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News Brief: California Order, ProPublica Probe, Italy Pandemic Deaths


The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has ordered that state's nearly 40 million people to stay at home indefinitely.


And this comes after similar measures were taken by local leaders in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the state. Here's Governor Newsom.


GAVIN NEWSOM: A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts. But at the end of the day, we're one body. There's a mutuality. And there's a recognition of our interdependence that requires of this moment that we direct a statewide order for people to stay at home.

MARTIN: This is the first statewide stay-at-home order in the U.S., all part of the country's effort to control the spread of the coronavirus.

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR's Leila Fadel, who joins us from Los Angeles. Hi, Leila.


GREENE: So if you live in California, as you do...

FADEL: Yeah.

GREENE: ...What does this order exactly mean for you? What are you allowed to do? And what are you not allowed to do?

FADEL: Right. So it's not a full lockdown. Essential businesses are open. So that means you can go get gas, go to the bank, go get groceries when necessary. If you need to care for a loved one or get medical care, you can also leave your home. There are also exemptions for critical federal infrastructure sectors, like health care, transportation, emergency response, food and agriculture. But the governor wants other Californians to stay at home even though he was kind of fuzzy on enforcement.


NEWSOM: I don't believe that the people of California need to be told through law enforcement that it's appropriate. Just home isolate, protect themselves, go about the essential, essential patterns of life. But do so by socially distancing themselves from others. And do so using their common sense.

FADEL: Now, the actual order does say the government has the authority to take the steps to ensure compliance. But the governor's message last night was, Californians should comply voluntarily.

GREENE: Well, Leila, we've seen different officials, different governors respond in different ways so far as this virus has been spreading. When it comes to Governor Newsom here in California, why this and why now?

FADEL: You know, the governor says he's concerned California's health care system won't be able to handle the worst-case scenario. And he threw out some pretty alarming numbers, projecting that more than half of California's almost 40 million people could get sick in the next two months.


NEWSOM: We need to bend the curve in the state of California. And in order to do that, we need to recognize the reality. The fact is, the experience we're having on the ground throughout the state of California, the experience that's manifesting all across the United States - and for that matter, around the rest of the world - require us to adjust our thinking and to adjust our activities.

FADEL: This is worst-case scenario according to certain models. But if that happens, Newsom says California hospitals would be nearly 20,000 beds short of what they need.

GREENE: Well, what preparations are being made on the health care front, I mean, in case of the worst-case scenario?

FADEL: Right. The state is trying to increase capacity quickly. It's acquired a hospital in Northern California. And it's doing that same thing in Southern California. The governor says the state's also working to find motels, hotels, even university dormitories that it can use during the pandemic. But hospitals are already feeling the pressure.

Hospitals are running low on supplies - gloves, masks, protective gear - that doctors need to feel safe to treat patients. And prior to this announcement, I spoke to Dr. Vivek Jain, who is part of the team leading San Francisco General Hospital's response to COVID-19. And he said doctors welcome public health interventions like shelter-in-place.

VIVEK JAIN: We're here. And we're ready to take care of everybody. But we need the public's help in observing the maximum social distancing interventions that they can.

FADEL: And since there's still this national shortage of tests, Jain says social distancing is so vital right now. He's in San Francisco, which already had a shelter-in-place order. And he said he was hoping others would follow suit. And now the whole state has.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Los Angeles. Thanks so much, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.


GREENE: OK. So yesterday, NPR's Tim Mak reported that Republican Senator Richard Burr delivered a warning. It was to a private audience three weeks ago. And it was a warning about the impact the coronavirus could have here in the United States.

MARTIN: Right. Senator Burr compared the coronavirus pandemic to the 1918 influenza pandemic. That private message from the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee was a whole lot stronger than what most Americans were hearing from the federal government at the time. And there's now a new twist to this story - reports that Senator Burr and one of his Senate colleagues improperly unloaded stock before the markets really tank.

GREENE: OK. And Tim Mak is back with us covering this story. And, Tim, you told us yesterday about this private warning that the senator gave to civic leaders and others about the impact of coronavirus. What - take us to the next phase of this story. What did you learn here?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Sure. ProPublica and OpenSecrets, jumping off of NPR's investigation, wrote stories suggesting that Senator Burr may have improperly benefited or profited by privately dumping stocks while reassuring the public that the nation was ready for the coronavirus epidemic. ProPublica reported that Burr sold off, quote, "a significant percentage of his stocks," somewhere between $628,000 and $1.7 million worth of stock on a single day, February 13.

And what he dumped was notable, up to a quarter-million dollars' worth of shares in two major hospitality chains that lost between half and two-thirds of its value since. Now, Burr's office said in a statement to NPR that these transactions happened before the recent market volatility.

GREENE: But still, I mean, the timing of all this raises so many questions. Burr, you had told us, was not the only lawmaker getting these early private briefs. Was he the only senator to dump stock as far as we know?

