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News Brief: Hospitals Overwhelmed, New Biden Appointments, Georgia Runoffs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this first Friday of December, news of the pandemic is as hopeful as it's been all year and also as grim as it's been all year.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Yeah, there's progress on the vaccine. But for thousands, it is too late. And on this day, states face a deadline. They have to preorder their first shipments of the vaccine. Presumably, it's like preordering a much-anticipated holiday gift, but with infinitely higher stakes.

INSKEEP: NPR health reporter Pien Huang is covering the story. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does this preorder deadline mean?

HUANG: Well, they have until 8 p.m. Eastern tonight to tell the government where they want those first boxes to go. These boxes would contain 975 doses each of the Pfizer vaccine, and they would need to be kept super-cold. The CDC's advice is they should go to health care workers and people who live in long-term care facilities. So those first shipments are probably going to go to large hospitals first.

INSKEEP: OK. So these are boxes of the vaccine that has to be refrigerated at very low temperatures. And people are saying now where they want them to go. How's the process going so far?

HUANG: Yeah. So it's been a little rocky so far. States are saying that they're not getting as many vaccines as they thought. You know, in Maine, for instance, they said they're getting 12,000 vaccines in that first shipment when they thought they were getting three times as much. And it's not completely clear why that's happening. I asked the Department of Health and Human Services, and they basically said that states will get more vaccines soon. The government does estimate that there will be 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine available by the end of the year.

INSKEEP: Twenty million by the end of the year - does that actually mean that millions of people could have shots in their arms by the end of this year?

HUANG: Well, we don't know the exact number, but they are planning for, certainly, many people to have their first shots by the end of the year.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the situation, then, as those vaccines are about to arrive?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, the numbers of cases and deaths keep climbing. The CDC says that this COVID wave that we're in has not yet peaked. And in the past two days, we've seen more than 200,000 people a day newly diagnosed with coronavirus. And in those same couple of days, we're averaging two deaths every minute of the day. So one thing that's different about this COVID wave compared to previous ones is that it's happening all over the country at once. Here's CDC Director Robert Redfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT REDFIELD: Right now, we unfortunately have a pandemic that's really throughout the nation. So we are at a very critical time right now about being able to maintain the resilience of our health care system.

HUANG: He means that the hospitals are under a lot of stress. Right now, more than 100,000 people are hospitalized with COVID, and that's the highest it's been this whole pandemic. And there's no leeway to shift doctors and resources from one hotspot to another because the hotspots are basically everywhere.

INSKEEP: And one of the hot spots, California, has announced new stay-at-home orders. What's happening?

HUANG: Yeah. So the concern in California is that they're running out of space in intensive care units. So these are specialized hospital beds that are reserved for the sickest patients. And yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that when the ICUs are more than 85% full, parts of the state will have to shut down. You know, these parts of the state include the Bay Area, Greater Sacramento, Southern California. And right now, no region has full ICUs, but they're expected to get there in the next few weeks.

INSKEEP: And you've already mentioned, when you said more than 85% full, the places where the great bulk of California's population is.

HUANG: Yeah. So all of California could actually be under stay-at-home orders later this month. Schools are going to stay open, but bars will close, and restaurants will go to takeout and delivery only.

INSKEEP: That's NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK - 100 days of face masks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. President-elect Joe Biden says he will take the mask action once he is inaugurated. And he's also asking the country's leading infectious disease specialist to transition in to his administration. He made those comments in an interview with CNN alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is here to bring us up to speed. Hey, there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, there.

INSKEEP: So what is Biden saying about masks?

KHALID: Well, Biden has previously encouraged the public to wear masks as a matter of patriotic duty. You know, he has acknowledged that he doesn't exactly have the authority to implement a so-called mask mandate. But yesterday, he gave some new details on what he does intend to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

JOE BIDEN: In the first day I'm inaugurated, to say - I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask, just 100 days to mask - not forever, 100 days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction.

KHALID: And his thinking there is that after 100 days, you know, vaccines will be more widely distributed. At least they'll be, you know, somewhat available, whereas right now the public hasn't, you know, been vaccinated at all. He also said he'll plan to require masks in federal buildings or on interstate transportation like airplanes and buses.

INSKEEP: So it's essentially extending the mask mandate where he has the power to do it and asking people to do it elsewhere.

Let me ask you about another bit of news from that interview. It involves Dr. Anthony Fauci. Of course, he's in the government now. He was speaking to President Trump at one time. It seems that they talk an awful lot less, and yet it appears now he's talking to Joe Biden.

KHALID: That's right. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It's a place he's worked for decades. And Joe Biden told CNN yesterday that he's asked Fauci to stay on the job and be a chief medical adviser to him. We don't know yet if Fauci has accepted that invitation. But, you know, it's worthwhile to point out that he clearly wants Dr. Fauci to remain a key voice in his administration.

