News Brief: Pandemic's Trajectory, Eviction Moratorium Ends, Students And Masks
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
All the recent news of the latest covid surge raises a question - how much trouble are we in this time?
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
On Friday, the CDC recorded more than 100,000 new cases in the U.S. The increase is driven almost entirely by the delta variant, which is far more contagious. The news is causing companies to postpone bringing workers back to the office. Iconic companies such as Disney and Walmart are mandating vaccines for many employees.
INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Rob, good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How bad is it?
STEIN: You know, it doesn't look good. The trajectory of the pandemic is shooting up sharply as infections rise in every state. Like A said, more than 100,000 new cases were reported in a single day on Friday. That's the first time that's happened in almost six months. Hospitals are filling up again. Deaths are mounting. You know, Steve, it kind of feels like we're all strapped back into our seats on the roller coaster again and gripping the sides of the cars - it starts rocketing up - wondering just how scary it's going to get this time. Florida reported more than 21,000 cases in a single day on Friday, one of the worst in that state since the pandemic started. You know, I talked about all this with Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington. He's been tracking the pandemic since the beginning.
ALI MOKDAD: You know, Rob, I get frustrated. Sometimes, I feel like I need to cry. I mean, it just has been very difficult to see what's happening in the United States. It's so sad.
STEIN: Sad because all of this was totally preventable if more people had just gotten vaccinated. The only possible good news is this resurgence is roaring back so much sooner and ferociously that it may peak earlier, too, perhaps within a month or two.
INSKEEP: So there's hope this may not last too long if the pattern follows some other countries where the delta dropped off very quickly.
INSKEEP: But for the moment, we're in it.
INSKEEP: And so how are businesses and companies responding?
STEIN: You know, we're seeing a flurry of new mask mandates in places like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Nevada, and even some vaccine mandates. Private companies like Facebook, Google, Disney and Walmart are starting to require at least some employees get vaccinated. Federal workers and contractors have to disclose their vaccination status. If they don't or aren't vaccinated, they have to wear masks and get tested regularly. Public health experts are welcoming all this, although some wish both the CDC's new mask guidance and the federal vaccine requirement were even tougher. Here's John Moore at Weill Cornell Medicine.
JOHN MOORE: We have to kick butts to get arms sticked. I mean, we just - you know, butts need kicked so arms get sticked. I mean, we have to get, one way or another, more vaccines into more arms.
STEIN: And that's because even though we now know vaccinated people can still catch and spread the virus, the vaccines are still really good at keeping people from getting really sick and dying and are really the only way we're going to get out of this. And we are seeing some signs shots are finally picking up. They're climbing in at least a dozen states, especially in some of the hardest-hit states with the lowest vaccination rates.
INSKEEP: I've been in plenty of conversations with people asking, should I maybe go get another shot, get revaccinated? And there is this news out of Israel of people getting booster shots for older adults. Should the U.S. be doing that?
STEIN: The U.S. is probably heading in that direction, probably, you know, especially for people with weak immune systems and possibly vulnerable people like the elderly. But for the moment, they're saying it's still just too soon. At least that's what most experts are saying. That said, some people are doing it anyway. Like, I talked to Trevor Achilleas (ph). He's 27 and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He got his two Pfizer shots in the spring but takes immune-suppressing drugs because he had a kidney transplant.
TREVOR ACHILLEAS: I am terrified of COVID. And I will do anything and everything in my power to make sure that I don't get sick.
STEIN: The first drug store he tried turned him away, but he was able to convince the next one to give him a Moderna shot. But all the experts are telling me people should really just be patient and wait for federal officials to make sure this is safe and necessary.
INSKEEP: Rob, thanks so much.
STEIN: You bet, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
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INSKEEP: Needless to say, the pandemic is far from over, but some things are moving forward in life, like evictions.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, a federal freeze on evictions expired over the weekend. This means landlords across much of the country are now free to evict tenants who've fallen behind on the rent. And many have fallen behind because of the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. Now some local governments are scrambling to try to prevent a new wave of evictions.
INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold has been covering this story for many months. Chris, good morning.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: There have been fears of this moratorium ending for a long time. Why did it finally really end?
ARNOLD: Well, this was put in place by the CDC to prevent the spread of COVID, but landlords had sued. And the Supreme Court effectively blocked the CDC from extending this anymore past the end of July. Congress had the power to do that but not the vote. So now a lot of people who could not be evicted just days ago now could lose their homes very quickly.
INSKEEP: What are you hearing from some of those people?
ARNOLD: Well, one person I've been checking in with, Sophia Kitwana (ph), is a single mom in DeKalb County, Ga. She's got two teenage kids. And she lost her job during the pandemic. And with the CDC order now expired, she's been fearing a knock on her door.
SOPHIA KITWANA: A marshal coming to your door - like, I've seen it happen where they just throw your stuff out in the parking lot. Like, as we speak, it hurts to even talk about that portion of it, like, as far as what my kids are going to see.
ARNOLD: And like you said, some local governments, though, are scrambling to try to do something now. And at least in her county, some big changes are being made that are going to help her.
