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News Brief: Coronavirus Crisis, Biden's VP Process, SpaceX Landing

NOEL KING, HOST:

The coronavirus outbreak, to put it bluntly, is getting worse in this country.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's what White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told CNN yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBORAH BIRX: I want to be very clear. What we're seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It's into the rural as equal urban areas.

MARTIN: Birx stressed the need for everybody, no matter where they live, to wear a mask and socially distance.

KING: NPR science reporter Nurith Aizenman is with us. She's been following this. Good morning, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we heard Dr. Birx say it's different now than it was in March and April. What does she mean?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. So, remember, you know, back in February, the outbreak was small and mainly in Washington state, California. Then pretty soon, the locus shifted to New York and New Jersey where cases really blew up in the spring. But those states then went all-in with strict lockdown such that by Memorial Day, their cases had declined to on par with the caseloads of some big Southern and Western states like Texas, Florida and Arizona. And in the following weeks, New York, for instance, kept up its social distancing to push its caseload down even lower. But meanwhile, in a lot of the Southern and Western states like Texas, Florida, Arizona, the lockdowns weren't as robust, so cases had been sort of bubbling along at a steady rate rather than declining. And then around Memorial Day, a lot of those Southern and Western states started easing up on their social distancing very fast. And that's what's given rise to this current situation.

KING: So the changes that she's talking about are geographic changes. She's saying the surge we're seeing is happening in different places in the South and in the West.

AIZENMAN: Yeah, mostly. When you look at daily new infections as a percentage of the population, right now 14 states are in the red zone according to this rating system that a team from Harvard has come up with to flag. You know, when a state's transmission rates get so high, probably the only way to control it is to revert to some amount of stay-at-home mode. And all but one of those 14 red-zone states are in the South and the West. The top five are Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arizona. That said, there are also now an additional 19 states just one notch below that red zone. And these orange-zone states are all over the country. The list includes Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nebraska. By the way, for the last two, the daily case count isn't just high. It's rising. Ashish Jha is on that Harvard team that came up with this red zone rating tool. He knows that some other wealthy countries coming out of the spring lockdown are seeing flare-ups, but Jha says the U.S. situation is totally different.

ASHISH JHA: What we have is not little flare-ups. We have a raging forest fire, large parts of our country where the outbreak is just out of control.

AIZENMAN: And even in some of the states that are in pretty good shape overall - Colorado, Washington, Oregon - there are a few individual counties where transmission is in the red zone.

KING: You know, a lot of states have made masks mandatory recently. I was in Montana last week - mandatory masks, very few cases. Is there a link there? Is it helping?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. There do seem to be some effects. And, of course, some of it is just cities and counties that have gone ahead. Arizona's managed to bend the curve; daily new cases declining in Florida, Louisiana, Texas. But cases in deaths are still high. And in hardest hit states, cases are still on an upswing, like Mississippi and Tennessee.

KING: NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Nurith, thanks so much for following this for us.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

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KING: OK. Big political question - who will be Joe Biden's running mate?

MARTIN: We're expected to hear either this week or next. Several women are in the running, but it is, frankly, still anyone's guess.

KING: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has educated guesses. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So who is Joe Biden considering?

KHALID: Well, back in March, you know, during a primary debate, Biden pledged to pick a woman as his vice president. And so we've heard a number of possible names. Some of the most high-profile candidates are two women who ran for president themselves this cycle. That's California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But other names include California Congresswoman Karen Bass, Florida Congresswoman Val Demings and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. There are also possibly a couple of governors. That's Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. And then, of course, we've also heard about Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. She, by the way, was on Fox News Sunday and talked about this overall list of women who are being considered.

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TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, I think any one of the women's whose names have been mentioned to be being considered are fabulous women and well-prepared to step up and do the job of vice president or step up and take over as president if needed.

KHALID: And Duckworth is an Iraq War vet who was wounded in combat. We've begun to hear her name quite a bit in the recent weeks. But really, it is Kamala Harris who is still widely considered the most likely pick just given her mix of experience and her personal biography.

KING: And yet you listed about 10 names there, meaning all of these women are still in consideration, is that right?

