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News Brief: 100,000 People Could Die In Coming Months, Task Force Says


April begins with an acknowledgement of reality. The president says the first part of this month will be, quote, "one of the roughest two or three weeks we've ever had." U.S. government projections say the coronavirus has spread far enough that one of the less bad scenarios includes 100,000 to 200,000 deaths.


The virus spread during months when the president said the United States would soon have zero cases. In February, he repeatedly minimized the importance of the pandemic.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, you do certain things that you do when you have the flu. I mean, view this the same as the flu.

INSKEEP: But last night, the president tried to give the impression that he'd understood the severity all along.


TRUMP: I mean, I've had many friends, business people, people with great, actually, common sense - they said, what if we ride it out? A lot of people have said, a lot of people have thought about it, ride it out. Don't do anything. Just ride it out and think of it as the flu. But it's not the flu. It's vicious.

MARTIN: All right. To tell us more about what we can expect based on modeling, we've got NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi, Nurith. Good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the president saying the next couple of weeks are going to be some of the hardest that this country has ever faced. What are you hearing from scientists, from medical professionals right now?

AIZENMAN: OK. So the bottom line - the models that the White House is relying on say so many people in the U.S. are already infected with coronavirus that not only is drastic action needed, it's going to take a while for those measures to slow down the process of one person passing the disease to another and onto another. And so what these models predict is that over the next two weeks, there'll be more hospitalizations, more deaths for two to three weeks. That's when infections are projected to hit their peak.

MARTIN: What do we mean when we say - we're talking about the peak, like, we need to get there because once we get there and get on the other side, everything is going to be better. Is that true?

AIZENMAN: Right. No, it is not. This is not just two or three weeks of pain. Several more weeks after the peak, the number of new deaths each day will still be high, it's just that it will be slightly lower than it was the day before. And so that best-case scenario is that by the time this is all suppressed, between a hundred thousand, 240,000 people in the U.S. will have died. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's on the White House coronavirus task force.


ANTHONY FAUCI: As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it. Is it going to be that much? I hope not. And I think the more we push on the mitigation, the less likelihood it would be that number.

MARTIN: It's still so hard to absorb - right? - up to 240,000 people dead as a result of this.

AIZENMAN: Yeah. And for all of his optimism, Dr. Fauci and others have stressed that, you know, that is the best-case scenario right now with all of the mitigation measures in place. And that's only this wave of infections that we're talking about. Also, the timing of when illnesses and deaths will peak will actually vary from state to state.

MARTIN: So we know New York right now is experiencing the worst of the outbreak. Where should we be looking next? I mean, what's the next New York?

AIZENMAN: I put that question to one of the researchers who created this model that the administration is citing, Dr. Ali Mokdad of University of Washington's Institute for Health, Metrics and Evaluation. And he's particularly worried about Florida. In about a month at the peak there, Florida will see about 136 deaths a day. And Mokdad says that's because it's a state with a large share of older people, who are more vulnerable to this virus. Also, it's one of a number of states whose governors have not issued statewide social distancing rules.

And I should add that Mokdad also told me something that the administration has not mentioned in their presentations about this model that his team created and that the White House is relying on, and that's that the model does not consider the president's guidelines effective, per se, because they're just guidelines. In states that don't have their own statewide rules, it's not clear how much people are following the president's recommendations.

So the model bases its forecast on when each state put in place strict measures. And for those that haven't done so yet - Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Nevada, North Dakota - the model assumes they will put strict statewide measures in place by a week from now. Also, it assumes that all states will keep these measures in place until June 1. Remember, the president's guidelines right now expire on May 1. So if states don't do all this, the death toll would be projected to be much higher.

MARTIN: Real quick, Nurith, give me some hope, a glimmer of hope anywhere.

AIZENMAN: Well, California and Washington saw some of the earliest cases. They also were among the states that moved quickest to impose social distancing. And since then, they have really managed to slow down the spread. So these measures appear to work. And Dr. Fauci also points out that models always have limitations. So maybe we shouldn't treat these projections as fate. But we should treat them as an indicator of how concerned we should be, which is very concerned.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Nurith Aizenman with the latest. Thanks. We appreciate it.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. Those are the words of the commander of an American nuclear aircraft carrier in a letter to his superiors.

INSKEEP: Now, dozens of sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt are sick after being infected with coronavirus. That's why Captain Brett Crozier wrote a plea for help. He asked the Pentagon for permission to remove nearly all the crew from the ship, so they could practice social distancing while the ship is disinfected.

MARTIN: Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us with more. Tom, just tell us what we know right now about the situation onboard the Roosevelt.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, the carrier is now docked in Guam. And as you say, Brett Crozier, the captain, wants to take all 4,000 or so sailors off the ship, find lodging for them ashore and disinfect the ship. There are reports of more than dozens, but anywhere from 50 to 200 have already tested positive for the virus. And he says the virus is accelerating. That's his word.

