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News Brief: Biden Cabinet, COVID-19 Surge, Shelter-In-Place Orders

NOEL KING, HOST:

We expect that as early as today, President-elect Joe Biden will name his choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is clearly a key position, of course, with the country in the middle of a pandemic. Biden has been pledging that his Cabinet is going to look like the United States. Here he is talking to reporters on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOE BIDEN: I promise you, it'll be the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, color, based on gender that's ever existed in the United States of America.

KING: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is with us this morning. Hey, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. We kept the suspense going there for a minute or two. Who is Joe Biden picking for HHS?

RASCOE: He's chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. And this is according to reporting from my colleague Franco Ordoñez, based on sources familiar with Biden's plans. Becerra would be the second high-profile Latino to be nominated for a Cabinet position. The other is Alejandro Mayorkas, who's going to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

The choice of Becerra comes as Biden has been under pressure to name more people of color to top posts. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has called for more Latino nominees, and you had civil rights groups like the NAACP calling for more African Americans to be nominated for top posts. About half of his Cabinet posts have gone to people of color. He's also nominated a number of women for different posts. And at this point, he is going to be meeting with the NAACP on Tuesday to hear their concerns directly.

KING: It sounds like there's different kinds of pressure coming from different quarters. Can you break down who's pressing Biden to do what?

RASCOE: So there's a concern from groups like the NAACP and National Urban League that they have not been consulted enough as Biden has been putting together his Cabinet. I talked to Derrick Johnson, who is CEO of the NAACP. He said his group requested a meeting with Biden a few weeks ago, and they want to make sure that policies backing civil rights are front and center when Biden is making these decisions.

DERRICK JOHNSON: We didn't want to get lost in the mix and be an afterthought. Civil rights should be at the table on the front end.

RASCOE: Johnson said he's not looking for a particular number of Black people to be nominated. He said what's important is making sure that whoever is nominated is focused on making sure that the interests of African Americans and other people of color are represented. But I also talked to Marc Morial, who heads up the National Urban League, and he said that the number of Black people put into these positions is important. Here's more from him.

MARC MORIAL: It is about a significant number of Black people in the Cabinet. Let me just be clear. It is about representation at the table.

RASCOE: What both of these leaders made clear is that they feel that the civil rights agenda has really been ignored or harmed during the Trump administration and that Biden has a lot of work to do to make up for that.

KING: So who are some of the names that you're hearing as you speak to African American leaders?

RASCOE: You know, one name that keeps coming up is Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge for secretary of agriculture. Fudge is a Black woman who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and has been a big advocate for food stamps and other programs to help the hungry that are run out of USDA. There have also been calls for Biden to choose Black candidates for one of the remaining big four Cabinet posts - so either secretary of defense or attorney general. To be clear, there have been, you know, Black people and people of color named to prominent positions already, including Linda Thomas-Greenfield for U.N. ambassador and Wally Adeyemo as deputy treasury secretary.

KING: What does the Biden team say about this pressure?

RASCOE: You know, they're acknowledging that, you know, they're hearing these concerns. They say that they have been talking to these groups, even if not at the president-elect's level. And they say that they're committed to building an administration that looks like America.

KING: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani is one of the hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with COVID in this country in the last few days alone.

GREENE: Yeah. We should say, Giuliani has been traveling around the country to lead President Trump's unsuccessful effort to overturn a fair election in the courts. Last week, Giuliani was at an indoor hearing in Michigan. He was not wearing a mask. Of course, he's just one person. We still don't actually know what the fallout is going to be from all the Thanksgiving holiday gatherings around the United States. As infections and deaths soar, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force was talking about this winter surge on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

DEBORAH BIRX: This is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Thanks for being here, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So the big question is this Monday morning, what's the latest on vaccines?

AUBREY: You know, there's a big meeting coming up on December 10, this Thursday. An advisory committee to the FDA will meet in open session to discuss emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID vaccine. And if they like what they hear, Noel, it could be authorized right away. I spoke to L.J Tan. He's a scientist with the Immunization Action Coalition, and he explains that Pfizer is being proactive. They have distribution hubs here in the U.S.

L J TAN: They have already started shipping vaccine from their manufacturing facilities to those distribution hubs. Now, they cannot ship vaccine to providers until they receive the emergency use authorization. But this is good, normal forward-thinking behavior.

AUBREY: To start out, Pfizer has about 20 million doses for the U.S., so supplies will be limited at first.

