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News Brief: Day 3 Of Barrett Hearings, 2020 Census, Coronavirus Vaccines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senators have more questions for Judge Amy Coney Barrett today.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Her Supreme Court confirmation hearing has followed a familiar pattern in recent years. Lawmakers have a lot of questions about how she views the cases that she might rule on, and the nominee found a whole lot of ways not to answer. During 11 hours of questioning yesterday, lawmakers asked about abortion, also the Affordable Care Act. An effort to repeal the ACA comes before the court in November. She was nominated by a president who wants to end the Affordable Care Act, but Barrett said she would rule fairly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY CONEY BARRETT: You know, I am standing before the committee today saying that I have the integrity to act consistently with my oath and apply the law as the law, to approach the ACA and every other statute without bias, and I have not made any commitments or deals or anything like that.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been listening to the hearing. Hi there, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did the questioning and the answers, for that matter, reveal about the priorities for each side?

DAVIS: Well, Republicans have the confidence of knowing they have the votes, so they've really approached this hearing all about sort of creating lines of defense for Barrett against any expected criticism, particularly that doubt that she would be impartial because President Trump has made so many public comments about exactly how he would want his conservative Supreme Court nominees to vote on certain issues, including maybe the election.

Democrats, as you noted, have been hyper-focused on health care, on abortion. They're trying to make this about what's at stake in this nomination because Barrett would shift the ideological balance of the court to the right.

But if you were watching the hearings, Steve, I'm sure you could see that Barrett's been pretty unflappable in all of these proceedings. She's very calm, very poised. She sort of just sits still with her hand in her lap and I think has given Republicans even more confidence that she's a capable nominee they can get through the Senate.

INSKEEP: We should mention this is an elaborate ritual.

DAVIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: The nominee doesn't want to forecast how she'd rule on anything. Now, that's partly for political reasons, but also the very real reason that a justice is supposed to be impartial, shouldn't say in advance how they would rule. But at the same time, you have this ritual where lawmakers would want to know something about how she thinks. How did that unfold on abortion?

DAVIS: Well, she was asked repeatedly about her views on Roe v. Wade. At one point, she was asked whether she considers it a, quote, "super-precedent," meaning a decision that is so widely accepted by society that it basically could never be overturned, similar to Brown v. Board of Education that overturned segregation in schools. And this was Barrett's response to that question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRETT: Again, you know, as Richard Fallon from Harvard said, Roe is not a super-precedent because calls for its overruling have never ceased. But that doesn't mean that Roe should be overruled. It just means that it doesn't fall on the small handful of cases, like Marbury v. Madison and Brown v. the Board, that no one questions anymore.

DAVIS: Now, Barrett did repeatedly say that she would honor legal precedent as a judge. Democrats also focused on the Supreme Court's role in the future of the Affordable Care Act, which, as you noted, has a case pending to overturn the law shortly after the election. Barrett, over and over, said some version of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRETT: I'm not here on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act. I'm just here to apply the law and adhere to the rule of law.

DAVIS: I would also say Republicans really emphasized Barrett's qualifications, and they offered her a lot of questions that allowed her to defend herself. I thought it was interesting that she really made a point to present herself differently than what she said was the caricature of her - that she's a much more open-minded person, that she has a life filled with people who have made different choices and that she would, quote, "never try to impose" her choices on them. And that's how she views the law.

INSKEEP: What did she say about election, given that the president who nominated her said he wants her there to rule on the election?

DAVIS: She would not say whether she would recuse herself from any potential election decisions, but she did make clear that she said that she had more integrity than to be a pawn in any effort to decide an American election.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, now even as this Supreme Court confirmation hearing proceeded, a ruling by the Supreme Court gave directions to the census.

MARTIN: Right. The court overturned the ruling of a lower court and said the Trump administration may end the census at any time. The administration now says tomorrow, October 15 - that's the day. The administration insisted it wanted to end early enough to process the numbers and get them to the president by a legal deadline at the end of the year. Big metro areas like Los Angeles, the Houston area and around Seattle - all those areas had joined civil rights groups in a lawsuit to keep the effort going a little longer. They're worried about an undercount, particularly among people of color.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering the 2020 census for a long time and is on the line. Hansi, good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why's the deadline matter?

WANG: This is a deadline that the federal law says the latest state population counts are due to the president by the end of this year. And there's also this deadline that the Trump administration has now set - October 15, tomorrow - where they say they're going to end counting. And that has a huge risk that a lot of households that have not yet been counted yet, they may be missed.

