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News Brief: COVID-19 Testing, Georgia Shooting, Montana Schools

May 7, 2020
Originally published on May 7, 2020 8:13 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Is it time for states to reopen their economies? President Trump really wants it to happen. But the question is whether or not it's safe.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And there is a way to answer that. You test people - right? - for COVID-19. But are states testing enough people? Well, a Harvard analysis conducted exclusively for NPR suggests the answer broadly is no.

KING: NPR science reporter Rob Stein has the details of that analysis. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what does it show us?

STEIN: It's based on estimates of the size of each state's outbreak, how much testing they're doing and how much testing they'd need to do to keep their outbreaks from, you know, spinning out of control. The Harvard analysis found nine states do seem to be doing at least the bare minimum amount of testing they'd need to reopen. But the other 41 states, plus the District of Columbia, are still not doing enough testing according to this analysis, and many aren't even close. That means it would be super risky to relax those shutdowns to restart their economies.

KING: I know we've asked you this a million times, but it does seem like something that we need to keep repeating. Why is testing so important?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, without enough testing, there's no way to make sure you can spot new infections quickly and keep the virus from roaring back in places where it's under control or, you know, protect places that haven't been hit hard yet because the virus is still out there and most people are still vulnerable. So as states reopen, new infections could easily jump. Here's a Ashish Jha. He runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, which did the analysis with NPR.

ASHISH JHA: As cases really start climbing, hospitals start getting filled up and many, many thousands of people will end up getting sick and dying. And ultimately, I am deeply worried that four, six, eight weeks down the road, we're going to find ourselves in the exact same place we were in in early March, and we will have to shut the economy down again.

STEIN: Now, you know, the amount of testing needed varies from state to state depending on the size of their outbreaks. But some states are starting to relax, you know, like Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, even though they're not doing the bare minimum.

KING: Rob, you said 41 states aren't doing enough testing. What about the nine that are?

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. These nine states look like they're doing the bare minimum testing they need or are very close. They're Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming and West Virginia. But it's important to understand what that means and what it doesn't mean. It means they're doing the minimum amount of testing needed. It doesn't mean everyone who wants or even really needs a test is getting it, not even close. It just means it looks like they could be doing enough testing to keep the outbreak under control if they do try to ease up.

KING: And so does that mean that those nine states could safely reopen at this point?

STEIN: You know, unfortunately, the answer to that is probably not. You know, first of all, testing is far from the only criteria you need for opening up. For example, states have to see a decline in cases for at least two weeks, and testing is just one weapon necessary to keep the virus in check. States also need to have enough health workers to, you, know track down and test all the people who have had any contact with anyone who's infected and might have caught the virus. This analysis is based on the assumption that states have to test at least 10 contacts for every new case, and very few states have anything close to that capacity. Here's Ashish Jha again from Harvard.

JHA: For states that look like they're meeting their goals, I wouldn't take that as too much comfort because the number of cases will start going up. This is not the goal you want to hit and then say, OK, we're good, we're done. This is the goal you want to hit and say, OK, now we can start.

STEIN: You know, start reopening but make sure they continue to ramp up testing and have enough of those contact tracers.

KING: NPR's Rob Stein. Thanks for the reporting, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Two months ago, a 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery went running in a quiet neighborhood in southeast Georgia. At some point, a pickup truck started following him.

GREENE: Inside were two white men, a father and son. They were armed, Arbery was not, and he didn't make it back alive. For two months, this was not widely known. No one has been arrested. Then this week, someone - we don't know who - released a video of the shooting. There've been two straight days of protests in the city of Brunswick where this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice delayed.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice denied.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice delayed.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice denied.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice delayed.

KING: Emily Jones of Georgia Public Broadcasting has been following this story. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What do we know happened?

JONES: So Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog, and Gregory McMichael saw him running by and called his son Travis McMichael. They got their guns, hopped in a pickup truck and confronted Arbery. And then one of the men, Travis McMichael, allegedly shot him.

KING: And they say they shot him. Travis McMichael says he shot him. Why?

JONES: They say there'd been a string of break-ins in the neighborhood and that he'd been captured by security cameras and they were making a citizen's arrest. But one of the organizers of the protests for the last couple days, Travis Riddle, says that that argument doesn't really make much sense.

TRAVIS RIDDLE: What warrants you to take - you to be the judge, the prosecutor and the officer? You convict this man and gave him death before he was even tried.

JONES: And at yesterday's protest, they were actually handing out running bibs that had the hashtag #IRunWithMaud on them because they're really just trying to emphasize that this was a person out for a run like many people do.

