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News Brief: Ga. Runoffs, COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution, U.K. Lockdown

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Millions of people have already voted in Georgia, and today is their final day.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. They're deciding to Senate runoff elections today. If Republicans win either one of the races, they keep a majority in the Senate. If Democrats win both, it's a 50/50 tie, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker. Now, President-elect Joe Biden told Georgia voters yesterday they can affect everything.

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JOE BIDEN: The power is literally in your hands. Unlike any time in my career, one state - one state - can chart the course, not just for the next four years but for the next generation.

KING: Now, on that point, outgoing President Donald Trump agrees.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Tomorrow, our entire nation is counting on the people of Georgia. In a way, the world is counting on the people of Georgia. The fate of our country is at stake. It's in your hands.

KING: This vote has been overshadowed by the president's baseless and sometimes bizarre attempts to overturn the presidential election.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly of NPR's All Things Considered is in Atlanta and has been talking with voters across the state. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve. Good morning, Noel.

INSKEEP: How did the outgoing president describe his phone call over the weekend where he pushed a Georgia official to, quote, "find" enough votes for him to win?

KELLY: Well, we were listening closely for that, as you can imagine, at this big rally that he did in Dalton last night. He only mentioned that actual call one time, almost in passing. He spent plenty of time, though, slamming Georgia's secretary of state, who, of course, was on the other end of that call. He spent more time on the disputed, untrue claims that we heard him make on that call than he did making the case for why Georgians should turn out and vote today. He talked about fraud. He called what happened in Georgia a crime. Now, we interviewed a bunch of his supporters about the call. We could not find anybody who was particularly bothered. But let me share with you - this is one voice, Trish White. She lives in Ringgold, Ga., which is just up the road from Dalton.

TRISH WHITE: I absolutely love President Trump. And I believe the election was stolen in the state of Georgia - absolutely believe it. Look around. No way Biden won this state - no way.

KELLY: Now, the facts point otherwise, as you know. Biden did win Georgia, but Trish White is one of many, many, many people we met here who does not believe it.

INSKEEP: Well, how are the people who ran Georgia's election responding to the president's phone call?

KELLY: Very differently, Steve. Yesterday, we interviewed the election chiefs for Fulton County and Cobb County. Those are two of the big four counties around metro Atlanta. They're also two of the ones that were mentioned by name by the president on that call. These people are not political appointees. Their offices are nonpartisan. They said they were disheartened. They used the word stunning when we asked them about the Trump tape. And meanwhile, they are in the middle of trying to pull off another vote in the middle of the pandemic - you know, something they are not losing sight of. The Cobb election director, Janine Eveler, told me she is getting emails right and left every day somebody new on her staff just tested positive. So they are flat out trying to make sure they can just keep the polling stations up and running today.

INSKEEP: In this environment where millions of people have already voted - and who knows how many more will vote today, the final day - how much effort are the two parties putting into turnout?

KELLY: They are doing everything. Let me paint you a picture. You land at the Atlanta airport. From the second you leave, you're seeing - it's like every billboard every direction out of town. We spotted one on the highway near the airport - vote your Ossoff. This is a reference to Jon Ossoff, one of the Democrats running for Senate. Another one on Peachtree Street - this is a Kelly Loeffler billboard. She's, of course, one of the Republicans candidates here. Her sign says, save the Senate, save America, so a literal sign there of how her campaign views the stakes.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, is that picture different when we talk about Black turnout?

KELLY: Well, the effort to mobilize Black turnout is huge. Biden only - Joe Biden only won Georgia because of overwhelming support from Black voters. And they are hoping not just to equal but to surpass that effort in this Senate runoff. We turned up at a drive-in get-out-the-vote concert. This is all of us in our cars in this parking lot by the Lakewood Amphitheater - speaking of trying to campaign and hold an election during a pandemic. We met Black Lives - we met Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown.

LATOSHA BROWN: One of the changes - the differences between the general and the runoff is that people didn't know whether Georgia was really, really in play, you know, in the general. It is clear that Georgia is in play now. And so the stakes went up.

KELLY: Georgia is in play. So that is her group's message. Her group's goal would be to get an even bigger turnout from Black voters in Georgia in these Senate runoff races than they got in the general election in November, which would be unprecedented. It would be something.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly of All Things Considered has been reporting from Georgia. We'll hear more from her on All Things Considered this afternoon. Thanks so much.

KELLY: You are so welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK. Until very recently, the big question about the coronavirus vaccine was whether there would be enough doses for everybody.

KING: That, though, is turning out to not be the urgent problem. The Trump administration said 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of last year, but the CDC says fewer than 5 million people have been vaccinated so far. The deal is a lot of states are getting doses of the vaccine faster than they can actually vaccinate people.

INSKEEP: Let's check in on the northeastern United States with Martha Bebinger, who's with our member station WBUR in Boston. Good morning.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How frustrated are public health officials in the Northeast?

BEBINGER: Well, yesterday, Steve, you heard New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he's going to start fining hospitals that don't get vaccines into people's arms fast enough. But, really, many states in the northeast are falling behind with injections as supply picks up. Massachusetts, for example, has injected 40% of the vaccines it has received to date. And one reason is that it just takes longer to give these shots than other vaccines.

INSKEEP: Why would that be, Martha?

