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News Brief: Gen. Lloyd Austin, U.K. Vaccinations, Hospitals Are Filling Up

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. This is a really big day in the global fight against this devastating pandemic.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. In 100 years, this one will be in the history books. This morning, the U.K. government started giving people the new coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer.

GREENE: And we have NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt on the line with us. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, David.

GREENE: All right. So the U.K., the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine, now distributing it. I guess the first question is, who's getting it?

LANGFITT: Yeah. The first dose actually came out before dawn here this morning. It was given about 6:30 U.K. time at a hospital in the English city of Coventry. And here's what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGARET KEENAN: All done?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All done.

KEENAN: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

LANGFITT: Now, David, that was Margaret Keenan. She turns 91 next week. And she called it the best early birthday present. The second person, according to the U.K. media, to receive it was in fact a man named William Shakespeare, 81 years old, and British social media referring to it as the taming of the flu.

GREENE: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: But a lot of - I think, you know, a lot of expectation and some excitement here. These are the first of about 800,000 doses that will be coming here, being distributed in the next few weeks. And the first people to get it are going to be people exactly like Keenan and Shakespeare, who are over 80, already in the hospital or coming in for outpatient treatment. The rest will then begin to move to front-line health workers as well. And the reason for this, David, is, as we've been talking about over the last week, is there's a quirk to this vaccine. It's got to be stored at minus 94 Fahrenheit. So you're going to need kind of the infrastructure that hospitals have to be able to make sure it stays fresh and it works. And so that's why it's going to take a while to roll out to nursing homes and into communities. And so that's where things stand at the morning, just getting going.

GREENE: Wow. There has to be some symbolism that Shakespeare gets a vaccine. I don't even know what it is, but it has to be significant somehow.

LANGFITT: It's hard to imagine that was an accident, David. Someone obviously would have recognized the name.

GREENE: I got chills listening to that applause. I mean, what a moment after we've been through so much. But, I mean, we have to talk about the COVID numbers in the U.K. They've been bad. You've gone through some really horrible, deadly times there. What is the situation now, and when could the vaccine actually have an impact?

LANGFITT: Yeah, you're right. I mean, this is still the highest death toll in Europe, and numbers are down. We had a lockdown for about a month in England, and they're now down to about 14,000 cases a day - way down. But there's a fear of a post-Christmas surge, of course, because people will be going to see each other. And there have been people out shopping a lot. People - there were huge crowds outside of Harrods, the London department store, people not wearing masks. But what we think is that it's going to take a while to roll this out. It takes two doses, 21 days apart. And government and other people I've been talking to think maybe - maybe - you turn the corner late spring, early June.

GREENE: And we should say, I mean, there's this big trade deal that the prime minister is trying to work out with the EU this week. Isn't that very related to how difficult it's going to be to get this vaccine into the U.K.?

LANGFITT: Well, I mean, the concern is if there's a no-deal Brexit and you have tariffs, and customs at the border could slow down transportation out of Belgium, where this is being manufactured. But there's talk also of bringing the army in if they have to to airlift it in here.

GREENE: All right, lots to follow, big day in the U.K. NPR's Frank Langfitt from London. Frank, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, David.

GREENE: And let's turn now to the pandemic here in the United States. The Department of Health and Human Services has released data showing starkly just how badly COVID-19 is stressing hospitals in the country.

KING: Yeah. This data is really important. HHS has released COVID-19 data from hospitals before, but this is the first time that it's done so for so many individual hospitals.

GREENE: And we have NPR health reporter Pien Huang with us. She's been looking through the data. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what are you seeing as you look through this?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, the data really spotlights the areas where hospitals are getting dangerously full. It includes reporting on the number of COVID patients and the number of beds they're taking up from individual hospitals. And it covers 2,200 counties across the U.S. And in 126 of those counties, the average hospital is at least 90% occupied. Now, some hospitals do try to operate at pretty high capacity in normal times, but in a pandemic with more and more patients needing hospital care, that's when things get scary. And as my NPR co-reporter Sean McMinn found, the states with the most counties above that 90% threshold include Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and it's impacting both big hospitals and small ones. In Texas, for example, there's a hospital with 250 beds and one with 31 beds. And both of them were above that 90% capacity this past week.

GREENE: I guess in my imagination in a pandemic in, you know, the time that we're in, you'd be able to follow this kind of data so closely from the very beginning to make sure hospitals have enough beds and enough capacity. I mean, why are we only seeing this kind of data now?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, that's a good question. I mean, HHS has been collecting this hospital-by-hospital data since mid-July, and they've been sharing it internally but not publicly. And until now, they've only been releasing state-level data, and they've been getting criticized for that. You know, researchers have been saying it's super important to know what's going on locally. HHS says they decided to release the data now because COVID hospitalizations have increased so much in the past two months. And they say they now think that the people who are responding to the crisis need this information and that the general public does, too. So now with this release, anyone with a computer and Internet access can go to healthdata.gov and see the situation at their local hospitals and other ones around the country.