KING: This happened two months ago in late February. Why haven't the authorities there done anything?

JONES: That's the major question and source of anger around this case. One reason for it is procedural. Two district attorneys have had to remove themselves from the case because one of the men who confronted Arbery, Gregory McMichael, worked as an investigator in the Brunswick DA's office for more than 20 years. But the protesters and lawyers for the family also say that police were slow to act because McMichael used to work in local law enforcement and still has ties to the police and the DA's office. In fact, the family's lawyer says the whole system in the area is compromised and federal authorities should step in. They've even asked the Justice Department to begin to investigate.

KING: You've been talking to people in Brunswick, Ga. What are they saying about the shooting and about the fallout from it?

JONES: There's been a lot of anger on social media since it happened, but now that the video has come out this week that shows the shooting, it's really inflamed the community. And interestingly, it's really fueled outrage outside the bounds of the usual places. A lot of people across the racial and political spectrum are calling for justice and questioning why the McMichaels were not arrested. But for Arbery's mom, Wanda Cooper Jones, it's personal. And more than two months later, it's still raw.

WANDA COOPER JONES: He had ambitions. I mean, he had plans. Ahmaud was still young. He had dreams that wasn't fulfilled. And he loved life. He loved life.

KING: Emily, do we expect a resolution to this anytime soon?

JONES: That's hard to say. This week, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in, and they're looking into the case, but they say they're asking for patience. They say it could take some time.

KING: Emily Jones is Savannah bureau chief for Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you, Emily.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. A small number of students in Montana will go back to their classes today.

GREENE: That's right. The governor in Montana, Steve Bullock, says they can reopen because the state's coronavirus case numbers have gone down over the past few weeks. We should say President Trump has been urging schools to reopen soon as part of his push to restart the economy. But the president suggested that teachers over 60 years old could stay home.

KING: Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has been watching this one. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: So which schools in Montana are we talking about?

KAMENETZ: We're talking about a very small handful of rural schools that are opening up on a voluntary basis. So in Libby, which is a town that has one middle/high school, students are allowed to come in and meet face to face with teachers in groups with no more than four. And the superintendent Craig Barringer told me he was concerned that the younger students wouldn't be able to come in because they can't maintain that social distance.

CRAIG BARRINGER: It's hard to expect a 7-year-old to, when they see their teacher, not want to give them a hug.

KING: Fair enough. OK. So we're talking about rural places. We're talking about small places. How does this reopening in Montana compare to what's going on across the country?

KAMENETZ: Well, no one else is opening school doors yet. And what I'm seeing is there's really big gaps actually between what state and federal leaders are calling for and what educators themselves think is actually feasible. So, for example, in California, Governor Gavin Newsom said, oh, maybe we could open it up for summer school as soon as July. And then immediately the heads of Sacramento and Palo Alto public schools pushed back and said, you know what? We might actually open later in the fall than we normally do. And similarly in Georgia, obviously, Brian Kemp, the governor, has opened up some businesses. But, in fact, some districts have been ending their school years early and kind of quitting their efforts with remote learning.

KING: President Trump made this comment about schools should reopen but teachers over 60 can stay home because they'd be at risk. You talked to some teachers about that, right?

KAMENETZ: I did. I talked to Larry Ferlazzo. He's a 60-year-old high school teacher in Sacramento.

LARRY FERLAZZO: I mean, I don't see myself as vulnerable or old (laughter) you know, for one, and, you know, teaching - I view teaching as a vocation.

KAMENETZ: So he and other teachers I've heard from say, of course, they're worried about their health. But the idea of being sidelined without having - being able to make a choice is a really big blow. And, you know, we've been hearing from all sides. The American Federation of Teachers, the big teacher union, as well as the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank, have both put out detailed plans for reopening that include a lot as far as where you would need to be with what we're hearing about. You know, you need testing. You need contact tracing, as well as social distancing and lots of hygiene and cleaning.

KING: So there are game plans in place already.

KAMENETZ: Yes. But the more you dig into the details here, the more you just realize how daunting of an effort this is going to be. You know, Randi Weingarten of the AFT called it a logistical nightmare. So, for example, you know, if you have smaller classes, you need staggered schedules. That means you're doing remote learning and - in parallel with in-person classes. And, you know, let's not forget, this is a social and an economic disaster. It's not just learning loss. We've got students being traumatized; some have lost family members. A survey just yesterday showed a huge jump in child hunger. And when schools come back in session, all of this is going to be on their agenda.

KING: Yeah. NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.