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News Brief: Trump's COVID-19 Prognosis, 8 Justices Start High Court's Term

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is still hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He spent the weekend mostly inside the hospital while his aides and doctors offered a series of false and contradictory statements about his condition. Most notably, his doctor gave a sunny assessment of the president on Saturday. Moments later, off camera, a top aide contradicted that information. The president's communications adviser later explained that Dr. Sean Conley misled the nation to please his patient, who was watching on TV. The president has made other efforts to project strength. Yesterday, he climbed into an SUV with a driver and security team to roll past supporters outside the hospital. People who have COVID-19 are expected to fully isolate themselves.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been following this all the way through. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: How is the president doing this morning?

LIASSON: Well, we last heard from Trump's medical team yesterday. They said he has continued to improve so much that he could be discharged as soon as today. But going home to the White House for the president is not the same thing as going home for us. He'd still have a full medical staff and equipment. There are about 20 to 30 people in the White House medical unit. But at the same time, we also learned yesterday that the president's oxygen levels dropped twice, once on Friday, once on Saturday, and that he's now taking a cocktail of drugs that doctors say would be given to a patient with a severe case of COVID-19. We did hear from the president in a Twitter video last night. He looked better. He sounded more like himself. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's been a very interesting journey. I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school.

LIASSON: So that video was taken right before the president did a drive-by to wave to supporters outside Walter Reed Hospital. This is something that had some medical experts horrified because it meant Secret Service agents had to put on PPE and ride in the SUV with him with no air circulation. Of course, the SUV is protected against attack. One of them, Dr. James Phillips, called it insanity. And he said it possibly endangered the lives of the agents for, quote, "political theater."

KING: Speaking of political theater, over the weekend, the president's medical team gave two briefings. And the details were different each time, which has led to a ton of confusion about what's really going on.

LIASSON: Yes, a lot of confusion. On Saturday, White House physician Sean Conley laid out a timeline that started Trump's diagnosis and treatment earlier than we had thought. Then he issued a statement later walking that back. He also seemed to tie himself up into pretzels to avoid lying. At one point, he was asked if the president's oxygen levels dropped below 90, and he said, well, they were below 94, but it wasn't like they were in the low 80s or something. So maybe that means they were 85. But he gave a very positive impression of Trump's condition on Saturday. And then moments later, he was contradicted by an anonymous source, who the AP learned was chief of staff Mark Meadows. Mark Meadows said that Trump's condition on Friday was very concerning. Conley was asked about the contradiction yesterday, and here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN CONLEY: I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction and in doing so, you know, came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true.

LIASSON: So the White House has been taking great pains to avoid the president appearing enfeebled in any way, making sure that they took him to Walter Reed while he could still walk to the helicopters. And, of course, that was the implicit message of the ride yesterday - that he's really doing OK.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KING: So one way to tell how the president is doing, if the White House can't or won't make it clear, is to look at his medications as data, as information. What is he taking, and what does that tell us about how sick he is? NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into this one. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

Good morning, Noel.

KING: What medications is President Trump being given?

AUBREY: The president is taking dexamethasone, a steroid which is normally given to people with severe illness. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends corticosteroids for patients with severe and critical COVID-19. So that's an indication, perhaps, of how serious his doctors think his case is or has been. He's also taking a five-day course of remdesivir, which is an antiviral drug that has been shown to be beneficial for COVID patients.

KING: And he's also taking an experimental drug. What's that one?

AUBREY: The experimental drug he received has been referred to as an antibody cocktail. It's made by Regeneron. It contains two antibodies to help the body fight off the virus. The president received an infusion on Friday. This drug has not been approved by the FDA, but just last week, Regeneron, the company making it, released, preliminary results showing that people who were treated with medication early on did significantly better compared to those who received a placebo. So some promising results.

KING: Now, that's how the president is doing. We know that he was traveling. He was holding events in the couple of days before he got the diagnosis.

AUBREY: That's right.

KING: Is the White House doing contact tracing?

