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News Brief: CDC Web Tool, Jamal Khashoggi Report, USPS Delays

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you or someone in your family is eligible for a COVID vaccine, do you know where to go?

NOEL KING, HOST:

I personally do not, and I know a lot of people who are in the same boat. Pfizer and Moderna are shipping more and more doses to pharmacies and health care providers, but there's been no centralized way to figure out where to go and get one. So last night, the CDC launched a tool that's designed to help you search your local area.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here with details. Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this sounds promising. How does it work?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The site is vaccinefinder.org. It's an interactive map. It kind of looks like when you're looking for restaurants near you on Yelp or Google Maps. You put in your zip code and it shows you a map of all the places that have vaccine shots near you and whether they have vaccine in stock. I should say right now the site is limited. In most states, people will only see certain pharmacies, the ones that get their doses directly from the federal government. People in four states - Alaska, Indiana, Iowa and Tennessee - can see more providers like clinics and hospitals and public health sites. The founder of Vaccine Finder, John Brownstein, who's the chief information officer at Boston Children's Hospital, tells me that the list is going to expand in the coming days and weeks. And this is actually not a new site. It's existed for years for, you know, things like the seasonal flu shot or travel vaccines. It's funded by and run in partnership with CDC. And now it's coming in to help with the COVID-19 vaccine hunt.

MARTIN: All right, Selena, but, you know, even NPR was able to put together a tool to help people find these kinds of resources in their states. What took the government so long to do this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There are critics who say that all of these sites that have cropped up in the interim to make things easier to fill this need make everything feel really chaotic. And a national clearinghouse would have been useful in, you know, January, like, as soon as people outside of health care workers and nursing home residents started to become eligible and trying to figure out where to go. I have been in touch with Brownstein for weeks now, and he's been working feverishly with about three dozen people to launch this tool for people looking for COVID-19 vaccines. But one issue has been that at the moment, vaccine supply is still relatively low and eligibility is limited. And both of those things constrain how useful the tool is. So vaccine supply is increasing. The Biden administration says they're now sending more than 16 million doses out per week. And assuming that trend continues, more shots will be available. More providers like clinics and doctors offices will be able to begin distributing vaccine doses as well.

MARTIN: But can you even book the appointments? I mean, you can find where the vaccines are. Can you book the appointments through this website?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, unfortunately, you can't. You still have to do all of the website refreshes and calls around to clinics and all of that. That problem is not solved by this site. And Brownstein acknowledges it's not a silver bullet.

JOHN BROWNSTEIN: It's just a jumping off point. You still have to register and identify appointment availability with the providers. And so, you know, this is one baby step in the sort of complex numbers of steps people have to take in order to get vaccine. But we hope at least it will help reduce some of the noise and confusion that is out there.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Another thing about Vaccine Finder is they have partnerships. They're planning to put out info about where vaccine providers are located and which ones have shots available in lots of places online, from Google Maps to the traffic app Waze to Good Rx. So we can look forward to a time when vaccine doses are abundant and everyone is eligible and you just have to, you know, ask your smart speaker to name a local clinic with vaccine doses nearby and head over to get your shot.

MARTIN: That would be nice. Selena Simmons-Duffin, thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. The Biden administration is getting ready to release an intelligence report about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

KING: President Biden is expected to call Saudi Arabia's King Salman before it's released. So three years ago, you remember, Saudi operatives killed Khashoggi in Turkey. U.S. intelligence officials investigated, and they reportedly concluded that the kingdom's powerful crown prince was involved. But the Trump administration kept their conclusions from being released publicly.

MARTIN: NPR's Deb Amos is with us this morning to talk about this. Deb, thanks for being here. What do we know of this report? Any indication of what it will include?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Officially, we don't know much. It's only been seen by some members of Congress, but there's a lot of information that's out there. We've already read these gruesome transcripts about the dismemberment of Khashoggi's body. Saudi watchers point out that so much is known, there's not likely to be many surprises. And that's what Greg Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M, a Saudi watcher, says there's not going to be a surprise.

GREGORY GAUSE: I would assume that any release would confirm what I think almost everyone assumes. Operations like this don't happen in Saudi without approval from the top.

AMOS: Now, that's what we have to watch. Has the U.S. proved that? Because the Saudis say they've tried and convicted the people who killed Jamal Khashoggi, but the process was mostly secret and highly criticized.

MARTIN: Why is the report coming out now?

