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News Brief: Florida's COVID Surge, U.S. Sends Doses Abroad, Texas Voting Bill

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Delta variant is driving up the number of COVID-19 cases across the country. And in a handful of states, such as Florida, they're surging at an alarming rate.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In fact, cases in Florida jumped 50% in the last week. By Friday, as you may have heard, 1 out of every 5 new cases in the entire United States was in Florida. So how prepared are Florida hospitals to handle this new wave?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Greg, where is this COVID spike happening in Florida exactly?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, we're seeing it statewide here, but the hardest-hit area is northeast Florida. That's the Jacksonville area. Just over half the people over age 12 have been vaccinated in that area. That's lower than the state average. Health care officials say some 96% of the patients they're seeing are unvaccinated in the Jacksonville area. Some hospitals are seeing their most COVID patients yet. And there's one projection we heard about this. It could be another two to three weeks before this surge actually levels off.

MARTINEZ: That's terrifying. Are the hospitals able to handle this in terms of staff and beds?

ALLEN: I think so. Hospitals are flexible in their use of space, and they can expand intensive care units as necessary. That's been happening a little bit in some parts of the state. Staffing remains the biggest concern. And many hospitals said they had staff shortages before the pandemic. And this new spike just makes it worse.

MARTINEZ: You know, we're hearing in other states that many younger patients are being hospitalized with COVID now. What are hospitals seeing in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, at Miami's largest hospital, Jackson Health, doctors say the biggest increase in hospitalizations has been of patients between the ages of 50 and 64. But it is true that more young people are being hospitalized now. And the head of Florida's Hospital Association, Mary Mayhew, told me that some cases they're seeing are severe.

MARY MAYHEW: The shock of seeing a healthy 25-year-old in the ICU on a ventilator, pregnant women in the hospital being aggressively treated for COVID.

ALLEN: You know, the delta variant is much more contagious than the earlier COVID virus, which might help explain why some young, healthy people are being hit so hard.

MARTINEZ: Is there any indication why Florida has become a delta hotspot?

ALLEN: Yeah, it's interesting. Florida was actually doing pretty well for a while, but cases now have surpassed a peak that we saw set in January. Jason Salemi is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida. He points to several contributing factors. If you include children under 12, there's more than 10 million people in Florida who have not been vaccinated. And as cases have declined, there's also been, of course, a decline in safeguards like face masks and social distancing. And Salemi says another factor is Florida's heat.

JASON SALEMI: It's like the winters in the northeast, right? It is driving people indoors more than they would otherwise be. And, of course, the delta variant is just much more effective and efficient at passing from person to person when we're in indoor settings.

ALLEN: We have seen a rise in vaccinations in Florida in recent weeks, especially in the Jacksonville area. In the meantime, Salemi is a big advocate of using face coverings and social distancing to protect unvaccinated people from becoming infected.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, but we know that requiring people to wear face masks is unpopular in some places. That includes Florida. And the governor there, Ron DeSantis, appears to be leading that resistance.

ALLEN: Yes, he's made this kind of a cause. He signed an emergency order last week saying it will be up to parents to decide whether their kids will wear face coverings when classes resume at schools in the fall. That followed recommendations from the CDC that children should wear face masks when schools get back in session. Some school districts now are looking at requiring face masks. Broward County School District had actually made a decision to do so but then reversed themselves yesterday after looking at DeSantis's order, which could actually cut their funding. Meanwhile, some businesses are requiring customers to wear face coverings, including Disney and some other Florida theme parks.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: The U.S. is on track to deliver 110 million COVID vaccine doses to countries around the world, with millions more on the way.

INSKEEP: Hundred and ten million - that's a significant step in the effort to slow the spread of the virus. President Biden is expected to formally announce that number at the White House later today. But the number was harder to reach than the White House first expected.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us. Tamara, walk us through the numbers - 110 million doses, more on the way. Where do these doses go?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The initial goal was to ship 80 million doses to countries in need by the end of June. That proved to be a bit hard. It wasn't until well into July when they finally hit that goal. But the pace of vaccination has really picked up in recent days. They've gotten more than 100 million doses delivered. Another 10 million are on the way out the door. They've gone to more than 50 countries. I've got a spreadsheet - from Afghanistan to El Salvador and Zambia. It's a big deal, but it's only a start, says Dr. Krishna Udayakumar at Duke University. He told me it's a little too little and too late.

KRISHNA UDAYAKUMAR: It's more than any other country in terms of donations. And yet when the world needs 10 billion doses to get to where we need to go, it puts that in context, that we're 100x off where we need to be.

