

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GREENE: All right. Lawmakers are out with a damning report on Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration this morning.

MARTIN: The House Committee on Transportation found evidence of failures by both the plane manufacturer and the federal agency in the development of the 737 Max. The committee says those failures contributed to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes that killed more than 300 people.

GREENE: And NPR's David Schaper has been following all of this. Good morning, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: What are the takeaways here?

SCHAPER: Well, this transportation committee investigation found that there was no single technical flaw or pilot failure that led to the deadly 737 Max plane crashes in Indonesia back in October of 2018 and in Ethiopia the following March. Instead, it describes the circumstances that led to them almost like a perfect storm, calling it the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing's engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing's management and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.

The report details Boeing's flawed design of a new automated flight control system on the plane and mistakes it made in using outdated and faulty assumptions of pilot response as well as a culture of concealment, keeping information from the FAA, its customers and the pilots who would fly the plane.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio oversaw the inquiry. And he says what's mind boggling about this is that both Boeing and the FAA contend that they followed proper procedures and found the 737 Max to be compliant.

PETER DEFAZIO: That's the bureaucratic word - it was compliant. But the problem is it was compliant and not safe, and people died.

GREENE: Well, how is Boeing responding to all this, David?

SCHAPER: Well, in a statement, a Boeing spokesman says the company has learned many hard lessons from the plane crashes and the mistakes that it has made. And it has made some fundamental changes to the company's safety culture and protocols as a result. And the culture is really important here because the report also details a culture of concealment. The report details how Boeing employees were under enormous pressure to keep costs down and the plane on schedule. The aviation subcommittee chairman, Rick Larsen, says that a lot of these misguided priorities that come - were coming from senior management drove a number of troubling decisions. In one example, he says, the company installed countdown clocks in the conference rooms to make it clear to employees that production timelines were important and safety not so much.

GREENE: Wow. What happens now - the future of this plane, the future of Boeing? What happens next?

SCHAPER: Well, the House Transportation Committee is using this as sort of a blueprint to draft legislation to improve FAA oversight and really overhaul the way it would certify airplanes. A Senate committee has its own bill to to address those issues, and they could be taking up that FAA reform bill later today.

GREENE: And David, of course, these plane crashes killed so many people. And I understand you've been talking to some of the family of victims. What do they say about these findings?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, David, they're outraged by the revelations of Boeing and the FAA's failures. Michael Stumo's daughter, 24-year-old Samya, was on the Ethiopian flight. That's the second Boeing 737 Max plane to crash. He believes this evidence in this report now shows that the first plane crash in Indonesia was preventable.

MICHAEL STUMO: But then, the covering-up to keep the Max in the air after the Lion Air crash so that it crashed again in Ethiopia and killed my daughter was unforgivable.

SCHAPER: He and other victims' families say that they will continue to try to fight to keep the 737 Max from being approved to fly again.

GREENE: NPR's David Schaper. Thanks, David.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.