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News Brief: Rural Vaccination Rate, Fla. Suspends COVID Rules, Justice Breyer

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, President Biden plans to announce targeted steps to try and get more people vaccinated.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. About 32% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but it has been going more slowly recently. Rural America is worrying for two reasons. No. 1, access can still be difficult. And No. 2, demand for the vaccine is taking a dive. Yesterday, though, President Biden said things are getting better.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have expanded access to vaccinations to familiar places, 40,000 drugstores now, also all of the community health centers that are available all across the nation. Mobile units are going out, and it's getting better and better and better.

MARTIN: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith has the details this morning. Tam, thanks for being here.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: You've got exclusive information on the president's plan. What's he going to announce?

KEITH: Yeah, the White House wants to see more local doctors delivering shots. So the administration is asking states to give more vaccines to doctors offices, especially in vulnerable areas with limited access to health care, like rural communities. And they're also trying to sign up family doctors and pediatricians to give shots, something that an administration official told me will be particularly critical if the Food and Drug Administration gives the OK for adolescents to start getting vaccinated. After all, some of the most influential people in communities are local doctors and nurses and friends and family who work in the health care system.

MARTIN: Yeah. So let's talk about the problems, the slow going of the vaccine rollout in rural areas. It's been problematic in parts of the country.

KEITH: Yeah, and I got early access to a survey conducted by the National Rural Health Association and a group called Chartis. They reached out to rural hospital executives to get an idea of what share of their own employees are getting vaccinated. And the results have these folks worried - 30% of these executives said less than half of their staff had taken the COVID vaccine. Now, keep in mind, health care workers have been eligible for vaccination for months now since late last year. I spoke with Jeff Tindle, who's a CEO at Carroll County Memorial Hospital in Missouri. His hospital serves a town of about 4,000 people. He said only 59% of his staff are vaccinated at this point, and he really doesn't have much hope of that number growing dramatically.

JEFF TINDLE: I made every single decision with the start and the end of those decisions, how can I protect my employees the most? Every decision. And yet, you know, I want them to kind of help meet me halfway and let's protect you and your families and - 59%.

MARTIN: I mean, Tam, that's really hard. How can these health care workers encourage other people to get the vaccine when they themselves aren't doing it, right?

KEITH: That is the concern. And he's really beside himself. But, you know, there are other hospitals in rural areas that are having a lot of luck. I spoke to folks at Memorial Hospital in Mt. Washington Valley in New Hampshire. They're currently at 78%. Their success they attribute to a local doctor who wrote a letter to everyone on staff that swayed a lot of people early on and a series of Zoom sessions they held for staff led by doctors, where they just left a lot of time to answer questions.

MARTIN: So how is the White House going to fix this issue when the health care workers are reticent?

KEITH: Yeah, and they know that these doctors are trusted local leaders and they need them for their vaccination plans. Here's Bechara Choucair, the White House vaccinations coordinator.

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Obviously, there are still some pockets and issues around vaccine confidence, and we have to continue to work on that, whether in the health care space or in the general communities overall.

KEITH: But generally, he's accentuating the positive because they don't want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of resistance. He told me polling has found most rural residents do plan to get the shot even if the rates are lower than in urban and suburban areas.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: So Florida is calling it quits on masks and social distancing.

KING: Yes. Governor Ron DeSantis signed an order yesterday that canceled COVID-related restrictions for the entire state. Now, that includes individual county and city mandates requiring face masks and rules limiting capacity in public places. Fewer - we should note, fewer than half of Florida's eligible residents are fully vaccinated at this point.

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RON DESANTIS: I think that's the evidence-based thing to do. I think the fact...

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MARTIN: DeSantis says the Sunshine State is no longer in a state of emergency. NPR's Greg Allen is with us from Miami. Good morning, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Not in a state of emergency - so does that mean the pandemic is over in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, let's talk about the numbers here. Yesterday, there was more than 3,000 cases again. That's very typical. Cases are still staying high. We had 41 additional deaths. But DeSantis is saying that he believes that because the vaccine is now available to anyone who wants it, there's no reason to keep imposing restrictions on individuals and businesses, you know, and he's not alone. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all recently announced that they would end most COVID restrictions in two weeks.

MARTIN: DeSantis hasn't been a big fan of the COVID restrictions from the beginning. So are there that many rules to roll back?

ALLEN: Well, Florida doesn't have a statewide mask mandate, for example, but many cities and counties have had them. They're following CDC guidelines. Many areas were requiring masks to be worn inside or outside in crowds. DeSantis' is new order invalidates all those mask requirements.

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DESANTIS: If we have widespread vaccinations that are over 99% effective, what's the evidence basis to force somebody to wear a mask or any of these restrictions?