KEITH: The Biden administration has secured a contract with Pfizer for another half a billion doses, and those are starting to go out this month. But it could take as much as a year for those to be delivered. Meanwhile, the delta variant is ravaging countries in Africa and other places with low vaccination rates. And as long as COVID is out of control, there is a very real risk that another variant could develop. There's this saying in the global health community that no one is safe until everyone is safe. And delta, which was first detected in India, really drives that home.

MARTINEZ: So why have efforts to share the vaccine for the U.S. with other countries been so slow to ramp up?

KEITH: Well, first, the U.S. prioritized vaccinating Americans, but when the administration turned to sending doses to other countries, the bureaucratic and logistical barriers were significant. I interviewed Gayle Smith, who is the global COVID response coordinator at the State Department.

GAYLE SMITH: Sharing vaccine doses isn't quite as easy as just putting them on a plane and calling somebody at the other end and telling them when they'll arrive. Because these are sophisticated medical goods, there are a number of legal and regulatory steps that have to be gone through.

KEITH: They had to build teams of lawyers and regulators to work through contract issues on the U.S. side and regulatory approvals on the receiving end. In some cases, there even had to be new laws passed in countries to accept the vaccines. It's a process that was repeated country by country. In theory now, these pipelines have opened, and the next plane full of vaccines will be easier to send. But, of course, it doesn't just end with a pallet of vaccines with an American flag on a tarmac. Those vaccines have to get into people's arms.

MARTINEZ: Last thing - the head of the World Health Organization said over the weekend that the global distribution of vaccines remains unjust. What does the Biden administration say to that?

KEITH: They say, yes, more needs to happen. But today, they want to celebrate this milestone and that beyond that, advocates are raising arms about - alarms about COVAX, this international distribution vehicle that is struggling to vaccinate the world's poorest countries. They say the U.S. has to step up and take leadership.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Dozens of state lawmakers from around the country are in Washington this morning with the next election on their minds.

INSKEEP: The Democrats want Congress to pass an election law which includes new federal standards for state-run elections. The bill is seen as a way to overrule Republican-dominated states that have been adding new restrictions to voting. The Democrats from various states joined Democrats from Texas who have been in D.C. since last month. The Texas lawmakers left their state to deny the Texas legislature a quorum to pass voting restrictions.

MARTINEZ: Ashley Lopez covers politics from member station KUT in Austin, and she joins us this morning. Ashley, what do these lawmakers have planned today?

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: So they're holding a rally today to kick off what they call a week of action. They're urging Congress to pass those voter restrictions before the August recess that's coming around. The state lawmakers are coming from more than 20 different states, including Georgia, Arizona and Florida. These are states where new voting laws have been enacted. All of the lawmakers, including the ones from Texas, want congressional Democrats to pass federal voting protections that would supersede those state-level measures they're seeing. But as of now, there really hasn't been much headway. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a sweeping voter measure in June, and there doesn't seem to be the votes for it now or the votes to change the filibuster rules in the Senate. So Democrats are now talking about unveiling maybe a narrower voting bill

MARTINEZ: Now about Texas, you've been reporting on how voting legislation written by Republicans would impose more criminal penalties. In what way?

LOPEZ: Well, first, the bill tries to keep some people out of trouble, requiring that the courts reach out to people who are freed from prison and tell them how their conviction actually affects their voting rights. That part of the bill answers two very high-profile voter arrests in Texas, where two black voters were on supervised release and said they didn't know they couldn't vote. But generally speaking, these bills create a slew of new rules and criminal penalties for breaking those rules, particularly around what you can and cannot do when you assist a voter. For instance, people would have to swear an oath that they didn't coerce or encourage a voter to ask them for assistance. And basically, critics say Texas is just continuing a pattern of unfairly criminalizing honest mistakes made by voters.

MARTINEZ: What else are lawmakers in Texas saying about these provisions?

LOPEZ: Well, Republicans in Texas say that any voter fraud, even if it's mostly anecdotal, is worth preventing. They say this bill would go a long way in stopping any cheating. Part of the reason they framed the issue this way is because voter fraud is exceptionally rare. Even in Texas, there is very little evidence that this is a widespread problem. This is also why Democrats are lined up to oppose these voting overhauls, which they argue is aimed at addressing something that's not real. Austin State Representative John Bucy is someone I talked to recently, and he's been in D.C. blocking the Texas voting bill. And he says he's concerned Republicans have this particular motivation for creating new voting crimes.

JOHN BUCY III: When people make honest mistakes, it will result in more crimes, which will then bring the appearance of more voter fraud happening, which will play into Donald Trump's big lie to try to create this fraud and fear around why we need to continue to restrict people's access to the ballot box.

LOPEZ: And a final note on this. This special legislative session that they're holding up ends this week. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has said he'll just call another special session to pass these voting measures eventually.

MARTINEZ: That's Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin. Ashley, thanks.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KONTEKS' "CITY SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.