KING: Meaning not everyone can get one - but it has become clear who's going to get them first, yeah?

AUBREY: Yeah, health care workers and people in nursing homes, long-term care facilities are top priority. But remember, everyone will need two doses - two shots. We have about 20 million health care workers in the U.S. So it's going to take some time to get even these high-priority groups vaccinated. After that, essential workers, people over 65 will likely be the next priority group. So big picture - we could see first vaccinations later this month, but it will likely be midsummer 2021 before all Americans can be vaccinated. And in the meantime, we are definitely in the midst of this frightening surge.

KING: A surge in case numbers - but there are other things that are part of the surge, right?

AUBREY: The most alarming number is the significant increase in deaths, about a 50% increase compared to just two weeks ago. You look at the number of new cases, the rise in hospitalizations, it's clear the situation is getting worse. That's why Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Birx both say some parts of the nation may need to take more drastic or stricter measures to slow the spread. In California, we're seeing lots of that - strict limits on businesses. Yet Dr. Birx says we're not seeing enough restrictions in other places.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

BIRX: Right now, across the Sun Belt, we have governors and mayors who have cases equivalent to what they had in the summertime yet aren't putting in the same policies and mitigations that they put in the summer that they know change the course of this pandemic across the South, so it is frustrating.

AUBREY: Because, you know, as the virus circulates so widely, Noel, there is a real concern. We see this rise in hospitalizations, and hospital resources are just being stretched thin.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

KING: All right. So Allison mentioned some states taking stricter measures, including California, where 33 million people are now under a stay-at-home order.

GREENE: Yeah, Allison mentioned the strain that hospitals are feeling. That's certainly the case in the state of California. And this is one reason why Governor Gavin Newsom has now gone back to the very strict measures that he implemented back in March.

KING: Nicole Nixon has been reporting on this for CapRadio. She's with us from Sacramento. Good morning, Nicole.

NICOLE NIXON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So these new stay at home orders, interestingly, don't apply to the whole state. So let me ask you, where do they apply, and why not just say all of California?

NIXON: Well, they're tied to ICU capacity. So the Southern California region and the Central Valley regions went under these new stay-at-home orders yesterday when their available ICU beds dipped below 15%. And given how things are going, it's expected that the rest of the state will hit that ICU trigger here in the next week or two. So these orders take effect when an area has less than 15% of its ICU beds available. And it's not just the beds that are the issue here. The hospital staff and equipment are feeling the strain, too.

KING: OK. So you're saying in some cases, in some places it may just be a matter of time. And in fact, some counties are doing stay-at-home orders anyway, even though the governor hasn't said they have to. Are they also looking at ICU beds?

NIXON: Yes. Five counties in the Bay Area said that they are not going to wait for their ICUs to get to that 15% point, so here's San Francisco health officer Dr. Tomas Aragon explaining why.

TOMAS ARAGON: Unlike previous searches, every hospital in California is under stress. There is no place to transfer people if we run out of beds. Three-quarters of the state's hospital beds are currently full.

NIXON: These Bay Area counties actually implemented the first stay-at-home order back in March, even before the state did, so this strategy they're taking here is in line with how they've been handling the pandemic from the very beginning.

KING: Yeah, I remember that. So what's shut down now?

NIXON: So this is not quite as sweeping as the first March stay-at-home order. For example, schools that are already open can stay open. On the other hand, businesses like hair and nail salons, movie theaters, bars and wineries have to close. Restaurants have to go takeout or delivery only, and churches have to conduct worship services outside. Retail stores can stay open but at a very limited capacity. And these orders are in effect for at least three weeks.

KING: We know that small businesses find this particularly difficult. What are small business owners telling you?

NIXON: Well, many business owners are angry. Small businesses have been through so much this year, and some of them see the ban on outdoor dining as arbitrary. I've been in touch with small business owner Rosey Ibarra (ph). She's a hairstylist in Temecula in Southern California, and she told me that she does not intend to comply with this new round of restrictions.

ROSEY IBARRA: I am not closing. I feel confident to properly and safely take care of my clients. None of my clients have rescheduled. None of them feel that coming to my salon is going to be unsafe for them at this time.

NIXON: Ibarra says, for months, she's been following the health guidelines from the state and the county, and she says those things have been working.

KING: OK.

Nicole Nixon of CapRadio coming to us from Sacramento. Thanks, Nicole.

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