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News Brief: Coronavirus Pandemic, Biden Transition, Census Court Case

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. has seen more than 13 million documented cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and we're now adding more than 150,000 new cases every day.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And experts are warning of another surge in cases after millions of Americans ignored the CDC's plea to just stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci over the weekend on ABC's "This Week."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

ANTHONY FAUCI: We may see a surge upon a surge. You know, we don't want to frighten people, but that's just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and as we began traveling, and they've happened. It's going to happen again.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, public health experts say it is possible to open schools if certain precautions are taken. We're going to talk about all this with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So here we are after the Thanksgiving holiday. Just give us the big picture at this moment. Where are we?

AUBREY: It's a pretty dire picture around the country, Rachel. Los Angeles County is under a stay-at-home order beginning today. Many places are tightening restrictions. The U.S. is averaging 1,500 deaths per day. That's about a death every minute. And there are now more than 91,000 people hospitalized with COVID. Over the past month, hospitalizations have doubled.

Judy Guzman-Cottrill - she's a physician at Oregon Health & Science University - she says hospital resources around the country are stretched thin.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: You know, it's just so worrisome - really, frankly, a scary situation for doctors and nurses to be in to know that if more people come in sick with whatever their sicknesses who need emergency health care are all going to be delayed.

AUBREY: And some hospitals, of course, have already started to postpone or reschedule elective procedures.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to get my head around a death every minute, Allison. That is just so hard to absorb. Public health experts warned Thanksgiving could be this massive superspreader event. When are we going to know if that's true?

AUBREY: The incubation period for the virus is two to 14 days, but most people who get sick develop symptoms about five or six days after exposure. I spoke to former CDC director Tom Frieden about this.

TOM FRIEDEN: So if there was a lot of spread around Thanksgiving, we'll be seeing that around a week or two or three into December and onward. Unfortunately, we have far too much spread in the United States. And because of that, December is likely to be a hard month.

AUBREY: And if you did travel, experts say it would be wise to limit your exposure to others over these next two weeks, Rachel, in case you were exposed.

MARTIN: Right. So let's move to the school issue because New York City has - I mean, they've had a time, right? They were open, and they were closed. Now Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that some public schools in the city are going to reopen next week. What's going on?

AUBREY: Yeah, it's certainly a shift. Not all schools are reopening now. New York will start with elementary school students. But there is quite a bit of pressure on school systems to open given the toll that closures have on learning, also on kids' mental health. And a growing number of public health experts say it is the right thing to do if - and this is a big if - communities take other steps to slow the spread. Anthony Fauci outlined the approach yesterday on ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

FAUCI: So if you mitigate the things that you know are causing spread - the bars, the restaurants - those are the things that drive the community spread, not the schools.

AUBREY: And in fact, in England, Rachel, where they've aimed to keep schools open but closed pubs and restaurants, the number of new daily cases has declined on average in recent weeks, so there's some evidence that that strategy can help.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right, appears President-elect Joe Biden's transition is accelerating this week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Biden and his team now have more access to federal agencies. And today, the president-elect will start getting the presidential daily briefing.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, the incoming administration keeps staffing up. Some high-profile appointments were announced over the weekend. And we've got NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us to walk through those with us. Hi.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, so last night, Biden named seven people to senior White House communication roles, all of them women. Tell us more.

LIASSON: All of them are women - very diverse group of women. Kate Bedingfield will be the communications director, same role as she played in the campaign. Obama veteran Jen Psaki will be the press secretary. Karine Jean-Pierre will be the deputy press secretary. Symone Sanders, who also was on the campaign - spokesman for Kamala Harris.

First time ever that all the top aides who will speak in public for the president are women, and several of them are women of color. These were the backbone constituencies of the Biden victory. And Joe Biden, perhaps making a pointed contrast with Trump, has said that communicating truthfully is one of the president's most important duties. So presumably, these are the people who are going to be doing that. And compared to Trump, we may see more of them, relatively, and relatively less of Biden.

MARTIN: OK, also, NPR has confirmed a couple of more names for Biden's economic team.

