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News Brief: COVID-19 Outlook, Haitian Migrants, New Orleans' Power Grid Probe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much worse could this winter be? It's a fair question as the pandemic's delta surge that started in the summer is extending into the fall, it seems.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last winter spurred a COVID surge as people went indoors. But one scientific projection suggests this winter may not be as bad. The delta surge looks like it's peaking. And I can't believe I get to say this, but things could steadily improve now through the spring.

INSKEEP: The projection was made available to NPR News by a consortium of researchers that is advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR's Rob Stein has the news. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How'd they reach these conclusions?

STEIN: You know, this comes from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. It combines nine different mathematical models that predict possible scenarios over the next six months and for the first time factors in the impact of vaccinating younger kids. Justin Lessler at the University of North Carolina helps run the hub. He's cautiously optimistic that the worst may really finally be behind us.

JUSTIN LESSLER: Any of us who've been following this closely, given what happened with delta, are going to be really cautious about too much optimism. But I do think that the trajectory is towards improvement for most the country now.

STEIN: In fact, in the most likely scenario, the number of people catching the virus every day would slowly but fairly continuously drop from about 140,000 today to about 9,000 a day by mid-March. And the number of people dying from COVID-19 would fall from about 1,500 a day now to fewer than 100 a day by March - so better than where we were when everyone thought the pandemic was finally starting to be behind us early this summer.

INSKEEP: That sounds great. But I feel obliged to recall that some experts were hoping that the delta surge would peak before now and also that different regions of the country have had very different experiences the last couple of months.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. That's right. And there are some important caveats. You know, this is what the overall national trend would be. The modeling indicates a lot of variation around the country, with some states continuing to surge for possibly weeks. So they could get worse before they get better. But Lessler, overall, is still optimistic.

LESSLER: I think a lot of people have been tending to think that with this surge that, OK, this just means it's never going to get better, and so maybe I just need to stop worrying about it and take the risk. But I think these projections show us and the data shows us that things are going to be getting better, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

INSKEEP: What is the source of that light?

STEIN: Yeah. So Lessler thinks that at this point, there's enough immunity in this country from a combination of enough people getting vaccinated and enough people having been exposed to the virus.

LESSLER: The biggest driver is immunity. We've seen really big delta waves. The virus has eaten up the susceptible people, so there are less people out there to infect. That's, of course, also driven by additional people getting vaccinated and other behavior change, from mask wearing to other precautions. But I think the biggest driver is that accumulation of immunity.

STEIN: But people have to keep getting vaccinated and taking those precautions to keep the pandemic in check as even more people develop immunity.

INSKEEP: And what is the best advice for sustaining that immunity through booster shots of different kinds?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So I mean, that's the thing is that people basically have to keep being careful, keep wearing their masks. And you know - and there's an important development happening today. A key CDC advisory group is starting a two-day meeting today about the Pfizer booster. The FDA is expected to authorize a Pfizer booster at any time now, now that an advisory panel recommended that anyone 65 and older who got the Pfizer vaccine get a booster six months later. So the CDC now subsides some thorny questions. But after that, boosters could start finally rolling out later this week.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We have a different view now of a crowd of refugees beneath a bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border.

MARTIN: Photos and video of the confrontation showed U.S. border agents chasing Haitian migrants along the Rio Grande River in Texas. That's where tens of thousands of men, women, children have been crowding under a bridge in hopes of seeking refuge here in the U.S. Many of those images that we all saw were captured by journalists with the Reuters news service.

INSKEEP: Reuters reporter Daina Beth Solomon joins us now from Ciudad Acuña. That is the city across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. Welcome to the program.

DAINA BETH SOLOMON: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: So I'm just trying to keep this in perspective. You're looking right across the river at that encampment. What have you been able to see?

SOLOMON: Right. So where I've been is on the river bank on the Mexico side of the border. And what I've seen is people coming across to Mexico from the United States every day by the dozens, crossing this river which, most of the day, is about waist-high. And in the past couple of days, they've put up a rope from one end to the other that they can hold on to while they're crossing. And some people have been coming back into Mexico because they want to stay in Mexico now, or they want time to think about their decision about what to do. But they don't want to be deported back to Haiti or expelled back to Haiti, which is what the rumors have been growing and growing, saying about what could happen to them.

INSKEEP: Which seems not only to be a rumor - right? - that is actually what the United States has said that it needs to do with these thousands of people under the bridge.