MAK: Well, senators are required within 45 days of selling a stock to submit a public report. Now, senators, like anyone else, do sell stocks. It's not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing to do so. That said, The Daily Beast found that Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia sold off seven figures' worth of stock after a private senator's briefing on the coronavirus.

And then she also bought up to a quarter-million dollars' worth of stock in a company that offers teleworking software. Her office told NPR that this was a, quote, "ridiculous and baseless attack" and that investment decisions are made by third-party advisors without her knowledge.

GREENE: OK. So these senators' offices are saying that there was nothing to see here, basically. But, I mean, could there be fallout for them?

MAK: Well, there's a lot of uncertainty right now on the issue of coronavirus. A lot of people are worried about their 401(k)s. And to hear that lawmakers might have benefited from insider information about coronavirus is a pretty unifying force. Conservative Fox commentator Tucker Carlson called for Burr to resign if he didn't have an explanation for this.


TUCKER CARLSON: But he didn't warn the public. He didn't even disavow an op-ed he'd written just 10 days before claiming America was, quote, "better prepared than ever for coronavirus." He didn't do any of those things. Instead, what'd he do? He dumped his shares in hotel stocks, so he wouldn't lose money. And then he stayed silent.

MAK: Progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined these calls and also said that Burr needs to resign. It's a rare joining of hands from across the ideological spectrum. I expect we'll hear more about this issue soon.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Tim Mak. Tim, thanks for all this reporting. We really appreciate it.

MAK: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. Don't travel anywhere. That is a warning coming from the U.S. State Department.

MARTIN: The department issued the so-called Level 4 advisory for all global travel. The message to Americans who are currently abroad is to come home, quote, "unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period," end quote. These warnings come as Italy's death toll from the coronavirus surpasses China's. More than 3,400 people in Italy have died as a result of the pandemic. That number is more alarming when you think about the fact that Italy has a population of 60 million, compared to nearly 1 1/2 billion people in China. So it's a much bigger percentage.

GREENE: Well, and let's go to Italy now. NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome. Hi, Sylvia.


GREENE: So doctors in Italy have been issuing these very public warnings to the rest of the world based on what they have been seeing there. What is their message?

POGGIOLI: They're saying, look at us. We're the COVID-19 laboratory for Western democracies. Put everyone in lockdown. And get your hospitals and medical staff ready for what's essentially a wartime emergency. In the northern Lombardy region, which is the epicenter in Italy, they're scrambling to create more ICU beds. Some towns are turning old fairgrounds into field hospitals. Tents are being set up outside hospitals for triage. And there are some really difficult calls that doctors have to make. This is what Dr. Carlo Vitelli, a surgeon and oncologist in Rome, told me.


CARLO VITELLI: If you have a 99-year-old male or female patient that's a patient with a lot of diseases and you have a young kid that needs to be intubated and you only have one ventilator, I mean, you're not going to toss the coin.

POGGIOLI: And there's a very grim situation in Bergamo, northeast of Milan. Mortuaries can't keep up with deaths. The army was sent in to take piling up coffins to crematoriums in other cities. The government is footing the bill to spare relatives the costs of cremating the loved ones they weren't even able to see before they died.

And it's now emerging that the virus had been spreading for months before it was detective. I talked to Dr. Giuseppe Remuzzi, who's been talking to family doctors. They told him they saw cases that looked like severe pneumonia already last November and December. That's before the world even became aware of the COVID-19 outbreak in China.


GIUSEPPE REMUZZI: That they remember having seen very strange pneumonias, very severe, particularly in old people, in December and even in November. It means that the virus was circulating at least in Lombardy before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.

POGGIOLI: He told me it was impossible to combat something we didn't know existed.

GREENE: Well, as terrible as the situation is there, I mean, with these deaths, I mean, there are people who are surviving this virus, right? I mean, what about those who have made it through and recovered?

POGGIOLI: Well, here's Daniela De Rosa. She lives in the Campania region south of Naples. She posted a video on Facebook a few days ago. She's breathing through the ventilator she calls the friend who saved her life. It was the first day she was able to speak after a long time in isolation at the hospital.


DANIELA DE ROSA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: She told viewers she wants to send a message.


DE ROSA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Very few people understand what's happening. I want people to see I'm suffering. Every single individual," De Rosa says firmly, "must stay home and not endanger the lives of others."

GREENE: I mean, Sylvia, you live there. What has it been like for you so far?

POGGIOLI: Well, a person described central Rome, where I live, as if a neutron bomb had exploded. All human life on the streets is gone, but the monuments are intact. Actually, there are signs of life - very loud chirping birds. That's the new city soundtrack. It's isolating. It's difficult. But, you know, I keep working to keep from being stir-crazy.

GREENE: Well, we appreciate all the work you're doing. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks so much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, David.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly report that Gov. Gavin Newsom said 50% of California's population would get sick with the coronavirus over the next few months. He actually said 50% of the state's population would get infected with the coronavirus.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 21, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this story, we incorrectly report that Gov. Gavin Newsom said 50% of California's population would get sick with the coronavirus over the next few months. He actually said 50% of the state's population would get infected with the coronavirus.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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