LIASSON: That's right. Our colleague Franco Ordoñez has confirmed The Wall Street Journal's reporting that Neera Tanden will be nominated as the director of Office of Management and Budget. She is the president of the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank. She's a veteran adviser to Barack Obama and to Hillary Clinton. She is controversial, already some Republicans in the Senate saying they don't want to confirm her. A spokesman for Senator John Cornyn of Texas says, quote, "zero chance of confirmation." There are many reasons that they disagree with her.

Also, the Republicans are determined to deny confirmation to at least one of Biden's picks. That usually happens. And Biden will have more names of his economic team out this week. He has said that getting the economy out of recession, solving the pandemic, which he sees as one of the same things, is his top priority.

MARTIN: President Trump still hasn't recognized Joe Biden's victory, the president-elect. Trump gave a long interview to Fox News yesterday - again, the same themes, railing about voter fraud, which isn't true, repeating baseless allegations. The window for President Trump's efforts to change the outcome of the election is closing, right?

LIASSON: The legal window is certainly closing. There were two lawsuits in Pennsylvania - one in federal court on Friday, one in state supreme court on Saturday - that were tossed out. They were trying to overturn the election results in that state. Wisconsin completed the recount of two counties yesterday. Biden's lead just grew there by 87 votes. Trump's team says the next stop is the Supreme Court, although it's not clear that the Supreme Court will be willing to overturn the results of an election that so many lower courts have found to be free and fair.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right, so speaking of the Supreme Court, the Trump administration is back before the highest court in the land to argue over the 2020 census.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You might remember that Trump lost an attempt to add a citizenship question to this year's forms. This time, Trump wants to make an unprecedented change to who is included in a key census count.

MARTIN: The president is trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state gets. So the census is really important. That could have major implications for what the next Electoral College map looks like. We've got NPR's census reporter Hansi Lo Wang with us. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Remind us what the Trump administration's case is here. How do they justify wanting to exclude these people from the census?

WANG: Well, despite 230 years of interpreting the Constitution census requirements to mean that people living in the U.S., regardless of immigration status, should be included, the Trump administration is trying to argue that according to a Supreme Court ruling from 1992, the president has discretion, the administration says, to decide who is counted in the census numbers that determine each state's share of votes in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

But three lower courts have unanimously ruled the president's limited authority over the census does not allow Trump to violate federal law that requires the president to hand off to Congress for certification census apportionment counts that are based on the whole number of persons in each state, just as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution also requires.

You know, it's important to keep in mind here that even if the Trump administration can convince enough justices at the Supreme Court during oral arguments today that Trump does have some discretion, the president still has major practical barriers to trying to make this unprecedented change.

MARTIN: Like what? I mean, what are those barriers?

WANG: First, Trump may not get the numbers that he wants to change before his term ends. The Census Bureau recently found out that it has what it's calling processing anomalies in the census results. That means it needs to run more quality checks on information that it's collected. And I've confirmed that internally at the Census Bureau.

The bureau is not planning to release the first set of numbers until after Inauguration Day. So it's looking like the process for reapportioning House seats, Electoral College votes - that will take place during the Biden administration. Plus, Trump officials have said they still have not finalized how they will come up with a state-by-state count of unauthorized immigrants that could be subtracted from the census numbers.

MARTIN: So, Hansi, you have been tracking so many lawsuits over this year's census, have been covering this story doggedly from the beginning. Can you explain how all of this controversy - how is it going to affect the actual census results, because eventually there will be census results, right?

WANG: That's what everyone's hoping for. And, you know, the big question is how accurate those results will be, especially one that was upended by the pandemic. The Trump administration also cut short the time for counting and running quality checks. So I'm watching for more lawsuits challenging results once they come out.

But the question is, when will they come out? We don't know exactly when states will find out if they've gained or lost any congressional seats. We also don't know when states will get the census data they need to redraw voting districts. And any major delays with that could disrupt the timing of some state and local elections next year.

MARTIN: NPR census reporter Hansi Lo Wang with this update. Again, the U.S. Supreme Court hears the Trump administration's challenge to the U.S. census today. Hansi, thanks.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.