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News Brief: Grim COVID Data, Nuclear Sub Technology, Gymnasts Blast FBI

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Here are the numbers on COVID 18 months in. About 150,000 new cases are still being reported every single day in the U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

And more than 666,000 people in this country have died from COVID. That's 1 in every 500 of us.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now to give us the latest is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, the situation sounds and seems pretty grim. Walk us through, please, if you could, where things stand with the pandemic in the U.S.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, the numbers are still staggering. About 150,000 people are still catching the virus every day. More than 96,000 are so sick they're in the hospital. And more than 1,800 people are still dying every day from COVID-19. That's still not nearly as bad as things got during the darkest days of last winter, but it's still pretty awful, and no one thought the pandemic would still be taking this kind of toll, you know, especially so many months after we all thought that vaccines would be like the cavalry riding to our rescue. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: The infection numbers across the country are really stunningly bad. I mean, 150-, 160,000 Americans getting infected every single day - it's really stunning that this is where we are as a country.

STEIN: And, you know, just tragic since the incredibly effective vaccines made so much of this totally preventable, even in the face of the delta variant.

MARTINEZ: So where is this headed? I mean, are things just going to go from bad to worse yet again?

STEIN: Yeah, that's what everybody's wondering, right? You know, every parent in America is holding their breath, hoping their kids are going to stay in school. Every worker's wondering what's going to happen with their jobs. And you know, there is a glimmer of hope. It actually looks like the surge may have hit a peak and could be finally starting to subside - at least for now. As bad as those numbers are, it looks like the rate of new infections may have plateaued over the last few weeks, and that's because the spread of the virus actually started slowing in many of the hardest-hit, poorly vaccinated states of the South that have been driving this surge. I talked about this with Dr. David Rubin at the University of Pennsylvania.

DAVID RUBIN: We're likely to see some significant declines nationally. The South is really starting to improve now. We're certainly seeing throughout Florida, South Carolina, southern Texas in particular - but even throughout the upper South, we're starting to see conditions improve. And they're of a sufficient magnitude and speed that we should see that reflected in the national numbers over the next couple weeks.

STEIN: But, you know, Rubin and others quickly cautioned that this may not last long. As the surge eases in the South, it could very well ramp up in the North, you know, like last year. So Rubin's keeping a close eye on places like the Upper Midwest and Northeast, especially as the days get shorter and the temperatures get colder and people retreat back indoors.

MARTINEZ: Now, at least there was a nugget of good news there. Now, while we're seeing these surges, the FDA is pushing ahead on whether or not to approve boosters. Where's that stand?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, there's a lot of interest in boosters because of the delta variant and evidence that the vaccines may be fading. But lots of questions are swirling around the Biden administration's plan to start giving everyone boosters starting in less than a week. Does that really make sense if the vaccines still look good at keeping people out of the hospital and keeping them alive? Is it right to give Americans third shots when most of the world is still desperate for their first shots? You know, FDA advisers will be debating all that tomorrow.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks a lot.

STEIN: You bet.

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MARTINEZ: The U.S. is about to change a decades-long tradition of keeping a tight hold on its nuclear-powered submarines.

KING: Right. For the past 60 years, Washington has shared its technology with just one other country, the U.K. But now it's making a new security pact with both Great Britain and Australia.

MARTINEZ: Here to explain what it's all about is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, why is the U.S. taking this rare step?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well - so this is a new defense partnership called AUKUS. The leaders talked yesterday about the need to work together to address security threats. And they said the three nations share values and have historical ties. And well, here's how President Biden put it.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, A, the one word that none of them said was China. But you know, it's clear that this is intended to respond to escalating tensions in the South China Sea. That's a major shipping lane for oil and gas resources. And China has been building military outposts on several small, reclaimed islands there. And the president has repeatedly stated that he sees China as the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States.

MARTINEZ: All right. Since you brought them up, how is China responding to this?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. China's Embassy in Washington, they're not happy. They told Reuters that the countries need to, quote, "shake off their Cold War mentality." I spoke with Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund. She told me that China is likely to see this as a threat.

BONNIE GLASER: It's a threat because China is more effective when it can divide the United States from its allies and it can use its economic clout to woo neighbors to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. And it can dominate, and it can use its economic levers to influence the policies of other countries.