INSKEEP: Well, let's think this through. So the administration wants to end effectively now or tomorrow. They have this December 31 deadline to get everything to the president. It is a legal deadline. It's in the law. But in your reporting, you've noted that it's been missed in the past. It doesn't seem to be that vital. Why is it vital for the administration?

WANG: Well, the administration has not been clear about this publicly. But here's the thing. If they were to end the census early, they have this chance to deliver the latest state population counts, which determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes - deliver those counts to the president.

And the president, President Trump, said he wants to make an unprecedented change. Even though the Constitution requires that count to include the whole number of persons in each state, President Trump wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from that count. And if they're delivered to him by December 31, he has a chance to make that change regardless of whether he wins reelection because these are, again, the first set of results legally due to the president by December 31.

But like you said, Census Bureau officials have said since May it's no longer possible to deliver those numbers to the president by December 31 because of delays caused by the pandemic.

INSKEEP: So there are these delays with the pandemic. So how serious is the concern of an undercount, particularly since the Census Bureau has been giving this number of well over 99% of households have been contacted one way or another?

WANG: You know, that 99% really obscures exactly how accurate that count is at this point. We don't know exactly. And a lot of people of color, immigrants, renters, other historically undercounted groups may have been missed or counted inaccurately, especially 'cause counting is cut short.

Also, the time to process the results, to do quality checks have been cut short. This means just a higher risk of an unfair distribution of not just congressional seats, but also Electoral College votes and the redrawing of voting districts and distribution of trillions of dollars in federal money for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering the census since the beginning. And, Hansi, I guess your beat is getting near an end if tomorrow's the cutoff date.

WANG: We'll see. There are going to be a lot of legal battles over what these results mean.

INSKEEP: It could be a busy fall. Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Coronavirus is on the rise again. The seven-day average of new cases hit record highs in 20 states. That has happened since Saturday.

MARTIN: This comes as drugmakers have put a pause on two different studies. Eli Lilly confirmed it's causing a trial of an antibody treatment. It's similar to the experimental COVID-19 antibody treatment given to President Trump by a different company. Johnson & Johnson also announced it's pausing a stage-three vaccine trial.

INSKEEP: This is all about safety concerns, and NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk us through this. Hi there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How significant is it when you hear about these kinds of trials being paused?

AUBREY: You know, it's really not unusual to put a trial on hold or pause. And that's what has happened with the clinical trial of a Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine. A study volunteer developed an unexplained illness. This is now under investigation.

I spoke with L.J Tan - he's a scientist with the Immunization Action Coalition - about this. He says when you have thousands of people in a clinical trial, there are going to be illnesses. And those illnesses may or may not be related to the vaccine.

L J TAN: They're doing exactly what they need to do. They're doing exactly what's typically done. Investigate that one reaction and make sure that it really does have nothing to do with the vaccine.

AUBREY: I should point out another COVID vaccine trial is also on hold - the AstraZeneca trial that happened back in September - after a second participant was diagnosed with a neurological condition. So this could slow down the process, but it won't derail it.

INSKEEP: I appreciate hearing that it's kind of normal for a pause to happen like this because normally vaccines and other drugs are developed over years and years and we're not in that much of a hurry.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: I guess what's unusual is that everyone is so desperate to get a solution now, now, now, now, now. So let's talk about this other trial that's on hold involving experimental antibodies. What happened there?

AUBREY: Sure. A trial of an experimental antibody similar to the one that President Trump received and has touted has been paused, too. It's due to a potential safety concern. We don't know a lot. This is also under investigation. The company that makes the drug, Eli Lilly, said yesterday it supports the decision, which was made by an independent safety monitoring board. Again, this is not out of the ordinary. Temporary holds or pauses in large studies are typical.

INSKEEP: Can I ask you about one other thing? I gather that Pfizer, which is trying to develop a vaccine, said that it will include children among the people that it will test this vaccine on. Why?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, it's become increasingly clear that children get the virus. And though they often have a very mild case or they're asymptomatic, they can infect others, especially older kids. So the best way to determine if a COVID vaccine is going to be safe and effective for children is to include them in the trials.

Currently, about half the participants in that Pfizer trial are in their mid-50s to mid-80s. That's understandable given the risk of serious illness is higher in older people. But Sally Goza of the American Academy of Pediatrics says it's significant that Pfizer will expand its trial to include kids 12 and up given the toll of the pandemic.

SALLY GOZA: The children are also suffering from the social isolation that occurred because of the pandemic, the fact that they can't be in in-person school in certain places. You know, all of those things take a toll on our children, especially on their mental health and their behavioral and developmental health.

AUBREY: So having a safe and effective vaccine, Steve, could clearly be very beneficial.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks for the update.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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