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National

News Brief: Garland Hearings, COVID-19 Deaths, Texas Power Issues

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly half a million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That is roughly the population of the city of Atlanta, and it's a reminder of the urgency of vaccinations. Last week's winter storm delayed some vaccine distribution. It slowed down 6 million doses that were headed for every state, which is the equivalent of about three days' supply.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Allison Aubrey with us this morning. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, there was a time when 100,000 deaths, which we reached back in May of last year, I mean, that alone seemed difficult to digest, and now it's 500,000.

AUBREY: Yeah, the loss of life is really stunning. I mean, for the first time in decades, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined by a full year due to the death toll from COVID. On average, Americans can now expect to live 77.8 years, down from 78.8. And the decline is even steeper among Black Americans, Latinos. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about the death toll on "Meet The Press" yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's just - it's terrible. It is historic. We haven't seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years since the 1918 pandemic - almost unbelievable, but it's true. This is a devastating pandemic.

AUBREY: And it's still not behind us. I mean, though new cases and deaths are down significantly, the virus continues to circulate. So that's why there is a rush to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the status of the vaccine distribution. I mean, Steve mentioned this, that that storm really delayed things.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, more than 6 million doses were delayed last week. Shipments just didn't go out. So vaccination sites will be playing catch-up this week. Many plan to extend their hours to rebook as many appointments as possible as the doses come in. You can imagine frustrated people as thousands of people had their appointments canceled. Claire Hannan of the Association of Immunization Managers says there will be a boost in the number of doses sent overall this week to both pharmacies and to states.

CLAIRE HANNAN: The states are getting about 11 million doses, which is up from about 9 1/2 million a few weeks ago. And we are continuing to make progress. But we're still in a state where supply is nowhere near demand.

AUBREY: And this is just going to take time, Rachel.

MARTIN: Right. So something that might help meet that demand - there's another vaccine on the horizon - right? - this one from Johnson & Johnson. What's the timeline with this?

AUBREY: Well, advisers to the FDA are scheduled to meet this Friday, and there could be a decision very quickly, Rachel, by the weekend. Now, while this vaccine is not quite as effective overall as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, it is designed to be a one-dose vaccine, so more convenient. And it appears to be very effective at preventing what is most important - hospitalizations and deaths. Jeffrey Zients, the COVID-19 response coordinator at the White House, said there's not a big inventory of available doses, perhaps a few million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY ZIENTS: The Johnson & Johnson contract commits Johnson & Johnson to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. That is more back-end loaded. We're working with the company to do everything we can, assuming they are approved by the FDA, to bring forward as many of those doses as possible into the earlier months.

AUBREY: So this is very promising.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you for that, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Judge Merrick Garland is finally getting a confirmation hearing.

INSKEEP: Which took him a while. You may recall that five years ago, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell refused to give Garland a hearing and said it was because it was an election year. In 2020, of course, McConnell gave elaborate reasons that his rule did not apply to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett shortly before Donald Trump's election defeat. Now a Democratic-led Senate is giving Garland a hearing to serve as President Biden's attorney general, a role in which his many decisions could include whether to prosecute the ex-president.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us this morning. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So most people know the name Merrick Garland from that Supreme Court fight five years ago, but describe his history with the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: This is something of a homecoming for Merrick Garland. His friends and his former law clerks say his heart has always been at the Justice Department. He started there in the Jimmy Carter administration in the years after Watergate. That's a time when Justice Department leaders really struggled to separate partisan politics from law enforcement after what happened under President Nixon. And it's a situation that has some echoes today after all the scandals of the Trump era. I spoke with Paul Butler, a law professor who used to prosecute public corruption cases at justice.

PAUL BUTLER: And so it's vital for the legitimacy of our legal system that that confidence be restored, not just in the lawyers and other staffers for the Department of Justice but for the American people.

JOHNSON: So far, Paul Butler says both President Biden and his nominee, Merrick Garland, have gone out of their way to say the attorney general represents the country, not the president.

MARTIN: So we nodded to this earlier, Judge Garland is likely going to be asked whether the Justice Department should investigate a former president. How do we expect him to handle that line of questioning, Carrie?

