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Coronavirus Updates: New Business Council, Progress But Not The Peak

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This Sunday is Easter, the day that, just a few weeks ago, President Trump had forecast as reopening day for America. Here he is on Fox News, March 24.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I think Easter Sunday, and you'll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time. And it's just about the timeline that I think is right.

KELLY: Since then, that timeline has been revised, with the president's social distancing guidelines now in place until the end of April.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Meanwhile, state and local governments are extending their lockdown orders even further this Easter weekend.

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ERIC GARCETTI: Each year, I know it's one of the great traditions of Los Angeles to head to the park to celebrate Easter. Maybe it's for an Easter egg hunt. Maybe it's after church services to sit and have a picnic. But this isn't a normal year. And so I'm announcing that on Sunday our parks will be closed.

SHAPIRO: That's Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, where, starting today, people have also been ordered to wear masks or face coverings when shopping for groceries or going to work. Despite these ever-tightening restrictions, there are some signs of encouragement. Here to talk about that are NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Good to have you both back with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, I'd like to start with you because we just heard, as President Trump once said, he hoped to see the country start to reopen by Easter, and then he quickly backed away from that. What is his message now as we actually head into the Easter weekend?

RASCOE: He's saying that he will listen to medical officials. He was pressed on this. And he says that if health experts tell him May 1, which is when the current recommendations - federal recommendations for social distancing are up, if they say that's too soon to open large parts of the country, then he will listen to them. Here's what he said at this afternoon's briefing.

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TRUMP: We're looking at a date. We hope we're going to be able to fulfill a certain date. But we're not doing anything until we know that this country is going to be healthy.

RASCOE: You know, he kept saying that this would be the hardest decision that he's ever had to make in his life, and that he's hoping that he makes the right decision.

SHAPIRO: He also announced that he's going to reveal a new task force that's focused on reopening the country, and then that'll be made public next Tuesday. What more can you tell us about that?

RASCOE: We knew that this was likely coming. The administration has been looking at how to transition from this complete shutdown of the economy. So Trump's saying he's going to start this council and that he will be bringing on business leaders, local officials and others to consider how to get business back up and running. But it must be said, even with all this talk about the new task force and Trump talking about his big decision, ultimately, it was not the federal government that issued stay-at-home orders and shut down schools. That was done at the local level. Trump says he has the power to open the economy back up on his own, but it's not clear what he can do if some states decide to keep those stay-at-home orders in place longer than he would like.

SHAPIRO: Richard, I'd like you to tell us about where we are in the trajectory of this disease. As we've been expecting, this week was by far the worst yet in the U.S. for both new cases and deaths. Where do the experts expect it to go from here?

HARRIS: The experts see signs that the trends in deaths and new cases are starting to flatten out. New York, where the disease is hitting really hard, still managed to keep its hospitals going through the week and didn't run out of ventilators or intensive care unit beds, which, of course, was a fear for quite a while. Today, the White House briefing folks at the - Corona Task Force people, including Dr. Deborah Birx, who's the coordinator of the task force, said the number of cases nationwide continues to double but is now taking eight days instead of two or four days.

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DEBORAH BIRX: But as encouraging as they are, we have not reached the peak. And so every day we need to continue to do what we did yesterday and the week before and the week before that because that's what in the end is going to take us up across the peak and down the other side.

SHAPIRO: Any idea how long it will take the country to get down the other side once we do reach the peak?

HARRIS: Well, the peak is a milestone, but it's just marking when things start to get better, not that they are better. So far, there have been about 18,000 deaths. And the forecast the White House leans heavily on still suggests anywhere from 26,000 to nearly 150,000 deaths before this is all over. So there's a lot more to go. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist at the National Institutes of Health, underscored the timing of all this when he talked about the progress in testing drugs to treat the coronavirus.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: It'll probably be months. Sometime in the summer, we'll start to see which are working, which are not and to focus on those that are developing and working.

HARRIS: And, of course, a vaccine, which would be the ultimate tool to control this coronavirus, won't be ready until next year at the very earliest, assuming scientists come up with one that's effective.

SHAPIRO: So until a vaccine does become available, is there any more information about drugs that might work to treat COVID-19?

HARRIS: There are a few published studies, mostly reporting about drugs that didn't work. Remember, this disease started in China. And the Chinese scientists were on - drug testing pretty early on. And knowing that drugs aren't working is important to know, but of course we also want to hear some good news. Today, the New England Journal of Medicine published a small study about an antiviral drug called Remdesivir. The study only involved about 60 patients, and there was no comparison group. So without that, it's hard to say too much. But some patients on the ventilator were improved under this drug, others did die. It is encouraging enough to say that it's worth going full steam ahead on the larger studies of this drug that are now underway.

SHAPIRO: Ayesha, will you tell us a little bit more about the administration response to the people who are dying of this disease? Because it seems more and more that it's a disproportionate number of people of color. And for a while, the administration seemed not to be addressing that head on, but today, the surgeon general, Jerome Adams, really did. What did he say?

RASCOE: So he talked about how he's been talking with African American and Hispanic groups about the outbreak and its impact. And he tried to deliver a message directly to black Americans and to the Latinx community. He said that African Americans are more likely to have certain conditions like diabetes and asthma. He even held up his own inhaler in the briefing room. Here's what - here's some more of what he had to say.

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JEROME ADAMS: We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your big momma (ph). Do it for your pop-pop (ph). We need you to understand, especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable. This epidemic is a tragedy, but it will be all the more tragic if we fail to recognize and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and an array of other diseases and risk factors on communities of color.

RASCOE: But so - but while he said that African Americans are not genetically predisposed to getting the coronavirus, he did go on to say that they should avoid alcohol and drugs. He was saying this also about the Hispanic community. Now, I've listened to a lot of these briefings. I have not heard that recommendation about alcohol being made to other demographics. And he was asked about this. And he said that all Americans should be avoiding, alcohol especially if they have preexisting conditions. But the NAACP has already tweeted about this and said that it was offensive.

SHAPIRO: Richard, how much do we know from a scientific standpoint about these racial disparities in COVID-19 cases?

HARRIS: We've heard a lot about that this week. In part, African Americans have high rates of some of these underlying conditions that Ayesha mentioned. They are not at higher risk of being infected, but if they do get infected, they are more likely to die. And Surgeon General Adams also mentioned another telling reason today.

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ADAMS: Social distancing and teleworking we know are critical. And you've heard Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci talk about how they prevent the spread of coronavirus, yet only 1 in 5 African Americans and 1 in 6 Hispanics has a job that lets them work from home.

SHAPIRO: All right. As we come to the end of yet another week of this crisis, it's good to have both of you helping us navigate through it. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, thank you both.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thanks to you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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