Now, the top officer for the Pacific Fleet, Admiral John Aquilino, spoke to reporters last night. He declined to reveal any numbers about those infected. And he clearly doesn't want to remove all 4,000 sailors at once, as the captain wants. He says the ship has to be ready for any crises. He insisted he and the captain are all, quote, "on the same sheet of music." He said they would rotate sailors off the ship, get them tested, quarantined if necessary. And he's still looking for better lodging - maybe hotels on Guam. He didn't say how long all this would take.

MARTIN: You can imagine it's spreading so quickly because those things, those aircraft carriers, there's just no room. I mean, there's no room to keep 6 feet between you two.

BOWMAN: No, that's exactly right. That's...

MARTIN: People are on top of each other. That's one crisis situation. Is the military dealing with any other outbreaks of coronavirus in their facilities?

BOWMAN: You know, we're not seeing any clusters or any reports of clusters like you're seeing on the Roosevelt. But the military's doing a lot. They've, you know, basically closed their recruiting centers. Everything's online. Large training exercises have been canceled or curtailed. Both the Marines and Navy have temporarily stopped bringing in new recruits, though the Army is still bringing in the new recruits. And the services are trying to make sure there's adequate social distancing during boot camp and basic training. But it's sometimes difficult if you're trying to...

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: ...Show someone how to break down a machine gun, let's say.

MARTIN: Right. I want to ask you about something else. In the earlier days of the pandemic, we learned of this outbreak at a U.S. military base in South Korea. Can you remind us what happened there and what's - the situation is now?

BOWMAN: You know, it's really interesting. Clearly, the entire government - the White House, federal agencies - were slow to act on this virus. But the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General Robert "Abe" Abrams, he moved pretty quickly shortly after the virus emerged in China. He basically shut down his large base and - with some 20,000 soldiers, by a variety of measures. And he, you know, did quite a good job of really stopping this. Recently, though, he's seen an increase in his cases in - at his base in South Korea. And now he's adding more restrictions.

MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for us this morning. Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: All right. Today marks the first of the month.

INSKEEP: And for a lot of Americans, that means the rent is due for the first time since the pandemic shut down a lot of the U.S. economy. For millions who've lost income in the past few weeks, paying the rent is not going to be so easy. And some state leaders are encouraging landlords not to evict tenants.

MARTIN: We've got NPR correspondent Chris Arnold with us to talk more. Hi, Chris.


MARTIN: So homeowners got some relief - right? - in the $2 trillion aid package that Congress passed last week. Aren't renters protected in that, too?

ARNOLD: Well, I mean, they got some things. But they're not protected in one very important way, and that is that, if you look at homeowners, the vast majority of homeowners who lost income - like, let's say this happened to you, Rachel. You could call up your lender. And you could say, help. I lost my job, you know. I can't make my mortgage payments. And you would - you know, 75% of the time, people will be able to defer payments - probably even higher than that, actually - for months, it could be up to a year until your financial hardship is over.

And then the payments you missed just get tacked onto the end of the mortgage. So you don't have to come up with some big pile of money to pay back. You just start making your regular payment again. And that's a really great benefit and protection for homeowners. A lot of people are happy about that.

But Congress did not give renters any kind of a plan like that to defer their payments. And that's even though renters have far fewer financial resources than homeowners, right? So housing advocates are saying that the government should do more for renters.

MARTIN: What about the expanded unemployment benefits under that aid package? I mean, wouldn't that help renters?

ARNOLD: It will, for sure, when it shows up in their pockets. And the problem is we don't really know when that's going to happen. And the system is swamped. I mean, we've just seen record numbers of people filing for unemployment, millions of people.

I've talked to Nicolena Loshonkohl (ph). And she lives in Roanoke, Va. She's a single mom. She's got a 2-year-old kid. She worked in a hair salon and it shut down. And she lives in this big apartment complex. And so she told her landlord - she's like, look, I don't have any income. I can't afford to pay my rent and my health insurance for my kid and all my other bills, my car payments, you know. So...


ARNOLD: ...I'm stuck.

NICOLENA LOSHONKOHL: And I felt, actually, kind of afraid telling them that, because I felt afraid, like, well, what if they (laughter) try to evict me, like, just knowing that, you know? I don't think that's something they can legally do. But I felt a bit of anxiety going into that.

ARNOLD: But that is exactly the right thing to do, we should say. People want to talk to your landlord, ask for help. Some landlords say they are trying to work with tenants and work out repayment plans. In Nicolena's case, she told her landlord. They said, well, you know, you got to pay your April rent anyway. And they were a little flexible. She can pay in four installments over the month. But she's still got to pay the full amount for April. So she's just going to start putting stuff on credit cards and running up debt.

MARTIN: So if renters can't pay, though, I mean, the landlords are presumably in trouble too, no?

ARNOLD: Yeah. I mean, one trade group I talked to was talking with sort of bigger apartment complexes. And an estimate from one of the owners of those was saying 20% to 50% of residents in some places may not be able to pay. So they want to work with renters. They also want to stay in business. Mom and pop landlords, though, they should try to call their mortgage company because they, too, like homeowners, can defer mortgage payments. So if the renters can't pay, they could get a deferment on their mortgage. And then they could pass along that flexibility to the renters.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Chris Arnold. We appreciate it. Thank you.

ARNOLD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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