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News Brief: CDC Plan, Farmers' Crops, China Shuts Border With Russia


At this point, there are almost half a million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.


But the CDC says we could reach an important turning point soon. The CDC's director, Robert Redfield, spoke to our colleague Mary Louise Kelly yesterday.


ROBERT REDFIELD: Well, I think at this stage, we're nearing the peak of the outbreak, the pandemic in our country right now. And I think we'll begin to see the curve begin to go down. And I expect we'll see that continue - aggressively decreasing cases over the next couple weeks across the country.

GREENE: Redfield also said that this country is going to need an army of health care workers to prevent the coronavirus from surging back.

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein also had a chance to talk to Redfield yesterday. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So an army of health care workers. How would that prevent things from relapsing?

STEIN: So whenever the pandemic finally does peak and does recede, the virus will still be around. And, you know, lots of people will still be vulnerable. So one of the key weapons that will be needed to try to keep it from roaring back will be enough disease detectives to swoop in at the first signs of any new outbreaks flaring up, to track down everyone who might have been exposed - what's called contact tracing - and keep the virus in check. And that takes an enormous amount of personnel. Redfield told me all of that will require a substantial expansion of public health field workers.

KING: Does the United States currently have enough health care workers for what he's talking about?

STEIN: No. You know, understaffed and underfunded public health departments around the country are nowhere near being able to handle that sort of thing. So that's prompted some public health experts to propose all sorts of things, including creating a kind of civilian corps of disease SWAT teams to stuff out any new outbreaks. Redfield said the CDC currently has more than 600 workers deployed around the country but is planning to do what he calls substantially amplify that to help state and local health departments. He wouldn't go into any detail yet, but he said a plan is coming soon.

KING: And so if we had all of these additional health care workers, would that be enough to stay on top of COVID-19?

STEIN: You know, we'd also need to make sure our hospitals are ready next time. And some experts say we may also need to turn to some of the more high-tech strategies that other countries have used, like maybe using cell phone data to help track people and figure out everyone who an infected person came into contact with, so they can quickly be quarantined to prevent them from spreading the virus. I asked Redfield about that, too.

REDFIELD: People are looking at all the different modern technology that could be brought to bear to make contact tracing more efficient and effective. Are there more, if you will, say, tech-savvy ways to be more comprehensive in contact tracing versus the old-fashioned way? You know, currently, these things are under aggressive evaluation.

STEIN: Now, Noel, that idea can obviously raise lots of concerns about privacy. And Redfield stressed that contact tracing will ultimately be done on a state and local level. But the CDC will help provide help and advice. And several U.S. groups have already developed technology designed to protect people's privacy.

KING: Rob, so one big question or one big problem we've had from the beginning of this outbreak is that the U.S. just hasn't had enough tests, which I assume will also need to get back to normal. What did he say about the testing problem?

STEIN: You know, the CDC has taken a lot of heat for the testing debacle. And during the interview, the CDC director defended the agency and how it handled testing. And he stressed that more than 2 million Americans have been tested now. And as many as 120,000 are being tested every day. But, you know, testing is still a big problem. And lots of experts say we still need a lot more testing to get the pandemic under control and to keep it there.

KING: NPR's Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

KING: All right. This pandemic has led to a really cruel irony.

GREENE: Yeah, it really has. So millions of people have lost their jobs in this crisis. So they're going to food banks. Charities just don't have enough. And yet at the same time, some farmers are throwing out perfectly good food because they can't sell it.

KING: Dan Charles covers food and agriculture for NPR. He's with us this morning. Good morning, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what a terrible thing. Why is this happening?

CHARLES: One way to think about it is the American food system is like this giant railway system. And you've got trains going in all kinds of places. And a lot of them are going to places like schools in normal times, big chain restaurants - Olive Garden, you know, Applebee's, sports bars - places like that.

KING: All places that are currently closed down.

CHARLES: Yeah, almost overnight. And it's like the trains of food already left the station. You can't just redirect them very easily to the places where people are getting their food now, you know, which is basically grocery stores. Maybe the food's not packaged in a way that supermarkets can handle. Maybe it's - sometimes, it's just not food that people tend to buy at supermarkets. Let me give you an example. Florida's tomato growers - as it happens, 80% of their production in normal times goes to things like salad bars and restaurants. It's the sliced up tomatoes on your hamburgers and the sandwiches at lunch spots. It just disappeared. You know, that market disappeared. And they are actually plowing up some of their fields.

KING: In a similar vein, I'm from upstate New York, where there are a lot of dairy farms. And I've seen these reports of dairy farmers just dumping their milk onto the ground. What's happening there?

