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Morning News: WHO Meeting, U.S. Automakers, Florida's Phase 1


Every year, the WHO holds a big meeting.


Most years, that meeting passes without a lot of news coverage. This year is different. Member nations meeting via video links will discuss the pandemic, and they do this at a moment of tension. The United States and some others say the WHO responded poorly during the early efforts to contain the outbreak in China.

KING: Jason Beaubien covers global health and development for NPR. He's with us now. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

KING: OK. So we know WHO members will talk about coronavirus, of course, but there's so much. What are they talking about?

BEAUBIEN: Well, one of the issues that is definitely going to be on the table is going to be this question of a review of the WHO's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. You know, should that review happen right now? Should that review wait until the virus is more under control, you know, so as to not divert resources from actually battling the disease? But the U.S., they have suspended funding to the WHO, saying that the agency bungled this response and failed to warn the world about how bad the initial outbreak was in Wuhan, China.

KING: And will the U.S. and China both be at this meeting?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. Representatives will, but we're expecting Chinese President Xi Jinping to actually address the gathering. You know, last year, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, he led the U.S. delegation to the meeting, but he's not even expected to be involved in this meeting. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are going to be calling for this review. China is going to be pushing back against that, and we really do expect the rivalry between the U.S. and China to dominate this meeting.

KING: Interesting, though, that China's going to have more of a leadership presence there compared to the U.S. I know you've reported that member states are going to be talking about something called the people's vaccine. What is that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, this initiative called the people's vaccine, it's being pushed by Oxfam, and they're trying to get a commitment from all 194 member states to work together on a coronavirus vaccine and then make whatever is developed universally available. I was talking with Paul O'Brien. He's with Oxfam. And he says this pandemic should actually make this meeting far simpler. He says there's 300,000 people dead. We're pushing 5 million cases. O'Brien says the representatives at this meeting have one task in front of them.

PAUL O'BRIEN: And that is getting a vaccine out, manufactured, distributed and freely available to everyone as soon as possible. That's the agreement they need to reach. It's not hard. And they need to show the leadership to do so.

BEAUBIEN: The big issue is that the U.S. so far is not on board with this initiative, and the White House is pushing this other idea that they've got, Operation Warp Speed, which they've said explicitly is a vaccine project to develop the vaccine for the American people. The COVID pandemic is going to dominate this meeting, but how much progress is actually going to come out is still unclear.

KING: You know, I wonder, given the criticism that the WHO has faced, do you think there's going to be a push for new leadership of the organization?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, definitely there has been a lot of criticism. There's even been calls for a Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to step down. He's rejected those calls. But there are a lot of other nations that have rallied support behind him. He's from Ethiopia, and he's particularly popular all across Africa and in many low-income parts of the world. Dr. Tedros, as he's known, is in the middle of his five-year term that doesn't expire until 2022. So, no, we're not expecting to see a leadership shakeup come out of this meeting.

KING: Jason Beaubien covers global health and development. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.


KING: The biggest American car companies are restarting production today.

INSKEEP: That means many U.S. auto workers are returning to assembly plants. They face the same risks as other businesses resuming operations. Yesterday, the Ford CEO, Jim Hackett, told Noel about one change his assembly lines have made.

JIM HACKETT: We actually took it into consideration as we thought through the way a vehicle is built. So, for example, previous to COVID, we would put more than one person in the vehicle as it was going down the line as they were attaching elements. We've rechoreographed that, so that's not going to happen.

KING: Camila Domonoske covers the auto industry for NPR. Good morning, Camila.


KING: Which companies are reopening today?

DOMONOSKE: So Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, the Detroit Three - those are the big U.S. automakers with unionized workforces - are all restarting. Tesla, the electric automaker, also got the green light to reopen in California today after a brouhaha because Elon Musk, the CEO, really wanted to restart production lines a week earlier. I should also note that other U.S. auto plants with nonunionized workforces opened earlier this month; think Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and others.

KING: And so I talked to the Ford CEO. He said they're doing a bunch of things. But, broadly, what are companies doing to make it safe for people going back in these plants?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. There's two big categories of actions. One is making sure people don't come to work if they are sick, so symptom questionnaires and temperature checks, including in some cases cameras that look for people with fevers. Then there's making sure there's less contact between people when they're at work - adding space between workers on the line, plastic barricades or shields, mandatory face masks, face shields in some cases, staggering shifts - lots of ways of reducing contact between people. And then, finally, there's just a lot of extra cleaning between rotations.

KING: And so what are you hearing from workers who are going back in? Are they OK with this?

