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The Latest Developments In The Federal And Scientific Response To Coronavirus


This morning, senators debated a financial aid package on Capitol Hill. Financial markets continued their free fall, closing down another 1,300 points - that's the Dow. And President Trump, flanked by the vice president and other members of his administration, updated the country on the U.S. response to coronavirus.


There have been so many new developments each day this week. Let's quickly review some of what happened today.

KELLY: All right, we learned the administration is invoking the Defense Production Act, which will allow the administration to use private industry to make supplies necessary for fighting the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is closing the border with Canada for all but essential travel.

KELLY: Also, the president said he is ordering thousands and thousands of ventilators.

SHAPIRO: Those are just some of the developments that have played out over the last several hours, and we are going to talk them through with some of the NPR reporters covering this story - White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hello there.


SHAPIRO: Chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: And science correspondent Richard Harris, good to have you here.


SHAPIRO: Tam, let me start with you. We mentioned that the administration is invoking the Defense Production Act, and Trump is now referring to himself as a wartime president. What does he mean by that?

KEITH: You know, he has taken to using the language of war, the sort of mobilization and self-sacrifice needed during a time of war. He says that the U.S. is at war with an invisible enemy; the world is at war with an invisible enemy. And he's calling for unity, even as many of us are just sitting at home in isolation. But that is how we can do our part.

And in invoking the Defense Production Act, which he says he's going to do, that would allow the federal government to ask manufacturers to, for instance, produce more ventilators or those respirator masks that are in such short supply. What we don't know precisely yet is how it will work in this case. But Democratic lawmakers and governors around the country have been calling for Trump to do this for quite some time.

SHAPIRO: So to turn to the economic impact of this, Scott, the briefing today did not help the markets. They've been cratering. Sell-off actually accelerated during President Trump's briefing. What's happening?

HORSLEY: Ari, investors continue to adjust to the very real economic damage we're seeing as a result of the government's sweeping efforts to slow the spread of this pandemic. We have seen now a flood of new unemployment claims. In fact, they temporarily crashed computers in several states. Today Ford and General Motors announced they're shuttering production through the end of the month. Oil prices dropped below $22 a barrel.

And on the stock market, we saw trading halted for the fourth time in less than two weeks because of a sharp drop in the S&P 500 index. The S&P, end of the day, down about 5%. The Dow is now below 20,000, and it has erased almost all of its gains since President Trump was sworn in more than three years ago.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about the science. Richard, we have heard over and over again, even from the president himself, that the economy won't improve until the virus is under control. Here's what Deborah Birx, the physician coordinating the White House response to the coronavirus, said about where the numbers are going.


DEBORAH BIRX: We will see the number of people diagnosed dramatically increase over the next four to five days. I know some of you will use that to raise an alarm that we are worse than Italy because of our slope of our curve.

SHAPIRO: Richard, explain what's driving the increase and what that would mean for the curve.

HARRIS: Right. It's not as bad as it sounds, Deborah Birx says. She emphasized that the rapid increase she expects to see over the next day or two is because there's been a large backlog of samples waiting to be tested. We've heard so much about the testing problems. And as testing capability has ramped up, they're now getting to analyze that backlog, so we'll see a bunch of new cases reported. She says, but don't be confused; that won't reflect a huge jump in actual cases. So there'll be a blip.

But that said, the true number of cases is surely far higher than the 7,000 or so that are now reported because we're so far behind the curve in just testing people, we really don't know how widespread this virus is in the U.S. There are - you know, they've run 60,000 or 70,000 tests out of a population of 330 million people and with the virus now in all 50 states.

SHAPIRO: Nevertheless, the president seemed optimistic that the virus will end quickly and that it will be complete and total victory. Is he right about that?

HARRIS: I do not think so. It is possible that in the coming weeks, we'll be able to slow the number of new cases. That's - we've been talking a lot about flattening the curve. And that would, indeed, be a really big step forward because it's critical to do that to make sure hospitals don't get overwhelmed, as they are in Italy right now. But, you know, that will just simply spread out the number of cases; that won't make them go away.

And so that means that this outbreak will be - sort of fold out over a much longer period of time. And since this is clearly a worldwide phenomenon, the virus is now circulating everywhere. So even if we get things under control here, it's going to be bouncing around the globe for a long, long time to come.

SHAPIRO: Tam, let me ask you about some of the language the president is using. Today, repeatedly and previously in tweets and statements, the president has referred to the coronavirus as the Chinese virus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would like to begin by announcing some important developments in our war against the Chinese virus.

SHAPIRO: He seems to be using that language more. What's happening here?

KEITH: Yeah. This is language that had been used by some of his allies on the right for a while, either calling it the Wuhan flu or the Chinese virus. And the virus did originate in China, but there is a sense that this is also an effort to sort of push the blame elsewhere. And also, there are concerns being raised by Asian Americans that this could lead to attacks on them or racism of some kind and even allegations that using this term in itself is racist. President Trump was asked about that today, and he pushed back.


TRUMP: It's not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that's why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.

CECILIA VEGA: Do you have no concern about Chinese Americans in this country?

TRUMP: Yeah, please. John. Please. No.

VEGA: To the aides behind you, are you comfortable with this term?

TRUMP: I have a great - I have great love for all of the people from our country.

KEITH: And what he then went on to explain is that because China - some in China have been pushing a conspiracy theory that the virus came from the United States or U.S. soldiers, now he's trying to push back on that by calling it the Chinese virus, sort of naming where it came from. But if we go back several weeks to when the virus was named COVID-19, when there was sort of a concerted effort to give it a name that didn't have a region attached to it, you know, there was a reason for that.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Scott Horsley, we got a little more detail today on the administration's proposed trillion-dollar rescue bill, separate from the bill that Congress is voting on. What do we know about that?

HORSLEY: There's still negotiations underway with members of Congress, but the Treasury proposal is for two direct payments to Americans. One would come in the first week of April; the second in mid-May. The payments might vary with people's income, but it looks like they would be in the neighborhood of about a thousand dollars per person. And in a normal recession, you know, payments like that would be designed to stimulate demand, to encourage people to go out and spend the money. Here, though, the government's doing the opposite of that. They are closing the bars and restaurants and retail places where people might gather and spend.

Economist Greg Mankiw, who served in the George W. Bush White House, says this is more of a social insurance lifeline than an economic stimulus.

GREGORY MANKIW: This is an unusual recession because we don't want people to be working; we do want people to be staying at home. We don't want all those restaurants to be bustling. The goal of the cash payments is to help people over this period of lower-than-normal employment, but it's also to encourage them to stay at home, which helps everybody else.

HORSLEY: The government's also looking to help small businesses and to keep credit flowing so more businesses can stay in business despite this disruption.

SHAPIRO: The latest coronavirus developments from NPR's Scott Horsley, Richard Harris and Tamara Keith.

Thanks to all three of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Anytime.

SHAPIRO: And we should note that late this afternoon, the Senate passed the second of what could be several bills designed to get money to workers affected by the coronavirus and get money into the economy. The first emergency funding bill for federal agencies passed earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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.