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News Brief: Stimulus Bill, Trump And TikTok, Contact Tracing Update

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So if you are out of work and you have lost your $600 a week federal unemployment, you are still waiting to see if more help might come.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lawmakers are in this really tense standoff over how to extend those extra unemployment benefits to more than 30 million Americans. Congressional leaders met with White House negotiators for over three hours last night. And this is what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had to say afterwards.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: I think there is a lot of issues we are close to a compromise position on. But I think there's a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart.

MARTIN: So what are those sticking points? And what does it all mean for workers and the U.S. economy?

GREENE: Well, we have NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley with us this morning. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So a lot of talking but not much advancing, what is happening with this new relief package or potential new relief package?

HORSLEY: As the treasury secretary said, the various factions started out very far apart. You've got Senate Republicans, some of whom don't want to see any additional spending. You've got House Democrats who feel this is their last chance to get a relief bill done this year. So they're not interested in settling for any half measures. And then you've got a White House that's sort of got an agenda of its own. The president continues to talk about using executive powers to stop collecting payroll taxes, which is something neither his congressional allies nor, for that matter, the Chamber of Commerce have expressed much interest in.

GREENE: But so you had millions of Americans who were getting this $600 a week in extra unemployment who are now risking going without that for the foreseeable future. I mean, what does all this mean for them?

HORSLEY: It's obviously a pretty dramatic cut in their spending power. The job search website ZipRecruiter did a survey of job seekers, many of whom are collecting unemployment, and asked what would happen if their jobless benefits were cut by just $400 a week? Of course, in fact, they've been cut by $600 a week. In that survey, three out of four people said they would have to cut back on groceries and other essentials. Forty-one percent said they wouldn't be able to pay their rent. Thirty-eight percent said they would miss a car payment. And almost 1 in 5 said they expected they would have to move. Interestingly, David, only about 2% said they would have taken a job that they otherwise turned down in the last month. So that does sort of poor some cold water on the idea that these benefits were keeping a lot of people from going back to work.

GREENE: Well, Scott, you mentioned a lot of workers using that extra money to buy groceries and do things like that. I mean, isn't there an argument that that was really important money going into the U.S. economy at a time when the economy is so vulnerable?

HORSLEY: I think there's not just an argument, I think there's cold, hard evidence that it was propping up the economy. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the JPMorgan Chase Institute have warned that unless lawmakers replace at least some of the lost $600 a week, we would see a bigger drop in demand than we saw throughout the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

GREENE: Wow.

HORSLEY: So you take the hole we're already in and then dig another big downturn from there.

GREENE: And we're getting new jobs numbers today, right? What are we expecting there?

HORSLEY: Forecasters expect to see slower job growth than we did in June. Of course, in June, we had a blockbuster month for job growth. Businesses added about 4.8 million jobs. That's one reason that congressional Republicans and the White House felt they could take their time with a new relief package. But forecasters expect to see only about a third that many jobs added in July. There are some really ominous warning signs that economic activity slowed as the coronavirus infections picked up. Now, the unemployment rate is expected to tick down just a bit. But it's expected to stay in double digits, which would be higher than we've seen in any previous post-war recession.

GREENE: NPR chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley. Always appreciate talking to you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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GREENE: All right. So the owners of TikTok and WeChat are facing a pretty serious setback here in the United States.

MARTIN: Yeah. President Trump is going after these Chinese-owned mobile apps saying they pose a national security risk. Last night, he issued executive orders that could ban their operations in the U.S. in 45 days. So what's the impact of all that? In particular, what's the reaction in China?

GREENE: And we're going to turn to James Griffiths. He is based in Hong Kong for CNN. He's also the author of "The Great Firewall Of China: How To Build And Control An Alternative Version Of The Internet." So he thinks a lot about this stuff. Hi, James. Thanks for being here.

JAMES GRIFFITHS: Hi. Happy to be with you.

GREENE: So how are these orders from the president last night being viewed in China at this point?

GRIFFITHS: Well, Beijing is not happy, said Friday afternoon here in Beijing that it firmly opposes the Trump administration's orders and also accused Washington of using national security as an excuse. But, you know, this is fairly ironic rhetoric coming from China given that these are pretty much the same justifications that it uses for a lot of its own controls on the Internet.

GREENE: Well, using national security as an excuse, I mean, President Trump making the argument that these apps are a national security risk, I mean, what, if any, evidence exists of that?

GRIFFITHS: Well, there does seem to be some evidence that both of these apps gather a lot of data on users, you know, not necessarily any more than other apps in Silicon Valley, other, you know, social media apps on people's phones gather. But that is a lot of data, I think, probably more than most users would realize is being scraped up on them.

