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News Brief: Skyrocketing COVID-19 Cases, Ron Klain, Georgia Vote Recount

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is just growing at record speed.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. And many states are warning that their hospitals cannot handle so many patients week after week. Plus, we're getting closer to the holidays, and public health officials worry that's only going to spread the virus more.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR's Will Stone, who has been tracking the pandemic for us. Good morning, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So I'm just thinking about numbers here. The other day, we had more than 136,000 new cases reported in the U.S. in just a single day. Can you put numbers like that in perspective?

STONE: It's really bad. It was only last week that the country hit 100,000 cases in a single day for the first time ever. And now the U.S. is averaging more than 121,000 cases a day. Cases are up about 70% nationwide on average over the past two weeks, and many parts of the country are starting to see exponential growth of the virus. It's still growing the fastest in the Midwest. When you look at the top five states with the most cases in the past week, three are in the Midwest - Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. But it's all over the place. Texas has high numbers, so does Florida, parts of California. And quite a few states that had kept the numbers low are now speeding in the wrong direction - New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming. In all those places, daily cases have close to doubled, if not more, over the past two weeks.

GREENE: I mean, that's alarming in itself. But what can really strain the public health system is when it's not just a spike in cases but when we actually see hospitalizations going up. And it sounds like that's getting a lot worse, too.

STONE: That's right. The U.S. is at an all-time high for COVID hospitalizations. Across the country, there are more than 65,000 people in the hospital. That's above what we saw during the spring and summer peaks. And there are now at least 18 states where the number of people hospitalized has crossed into a very dangerous zone. And one of those states is Iowa. Here's what that state's Republican Governor Kim Reynolds said the other day.

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KIM REYNOLDS: The overall increased patient volume is stressing our health care system, and it is putting capacity at risk. Surge plans are in place. And while beds still are available for patient care, staffing them is becoming increasingly challenging.

STONE: And when this happens, hospitals don't have the bandwidth to care for all kinds of patients. ICUs fill up, and they start considering who to prioritize. So this is where lots of states are headed absent some big turnaround or government intervention.

GREENE: I mean, to control these numbers, I mean, officials always think about whether or not to bring back new restrictions. Is that what we're seeing around the country?

STONE: Some have. California has shut down indoor dining in certain areas. Starting Friday, Minnesota is shutting down restaurants after 10 p.m. and has limited indoor gatherings. But some places are only willing to go so far. We just heard how concerned Iowa's Governor Reynolds is. She and other states have resisted putting in place a sweeping statewide mask mandate. This week, Reynolds did announce a quite limited face mask requirement, mostly aimed at large gatherings, and she did limit how many people can get together. But she made it clear that her state is open for business and you can still go to the gym. I asked Anne Rimoin, who studies infectious disease at UCLA, if states need to do more. And she says everything is a trade-off.

ANNE RIMOIN: You know, you want to have bars open, you might not be able to have schools open. You want to not wear a mask, you're going to see more COVID. So every action has a reaction here. I don't think that we necessarily have to go into a lockdown. It doesn't have to be an either-or choice.

STONE: So ultimately, she says a lot of states may make this decision based purely on what they need to do in the moment as cases rise to keep their hospitals from being overrun with patients.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Will Stone.

Will, thanks so much for this.

STONE: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So President-elect Joe Biden has chosen his new chief of staff, Ron. Klain,

KING: Yeah, not an unfamiliar name - Klain is a longtime Democratic adviser and consultant. He was a key part of the Obama-Biden administration. And Joe Biden says there are two fronts on which Klain has the necessary experience. He led the last economic recovery after the Great Recession, and he advised President Obama on the Ebola crisis.

GREENE: And we have NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid here with us. Asma, you covered an entire campaign. Now you're covering a transition. Good morning to you.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning to you.

GREENE: So Ron Klain may not be a household name for most of us. But really, I mean, he's been a fixture in the White House and in Democratic campaigns for decades - very familiar to people in the party.

KHALID: That's right. And he's been close to Joe Biden for years. You know, when Biden became vice president in 2008, he selected Ron Klain as his first chief of staff. He also worked as a top aide to Biden back in the '80s, when he was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was an adviser to Biden on his two previous failed presidential bids. So Klain, you know, as you say, is a longtime Democratic operative. He has worked in some capacity for nearly almost every recent Democratic presidential campaign. But in a statement, he called this appointment the, quote, "honor of a lifetime."

GREENE: I mean, did Biden give you a sense for why he chose Klain? He had to think about this seriously.

