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News Brief: Health Implications And Economic Impact Of Trump's Coronavirus Diagnosis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This news comes four weeks before the election and after months of the president downplaying the severity of the virus that has killed more than 200,000 people here in the United States. The president announced last night that he and the first lady have begun isolation in the White House after tests that were taken following a diagnosis with one of the president's closest advisers, Hope Hicks. She became infected. According to President Trump's physician, he is expected to continue conducting business while in isolation for the next 14 days until he is cleared. So what does this mean for the campaign with a little over a month until Election Day? And now that the virus has found its way into the White House, who else will have to quarantine?

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with us this morning. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's just start with how the president is doing and feeling. What can you tell us?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you guys did a good job summing it up. We had been waiting for the president's results after he confirmed on Fox News that he had taken another test because he had spent so much time with Hope Hicks. You know, there's still so much left to learn. For one, we don't know how, as you guys mentioned, how far this has spread. Hope Hicks was part of the president's entourage that traveled to a Minnesota rally and also the debate in Cleveland, Ohio, where, by the way, the president was on the stage with Joe Biden for 90 minutes.

MARTIN: And I know it's early, but the White House - at least right now, the White House doctor is saying that they're feeling OK, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. The White House doctor said the president is going to be under vigilant watch for those next two weeks. My colleague Tamara Keith also spoke with a White House official this morning who said the president was in good spirits and that his staff were working out a way to run things over the next two weeks. That official said Vice President Mike Pence will step in as needed, but he expected the president to be very, very engaged. The White House, frankly, is taking a very optimistic tone. That official said, quote, "we'll be fine, we'll figure out a way to do this."

MARTIN: So, I mean, as we have noted, he is asymptomatic, we believe, at least at this point. Does that have any real effect on the chain of leadership, on government at this point?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it raises a lot of questions about chains of command, especially at a time like this during a pandemic. I spoke with Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University - he's also a presidential historian - about this. He said just contracting the virus, even if the president didn't get terribly sick, would be a major concern.

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: It raises the possibility of succession or inability. So at one level, it's a big deal. On the other hand, the fact that the president is sick doesn't mean that presidential power is transferred. You know, presidents have fevers. They recover from surgery.

ORDOÑEZ: Rachel, so much of this is about the uncertainty that this creates, about who's in charge, what happens next, those kind of things.

MARTIN: So on obviously, Franco, this is going to have a huge effect on the campaign, right? If President Trump can't hold rallies for two weeks, that's just going to change the dynamic here.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely. He had been planning to go to Florida and Wisconsin tonight and tomorrow. You know, the last couple of months, he's been trying to change the subject to talk about basically anything but the pandemic. But this stops that. The fact of the matter is the president has for months downplayed the significance of the virus, you know, talking about the severity and all this thing. But primary concern, obviously, is the president's health.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: So the president is 74 years old, which automatically just puts him at higher risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.

GREENE: Yeah, that's right. According to the CDC, 8 out of 10 people who've died of COVID-19 were over the age of 65. Now, the president and first lady are doing well as of now, according to the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley. And he says the medical team is going to be closely monitoring their progress.

MARTIN: We're joined by NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is obviously a serious diagnosis for anyone, but what can you tell us about what this means for this president's health?

STEIN: So, you know, testing positive for the coronavirus can be very serious for anyone at any age, of course. But, you know, it is especially concerning for a man of President Trump's age. He is, as you said, 74. And as we all know, age is a big risk factor for developing serious complications from this virus. Older people are much more likely to be hospitalized. In fact, according to the CDC, people age 65 to 74 are five times more likely than younger adults to be hospitalized and 90 times more likely to die. Also, from what we know about his weight, the president is officially obese, which is considered another top risk factor. Now, that said, many people get infected with the virus, do not develop any symptoms, even many people with risk factors such as their age and their weight. And even if they do get sick, many develop mild cold or flu-like symptoms. And even many people who develop serious complications recover. So, you know, there's no way to predict what's going to happen to any specific individual.