ORDOÑEZ: Belt and Road, of course, is China's program to help build big infrastructure projects around the world. Glaser said Biden is investing a lot of time building coalitions with other countries to counter China.

MARTINEZ: You know, aside from China, there was some anger about this deal from France. So what can you tell us about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. This new deal means that Australia is actually canceling an order for French submarines. The French foreign minister was very angry and complained that France was excluded, calling this a, quote, "lack of coherence," given its work in the Indo-Pacific region. And he said this reinforces the need for Europe to actually become more autonomous.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what happens next with these subs?

ORDOÑEZ: So there are a lot of details to be worked out. They think it will take 18 months to hold these talks and work with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, which oversees all things nuclear. The leaders were very clear yesterday, though, that these are not nuclear-armed submarines, but nuclear-powered submarines. They're faster and more stealthy, and they can stay underwater longer than conventional subs. They will be built in Australia, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they would create jobs in his country, too.

Biden and Morrison will meet next week at the White House with another group that's aimed at China. That group's known as the Quad. Leaders from India and Japan will be there, too. And this is all happening as President Biden works to turn the page on the 20-year war in Afghanistan, you know, obviously with a chaotic exit. Even when he talked about leaving Afghanistan, Biden talked about his goal of focusing on China.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Now, before we begin our next segment, we note that we will be discussing sexual abuse. The testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday was both angry and anguished.

KING: Four USA Gymnastics athletes said law enforcement, including the FBI, ignored them and lied about them when they said they were abused by former team doctor and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar. Simone Biles was one of the women who testified.

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SIMONE BILES: To be clear, I believe Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now is Marisa Kwiatkowski. She's an investigative journalist for USA Today, who began covering the abuse scandal years ago at The Indianapolis Star.

Marisa, it's been six years since USA Gymnastics heard the first allegations, and it's been five years since you and other journalists at the Indianapolis Star began reporting on this. Listening to yesterday's testimonies, what stood out to you?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: What lawmakers heard yesterday was the continued frustration of survivors who felt that their allegations against Larry Nassar had not been taken seriously enough. They had been calling for change and calling for accountability for the failures of USA Gymnastics, of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and of the FBI.

MARTINEZ: Former Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, in her testimony, directly blamed the FBI for not acting fast enough to stop Larry Nassar. Here's her testimony.

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MCKAYLA MARONEY: What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer?

MARTINEZ: How's the FBI and its director, Christopher Wray, who also testified, defending the bureau's inaction in this case?

KWIATKOWSKI: FBI Director Christopher Wray, who I think it's important to note was not the director at the time that the FBI office had initially received the allegations against Nassar, did apologize to survivors yesterday. He said he was deeply and profoundly sorry for the abuse that they had suffered. And he acknowledged that so many different people had let them and their families down. And he specifically addressed the fact that there were people at the FBI who had had a chance to stop him back in 2015 and had failed to do so. And he pledged that they would do everything in their power to ensure something like that did not happen again.

MARTINEZ: Anything in particular that they said they would do, though?

KWIATKOWSKI: Specifically, what they talked about during the hearing was the recommendations from the inspector general's report. The inspector general had made a number of recommendations to both reassess and clarify policies as to how such cases would be handled and how they would coordinate with other law enforcement agencies.

MARTINEZ: OK. Yesterday's hearing was part of a congressional effort to hold the FBI accountable for missteps in investigating this abuse case. How are lawmakers trying to achieve that?

KWIATKOWSKI: Lawmakers have been continuing to call for accountability as well. And what you heard yesterday, both during the hearing and after the hearing, is lawmakers saying that they thought there should be a criminal investigation into the actions of some of these officials or, I should say, what they perceive as the inaction of some of these officials.

MARTINEZ: In the end, though, survivors and their families just still looking for answers. What's it going to take to get those answers?

KWIATKOWSKI: Well, as Aly Raisman said in her testimony, you know, she said that she believes that there should be an independent investigation that goes back decades and that should look at the actions of the FBI and USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. And what she said during the hearing was that they could speculate on reasonings. But why do so when the facts are obtainable and that the stakes are so high?

MARTINEZ: USA Today investigative journalist Marisa Kwiatkowski, thank you very much.

KWIATKOWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.