The Latest Developments Around Federal Coronavirus Response
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And I'm Ailsa Chang in Culver City, Calif., where residents have been ordered by the governor to stay home. Other states say they are taking similar steps.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Meanwhile, here in Washington, the president, Vice President Mike Pence, other officials briefed reporters for about 90 minutes today on the latest in the government response to the coronavirus.
CHANG: Including the U.S. has closed the Mexico border to all nonessential travel.
KELLY: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that U.S. citizens who are abroad should return to the U.S. or be prepared to remain outside the country for a long period of time.
CHANG: Also, Americans now have until July 15 to file their taxes.
KELLY: OK. To talk through more of what we learned in today's briefing, I want to bring in our roundtable. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe covers the White House. Chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and science correspondent Richard Harris - hello, team.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Richard Harris, we're going to hit the science first today. There was a lot of back-and-forth in this briefing between the president and Tony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who is one of his top advisers. The back-and-forth was over a malaria drug that could possibly be a treatment for COVID-19. Dr. Fauci, though, tempered expectations over whether the drug could help.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: The answer is no, and the information that you're referring to specifically is anecdotal. It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can't make any definitive statement about it.
KELLY: But President Trump was not deterred. He says he has a feeling this might work.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I sure as hell think we ought to give it a try. I mean, there's been some interesting things happened and some good - very good things. Let's see what happens. We have nothing to lose. You know the expression. What the hell do you have to lose?
KELLY: All right. Richard Harris, I won't repeat the president's question there. But what is this drug, and is it promising?
HARRIS: Well, it - the short answer is nobody really knows how promising it is. Researchers sensibly started looking around for drugs that are approved for one use and thought, might be useful against the coronavirus. It's not obvious that a drug that targets the parasite that causes malaria would actually work against a virus like coronavirus. But, you know, it - there have been some - there's been a bit of hype around it and some very preliminary observations that Dr. Fauci alluded to.
The problem is you don't really want to have a stampede for something that doesn't actually work. And as Dr. Fauci pointed out, there's so little information about potential safety concerns for this drug, especially among people who are suffering severe lung infection as a result of the coronavirus. So, you know, we're kind of in this weird spot between hype and hope. And - you know, and I think that Dr. Fauci was trying to keep it grounded in the science, and the president was trying to just go with the hope.
KELLY: Go with the hope - Ayesha, you were there in the White House briefing room as this played out. Talk about the optics, this back-and-forth between the president and Dr. Fauci.
RASCOE: It was striking. President Trump is not used to having officials directly contradict him at all, especially not to his face, on really anything. But the reason why it matters at this moment is because we're talking about decisions that are matters of life and death and health in this crisis that is of such huge magnitude.
RASCOE: So having the administration kind of speak with one voice and deliver clear messages or not speak with one voice is significant. Fauci did seem to kind of nod to this tension. He was saying that he didn't think there was really a big difference between what he was saying and what Trump was saying. That's probably important for him to remain in good standing with Trump.
KELLY: Richard, there were questions about supplies today, about ventilators - whether there are enough ventilators. Let me play you a bit. This is Vice President Pence.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: In our recent discussion with anesthesiologists, we've literally identified tens of thousands of existing ventilators that can be retrofitted and converted to be ventilators for people struggling with the coronavirus.
KELLY: Retrofitted and converted - how does that work? Is it viable?
HARRIS: Well, it actually could work. It could make a big difference. I talked to Dr. Mary Dale Peterson, who is the president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. And she explains that these devices used to provide anesthesia in the operating room also contain ventilators as part of that mechanism. And basically, if those devices could be fitted with filters and all of their settings can be adjusted, they actually could work fine in the intensive care unit with people who really understand how to make it happen.
And she said there's as many as 70,000 of these devices in American hospitals. Obviously, some have to stay in the operating room because people will still need emergency surgery and so on, but she thinks maybe half of them could be repurposed. So this doesn't solve the problem of ventilator shortage, but it's a really big number that helps alleviate that.
KELLY: All this talk about supplies, ventilators and so on has prompted questions about the Defense Production Act. Ayesha Rascoe, remind us. What is the Defense Production Act? And has it been activated or not?
RASCOE: So this is a law that first came about during World War II. Then it was revived during the Cold War. It allows the president to control the production and distribution of scarce materials that have been deemed a center to the national defense. So the government can direct industries to prioritize certain production, and the government can say it has the right to buy certain goods before anyone else. The president yesterday said he had not activated it yet. He was hoping he would not have to use this act at this moment. But then today Trump kind of gave conflicting answers about whether he has actually directed companies to begin producing ventilators and masks.
I did ask him, could he name any of these companies? And he said he would have to check with them. He did name General Motors as one of the companies that may be helping to make ventilators. I followed up with the White House, and I still haven't gotten a clear answer about whether this is happening under the Defense Production Act or not or whether it's officially been triggered.
KELLY: Scott Horsley, thank you for your patience. Sorry to keep you waiting. This is the perfect moment to bring you in because you've also been reporting on the Defense Production Act and specifically on the implications for businesses - GM as we just heard Ayesha mention and others that would actually have to manufacture all these supplies.
HORSLEY: Yeah. We've seen this in other countries. You know, in China, there was an auto plant that started churning out face masks. In Europe, there's a cosmetic factory that switched to making hand sanitizer. So it is doable, but there are challenges. You know, one of the reasons that GM and the other automakers shut down this week is it's hard to maintain social distance in a factory. So you want to be able to keep your workers safe. You also have to wonder, can the companies get the supplies they need, especially if you're talking about a complex product like a ventilator? So manufacturers can be adaptable, but they do need some coordination, and we haven't seen very much of that just yet.
KELLY: Another question for you, Scott - the Mexico border closing that I mentioned. A lot of workers cross that border every day. What impact are we expecting?
HORSLEY: Yeah. As with the closing of the Canadian border, authorities appear to be mostly cracking down on tourist travel. They say essential travel will still be allowed, and people with work permits can still go back and forth. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is particularly interested in making sure that seasonal agricultural workers, those with H2A visas, can keep coming into the United States. It's kind of a reminder that as much as the president sometimes demonizes our neighbors to the south, there are big parts of the U.S. economy that are still heavily dependent on Mexican labor.
KELLY: Yeah. Lightning round - final thought from each of you. We've been talking to you every day as this extraordinary week has played out. Richard Harris?
HARRIS: Well, this is my final thought reflecting on the week. We understandably look to scientists and drug companies to rescue us with medicines and vaccines. But the reality is this week, it's Americans - it's been all of us working together who are really making the difference. And to maintain that, we need credible, consistent, fact-based advice from people in charge.
KELLY: Good advice. Ayesha Rascoe, parting thought?
RASCOE: Well, this is the first week of this kind of 15 days of the administration trying to get people socially distancing and trying to see if it will work. So my thought is, what's going to happen next weekend? Are we going to really see a difference from these two weeks of people doing this social distancing?
KELLY: Scott Horsley, you get the last word.
HORSLEY: Well, I've been getting a lot of emails and phone calls this week from friends across the country just checking in. I've been - I'm making a lot of calls like that myself and sending emails. I think it's really important, at a time when so many of us are physically isolated, that we make an effort to stay connected in other ways. And I'm encouraged that so many Americans are doing that.
KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley, Ayesha Rascoe and Richard Harris, thanks to all three of you. Happy Friday.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
HARRIS: Same to you.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.