AUBREY: You know, the White House communications director said yesterday that the White House has an in-house epidemiologist and is following CDC guidelines, but the White House has not asked the CDC to initiate any contact tracing. She said they're following general protocols which are in line with CDC guidelines. It's really not clear how or whether the White House has given any guidance to the many people who the president or other people who've tested positive at the White House have come into contact with. I spoke to Josh Sharfstein about this. He's a former FDA official who is now a vice dean for public health practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

JOSH SHARFSTEIN: People who've been in close contact with the president during his window of being infectious need to quarantine for 14 days. And it's really important here for the White House to be a model for how to respond to an outbreak. And if it fails to do so, it is doing the moral equivalent of not wearing a mask in a crowded room. It is undermining the response that's necessary in order to limit these outbreaks.

AUBREY: Which is, of course, what's needed to put this pandemic behind us.

KING: Right, which doctors have been telling us pretty much from the beginning. Do we have any information about on which day President Trump could have been contagious?

AUBREY: Not exactly. The rule of thumb here is that a person can be infectious up to two days before experiencing symptoms. In contact tracing, you go back two days before symptoms start. The White House has said that the president started to feel sick or fatigued on Wednesday of last week and that his first positive test result came back Thursday after he returned from a trip to Bedminster, N.J., for a campaign fundraiser where there were a lot of people in attendance. So in a setting like that, very possible he was within 6 feet of people for more than 15 minutes, which is what defines being in close contact. So it's possible people were exposed.

KING: Yeah, I bet some of those people have questions. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Alison.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Lord, send out your spirit.

KING: That is the sound of an annual tradition, the red mass held at St. Matthew's Cathedral in D.C. It marks the start of the new Supreme Court term.

INSKEEP: Who knew that? I didn't know that, Noel.

KING: (Laughter) Neither did I.

INSKEEP: Anyway, it's an unusual term because today, only eight justices will be available to hear the first cases. All the arguments also will be held via telephone for safety reasons. We expect arguments on the Affordable Care Act and religious freedom, among many others.

KING: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what are some of the early cases on the Supreme Court's docket?

JOHNSON: The first case today involves a fight over water between Texas and New Mexico. Of course, disputes between states go directly to the Supreme Court. And the second case is all about judges, judges who sit on the highest courts in Delaware, their political affiliation and requirement - there'll be some political balance, how that clashes with the First Amendment. Well, one of the early cases I'm really watching is one that I followed for a long time. It's a lawsuit filed on behalf of American Muslim men who were placed on the no-fly list by the FBI, they say, in retaliation after they refused to spy on their communities. The question before the court is whether Congress intended to allow for people to receive money damages when individual government officials have interfered with their ability or freedom to practice their religion.

KING: Yeah, that's an interesting one. So for the moment, it will be eight justices considering. What's the latest with Amy Coney Barrett's nomination?

JOHNSON: Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit completed her long questionnaire and record time, in part because she already went through this process in 2017. But a couple of points have come up since her nomination by President Trump. She signed a newspaper ad in 2006 that opposed, quote, "abortion on demand." And she also defended the right to life from fertilization to natural death. Democrats say she never disclosed that in her questionnaire and that she should have, especially since the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade is going to be a key issue at her confirmation hearings.

KING: Abortion, a key issue for the court and for her hearings. Also, the Affordable Care Act, a key issue for the court. There's some news about her and the ACA.

JOHNSON: Yeah, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported that Barrett sat on a moot court last month at the William & Mary Law School. They heard a case over the Affordable Care Act. Here's what we know. None of the judges in the exercise, including Amy Coney Barrett, would have gotten rid of the entire law, either would've turned back the challenge led by Republican-led states or held that the heart of the law would survive. Now, of course, that's just a practice run, not the real thing. But the Supreme Court has an ACA case on its docket in November. How Barrett would rule there has become a big issue in her confirmation. It's a key part of the presidential campaign now and the message of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

KING: Let me ask you lastly about the logistics. So last week, we had two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee test positive for the coronavirus. Her hearings - Barrett's hearings are this month. How is that going to work?

JOHNSON: It's going to be tricky. Two members of the committee have tested positive. So far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it's full steam ahead with the hearings until October 12th. Democrats want to slow things down. Of course, Noel, we know that the coronavirus is unpredictable, and it can be hereto where It's a close call for whether the Republicans are going to have enough people on the committee to vote.

KING: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.