CHARLES: That is true. It is a big problem, similar thing. Schools are closed, so they don't need the milk. Pizza places, restaurants tend to take a very large percentage of America's cheese production. Those are shut down - and also exports of milk powder, which are quite important, they are down. Grocery store sales are up, but it's not enough to, you know, make up the difference. It is really - it's been really tough for some of these farmers financially, obviously, but also emotionally. I talked to one vegetable grower - grows squash, cucumbers, green beans - near Fort Myers, Fla. Her name's Kim Jamerson (ph).

KIM JAMERSON: We've abandoned some fields. We've just had to walk out of them 'cause we couldn't sell it. Beautiful vegetables that really could go elsewhere - could go into food banks and hospitals and rest homes.

KING: She's making a really good point. I mean, there are a lot of people who could use that food, not just grocery stores. We're hearing about people going to food banks, food pantries after they lose their jobs. Why is the food not going someplace where it can be used?

CHARLES: It takes new ways of operating. I mean, it is now starting to happen. It also takes money. So that Florida vegetable grower I talked to, Kim Jamerson - the vegetable broker who buys a lot of her products, her produce - he's setting up deals with food banks now. The food banks are starting to pay for some of those vegetables. They're not paying a lot. And Jamerson says she's still losing money. But it is enough that she's willing to, you know, keep paying people to harvest the crop. I think we're going to be seeing more and more of that sort of thing.

KING: Dan Charles, really interesting stuff. Thanks, Dan.

CHARLES: Nice to be here. Stay safe, Noel.

KING: All right. This week, China lifted a lockdown on the city of Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged. And that was good news.

GREENE: That's right. But while Wuhan was opening up, China was sealing off a different city near its border with Russia. It has closed its land border with Russia entirely to stop infected people from coming in. Russia, meanwhile, says it has 10,000 cases. It's a relatively small number.

KING: NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng is on the line with us from Wuhan. Hi, Emily.


KING: Why did China go ahead and lock down this city near the Russian border?

FENG: This city is in a province called Heilongjiang. And that province has seen a huge concentration of new cases, pretty much all from Russia, this week, even though domestic transmissions in China are at zero or near zero. According to the latest numbers we have, that one province had 127 imported cases just yesterday, all of them in one tiny border town called Suifenhe. And then on top of that, Suifenhe had another 150 cases of these asymptomatic cases, people who came back from Russia, got tested positive, but they exhibited no symptoms whatsoever. And that's scary 'cause it suggests that there's widespread community transmission either going on in the Chinese border town of Suifenhe or in Russia. That's what prompted Chinese authorities to close all traffic.

And it's a really big deal in China because Suifenhe's a bit of a special place. It's emblematic of close China-Russian relations. Sweden her borders Russian Siberia. And it's small by Chinese standards. It's got about 70,000 people. But it's an important trade juncture. You can even spend rubles in Suifenhe. And although China was tightening international travel into China, Suifenhe had actually been loosening restrictions up until now. And it opened up this free trade zone with Russia, where Russian traders would come over visa-free and sell goods in the zone.

KING: So, I mean, the virus is there now. You said there's - appears to be widespread community transmission. What are authorities in China doing to try to contain it?

FENG: They're copying the Wuhan model, which, if you remember, is the lockdown that they imposed on the city I'm in now, where this virus all began. So now people in Suifenhe are under closed residential management. They're locked in. They can send out one person every two days to get groceries. What people here are really worried about are asymptomatic cases because they're infectious, but they're hard to identify. And in Wuhan, that's also a big concern. Doctors here say that they're paying more attention to asymptomatic cases, but they can't find them all. Here's what Dr. Zhang Dingyu told me here in Wuhan.

ZHANG DINGYU: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: He's saying these people, asymptomatic carriers, are infectious. But it's impossible to diagnose every single one. You can't test all 1.3 Chinese billion people. So authorities in Suifenhe near Russia say what they're doing is constructing a new central quarantine center, just like they did in Wuhan, specifically for asymptomatic cases.

KING: Let me ask you to pull back for a second because China has been signaling that it has this outbreak under control. With this virus, we know there's concern about additional waves of infections. Are officials in China telling you that they're worried about that?

FENG: Sort of. They say at the national level that they're monitoring these asymptomatic cases closely. These cases are now disclosed every day, which was not the case before April. Yet this week, a prominent Shanghai doctor, Zhang Wenhong, who's been leading containment efforts in the city, gave an interview to a Chinese outlet in which he says, actually, no, we need to be worried there could be a second peak. And it's very likely it'll be this fall.

KING: Wow. NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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