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News Brief: U.S. COVID-19 Cases, Eviction Bans Expire, Hong Kong Arrest

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is the first country in the world to surpass 5 million people diagnosed with COVID-19.

NOEL KING, HOST:

It's yet another record set by this country. So where do we stand? Some places like New York have gotten the virus down to low levels. But public health officials are warning about potential new hotspots in the West and Midwest. And people in every state, obviously, are debating how to start school in a couple weeks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here with a status update. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note 5 million cases is a cumulative number over many months - 160,000 deaths another cumulative number, also a record. But in what direction are we heading right now?

AUBREY: Well, nationwide new cases appear to be plateauing or even declining in some places. But keep in mind, Steve, cases have nearly doubled since the end of June.

INSKEEP: Wow.

AUBREY: I mean, that's kind of staggering to think about. And to put this 5 million milestone in perspective, Brazil is at 3 million cases. India is at 2 million. So we have a lot of virus here. And we have a lot of deaths, a little more than a thousand deaths a day. That's about 40 people an hour. Coronavirus is on track to be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. this year behind cancer and heart disease.

INSKEEP: You know, Allison, I want to note there was a time in the spring when officials were hoping to hold this to 60,000 dead. That was disastrous, but they were hoping only 60,000 dead. Now we're at 160,000.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: And people are still dying, you said, at a thousand a day. Where are we heading?

AUBREY: Well, some models predict the death toll could reach about 300,000 by the end of the year. I mean, it could be less. But it depends on what we do, Steve. So people need to stay vigilant in social distancing and masking. And many experts say we need to change our testing strategy. I mean, testing has dogged the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic. As you know, it continues to be a real problem. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He spoke on "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: And we need to implement more low-cost tests, tests that can be done at the point of care or at the point of school or work. There's going to be a saliva test that's hopefully coming on the market, going to get an authorization from FDA in the next week. And that will provide more access to testing. But right now, we don't have the testing available to implement the kind of oversight that we'd like.

AUBREY: Now, ideally, teachers would be tested as they return to work - students, too. We know kids get infected. And according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that's just out, nearly 100,000 kids tested positive in the last few weeks of July. That's an increase. And many are from states hardest hit by the pandemic. So this is a concern.

INSKEEP: Scott Gottlieb said something there about hopefully being better, new testing. How would they be different?

AUBREY: Well, there are a number of faster alternatives. The diagnostic tests we've been relying on, Steve, are very accurate, but they can be expensive and time-consuming. I spoke to Marty Burke at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has helped to develop one of the saliva tests, which is actually being used on his campus now. In fact, it's going to be mandated. You don't have to swab yourself. You hand over a sample of saliva, and you get the results back in hours.

MARTY BURKE: So our average is about three to six hours. That's absolutely the key. You know, if you don't get results back for one, you know, or two days beyond that, it's pretty much useless. And so in contrast, if you get your results back in hours, you can quickly isolate individuals - right? - who are tested positive. And then this has - can have a very large positive impact on mitigating disease spread. So fast and frequent is the key. And that's why we focus so much on that.

AUBREY: So they're going to be testing everyone on the campus two times per week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Millions of Americans are in danger of losing their homes over the next few months.

KING: That's right. We've had federal and state bans on evictions that were put in place after COVID-19 wrecked the economy, but they are lapsing right now. Over the weekend, President Trump said his administration would take all lawful measures to stop evictions. But as always, we have to note that the president frequently says he will do things and then doesn't do them.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jim Zarroli is here with a reality check. Hi there, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Who is affected by the end of these eviction moratoriums?

ZARROLI: Oh, you know, a huge number of people are affected. You know, Congress banned evictions on a lot of rental properties back when the pandemic struck first. A lot of states did the same thing. Now these bans are expiring. And this is happening at a time when employment benefits are being cut back. So you're going to see a lot of people who cannot pay rent, and they're no longer protected against eviction. And different people, different groups that have studied this say of the 110 million Americans who live in rental housing, at least 30 million are at risk of eviction by the end of September.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK. We did mention the president made a promise. He frequently doesn't follow through on his promises. But suppose he does. What is he actually proposing to do?

ZARROLI: Yeah, well, the executive order that he signed over the weekend says he wants his administration to take all lawful measures to help renters. He wants the Treasury Department and the Health and Human Services Department to try to identify possible funds to help renters. But for now, he isn't providing any more funds. And he isn't reinstating the eviction ban because that has to be done by Congress.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the president really can't do very much in this situation. It's up to somebody else if anything is to be done. Well, given the reality of the situation, then, what are housing advocates saying?