INSKEEP: What sort of changes do you mean?
ARNOLD: Well, first, a county judge just put in place an emergency two-month local eviction ban. So that's going to give renters more time to apply for this rental assistance money that's out there and try to get it. And on top of that, the county is going to be more generous with the money it gives out to landlords. And that's a big deal because like some other states and counties so far, DeKalb County would only pay landlords a portion of the back rent that was owed. They were trying to spread the money around, but landlords were refusing, saying, no way. That's not enough money. Now the county says they're going to pay all the back rent that people owe. And that should reach a lot more people.
INSKEEP: What does that mean for the woman you've been tracking in Georgia?
ARNOLD: Sophia Kitwana, yeah. She should now get her debt to her landlord paid in full and be able to avoid eviction of three months of additional rent going forward to get back on her feet.
KITWANA: Hearing this, it just feels like a lot lifted, a lot lifted. I felt it from my chest up. Like, (laughter) everything just lifted, was like (exhaling). Like, it is a huge relief 'cause I just didn't know what I was going to do.
ARNOLD: So you can hear how happy this is making her. But in many parts of the country, people are not getting this sort of reprieve. And the programs to distribute that federal money - some of them are working well, but but many others are just more of a mess. And that's really slowed down getting that money to the people who need it. Shamus Roller heads up the National Housing Law Project.
SHAMUS ROLLER: The thing I worry about the most is that you have millions of people across the country who may get evicted over the next couple of months, even though there is enough money coming from the federal government to pay all their back rent.
ARNOLD: So Roller says, look. I mean, it's just very crucial that more money gets out the door more quickly so that landlords can see that things are working better and so they'll hold off putting people out of their homes.
INSKEEP: Matters for millions of people. So, Chris, thanks for covering it so long.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold.
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INSKEEP: How should kids return to school just as the delta variant surges?
MARTÍNEZ: Kids under 12 are too young to vaccinate. Kids over 12 may not all be vaccinated. And they're expected to return to in-person school. Since March 2020, many have been inside classrooms only rarely or never. In an interview, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told me it's vital for kids to return.
MIGUEL CARDONA: That's where students learn best. Schools are more than just places where students learn how to read and write. They're communities. They're like second families to our students.
MARTÍNEZ: Cardona's department is releasing what it calls a roadmap to help schools navigate reopening.
INSKEEP: NPR education reporter Clare Lombardo listened in to A's interview and is on the line to talk about it. Clare, good morning.
CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is this roadmap?
LOMBARDO: So Cardona is essentially telling everyone that in-person learning should be the No. 1 priority this fall. And here's why.
CARDONA: Ensuring that our students have an opportunity to learn in person assures that they have that social and emotional well-being, that they have access to meals, that they have access to high-quality instruction.
LOMBARDO: But the big caveat to all that is that schools have to do it all safely. So in this roadmap, the Education Department says schools should be encouraging everyone to get vaccinated if they're eligible. And whether or not they're vaccinated, everyone needs to be masking. That's all according to the CDC guidance that was just revised last week.
INSKEEP: OK, but we should note the federal government is not generally making the rules here for local schools. That comes from localities. It comes from states. What we're hearing is an opinion or a recommendation from the federal government. What are you hearing from schools?
LOMBARDO: Right. These are recommendations. And honestly, things are really, really tough for school leaders right now. And no matter what they want to do, parents have their own thoughts, of course. And what makes things really, really challenging is that a handful of states - Texas, Iowa, South Carolina are all on that list - they've all passed laws that actually prohibit schools from requiring masks. So those laws make it close to impossible for - to follow the CDC guidance on this. I talked to one spokesperson in Greenville County Schools in South Carolina. His name is Tim Waller. And he told me that the state legislature there has basically tied the hands of school leaders. They can strongly encourage people to wear face coverings, but they can't really issue any mandates. Here's what Cardona had to say about the position many school leaders are in.
CARDONA: I understand that they're going to be running up against challenges from elected officials. And that's sad, and that's unfortunate. But at the end of the day, the other options are if there's a spread in the school, are we going to close the school? Do we want to miss football games? Do we want to miss extracurricular activities because of a law that's putting our students in harm's way?
LOMBARDO: He says he's been talking to governors and other elected officials about best practices. But he says the places where they're most resistant are also the places where the virus is spreading the most right now.
INSKEEP: And it's spreading so quickly, that's got to make that even more complicated. We don't even know what the situation might be three weeks from now, say.
LOMBARDO: Right. In a lot of districts, safety protocols are really still in flux. And Tim Waller in South Carolina - he told me that his state legislature has actually limited how many e-learning days can - schools can have. So he says he's just optimistic. He's hoping that if there's an outbreak or if lots of students are quarantining, that state leaders will do the right thing and issue an emergency order.
INSKEEP: For some reason, I'm remembering the old saying that hope is not a strategy. But it's what some people have. Clare, thanks so much.
LOMBARDO: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's Clare Lombardo of NPR's education team. She was discussing A's interview with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, which is on NPR's MORNING EDITION on the radio today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.