BEBINGER: Well, picture your annual flu shot, Steve. You could be in and out of there in less than five minutes.

INSKEEP: Sure.

BEBINGER: But with the coronavirus vaccine, you might spend that five minutes just answering intake questions. And then you may have some questions yourself about the shot. Once you get the shot, you are then monitored for 15 minutes before you leave in case you have some kind of a reaction. So Dr. Asif Merchant, he's a nursing home director near Boston, he said the whole experience took about 30 minutes when he got vaccinated on Saturday. And Dr. Merchant says there just aren't enough vaccinators trained and mobilized for even the early stages of this mammoth project.

ASIF MERCHANT: That's caused much more of a delay than I would have anticipated. I think when it comes to the general public, that is going to be an even bigger problem. We really need all hands on deck here.

BEBINGER: And, Steve, we had an example this past weekend of what happens when delivery is too slow. One vaccinator had thawed more of the Pfizer vaccine than they could use, so they dropped off several hundred extra doses at a Boston hospital system to try to avoid waste.

INSKEEP: Wow. I'm just doing the math here. If it could be a five-minute process, but it's a 30-minute process and you multiply that by millions of people who want the vaccine, this is a problem. And now we have the matter of people needing a second dose starting this week. How does that complicate things?

BEBINGER: Well, it's supposed to be a smooth process where hospitals automatically receive the same number of second doses. But some hospitals say there may be delays. They aren't quite sure when they're going to get the second batch of vaccine vials. And any hiccups like that, of course, make it harder to focus on continuing to vaccinate new people.

INSKEEP: Are people who are distributing these vaccines, administering them, going to catch up to the arriving supply?

BEBINGER: Well, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that he thinks the pace of vaccinations will pick up quickly, but other experts say the timeframe for getting vaccines to the general public by the spring, which is another one of the projections we've heard, that that's just not optimistic. There is about $8 billion for vaccine distribution in the latest COVID relief package, and that's supposed to help local and state health departments ramp up. But, Steve, this is clearly one of the biggest COVID challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: Martha Bebinger of WBUR in Boston, thanks so much.

BEBINGER: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Now, in the U.K., the pandemic is getting even worse.

KING: That's right. And so today, England starts a lockdown. Here's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: With most of the country already under extreme measures, it's clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out.

KING: The new variant that he mentioned, of course, is the one that spreads very quickly, so more people are getting the virus and hospitals are under stress.

INSKEEP: So let's check in with George Parker, the political editor for the U.K.'s Financial Times. Welcome to the program, sir.

GEORGE PARKER: Hello.

INSKEEP: Now, when we say a lockdown in the U.K. at this point, what does that mean? How is normal life changing where you are?

PARKER: Well, basically, the country is about to go into hibernation for seven weeks until the middle of February. The most important thing about the new lockdown is the government will issue a legal stay-at-home order, which basically means you have to stay in your house unless you have a specific reason to leave and that might be to go and get some groceries or get some medicines or go to work if you really can't work at home, so maybe if you're working on a construction site. But schools are closing, and basically the country will and the streets of the capital where I am at the moment, London, will look like a ghost town, essentially, for the next seven weeks.

INSKEEP: I want to be absolutely clear on this because we have had reporting about previous lockdowns where the pub closing times changed from midnight or something to maybe 10 p.m. Are the pubs just absolutely closed this time?

PARKER: Yes, you're right. So in the past, the last lockdown, it was a bit - just everything just felt a little bit more relaxed. You know, as you say, it was still possible to go and get a takeaway drink at the pub and so on. This time, it's going to feel a lot more like the initial lockdown in England back last March, where basically everything is more or less closed. So the pubs will be closed completely. Restaurants are closed. All what they call nonessential retail will be closed - otherwise clothes shops. Sports facilities will close as well. So basically the only things that will be left open will be essential shops like supermarkets and pharmacies. But yes, pubs will be, I'm afraid, one of the first things that we'll notice and that won't be reopening again any time soon.

INSKEEP: I guess I'm now looking for clues to the United States' near future since this new variant that was first identified in the U.K. is spreading, so far as we know, in parts of the United States. We've also, of course, just been through the holidays, as you have. What were the factors that seem to have driven cases higher where you are?

PARKER: Well, I think there were two things. One was, as you mentioned, I think probably the predominant thing is this new strain of the virus, which emerged in the county of Kent, which is on the edge of London, about a month ago in a really serious form. And Boris Johnson, when he was addressing his Cabinet yesterday, showed them graphs where the infection rates were basically pointing straight upwards. So, I mean, it's a very serious health emergency. This disease doesn't seem to have responded to the earlier sort of lighter lockdowns at all. And therefore, the government's decided it's got to close things down. So I think it's that problem, really, the fact that there is this new strain of the virus, which is proving a lot more difficult to control than otherwise had been the case. Also, we had the relaxation of rules over Christmas, which I think is something that Boris Johnson will come to regret. There was - people were allowed to mix with other households over Christmas, the Christmas period. And I think that's exacerbated the problem now. And I think the medical advisers said, don't do it. He did it anyway, and that's made things worse.

INSKEEP: Mr. Parker, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

PARKER: Pleasure.

INSKEEP: George Parker is the political editor for the U.K.'s Financial Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.