News Brief: COVID-19 Curve, Abortion Battle, Bloomberg Campaign Workers

22 hours ago
Originally published on April 3, 2020 9:09 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Are enough Americans following national guidelines to reduce the spread of the coronavirus?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, Deborah Birx, a key member of the White House pandemic task force, says no.

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DEBORAH BIRX: We're only as strong as every community, every county, every state, every American following the guidelines to a T. And I can tell by the curve and as it is today that not every American is following it. And so this is really a call to action.

INSKEEP: Dr. Birx is referring to a national curve of casualties, of people sick, of people dead. It shows the rising number of infections in this country just as Chinese officials say their curve is flattening.

MARTIN: And that's where we're going to focus the conversation with NPR's Jason Beaubien. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So China's government is reporting that the number of COVID-19 cases there is close to zero now. I mean...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is that true? And does that mean things are inching back to normal there?

BEAUBIEN: China's in a precarious situation. You know, they've driven down numbers to close to zero, yet they still have large parts of their population that are susceptible to this virus. The virus is still circulating at a low level. They've got travelers who are showing up and reintroducing the virus. So while China is looking to reopen its economy - and it has started to reopen its economy - it's doing it very cautiously. You know, and there's good reasons for that. I spoke with Kylie Ainslie. She's a researcher and analyst at Imperial College London. And she said that's because they're worried that there could be a second wave of the virus.

MARTIN: A second wave. So there's a fear that another outbreak - after all, this another outbreak could flare up?

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. It's a reasonable fear, except Ainslie and her colleagues haven't seen that happening yet. They're looking at data on human movement. And they're seeing in areas that had less COVID-19, people are being allowed to move around more freely sooner. And that seems to be the strategy. Chinese officials are slowly dialing back these social restrictions one area at a time. You know, if a flare-up occurs, it could be easier to catch. And restrictions like school closures are still in place. And then when necessary, they're tightening restrictions. For instance, they're - banned foreign nationals from entering the country, you know, like they did last week.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what does that mean for the U.S. Is that what we here could be facing? After we get through the worst of this outbreak, are we still going to have to practice social distancing for an untold number of weeks to avoid a second wave?

BEAUBIEN: Well, the peak of China's outbreak was six weeks ago. And we're only now seeing some of the travel restrictions lifted there. And unfortunately, some people are telling me that it looks like it might even be longer here in the U.S. China in this outbreak, you know, benefited from having a strong - some would say authoritarian - government. And they've been able to very aggressively track down people who may have been exposed, put them into quarantine.

The U.S., on the other hand, you know, is having outbreaks that are playing out across the country in very different ways and at different times. Potentially, you could have New York getting past this crisis but then other areas just starting to heat up. And that could lead to a situation where one part of the country is reinfecting another. You know, and that could force health officials to keep these shelter-in-place, these stay-at-home orders even longer. There might need to be strict domestic travel restrictions. You know, and that could mean that, yeah, all of this might get dragged out even longer than what China was seeing.

MARTIN: So is that what we're looking at? I mean what can help the situation here? Tighter guidelines? More mandated restrictions?

BEAUBIEN: You know, so we haven't even gotten to that suppression phase that China is in. We are still in the controlling it phase. Last night, a White House official told NPR that the Trump administration is preparing to do something else to try to control it. And they're going to recommend that people wear face masks in public if they live in areas with high clusters of cases. Birx made it clear that the masks would not be in place of social distancing, just an added measure. And also, you know, they're ramping up testing of the results that the White House task force is getting back. They show pretty starkly where the problems are. Two states, New York and New Jersey, are reporting 35% of their tests are coming back positive, which is a really high number. Louisiana is at 26. Michigan, Georgia and Illinois are at 15. And this gives us a good indication of where the next real hotspots could be.

MARTIN: OK. You can wear a mask, but you still have to stay 6 feet away from people.

BEAUBIEN: Right.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: The pandemic is opening up a new front in the battle over abortion in this country.

INSKEEP: Because officials in some states say abortions are not essential medical procedures, so they have pushed orders to restrict them during the outbreak.

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PATRICK MORRISSEY: That is designed to conserve supply, devices, ventilators and to limit the spread of coronavirus. So there's going to be a reduction in all elective procedures. And yes, there will be a reduction in the procedures within abortion facilities.

INSKEEP: That's West Virginia's attorney general, Patrick Morrissey, in a press briefing yesterday.

MARTIN: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following this and joins us on the line. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What states are we talking about? Where is this happening?

MCCAMMON: So several states have orders in place banning non-essential procedures. And in a handful of states - places like Ohio and Alabama, Texas Oklahoma - Republican governors or attorneys general have tried to apply those to abortion. They're saying abortion is not essential. Now, major medical groups say abortion is time-sensitive, and delaying the procedure can be harmful to patients. And reproductive rights advocates have taken these states to court. They've been successful so far in Ohio and Alabama, where federal courts have blocked the bans, at least for now. But at least in Texas and Oklahoma, abortion clinics have had to shut down. A federal appeals court allowed that Texas ban to stand earlier this week. And there is a hearing scheduled for later today in Oklahoma. We're also watching West Virginia, where, as we heard, the attorney general has been saying this week that that order to suspend elective procedures will apply to at least some abortions.