KHALID: In a statement, he said that Klain was invaluable. He highlighted his work with both the economic recovery and the Ebola crisis. And you know, David, in addition to inheriting a public health crisis, the Biden team is acutely aware that they're going to need to deal with a recession. I actually spoke to Ron Klain some months ago about this, and he was telling me at the time how he felt that Biden's experience with the 2009 Recovery Act would help him with inheriting this potentially shaky economy now. And as you know, Ron was Biden's chief of staff at that time.

Later, he was named the Obama administration's Ebola czar, so this also points to the fact that the Biden administration has had this focus on trying to tamp down the coronavirus, which was a big feature during the Biden campaign. And I will say it continues to be a front and center issue for him now during this transition period.

GREENE: Such an interesting transition period given, you know, what President Trump has been doing so far in terms of not conceding - I mean, does this appointment say anything about how Biden is handling this transition?

KHALID: Well, two things, I will say. One is it does give us a bit of a window into some of the priorities that the Biden White House would have. But also, it shows that Joe Biden is moving ahead in shaping an administration despite President Trump's continued reluctance to actually accept the election results.

GREENE: Have we heard anything more from the White House, from President Trump?

KHALID: Well, President Trump did have a public appearance yesterday. He made an appearance at a Veterans Day ceremony, but he didn't say anything about the election. You know, that being said, he has been facing a bit more pressure to accept the election results. Republican political strategist Karl Rove wrote an op-ed in which he said he does not believe the results will be overturned. Still, though, you know, Trump's core campaign team has been vowing to keep fighting on.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Asma Khalid.

Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

GREENE: OK. And so as the president's legal team keeps fighting on, they are still counting ballots in a few places. And soon recounts are going to begin in some states.

KING: Georgia is one of them. Georgia's secretary of state said yesterday that every one of the state's almost 5 million ballots will be reviewed by hand. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign's legal strategy to contest the results of the election isn't really getting anywhere.

GREENE: And - well, let's bring in NPR's Miles Parks to talk about that. He's been covering the election all year. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: OK. So we've got this giant recount in Georgia that has to be completed by the end of next week, which sounds like quite a task. Based on what we know about recounts, I mean, does the president stand any chance of overturning Biden's - what? - 14,000-vote lead in the state of Georgia?

PARKS: Yeah, it seems very doubtful at this point. There is usually some sort of shift in the vote tallies when you do this hand recount that Georgia's going to be doing. But it's not usually very big. The voting research and advocacy group FairVote did a report on this recently, and they found that since 2000, there have been 31 statewide recounts. Only three of those 31 have actually overturned the results. But more importantly than that is the amount the vote margins actually got changed in those three that got overturned. Margins changed by 390 votes, 239 votes and 400 votes. All three of those numbers, you'll notice, a lot smaller than 14,000 votes, which is Biden's lead right now.

GREENE: Let's talk, if we can, about some of what the president has been saying. We talk in general that he's made these baseless claims about widespread voter irregularities. But, you know, he and his allies claim they were kept out of counting centers, people ineligible to vote have cast ballots suggesting wide-scale fraud. I mean, you've been really digging in and reporting on some of this. What are you learning?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, my reporting hasn't turned any of that up. There are so many allegations and accusations flying around right now, it's hard to keep them all straight. But generally, they've been allegations based on, you know, either one person's account or based on some shoddy data with no corroborating evidence. And it's also important to note, David, that these are not original accusations. These have been going on for years - ballots arriving in the middle of the night, dead people and ineligible people voting.

I talked to Chris Thomas, who oversaw Michigan's elections under both Republican and Democratic statewide administrations, and he said the claims are the same sorts he's been hearing for literally decades and which have never actually been proven.

CHRIS THOMAS: This is all being spoon-fed as if it's gospel, and it's not. And as the society has separated into its camps, it's clear that even when things are debunked and found to be false, that that is often not accepted.

PARKS: He also said election officials have a really patriotic attitude about their jobs, about never putting their thumbs on the scale. So it's actually - he finds it insulting when they're accused of cheating after working this hard to make an election like this happen in the middle of a pandemic.

GREENE: Yeah, really. They worked really hard.

Well - and let me just ask you. The Trump campaign keeps filing these lawsuits in many key states. It doesn't sound like they're really going anywhere.

PARKS: No. If your definition of success is either throwing out ballots or changing vote counts, the campaign has been completely unsuccessful so far. I talked to Josh Douglas about that. He's an election law expert at the University of Kentucky. And what he said was, basically, the campaign hasn't supplied facts to back up their claims, election officials seem to have been really careful to follow regulations and the campaign has been asking for unrealistic things, like just stop counting ballots altogether.

JOSH DOUGLAS: When you don't have the facts and you don't have the law and you don't have a remedy, you've really got nothing to go on in court.

PARKS: In a state like Michigan, for instance, the margin is well over 140,000 votes, and Douglas says it's not likely to change.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Miles Parks.

Thanks, Miles.

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