And then the argument is that as a Chinese company, there are obligations under Chinese law. And also, there is a kind of extralegal obligations, you know, pressure that Beijing can bring on these companies if it wants access to that data. And so Washington has argued that given that these companies have all this data and China can, in theory, access it, that might present a national security risk if users such as, you know, government employees or families of government employees are using these apps.

GREENE: So I just think, I mean, about WeChat as an example. I mean, you have people - users in the United States. You have U.S. citizens in China using WeChat. The executive order from the president, I mean, it's really vague, right? Do we know what the impact will be on people who use it?

GRIFFITHS: Yeah. It is very vague. And I think we've already seen quite a lot of concern online, you know, especially from people within the Chinese diaspora in the U.S., a lot of whom use WeChat to talk to their parents or family back home. You know, this could cut off WeChat from users in the States. And that would essentially mean that they can't talk to family back in China because, of course, Beijing, for its part, through the great firewall, blocks pretty much every other messaging app. And so, you know, were WeChat to be cut off from the U.S., that could have major ramifications.

And then for Americans in China, that could also have major repercussions because WeChat is, far more so than any apps we use in the English-speaking world, WeChat is, you know, a super app. It's what people use to pay for things, do mobile payments. It's how people book taxis. You know, it's a million apps in one. And so if Americans are prevented from using this or prevented from paying it or using U.S. bank accounts to connect to it, that could really impact, you know, how they just live their lives in China. And then also for U.S. companies in China, they may find themselves in a bind because many use WeChat for sales and customer service.

GREENE: Could there be a positive here, though, if this forces a lot of those users to turn to apps that might be more secure?

GRIFFITHS: Certainly, one potential silver lining in this is that, you know, these apps, the complaints about them are quite real. The concerns about data gathering, the concerns about potential censorship on WeChat, those are legitimate. And if it forces these apps to address them and if it also acts as a wakeup call for the rest of Silicon Valley to behave better when it comes to data collection, that could be a really positive development for users.

GREENE: James Griffiths with CNN in Hong Kong. James, thanks a lot.

GRIFFITHS: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So the number of coronavirus cases keeps going up. The number of contact tracers is not keeping up.

MARTIN: That's the key finding of NPR's latest survey of contact tracing capacity across the U.S. This is in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin here to tell us more about it. Hi, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK. Let's talk this through. You surveyed all 50 states again - you've done this before - on how many coronavirus contact tracers they have working. What, exactly, did you find here?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the total number barely budged since we last surveyed states. This is the third time we've done the survey. Last time, in mid-June, we found 37,000 contact tracers across the country. This time, six weeks later, just about 42,000. So as a reminder, contact tracers are public health workers. Their job is to call each person who's just tested positive, track down their contacts and then connect both the sick person and those who were exposed with the services they need to be able to safely isolate.

So the real total of contact tracers across the country may be higher because there were five states that didn't respond to us, including New York, which has been public about their push to hire thousands of tracers. But even if the real total is a bit higher, we're nowhere near the number experts calculated we would need to be able to keep transmission at bay. Those estimates were around 100,000 or higher.

GREENE: Wow. Well, the need is really important. And you actually dug into that more. You calculated the number of tracers you would need in each state based on their local transmission. I mean, so what did you find there?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Only four states and Washington, D.C., have enough based on our analysis. And those states are Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. If you count trained reserve staff, three more states have enough - Michigan, Montana and Hawaii. So that is fewer states than had enough when we ran this analysis six weeks ago.

In some places where there are a lot of virus circulating and lots of new cases every day, the number of tracers you would need to be able to keep up is just enormous. In Florida, California and Texas, the calculations suggested each state would need 30,000 contact tracers. So I talked about this with Crystal Watson at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who collaborated with us on the survey. And here's what she said.

CRYSTAL WATSON: It's unreasonable to expect that sort of workforce. What is really needed right now is for political leaders to take action.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The action she's talking about is social distancing measures like stay-at-home orders or business restrictions or even mask mandates. Those kinds of things have the ability to get case counts to a place where contact tracing can be really effective again.

GREENE: Well, can I just ask - if it's not effective, if there clearly aren't enough contact tracers and we have this daunting surge right now in the viruses, is it still worth it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I think that's a big question with a simple answer. And the answer is yes. Even if it's not a silver bullet to control transmission, it still helps not just at the big population level, but at the personal level, too. So if I know I've been exposed and so I stay away from my elderly mom, that could save her life. Those are the stakes. And at this point in the U.S., we can't afford to stop using any possible tools to try to get on top of this pandemic.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks for all this reporting, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.