SOLOMON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think a couple of days ago for these people, they weren't sure if it was true or not. But then the word started spreading. And a lot of them, you know, once they were able to get to Mexico or somewhere they could charge their cellphone, they started to share WhatsApp messages and videos on Facebook. And they saw some of the videos from Haiti, people getting off the plane in Port-au-Prince very distraught. And they looked at those videos kind of in shock and wondered if that could soon be happening to them.

INSKEEP: They thought they'd rather be stuck in Mexico than return to Haiti, I suppose. Now, I want to understand a little bit better this very widely noted incident where border agents on horseback tried to detain people who appeared to have been going out for food. Is that part of what you're watching, is people grabbing that rope, going across the river shopping, getting some kind of supplies in Mexico and then going back to the encampment again? Is that happening?

SOLOMON: Yes, absolutely. Many people who I've talked to, you know, literally climbing out of the water, dripping wet, sometimes, you know, holding their shoes over their head or, you know, just wearing shorts, they've told me they're coming back to Mexico to go look for food, to buy supplies because there's just nothing on the U.S. side or very few things for them to eat and for them to use as resources.

INSKEEP: Daina Beth Solomon with Reuters in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. Thank you very much for that perspective. Really appreciate it.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. After Hurricane Ida swept across Louisiana last month, a catastrophic power outage plunged all of New Orleans into the dark and led to at least 11 deaths.

MARTIN: A joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica now finds that for decades, the city utility Entergy New Orleans and its parent company actually fought efforts to prepare for disasters like this.

INSKEEP: Tegan Wendland from our member station WWNO in New Orleans was part of the team that investigated this story and is on the line. Good morning.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I would think it's pretty normal to lose at least some power after a big storm, but it seems like something beyond normal happened here.

WENDLAND: Exactly. It's unusual for outages to affect this many people or last this long. All eight of the company's transmission lines into the city failed after the storm, and federal data show that power outages like this are just uncommon. The only comparable one this year was the February freeze that crippled much of Texas for about two weeks.

INSKEEP: What was it like to live through your power outage in New Orleans?

WENDLAND: You know, it was weird. I've been without power here many, many times before, but this time the whole city was dark. The skyline was dark, and frankly, it was scary for a lot of people. Many of my neighbors stayed, some because they couldn't afford to leave and there was no mandatory evacuation for the storm. And the power outage honestly proved more dangerous for many of them than the storm itself. So Albert Lewis and Tammy Lovick live just a few blocks away from me here in the 7th Ward, and they both have serious health problems.

ALBERT LEWIS: No power, no gas, no car, nothing. Everywhere I go, I got to walk, and I'll never make it - so hot. Daytime and nighttime, it's hot. It's nowhere to turn.

WENDLAND: He has cancer and couldn't get his medications. And his partner, Tammy, has a heart monitor that she couldn't charge. She actually passed out because of the heat and had scrapes all across her face. And now we're seeing reports from the coroner's office showing that people actually died because of the heat.

INSKEEP: OK. Now we get to your investigation. What led to such a massive power failure?

WENDLAND: So our investigation finds that it was years in the making. Entergy New Orleans is regulated by the city Council instead of state regulators, and the council and local advocates have been pushing the company for years to improve its infrastructure to better adapt to climate change, like by building microgrids that provide backup during emergencies or burying power lines so the poles don't get knocked over by every storm. These are ideas that are backed by experts.

And the company has pushed back. For example, it sued when the city council levied fines, implied it might sue again when the city tried to get it to reduce greenhouse gases faster. And it keeps building natural gas power plants. And then its PR firm at one point even hired paid actors to rally support at public meetings. And outside experts found that the council isn't really equipped to manage the company. They aren't utilities experts.

INSKEEP: So very briefly, how have the council and the company responded to your findings?

WENDLAND: The council president's pushing for an investigation into what went wrong and maybe even changing how Entergy New Orleans is regulated. Meantime, a group of lawyers has filed a class-action lawsuit, calling recent blackouts deadly and avoidable.

INSKEEP: And Entergy said nothing about all this?

WENDLAND: Yeah, the parent company wouldn't comment on either the lawsuit or talk to us for this story.

INSKEEP: OK. Tegan, thanks for that.

WENDLAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Tegan Wendland of WWNO in New Orleans.

And we should note here - Entergy did send WWNO and ProPublica an email in response to this story. They say they're spending billions improving infrastructure and also seeking federal help. Entergy also said yesterday it would cooperate with a city council investigation and that it's open to selling its New Orleans utility or spinning it off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.