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Coronavirus Updates: Congress Considers More Action, Scientists React


Throughout March, we watched as the coronavirus spread across the globe and into all 50 states. Currently, more than half of all states are under stay-at-home orders. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who has long resisted the idea, announced today that Florida soon will be, too. Georgia quickly followed suit.


As for the states that have not issued orders, Surgeon General Jerome Adams clarified the national guidelines this morning on NBC's "Today" show.


JEROME ADAMS: My advice to America would be that these guidelines are a national stay-at-home order. They're guidelines that say that, look; the more we social distance, the more we stay at home, the less spread of disease there will be.

CHANG: And now, with COVID-19 cases nationwide, there are questions about why early estimates about how bad this could be were so off and the way critical medical supplies are being distributed by the federal government. So let's bring in NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey to both of you.



CHANG: Richard, yesterday at the White House briefing, we heard one of the top scientists admitting that she had initially underestimated the potential damage that the virus could cause. What was the story there?

HARRIS: Well, with U.S. officials now warning that the death count here from the coronavirus could be a hundred thousand or even much more than that, people are asking whether the government should have acted sooner. That question was put to coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx toward the end of a very long briefing yesterday. And she did admit in hindsight that she didn't grasp just how bad this was going to get. Instead, she compared it to a similar virus, SARS, which killed far fewer people.


DEBORAH BIRX: I think when you looked at the China data originally, you start thinking of this more like SARS than you do this kind of global pandemic. I think probably we were missing significant amount of the data now that - when we see what happened to Italy and we see what happened to Spain.

HARRIS: And you notice at the end there that she's deflecting blame...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Suggesting that she got it wrong because China had hidden data about the disease, and that tripped up scientists and the U.S. government.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that. Franco, the president - you know, he's often been asked if he feels China was transparent with the information it was releasing about this virus. President Trump has also emphasized, though, his working relationship with President Xi Jinping. So what is he saying now about that relationship?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. You know, we've seen a shift at the White House in the last few days from blaming China for what in retrospect appears to be a late start. As you know, the president has been talking about - recently about his good relationship with China. And the blame now is more focused on China for not being open enough. Here's Vice President Mike Pence today in an interview with CNN.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I will be very candid with you and say that in mid-January, the CDC was still assessing that the risk of the coronavirus to the American people was low. The very first case, which was someone who had been in China, I believe took place in late January around the 20th day of January.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Pence is a China hawk, and there are a whole bunch of geopolitical issues wrapped up all in this. And both he and President Trump have pointed again and again to the decision to stop travel from China as having prevented the situation in the U.S. from being much, much worse.

CHANG: Well, is that a fair characterization? I mean, Richard, is there evidence that health officials in the U.S. were just caught flat-footed because China withheld vital information?

HARRIS: Well, scientists outside the U.S. government knew enough to be alarmed by this from very early on in the year. Michael Osterholm, who runs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, was one of those early voices. I asked him whether he thought that U.S. officials have a point when they suggest that they were blindsided by China.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: That holds no water at all. We had access to the same public information that they had, and we were getting tremendous amounts of information out of China indicating just the extent to which transmission was occurring. We had more than adequate data when we declared on January 20 that this was going to be a global pandemic.

HARRIS: We being his research center - and that was one day before the CDC reported the very first U.S. case. Now, Osterholm's group is not alone in having raised the alarm early. The World Health Organization declared this an international emergency at the end of January. Osterholm says China could be doing more now to share data for sure. But the government of China shared more than enough to show early on that it was going to be a dangerous epidemic.

CHANG: Interesting. We heard Dr. Birx compare the coronavirus to SARS. And that virus - it hit mostly in 2003, but it only ended up causing - what? - fewer than 800 deaths worldwide. So...

HARRIS: Right.

CHANG: ...If she thought this was just going to be a repeat of SARS, maybe that would've been understandable. But what makes this virus so much worse than SARS?

HARRIS: Well, yeah. Well, one factor is that some people spread this disease before they themselves get symptoms, and that makes it really hard to track. A new study today from Singapore shows that some people can be spreading the virus for one to three days before they get symptoms. And also, today a top scientist at the World Health Organization said that silent transmission is a really big factor driving this epidemic. But Osterholm also points to the biology. It turns out that infected people can produce, like, a thousand times more virus than was the case for SARS.


HARRIS: So that can also be fueling the spread. Yeah, it's a big deal.

CHANG: And Franco, you know, there's been a lot of anxiety, obviously, from hospitals and state governments about not getting the supplies they need right now, like ventilators, other protective - and protective gear. A lot of discussion has also been about something President Trump said last Friday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: All I want them to do - very simple. I want them to be appreciative. I don't want them to say things that aren't true. I want them to be appreciative. We've done a great job.

CHANG: And he's talking about state governments there. How real is that concern that the president is giving supplies to states, and states are just not appreciating what he's giving them?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, one of the most puzzling things about covering this story is really trying to square reports from the ground about these supply shortages with statements from the White House. The reality is we don't know what specific states need or what they have asked for. All these governors, whether it's Democrats or Republicans, are scrambling. They're competing for supplies. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, said this week on NPR that he was flying blind because officials did not have enough tests.

And the president has gone from saying that the federal government is not a supply clerk and that governors need to find their own supplies to more recently saying, hey, call FEMA; don't get into a bidding war. And President Trump's political rhetoric, particularly against Democratic governors in Washington state and Michigan, has also muddied this as well. I think we did see a course correction last night, but we're going to continue to see this back and forth.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and science correspondent Richard Harris.

Thanks to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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