ZARROLI: They say it's a huge crisis just waiting to happen. I mean, they want Congress to come up with some kind of rental assistance. They want the ban on evictions to be reinstated. And this won't just help tenants. A lot of small landlords are struggling because people can't pay their bills. We are already seeing evictions mounting in some places. One of them, for instance, is Florida. You can be evicted normally within days in Florida. I talked to an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in Orlando. And he says evictions were on hold for a few months. Now the ban is lifted, and he's seeing a lot of new evictions being processed.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from renters, Jim?

ZARROLI: I talked to several people who are worried about being evicted. One of them was Cruz Dolores Santos (ph). She's a single mother with three school-age kids.

CRUZ DOLORES SANTOS: I don't know what's going to happen, and if they're going to kick me out of my apartment. And that's something hard. You know, you can't hardly even sleep sometimes.

ZARROLI: She was out of work for months. Then in early March, she found a job. After two weeks, the store where she worked shut down. And she's behind on her rent. I also talked to Kristi McDaniel (ph) in Biddeford, Maine. She was able to pay her rent because of the increased federal employment benefits. But now they've run out, and she isn't sure what the future holds.

KRISTI MCDANIEL: It's not an immediate concern. Like, I have enough that I know I can pay rent next month. But after that, it starts to become very precarious.

ZARROLI: So a lot of people are looking at this and really worried about the future.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jim Zarroli. Jim, thanks so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The news media in Hong Kong have traditionally enjoyed freedom of the press. They might face pressure from mainland China from time to time. But the principle of one country, two systems allowed space for vigorous reporting.

KING: Yeah, but there was a scene in Hong Kong today that illustrates how much has changed. More than 200 police officers raided a prominent newspaper. They arrested the founder, a guy named Jimmy Lai. He is one of the few Hong Kong corporate leaders who supports a pro-democracy movement. Here he is talking to NPR last October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Is this a winnable fight?

JIMMY LAI: Well, let's put it this way. If we don't fight, we will lose everything. We will lose the rule of law. We will lose the human right. We will lose the way of life that we're used to. We will lose, you know, the freedom we have. But if we fight, that might - you know, there may be a chance. There may be a miracle.

INSKEEP: That's the publisher authorities led away today under a new national security law. NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is Lai being arrested for?

FENG: He's being arrested for collusion with foreign forces, which is one of these very vaguely defined crimes now punishable by up to life in prison under this new national security law. An aide of Lai's tells me his two sons were arrested today, as well. They're among seven people linked to Lai, including Lai himself, who were arrested this morning, all for collusion with foreign forces and also intent to defraud.

Lai is the founder and chairman of Next Digital, which is a big media conglomerate. It owns one of the most famously pro-democratic newspapers in Hong Kong. And the manner in which he was arrested today was truly astonishing. About 200 police officers entered Lai's building. They paraded Lai handcuffed in his own office. And then police rifled through reporters' desks and finally sealed off the newsroom.

INSKEEP: Wow. I guess at least we do know this because other news media are reporting it. So Hong Kong news media are still doing what they can. But what really made Jimmy Lai a target?

FENG: He is one of the most visible critics of Beijing. And he has this media business, which he funded himself through which he resolved he would help uphold Hong Kong's civil liberties. This year, he's continued to show up at protests and continued getting arrested. And he's someone who commands unique respect across the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong because he's part of this older generation of activists. That's why he's such a high-profile target.

INSKEEP: Oh. So many of the people out in the streets were younger people. This is a guy who made his life in Hong Kong, made his fortune in Hong Kong and wanted to give back in a way.

FENG: Right. He's 71 years old. And he said today, I came to Hong Kong with two empty hands. Hong Kong gave me everything. And this is one way I can give back to Hong Kong.

INSKEEP: Well, now that he's in custody what does that show about how authorities mean to use this national security law?

FENG: It gives us an idea about how broadly the law will be applied. Hong Kong's officials and Beijing officials will say this national security law only applies to a small subset of people. But instead, we've seen now three waves of arrests. And with the arrest of Lai, this has been a massive blow to Hong Kong's press corps. Some are saying this is the end of free press in Hong Kong.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for the update.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng, reporting today from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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