AMOS: So this is really being driven by a lawsuit. Not long after he was killed, the U.S. intelligence community made this assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he's known as MBS, ordered that murder. Some members of Congress saw that report. The Trump administration kept it from being made public. In the meantime, Open Society Justice Initiative filed a freedom of information lawsuit. They are seeking that document. Amrit Singh is the lawyer. Here's what she wants to get out of the court.

AMRIT SINGH: It's a two-page document.

AMOS: It's only a secret to the American public.

SINGH: Correct. This is a vital step forward in ending the impunity for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

AMOS: That's Amrit Singh. Now, the Biden administration has pledged to release this document even before the court case is done. So that's why there's such a frenzy about are they going to do it this week?

MARTIN: Deb, can you just take a step back and explain the stakes of this report and the implications for this very important geopolitical relationship, the U.S. and Saudi?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the Saudis are important in so many goals for the Biden administration - ending the war in Yemen, reengaging Iran, the end of the Syrian conflict, keeping Iraq stable. The Saudis have, you know, a role to play in all of those things.

MARTIN: So what's the release of this report likely to do to that relationship?

AMOS: So Joe Biden, the president, has been telegraphing that he wants a reset. And I put that question to Karen Young. She's at the American Enterprise Institute, and she specializes in Saudi Arabia.

KAREN YOUNG: I think it will be probably six months of a rough patch in the relationship. It'll go along with probably a bilateral review within the State Department - all very normal, all very bureaucratic - and then they'll set the terms of engagement. And so that's where the real change happens. Who would be surprised that Mohammed bin Salman is implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? We all know that.

AMOS: But knowing that and knowing what to do about that, that's two different things.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Deb Amos. Thanks, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. I don't know about you, Noel, but I got a Christmas card in the mail at the end of January, and my son's Valentine card from his grandmother still hasn't shown up.

KING: This is such a thing right now.

MARTIN: It is such a thing. The mail is very slow. And yesterday, Congress had a whole lot of questions about it.

KING: Yeah. And Postmaster General Louis DeJoy appeared before a House committee. The mail delays started last summer, not long after he took office. And at the time, Democrats accused him of making changes to slow down the mail deliberately in order to benefit President Trump in the 2020 election. Remember, a lot of people planned to vote by mail. DeJoy apologized for the delays, but he also said the Postal Service has real problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS DEJOY: I would suggest that we are on a death spiral.

MARTIN: OK, let's interrogate that. NPR's Brian Naylor is with us for more. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What were the lawmakers' biggest concerns yesterday in this Q&A?

NAYLOR: Well, so there was criticism from both sides of the aisle. They cited the mail delays, you know, the late Christmas cards, complaints from constituents over bills that are arriving late and that leads to late payments and to late fees. And, you know, DeJoy was apologetic, but he also got combative at times. He said the status quo was not acceptable, but he also said that the problems existed before he got there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: You could sit here and think that I'm bringing all this damage to the Postal Service. But as I said earlier, the place was operationally faulty because of lack of investment and lack of ability to move forward, which is what we're trying to do.

NAYLOR: And, you know, death spiral is quite a dramatic phrase. But he said the service lost more than $9 billion last year and is projected to lose another $160 billion over the next 10 years.

MARTIN: So what did he say he wants to do about this?

NAYLOR: Well, so he's in the midst of developing a 10-year strategic plan for the Postal Service. He didn't give very many details and said it will be released in its completion in the next couple of weeks. In an exchange with Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, DeJoy acknowledged the plan may lead to slower deliveries of some first-class mail beyond a local area. Another congressman, Democrat Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, said DeJoy's plan didn't sound like it would work. He said if the business plan is competing, you know, with FedEx and UPS and Amazon, that spells trouble. And he says the solution can't be not just to deliver the mail. DeJoy's also working with lawmakers on legislation that would end a mandate that the service prepay the health care costs of its future retirees.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, we have to talk about the fact that the Biden administration is trying to replace him, right? They've announced three nominees to fill three vacancies on the USPS board.

NAYLOR: Yes. So, you know, Democrats have been critical of DeJoy all along. Before he became postmaster general, he gave millions to Republicans, including former President Trump. Now, the Biden administration is going to appoint three - or is going to nominate three new members of the board of governors. And if they're confirmed, it would allow the Democrats to possibly replace DeJoy, although he made clear yesterday he doesn't intend to go anywhere on his own.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Naylor, thank you for all this. We appreciate it.

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