Coronavirus Updates: The Latest In The U.S. Response

Apr 21, 2020
Originally published on April 21, 2020 8:02 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Senate has passed an emergency funding package with more than $300 billion to refill the empty coffers of the Paycheck Protection Program. It's money meant for small businesses that have taken a hit because of the coronavirus pandemic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clarified that point at today's coronavirus taskforce briefing, when questions arose about some of the big businesses that had qualified for funds the first time around.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: We want to make sure this money is available to small businesses that need it, people who have invested their entire life savings. We appreciate what's going on, and they're hiring people back.

CHANG: President Trump also addressed the immigration ban he floated in a tweet late yesterday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This pause will be in effect for 60 days, after which the need for any extension or modification will be evaluated.

CHANG: And on the testing front, there is some hopeful news. The FDA has approved the first in-home coronavirus sample collection kit. For more on all of this now, I want to bring in NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, political correspondent Scott Detrow and economics correspondent Jim Zarroli.

Hey to all three of you.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hello.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, Scott, let's start with you. What exactly is in this new emergency funding package?

DETROW: This is an enormous spending bill, almost a half-trillion dollars, and it passed the Senate unanimously. We both used to cover Congress, and I don't think either of us could have imagined a scenario like that.

CHANG: Yeah.

DETROW: But, you know, lawmakers agree that this money needs to get out there fast, and it goes to the House next, which is expected to quickly approve it. This will add about $300 billion more into that fund for small businesses. It will set aside about $60 billion to smaller banks and credit unions after concerns that big financial institutions had snapped up most of the funding the first time around. There's also $75 billion for hospitals, $25 billion for a national testing program. Democrats had wanted more money for state and local government that was not in this bill, and they say that's their focus for the next big round of spending that lawmakers and the Trump administration are already talking about.

CHANG: Well, on this Paycheck Protection Program, Jim, I mean, that program was supposed to help small businesses survive this big economic lockdown. Has it actually done that?

ZARROLI: You know, it did do - there have been well over a million businesses that have - that got loans, so clearly, it did help a lot of small businesses. But the program was criticized because it also benefited some bigger publicly traded firms like Potbelly, which is a national restaurant chain with hundreds of outlets; also Hallador Energy, which is a coal company. I mean, these are not mom-and-pop businesses. Today Treasury - one of the things Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said is - he said this program is not for big companies that can get investment capital from other sources; in other words, companies that can sell stocks or bonds. And he said he was going to put out clear guidance that this program is intended for small businesses.

CHANG: Well, how did companies like Potbelly or Hallador even - how were they even able to take advantage of a program meant for small businesses in the first place?

ZARROLI: You know, the thing that you need to remember is that this program was put together really fast. And that was deliberate because the bottom fell out of the economy. And so within just a few days, millions of people were losing their jobs, and businesses needed help. And they needed it really fast. I talked to Michael Minnis, who's a professor of accounting at the University of Chicago.

MICHAEL MINNIS: But if the idea was to get this out and protect the payroll of these companies, I think the tradeoff was - that was made, you know, a few weeks ago in designing this program was - you know, they wanted speed over bureaucracy.

ZARROLI: And he said - Minnis says that in trying to do this so fast, the government may have been a little inexact about spelling out who would qualify. For instance, you know, companies are only supposed to ask for loans if they face uncertainty because of the virus. But, you know, what - every - what company doesn't face uncertainty right now?

CHANG: Right.

ZARROLI: So Minnis says, you know, some people may have applied for the loans who, you know, weren't exactly in dire straits. And the banks that hand out the money on the government's behalf aren't really supposed to be checking the applicant's finances. They're basically supposed to take their word for it. So, you know, the money got used up pretty fast.

CHANG: OK, I want to turn now to testing. And for that, I want to bring in Richard. You know, we mentioned the FDA today approved a kit that will allow people to take samples to look for coronavirus in the convenience of their own homes. Can you just tell us a little more about that?

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure. Testing for coronavirus has gradually gotten easier. In the early days, you may recall, a health care provider would have to suit up in all that protective gear and take a rather uncomfortable swab deep in a person's nose...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Or throat. That's no longer necessary because the FDA has since determined that it was OK for a person to take a swab in their own nostrils and hand that off to a health care worker. And now this can be done by mail. With a doctor's order, people will soon be able to get a kit that will allow them to sample their own noses with a medical grade swab, plop that into a collection vial, package it up and send it to LabCorps, where the test will be processed. That's the kit that the FDA approved today. And so far, it's the only one of its kind.

CHANG: OK. I understand that the other kind of testing that's creating a lot of buzz right now - it involves tests to look for antibodies, which, basically, are, like, signs of past infection. What are those tests telling us about how much the coronavirus has already spread throughout the U.S.?

HARRIS: Well, we'd love to know more about what they will tell us, but it's hard to say because we actually don't know how much to trust these tests. The FDA has told manufacturers they don't actually need authorization to market them, though they can get it if they want that stamp of approval. But most tests actually don't have that. But antibody tests are being used more broadly, including to study the spread of coronavirus. Some of those tests were used in two California counties very recently, and they reported a surprising percentage of people who had apparently - I say that with quotes - already been infected. But if the tests turn out to be giving false information, those unpublished findings won't stand up. Now, today at the White House briefing, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said the NIH and the CDC are starting to test a few of those assays thoroughly, so we might hear more about that later in the week. Eventually, we will learn a lot about the coronavirus from those studies. But, you know, we - only what scientists have confidence in them (ph).

CHANG: And I heard there was also a question that came up during the briefing today about the malaria drugs that President Trump keeps saying are promising therapies for the coronavirus. Did we learn anything new about that?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, a study of 368 veterans being treated at the VA found that the chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine actually did not help them recover from COVID-19.

CHANG: Oh.

HARRIS: We're still waiting for definitive studies. But for now, the NIH is recommending - basically, use them for clinical trials and other ongoing scientific studies. But they're really lukewarm on having them used more broadly.

CHANG: OK, good to know. Scott Detrow, I want to ask you about one more thing. The president spoke about his plan to temporarily suspend immigration at today's briefing. What additional details did he fill in after last night's tweet?

DETROW: This is more limited than what the president seemed to indicate on Twitter last night. And he said tonight that the order is being written right now, and that seems to confirm some of NPR's reporting that this is something that caught people in the administration by surprise. President Trump says he'll sign an executive order that will pause green card approvals for 60 days.

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TRUMP: By pausing immigration, we'll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens - so important. It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad. We must first take care of the American worker.

DETROW: And that makes it clear this is not a question of stopping the spread of coronavirus, like those halts of international flights were.

CHANG: Right.

DETROW: This is something in line with that hardline approach he's taken to immigration, both legal and illegal, since the very beginning of his presidential campaign.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow. We also heard from economics correspondent Jim Zarroli and science correspondent Richard Harris.

Thanks to all three of you.

SCOTT DETROW, RICHARD HARRIS AND JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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