JOHNSON: I'm not expecting to hear a lot of answers. I expect Judge Garland to duck questions about prosecuting a former president. He's still a sitting judge, after all, and he hasn't seen any evidence the Justice Department might have gathered. But some former prosecutors tell me they think there's going to have to be some kind of review of all the cases that were brought and not brought during the Trump years to make sure there was no political interference. And of course, if he's confirmed, Garland is going to inherit two other very sensitive investigations. One's a tax probe of Biden's son, Hunter, and the other is an investigation into the FBI's actions and the origins of that Russia investigation in 2016. For his part, President Biden says he's staying out of the decision about Trump, but he seems to suggest it would be better for the federal government to move on and for state officials in places like New York and Georgia to take any lead on Donald Trump.

MARTIN: The DOJ will be tasked with prosecuting many of those already charged in the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot. Judge Garland has experience with domestic terrorism cases, doesn't he?

JOHNSON: Actually, a lot of experience. In the mid-1990s, Garland played a big role in the federal response to domestic extremists. He was the first prosecutor from D.C. on the ground in Oklahoma after the federal building there was bombed in 1995. He helped preserve evidence that led to the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh. And he really demonstrated a cool head, I hear, from former justice officials in standoffs with extremist groups in that era that really do resonate today.

MARTIN: And the Biden administration is pledging to make racial justice a priority in everything it does. How's that going to look in a Garland DOJ?

JOHNSON: He has less of a civil rights background than some advocates would have wanted. But Biden has picked some experts like Vanita Gupta to be No. 3 at Justice, which gives them some cheer in the years ahead.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson. We appreciate you, Carrie. Thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Millions of Texans lost power during that devastating winter storm last week, some for days.

INSKEEP: Others kept electricity last week, but now that good fortune is costing them. Electric bills have been in the thousands for many people. Shannon Marrs lives in a Dallas suburb with her husband and three kids. And in January, they paid about $257 for electricity. As of Saturday, her family's electric bill was more than $10,000.

SHANNON MARRS: It's awful, and there's nothing you can do. And I've been really stressed about it. And, you know, $10,000 is a ton of money.

MARTIN: Indeed, it is. Christopher Connelly is with member station KERA in Dallas. Chris, I don't get this. How can someone like Shannon - I mean, she's lucky because her power stayed on and now she's on the hook for $10,000?

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: Right. So this is a little wonky, but bear with me. So Texas has a deregulated market for electricity. It's designed so that when there's a shortage of electricity, the price will go up and then power companies will have an incentive to generate more electricity. And that deregulated market also allows for the sale of more unusual consumer energy plans, like the ones the Marrses have, plans with variable rates for electricity. And those are the customers who are ending up with sky-high bills. The Marrs family even tried to switch to a different company with a more traditional fixed-rate plan, and normally, they could do that, but the storm made it impossible, so they were just sitting there watching charges rack up on their credit card.

MARTIN: Wow. But, you know, we've heard many local and state leaders in Texas sort of boasting about the deregulated electricity market.

CONNELLY: Yeah, and it works great when the weather's good. Texas generally has pretty cheap electricity rates compared to the rest of the country. But, you know, it appears that there were not market incentives in this market system for power providers to make sure they were prepared for, you know, this massive winter storm. And there have been warnings about that for years, actually. The system broke down almost exactly like this about a decade ago. You know, the other issue that's exposed here is that deregulated market system also assumes that customers will kind of fend for themselves and find an electricity plan where they won't get hosed. Kaiba White from the consumer rights group Public Citizen, she says that just doesn't really happen.

KAIBA WHITE: In reality, people have a lot of different things tugging at their attention and their bandwidth. And so a lot of our economic decisions are actually made on autopilot. And therefore, you know, all these theories like that we will shop for the cheapest and best plan for ourselves, they don't play out.

MARTIN: Wow. So the onus really is on the consumer to get educated about the electricity market and find the best plan, which is asking a lot. So what's being done about the bills that these folks are facing right now?

CONNELLY: Well, there will be hearings looking into the issue next week. Governor Greg Abbott says no one should have to pay these exorbitant bills. And yesterday, the Texas Public Utilities Commission temporarily blocked companies from sending out bills or shutting off customers' power for nonpayment. Abbott also says the state will force power plants to weatherize, so they're prepared for the next storm. You know, and this is a really unusual activity for Republicans who run this state. But there is a lot of political pressure and outrage to do something right now.

MARTIN: Christopher Connelly is a reporter for KERA in Dallas. Chris, thank you so much for your reporting on this.

CONNELLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.