KHALID: Well, the Biden camp is keeping a lot of this very close to the chest. You know, I will say that we've begun to see some of the drama play out in the press recently. And most of the sniping we have seen is aimed at California Senator Kamala Harris. Chris Dodd, who's a former Connecticut senator who is a member of the vice president search committee, reportedly took issue with Harris attacking Biden during a primary debate last year. Some donors also allegedly told CNBC that they thought she was, quote, "too ambitious." That is language that annoyed a number of women, so much so that Biden's campaign manager tweeted out that ambitious women make history.

KING: They sure do. So Biden has committed to picking a woman, but, politically, he's also under some pressure to pick a woman of color, specifically a Black woman.

KHALID: Most definitely, Noel. You know, Black women are a core Democratic voting bloc. And pressure has only increased on him just given some of the racial protests we've seen in the country. Back in May, a group of Black women leaders within the Democratic Party hopped on a conference call and made their pitch for Joe Biden to choose a Black woman directly to him. One of those women who was on the call was LaTosha Brown. She's the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. And on Friday, she released a statement that kind of seemed like a warning shot to Biden's team, saying that, you know, he's in a make-or-break moment and that, quote, "he will not be able to garner the enthusiasm of Black voters without a Black woman running mate, and he cannot win without them." You know, what's noteworthy, though, is that this isn't just about an individual candidate. It's about a broader issue for many of these women.

KING: And then there's another factor here, which is a big one. Joe Biden is going to be 78 on Inauguration Day. How does that factor into who he might pick?

KHALID: You know, really, I will say he has referred to himself as a transitional figure in the party, so it might be more of a focus than we usually see in vice presidential picks.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome.

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KING: Two NASA astronauts splashed down safely into the Gulf of Mexico yesterday.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Splashdown.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As you can see on your screen, we have visual confirmation for splashdown.

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MARTIN: So the last time any NASA astronauts made a water landing was 1975. And back then, they were in an Apollo space vehicle. This time, they were in a capsule owned by a private company, SpaceX, and there were some unexpected twists to the landing.

KING: NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce was watching it. Hey, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: So the story here is they got back safely, but also the story here is a private company got them back to Earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. This test flight was the first time a private space company had taken people to and from the International Space Station. And this mission was also the first time people had been launched into orbit from the U.S. in nearly a decade since NASA retired its space shuttles. So, you know, Bob Behnken and his crewmate Doug Hurley blasted off in May from Florida in a SpaceX Dragon capsule. And they spent two months living and working on board the space station. Then this weekend, they rode back home in the same SpaceX capsule.

KING: And the dope thing here was that anyone could watch their journey back, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. This amazing video was beamed down from the capsule. You could see the astronauts there in these sleek black-and-white space suits monitoring their progress on these large blue touch screens. And there were a few minutes during their reentry, this fiery reentry, which were kind of nerve-wracking, you know, their communications blacked out for a little while - I mean, that was expected, but still. Then they were back in contact. And as they got close, the video feed switched to showing kind of the outside view of their capsule. It looked all scorched from reentry and was falling at around 400 miles per hour. And then these parachutes burst out to kind of slow it down. You could see these four, you know, white-reddish-orange parachutes billowing out and this blue sky and then, you know, splash. There they were in the water, although surprisingly so were a whole lot of private boats.

KING: Were they not expecting the boats? Did they have to navigate around the boats?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No. I mean, of course, there weren't supposed to be boats there. I mean, there was a recovery ship, of course, but the whole area was supposed to be empty for this recovery mission. And the Coast Guard had cleared it before the splashdown. But right after, all these private boats, just sort of like onlookers, showed up and got really close to the capsule bobbing there in the water. So both NASA and SpaceX said, you know, they'll work on making sure that next time the area is more protected. It's one of presumably many things they learned. Remember, this whole thing was a test flight to see if SpaceX could operate what is, in essence, kind of like a taxi service to space. The basic idea is that NASA will let private companies, commercial companies, take over routine flights to and from the space station so that NASA can focus on more ambitious travel like going back to the moon.

KING: So now that SpaceX has done it, what's next? Do they do it again?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. There's more flights planned to the station. The next one's supposed to happen in September. And in the spring, the same capsule is going to be refurbished and reused. And one of the astronauts who's going to be flying on it is Megan McArthur. She's actually married to Bob Behnken, who just came home. So he'll get to tell her what it's like to fly SpaceX.

KING: And no boats this time. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "ORBIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.