MARTIN: If a woman in one of those states needs a surgical abortion, what are her options, then?

MCCAMMON: Well, I've been talking to doctors and providers. I spoke to two doctors in Texas and an administrator of a clinic in Oklahoma. And they've been turning hundreds of patients away. They say that they don't have a lot of answers for them right now. The doctors in Texas said they'd stop performing all types of abortion, both surgical and medication-induced. So abortion just isn't available in Texas right now. I also spoke to a woman named Megan (ph) - we're just using her first name to protect her privacy - who was turned away from a clinic in Oklahoma City this week.

MEGAN: And immediately, I just, like, broke down 'cause, like, what am I going to do? You know, I just lost my job 'cause of the coronavirus. Like, I already have a 10-month-old daughter. I don't know what I'm going to do, you know?

MCCAMMON: She was able to get an appointment and make a last minute trip to Kansas, about a five-hour round trip. But doctors tell me many patients can't make those trips. A doctor in Houston said he's concerned because some patients are asking about dangerous home remedies because they feel so desperate.

MARTIN: I mean, could these bans be in effect indefinitely? Or is there an effort to overturn them?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's impossible to say how long they'll be in effect. Some of these overarching orders suspending nonessential procedures do have expiration dates. But as the pandemic continues, we could see those expanded. And again, some states are applying that to abortion. A lot hinges on what happens in federal courts. And this is an issue that could ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. But for now, some patients cannot get abortions in some states.

MARTIN: Without crossing into another state, presumably. NPR's Sarah McCammon, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign was historically short and historically expensive.

INSKEEP: Yeah. He spent close to $1 billion on his campaign and put nearly 2,000 employees on the payroll. Those staffers say they were promised their jobs through November, even if Bloomberg's campaign ended far before that, as, in fact, it did. Now hundreds of his former field organizers are out of work, and some are suing the campaign.

MARTIN: NPR's Juana Summers has had exclusive conversations with some of those staffers. And she joins us this morning. Hi, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: Who have you been talking to, and what have they told you?

SUMMERS: Sure. I've spoken with a number of Mike Bloomberg's former field organizers across the country. And the former workers I talked with told me when they were hired by Bloomberg's campaign, they were offered more money than anyone else, great benefits and that he also offered them something else, a job through the general election, even if he was not the party's nominee. One of those staffers was Amol Jethwani, who worked for Bloomberg's campaign in Miami-Dade County in Florida. And part of his job was to interview other potential staffers who wanted to join the campaign.

AMOL JETHWANI: And as part of our hiring guidelines - was to utilize the line that employment is guaranteed through November. Location is not.

SUMMERS: But staffers were let go in two waves of layoffs over the month of March. They were told that they could apply for jobs with the Democratic National Committee in a number of battleground states. Bloomberg, of course, donated $18 million to that battleground effort. But they weren't guaranteed. They still had to go through a competitive hiring process that's still ongoing.

MARTIN: Huh. So is Mike Bloomberg saying anything about this? I mean, what's his defense?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So late last night, we got a statement from Bloomberg's campaign manager Kevin Sheekey. He tells NPR that the campaign reached out to every organizing staffer in six battleground states, as well as others, and that they asked them to consider working for the DNC. He says that hundreds of former Bloomberg staffers have already been contacted, already in that hiring pipeline to join the DNC is efforts. And Sheekey insists that that would not have happened without the campaign's massive donation to the party. He also pointed out a couple of other things. He says that staff worked about 39 days on average. They were given several weeks of severance, health care through March. The campaign has also established a fund to cover the costs of COBRA for the month of April for health care, something Sheekey says no other campaign has done. And the hope here from the campaign is that in time, many of those staffers will be swept up, hired by the DNC, so the gap in employment they'll see, hopefully, will be minimal.

MARTIN: Right. But a hope isn't the same as a guarantee. Do the people behind the lawsuit have a chance here at winning the suit?

SUMMERS: Yeah. Rachel, that's exactly what they point out. There isn't a guarantee. So I called a labor lawyer about this, about this legal action that many of the staffers are pursuing. And he made the point to me, essentially, that this is an uphill battle for a lot of those folks. He says he sees a lot of these cases. And oftentimes, when you're getting a new job, your boss tells you something that sounds really good. Employees are hesitant to tell their boss to write that down on paper, to put that in a contract in writing. That gets employees in trouble. But Matthew Jeweler worked for the Bloomberg campaign in Colorado and says that's not the point.

MATTHEW JEWELER: The man spent $500 million on a ads alone in a four-month period. He could spend 10% of that and give every single one of his field staff their entire salaries for the remainder of the year.

SUMMERS: So regardless to how these legal challenges turn out, these staffers are still out of work during a global pandemic, making it hard to get another job. And they feel like they've put their reputation on a line, told job candidates they had guaranteed work, just as they were told by the people that hired them. And they don't have it.

MARTIN: NPR's Juana Summers, we appreciate it. Thank you.

SUMMERS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.