ALLEN: He says the order is just about government regulations and doesn't apply to businesses. But he also has an order that prevents the use of so-called vaccine passports. Under that order, people can't be denied service because they won't share information about whether or not they're vaccinated. And that, of course, has implications for cruise lines, which are still trying to get restarted here.

MARTIN: DeSantis is saying you don't need COVID restrictions because the vaccines are out there. Everyone's eligible. But as we noted in the top, I mean, the vaccination rates in Florida still are low, right?

ALLEN: Yes. And they seem to be slowing down now as they are nationally. Just over 42% here statewide have received at least one dose. That's behind the national average. Although he encourages everyone to get the vaccine, DeSantis says repeatedly that he believes it's a matter of individual choice and his opposition to vaccine passports sends that message that it's OK not to be vaccinated.

MARTIN: So what are local Florida officials saying about the changing of the rules? Because this affects the decisions that cities themselves have made, right?

ALLEN: Right. They find themselves on the front lines here, as always, in these kind of situations, and they're angry about it. Miami-Dade's mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, for example, said her area is still in a public health emergency, and there are new variants spreading. DeSantis has said repeatedly that he believes the extended COVID lockdowns and closure of schools were disasters that shouldn't be repeated. He's also now signed a law that allows local officials to impose emergency measures just for a week at a time and for six weeks total. And the governor can override those orders any time going forward. So local officials, many of them are Democrats, are saying that this is hypocritical, a power grab. Republicans have long been champions of local control, of course, and they've long said they believe local officials should decide what's best for the communities. But this turns that principle on its head. Here's St. Petersburg's mayor, Rick Kriseman.

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RICK KRISEMAN: And it's about the state trying to wrestle control and take control away from local government, the people who are closest to the people who elected them to make the decisions about what's best for our community.

ALLEN: You know, the battle of preemption, the state taking authority away from local governments, is one we've seen here and many other states around the country. And this law will likely face a court challenge.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen reporting from Miami. Greg, thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. To the U.S. Supreme Court now, where Justice Stephen Breyer has long been a liberal vote.

KING: Yeah. For 30 years, he's voted for things that have also been Democratic priorities, like reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. But that long tenure, those 30 years, are why some progressives want him to step down.

MARTIN: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been talking with some of them, and she joins us this morning. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Breyer is a liberal justice, and Democrats are calling for his retirement. Can you explain what's going on here?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Yeah. Well, Justice Breyer has been on the court for nearly 30 years now. He was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1994. And these groups are saying, look, we very much respect you, Justice Breyer. These are some Democrats, some progressive groups saying we like you, we like the way you voted, but also we don't know how long we're going to have the Senate, and Democrats only have the Senate by the narrowest possible majority right now. So they're saying, look, please step down because we want to safeguard particular rights that we believe in. For example, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, voting rights. Listen, these Democrats have been stung by President Trump's three nominations, one of which was delayed because Senate Republicans wouldn't hold hearings for Merrick Garland back during Obama's presidency. So there's politeness in these calls but also some urgency.

MARTIN: OK. So just to say it plainly, he's very old, and they would like President Biden to have a chance to nominate someone who is younger who would have the chance to sit on the court for a long time.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, absolutely. Some of these calls are from progressive interest groups like Women's March. There's another group called Demand Justice, which advocates for Supreme Court reform. They sent a truck driving around the Supreme Court at one point last month with a sign on it that said Breyer retire - a bit of a stunt there. But look, you do have a little bit of talk about this on Capitol Hill. New York Democratic Representative Mondaire Jones openly called for Breyer to retire in an interview last month. And some of these calls are a little more muted. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told The Washington Post last month that, as he put it, elections have risks and that he hopes Breyer is, quote, "aware of that risk and that he sees it accordingly." Now, also to be clear here, the White House is staying out of this publicly. Jen Psaki, press secretary, said that President Biden feels it is totally Breyer's choice.

MARTIN: These justices can serve for life. They're supposed to be protected from political pressure from outside groups. Do these calls for Breyer to step down even matter?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, that's a great question. I did speak to Neil Eggleston. He was a White House counsel for President Obama. And he said that during his tenure, he considered reaching out to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to talk to her about retiring, but he decided not to. Here's what he said.

NEIL EGGLESTON: It's a little unseemly for a White House to suggest to a justice that they should retire and that the White House didn't have any information that Justice Ginsburg didn't already have. And so I just decided she would decide what she thought was appropriate.

KURTZLEBEN: And so he thinks something similar is probably going on with Breyer, that he's a smart guy, he knows what the political game board looks like. So we're going to be watching for the end of the term in June.

MARTIN: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, thanks. We appreciate you.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.