DOMONOSKE: Well, there's a range of feelings, obviously, and there's definitely some anxiety. If you look at the terrible outbreaks that have happened in meatpacking plants...

KING: Yeah.

DOMONOSKE: ...That's kind of the worst-case scenario of what can happen when you have people returning to an industrial facility. So everyone wants to avoid that. The union representing workers, the UAW, is not challenging the restart calendar here. They are calling for more tests as soon as possible, saying that temperature checks can't do anything if you're asymptomatic. And I know that Jim Hackett from Ford, when he spoke to you, said that they can't currently test all workers, which is what the UAW would really like. So for now, they're just committing to test those workers who do have symptoms.

KING: The logistics of closing these plants were very difficult. They are massive. As they reopen, do we have any sense of how long it's going to take them to move at full speed again?

DOMONOSKE: It's definitely going to be a gradual process. Within each factory, you know, there are new systems for all the workers to get used to. That's going to take some time. Some of these changes slow down production themselves. There's also an issue with the supply chain. There's tens of thousands of parts in every vehicle, and they come from a vast network of suppliers, including key suppliers in Mexico. A Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama reopened already and is shutting back down again already because of trouble getting parts from the supply chain.

KING: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, thank you.


KING: Also reopening today - the two biggest counties in Florida.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Restaurants and retail stores in Miami-Dade and Broward counties can go back into business, joining most other counties in Florida, which reopened a couple of weeks ago. But these two counties, with the highest number of cases and deaths, took the extra time to try to be a little safer. The reopening comes with risks because Florida is seeing an increase in new cases.

KING: NPR's Greg Allen is on the line from Miami. Good morning, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK. So what is and is not opening today down in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, as Steve mentioned, a couple weeks ago, the governor allowed nonessential businesses across the state to reopen. Miami-Dade and Broward waited until today. Local authorities worked in the meantime to develop detailed guidelines. In Miami-Dade, there's 175 pages of guidelines to tell business what they can and can't do. And that businesses include things like restaurants, retail stores and personal services. Things like barbershops and beauty salons will be open. For now, gyms remain closed; also nightclubs, movie theaters and hotels remain closed. Beaches also will not be open for some time here. They don't want to be attracting crowds there. Elsewhere in Florida, the rules are a little looser. In most other counties, gyms and beaches are open again. Up in Orlando, Disney is beginning to reopen its shopping district today. That's Disney Springs. There's no word, though, on when the theme parks might consider reopening.

KING: OK. So that was a nice overview of what we've got and what we don't have. As Steve mentioned, though, new cases of coronavirus are going up in Florida. Is there an understanding as to why?

ALLEN: No, it's not really clear exactly what's happening. You know, Florida is a big state, and there's many rural counties that still have very few cases. But over the last several days, more than a week, there's been an uptick in cases in Central and South Florida. In Orlando, for example, there's generally not been a lot of cases there, but about a week after the county opened nonessential businesses, the number of infections has climbed back to where it was about a month ago. It's just a couple dozen a day, so not a large amount but still that's somewhat concerning. We've seen a rise in cases also in some counties even before they reopened. That was the case in Palm Beach County. We had a story from Yahoo News over the weekend reporting that the Department of Homeland Security had identified Palm Beach County as a hot spot for COVID-19 because they saw a 71% increase in new cases there compared to the previous week. Now, those numbers from the federal government are a little higher than what the state's been reporting. But it's clear cases are up, and this surge in Palm Beach County appears to have started before they even began reopening on May 11.

KING: Before reopening. OK. That's really interesting. So it leads to the question, are officials rethinking their plans for reopening because of these new cases, because of this uptick?

ALLEN: Yeah. It doesn't seem so at this point. State and local officials say they're going to be watching the cases, the data, very closely. And they will make changes as necessary. But the decision, they say, to begin reopening is data driven, and the cases have been trending downward mostly in the state. And we haven't been seeing this increase in every part of the state. You're seeing it mostly in South Florida and Miami, in Palm Beach, also up in Jacksonville. Officials say that they've increased testing. That's one reason for the new cases. But they're confident hospitals have plenty of capacity, you know, the beds and ventilators available to handle any new cases as the state reopens. Here's the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez.

CARLOS GIMENEZ: But if we follow the rules that are established, that are laid out in this plan, then we shouldn't see a spike or any increases in infection because following these rules will keep us safe.

ALLEN: And the rules, you know, are the ones that require social distancing, and employees and customers and all these businesses will all be wearing masks.

KING: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks so much.

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

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

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