MARTIN: Right. You mentioned the president's weight. That's something that we do know he has a problem with. But overall, it's been pretty vague in terms of the information the White House has put out about the president's overall health.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The president hasn't released as many details about his health as previous presidents have, but his doctors have said that despite his age and his weight, he is in excellent health. He takes medication to lower his cholesterol. But doctors haven't reported any other health problems that would increase his risk, such as, you know, diabetes or heart disease or high blood pressure. And I should mention that first lady Melania Trump is 50, so is not in as high a risk group as the president.

MARTIN: And while we have made clear that they're feeling OK right now, it is part of this virus that it can hit you days after you've been infected, right?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. That's right. The virus can affect people in lots of different ways. Some people, they start to feel sick pretty quickly. Other people feel fine for a while before developing symptoms. Still others are sick for a while and then seem to be getting better only to suddenly crash and get seriously ill. You know, you remember something like that happened to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He ended up in intensive care, but eventually he did recover.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, we appreciate that context. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the news that the president and the first lady have contracted the coronavirus is having global repercussions.

GREENE: That's right. U.S. futures and world markets went down on concerns about how the president will react to this potentially deadly virus. We should say he is not the first world leader to contract the coronavirus. Fifty-six-year-old Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain had a serious health bout with the virus and ended up in intensive care. But President Trump's advanced age is shaking investors as it adds more uncertainty in what has been a pandemic roller coaster for financial markets.

MARTIN: Let's bring in NPR's chief economics correspondent, Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: How have markets reacted?

HORSLEY: Markets are down but not dramatically so. A lot of the Asian markets were closed today for a holiday. Stocks in Japan were down less than 1%. European markets fell about half a percent. And here in this country, futures markets are pointing to a lower open. Right now, the Dow futures are down about 300 points, or just over 1%. To put that in context, Rachel, we've seen larger market swings in recent days as investors tried to game out the prospects for another round of coronavirus relief here in Washington. Certainly, this is another wild card as we approach the November election, as you all have been saying, and uncertainty can add to the market's volatility. But so far, at least, the market reaction has been fairly muted.

MARTIN: But what a year - right? - when you look back at the swings of this market over the course of the last, like, you know, nine months.

HORSLEY: It's been a roller coaster. We saw a deep plunge in the markets during the spring when the pandemic first began spreading around the globe. It was one of the most rapid declines into bear market territory. But since then, we have seen a remarkable recovery during the summer. As of early September, the Nasdaq stock index and the S&P 500 were hitting record highs, and the Dow had recovered most of the ground it lost earlier in the year. Now, September itself was kind of a rocky month for the markets, but overall, the second quarter was a good one for investors. President Trump himself likes to point to stock market gains as a kind of scorecard for the broader economy. But we should always keep in mind the vast majority of stocks are held by those at the very top of the income ladder.

MARTIN: Right. So we also have a jobs report today coming out, don't we?

HORSLEY: Absolutely. And a lot of investors will be watching that report from the Labor Department coming out in a few hours. It's the last snapshot that we're going to get of the U.S. labor market before the November election. Forecasters expect to see a modest dip in the unemployment rate. Job gains slowed in both July and August. So we're going to be watching to see if there's a further decline in September. As of now, we have recovered only about half of the 22 million jobs that were lost in March and April. And we have a new round of layoffs looming, you know, as the pandemic continues to weigh on airlines, theme parks and other businesses. Generally speaking, you know, the the broader U.S. economy does continue to recover but at what appears to be a slowing pace. Consumer spending, which is a huge driver of the economy, grew just 1% in August. We're spending more on stuff now than we were before the pandemic, but we're spending less in the much larger services side of the economy. We also learned this week that personal income in August fell. A modest drop in wages was more than offset by the expiration of those supplemental unemployment benefits. And so there is some concern out there that the economic rebound is losing some of its bounce and we could be in for kind of a long road back. Certainly, the news from the White House overnight is a reminder that the coronavirus is still a threat. And we're a long way from business as usual.

MARTIN: Right. And we should just say, I mean, Democrats and Republicans still can't come to some kind of agreement on a next round of coronavirus financial relief for people who are struggling financially through all this. NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott. We appreciate it.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.