Coronavirus Update: CDC Publishes A Report About The Coronavirus Outbreak In Arkansas

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 7:21 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This morning, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared virtually before the Senate Banking Committee. Powell and Mnuchin were due for a check-in on the CARES Act and the state of the economy that's been beaten up by the coronavirus.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio accused the Trump administration of pushing to get businesses to reopen too quickly without offering adequate safeguards for workers.

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SHERROD BROWN: How many workers should give their lives to increase our GDP by half a percent?

KELLY: Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who represents Pennsylvania, countered that stay-at-home orders have already achieved their desired result.

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PAT TOOMEY: The longer that we continue a shutdown - when weeks turn into months - doesn't that necessarily increase the risk that some businesses will fail, some jobs won't be there to go back to?

SHAPIRO: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley join us now to bring us up to date on that and other coronavirus news.

Good to have you both here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Scott, let's start with you. What did lawmakers want to hear from the Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman today?

HORSLEY: This was a chance for senators to ask how the government is spending all that money that Congress has already authorized for pandemic relief and also whether the government needs to spend even more. There were a number of questions about the emergency loan program the Federal Reserve has announced. Most of those programs are not actually up and running yet, but we did hear today that they should be running by the end of this month.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also complained that there aren't a - are not enough strings attached to those loans. She wants a binding requirement that companies that accept the money don't turn around and lay off their employees.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: We're in a situation where 35 million Americans have filed for unemployment. You're in charge of nearly half a trillion dollars. You're boosting your Wall Street buddies, and you are leaving American people behind.

HORSLEY: Now, Secretary Mnuchin disputed Warren's characterization. He says the terms of the loan were worked out with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

SHAPIRO: Turning to you, Richard, today's hearing took place via video conference, which is a smart move, as I understand we're learning more about the hazards of close contact from a report about a coronavirus outbreak in Arkansas back in March. Tell us the story there.

HARRIS: Right. This is another case study of how rapidly and devastatingly this disease can spread. This outbreak started in early March at a church, actually just before national social distancing guidelines came out. The first recognized cases were in the pastor and his wife. The CDC report on this doesn't name the community, but the details line up with an outbreak that got some attention at the time. Here's Pastor Mark Palenske speaking about the first death from the outbreak in Greers Ferry, Ark., on radio station KFFB back in late March.

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MARK PALENSKE: If you came to First Assembly - and probably a lot of you have - you were greeted by Bill at the door. Bill is - was 91 years old, has been at that door for years and years. We are heartbroken, literally, over his death. And I - it just kind of tells you how serious this is.

HARRIS: And that's exactly the point the CDC is making with its report.

SHAPIRO: So that was in late March, you said. What's happened since then?

HARRIS: Well, the CDC and the Arkansas state health department did extensive contact tracing and found that the disease had spread rapidly. Apparently, the pastor and his wife got infected during an event for children. And as soon as they started feeling unwell, he closed the church, but it was too late. The CDC investigation found that as of April 22, there have been 61 cases. Eight people ended up in the hospital, and four people died. Most were from the church but not all.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So what's the larger lesson here?

HARRIS: Well, the CDC points out that in this case, the illness started to spread before people were even aware of their symptoms. It's also a reminder of the risk of close contact. On the plus side, it also shows that a community was quite willing to cooperate with disease detectives, and health officials said that helped them in their investigation.

SHAPIRO: OK. So contact tracing like what you've just described in Arkansas is a big part of the plan to reopen the economy, but more relief spending might also be necessary. Scott, turning back to you, what did Fed Chairman Jerome Powell say about that today?

HORSLEY: Yeah, this is a point the central bank chairman has been making repeatedly in recent days. He says while the U.S. economy will eventually recover from the pandemic, it could take a long time - maybe till the end of next year, for example. And as a result, he says businesses and families might need more economic help from the government to tide them over and prevent what should be a steep but temporary downturn from deteriorating into a much more long-lasting problem.

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JEROME POWELL: What Congress has done to date has been remarkably timely and forceful. I do think we need to take a step back and ask, over time, is it enough?

HORSLEY: Powell clearly thinks more help might be needed. And while he is reluctant to tell lawmakers exactly what to do, he did suggest they be ready. He also said the Fed is ready to do more on its part to help as well. Now, Powell was asked, for example, about aid for state and local governments, which have already seen big holes in their budgets. He pointed out that those local governments employ a lot of people. They provide important services. And unlike the federal government, they have to balance their books, so they can't just run deficit when the economy goes downhill.

SHAPIRO: Powell is, of course, a Republican appointee. Before this pandemic, he was a fiscal conservative. How is his advice being received on Capitol Hill?

HORSLEY: You know, the Fed chairman's generally well-regarded. He's won praise for his independence, and he is pretty careful to stay in his lane. But even with his urging, Senate Republicans don't appear to be in any big hurry to take up another pandemic relief bill. They have dismissed the $3 trillion package that the House passed last week. And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said today he wants to assess what's been done already, consider what's worked and what hasn't. And he says he and his GOP colleagues will discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks - so nothing on the immediate horizon.

SHAPIRO: Just to change gears a bit, Richard, I want to ask you about a study out today showing that hospitals at a major medical provider in Northern California have noted a sharp drop in the number of heart attack patients. What's the story there?

HARRIS: Right. Well, similar trends have been noted in Italy and Spain. But, you know, it's probably not good news. Doctors suspect that people are actually afraid of going to the hospital when they have symptoms of a heart attack. Dr. Matt Solomon at Kaiser Permanente of Northern California is co-author of a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. And he says maybe the aggressive shelter-in-place rules in the Bay Area have helped some health benefits, but he doubts that explains the decline in heart attack patients in the hospital.

MATT SOLOMON: There's no intervention that we know of that can reduce the heart attack rate by 50%. We've never seen that. And if you look at other types of national emergencies, like earthquakes or terrorist attacks, heart attack rates actually go up.

HARRIS: Right, so his message is simple. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, like chest pain and shortness of breath, you are best off calling 911 and getting to a hospital. He says it's much riskier to stay home in that circumstance.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Thank you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.