GREENE: I mean, so it sounds like this has to be seen as a significant victory for people who've been fighting for more data transparency.

HUANG: Yeah. Public health experts have been pushing for more data to be released, and they say it's really something to celebrate. Here's Ryan Panchadsaram. He co-founded the website COVID Exit Strategy.

RYAN PANCHADSARAM: Our hospitals are under so much stress, and so, you know, when we're thinking about how serious we should be taking this crisis, this open data release is helping provide the data that's needed to help people make the right decisions.

HUANG: These are decisions like whether local officials should be imposing mask mandates or stay-at-home orders in their areas to avoid overwhelming hospitals. And for individuals, it could even help them decide to cancel holiday gatherings, for instance, or stay home if they're not feeling well. You know, this hospital data is really important. And it's been the missing piece of public data for a lot of the pandemic. Researchers often talk about the trinity of case data and hospitalizations and deaths. And these are three numbers that give a clear sense of what the situation looks like in a given place.

GREENE: So is this data going to be updated pretty often?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, they expect to actually post a new data set every Monday so you can keep track of how your local hospital is doing every week. And I wanted to also mention that HHS stressed that they don't want this to discourage people from going to the hospital if they need to. They say if you're sick, you should still absolutely seek care.

GREENE: All right, very important advice there. NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Pien, thank you so much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

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GREENE: All right. We turn now to President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to nominate retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary.

KING: If he's confirmed, General Austin would be the first Black American to lead the Pentagon. He's also a man with a very long resume.

GREENE: And let's talk about this choice with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who is here. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what should we know about General Austin?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, as you guys mentioned, he would be the first African American to serve in the role. He retired in 2016 after more than four decades in the military. He had risen to be the former commander of U.S. Central Command, which, of course, is in charge of all military operations in the Middle East. Before that, he was the top commander in Iraq. You know, he's not so well known as he's largely remained out of the limelight. But he has testified before Congress a bunch. He's from Mobile, Ala., and graduated from West Point. When he retired, you know, then-President Obama said General Austin, quote, "had the character and competence that exemplify what America demands of its military leaders."

GREENE: Franco, I want to ask you about this choice of defense secretary in particular because usually defense secretaries who come out of the military have been retired from duty for longer than Austin has, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. By law, it's actually supposed to be seven years before serving as defense secretary. He's been out about four. He's only one of less than a handful of potential nominees to fall out of that time frame. And he would require a waiver from Congress if he's going to get the job. Trump's first nominee, Jim Mattis, actually had to do the same.

GREENE: So what do you know about how Biden reached his decision to choose Austin? I mean, he was certainly considering other people, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, a source familiar with the president-elect's reasoning told me that Biden came to trust General Austin during their time together in, frankly, Situation Room briefings when Biden was vice president and Austin was head of U.S. Central Command. Biden, I was told, also appreciated that Austin knows, quote, "the human costs of war firsthand." Austin emerged as the leading candidate over the course of the past week. But, you know, as you know, to be clear, Biden is also under a lot of pressure to make his Cabinet diverse. And this is part of keeping that pledge. Biden said he wants his Cabinet to look like America, and he's been pushed by, you know, groups like the NAACP and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to choose specific candidates from specific backgrounds. You know, yesterday's announcement was another example of that. Biden said he's picking Xavier Becerra, the former California attorney general who is a son of an immigrant from Mexico, to be his health and human services secretary.

GREENE: I mean, I know the Austin selection just came out last night, so not a ton of time for reaction yet, but what are we expecting the reaction to be?

ORDOÑEZ: No, not a ton, but, you know, General Austin is very well regarded among his colleagues. Former military officials have called him an extraordinary leader and a towering figure. But, you know, we're hearing they're also expressing some concern that he's a general, and some would rather see civilian control. And they don't want the congressional waiver to become the new norm. And that could, frankly, be an issue for some members of Congress as well.

GREENE: Austin has a lot to deal with as soon as he gets into this job, if he's confirmed, doesn't he?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's certainly a different situation than it was during the Obama years when troops surged to around 100,000 in Afghanistan. The numbers are expected to drop to about 2,500 by January. Biden has said he wants to keep just a few thousand. As vice president, he was reluctant to support some increases in troop levels. And it's unclear what Austin's recommendations will be on this front.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you so much.

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

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