Biden also said yesterday that he would be happy to get a COVID vaccine administered publicly as a way to encourage trust. I thought that was interesting. It follows similar commitments from former Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton.

INSKEEP: What else is Biden saying about the people he wants to surround himself with in the White House?

KHALID: Well, he named, yesterday, also, one of his advisers on the economy. His name is Brian Deese. He'll become the director of the National Economic Council. This is a key White House role that does not require Senate confirmation. Deese is an Obama administration veteran, like many of the names that we've been hearing about. He played a key role in two of the Obama administration's key accomplishments, the bailout of the auto industry and the Paris climate accords. You know, President Trump has, of course, pulled the U.S. out of those accords, but Biden has pledged to reenter.

INSKEEP: You just said the Paris climate accords. Why would a guy who was involved in fighting climate change be criticized, as it seems he has been by some progressives?

KHALID: You know, that's in part because after the Obama administration, he went on to work at BlackRock, which is the world's largest asset manager. And, you know, even though he was working on sustainable investing at the firm, BlackRock has made commitments, you know, also to climate change. Many progressives are frustrated that the financial firm has been a huge investor in fossil fuels. And, you know, Steve, the other issue is that Deese's appointment comes as frustrations have been bubbling up about diversity. Deese is white, and a number of African American, Latino and Asian groups are pushing the Biden team to hire more diverse candidates.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks as always.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. The departing president campaigns tomorrow in Georgia. His stated purpose is encouraging Republicans to vote in Senate runoffs next month.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That despite the fact that he lost Georgia and falsely claims the November election was rigged. He has been directing some of his vitriol at top Republicans in Georgia, including, most recently, Governor Brian Kemp.

INSKEEP: Emma Hurt is with our member station WABE in Atlanta and is on the line. Good morning.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So just to be clear here, the president is demanding that Georgia's governor overturn a democratic election and just make Trump the winner. Is that something that Brian Kemp, the governor, could remotely do within the law?

HURT: So according to the governor's office, no. The secretary of state manages elections in Georgia. He's an independently elected official, and the governor can't intervene in elections in any way. It's how it's designed. Trump supporters are also asking for a special legislative session to change the rules for January, which the governor has also said wouldn't be legal. You know, he's given credence to some of the concerns with the election, but Kemp has said he's bound by laws. The problem is, though, that's not really been enough for the president, who's been hammering Kemp on Twitter. He's called him hapless. And actually at a pro-Trump rally this week, Trump supporters were chanting lock him up about Kemp.

INSKEEP: Wasn't Kemp close to Trump up until Trump began demanding that he overturn democracy?

HURT: Yes. Kemp has been a major Trump supporter and vice versa. Back in Kemp's Republican primary runoff in 2018, President Trump tweeted an endorsement of him, and that was a huge deal for a president to get involved in that primary. And Kemp won it in a blowout. Trump held a rally for him a couple months later that year, two days before the 2018 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I'll tell you what - I know, Brian. He will take it to new heights, heights that you wouldn't even believe. I know him. This guy doesn't stop, which is what you want.

HURT: But now, if you fast-forward to Trump's loss in Georgia a month ago - and the governor and the secretary of state here have effectively become the president's punching bags. Here's Trump speaking on Fox News last weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

TRUMP: They had judges making deals, and they had electoral officials making deals, like this character in Georgia who's a disaster. And the governor's done nothing. He's done absolutely nothing. I'm ashamed that I endorsed him.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's where we stand as these Senate runoffs approach January 5. And just to remind people, you have two Republicans who got the most votes, if I'm not mistaken, but didn't get over 50%, so they got to run again - Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. How are they handling this situation in which the president, who notionally supports them, is also casting doubt on the electoral system they're depending on to win?

HURT: Yeah, they've called on the secretary of state to resign but haven't provided evidence of exactly why. And they notably haven't come to the governor's defense in any public way. And this is kind of awkward because Perdue is the person who asked Trump to endorse Kemp, and Kemp is the reason Kelly Loeffler is a senator at all because he appointed her.

INSKEEP: So I think you're telling me that they are essentially being required to betray each other or fail to stand up for each other at the pleasure of the president. Is that right?

HURT: They're in a very tough political situation because they want to make sure that all of the president's supporters turn out for them in January.

INSKEEP: Is it clear what the president is likely to say when he's in Georgia tomorrow?

HURT: It is unclear. He's got a needle to thread between, you know, continuing to talk about the November election being rigged, as he's argued, and encouraging people to vote in that very same system again in January.

INSKEEP: Emma, thanks for the update.

HURT: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Reporter Emma Hurt with our member station WABE in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.