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News Brief: CDC Guidelines, Venezuelans Protected Status, Opioid Settlement

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is now safe for fully vaccinated people to meet together indoors.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The CDC says if you're fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you can gather together in small groups with other vaccinated people or people who are at low risk of severe disease. And you can do it without masks or physical distancing - news every grandparent in America took immediate note of. For the first time since COVID-19 upended life in this country, some leading public health voices now say the worst of the pandemic may be behind us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to explain. Rob, the worst may be over a year into this. I feel like you are about to play a really, really mean practical joke on me.

STEIN: No, no. Well, you know, I checked in with more than 20 epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and public health officials that I've been talking with throughout the pandemic, and it's been striking. Most are saying that, not everyone but most. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: To be able to say, I think cautiously optimistic that the worst may be behind us - boy, that does feel really good.

STEIN: Now, there are three big caveats - if everyone doesn't let down their guard too fast, if the variants don't mess things up and if the vaccination campaign doesn't stumble.

DETROW: So those are obviously big and really important ifs. But if they do happen, can you walk us through what the next few months could look like?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The number of people getting infected, sick and dying would slowly but pretty steadily continue dropping from here on out because of the vaccines, the fact that a chunk of the country already has some immunity, the weather's getting warmer, which will slow the virus, and life could slowly but steadily return to something much more normal. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: If all goes well, if we stick by the public health measures, if we effectively vaccinate, I think we are looking at a brighter future over the next several months. That's entirely conceivable and probably likely.

STEIN: You know, Scott, you can already see the first hints of this with the new CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people. The CDC says they can start hanging out inside without masks with other vaccinated people, even with unvaccinated people who are at low risk. Here's Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington. He says by the summer, a lot more people will be eating out, taking vacations.

ALI MOKDAD: We will see more grandparents visiting and hugging their grandchildren. More restaurant will open. We would see sport events, weddings, church and religious events.

STEIN: Now, you know, hot spots could flare up, but things could mostly keep going in the right direction.

DETROW: I mean, you're talking about things people have been thinking about for more than a year now.

STEIN: Yeah, I know.

DETROW: Let's just get to that last big one for so many people with kids in school. What could schools look like in the fall?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, schools should be pretty safe by next fall. Kids will probably still be wearing masks. But the hope is no more slogging through school on laptops at the kitchen table for most kids. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins. She's also feeling optimistic. Her son is 7 years old.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Seven-year-olds aren't meant to spend their entire days on the computer. They need to interact with their classmates. They need to learn how to, you know, not talk when the teacher is talking and not just because the mute button's on.

STEIN: You know, the virus could surge again in the winter. But hopefully it won't be anything like what the country's just been through and the virus won't be gone. New variants could emerge. So we may need new versions of the vaccines, booster shots, but life could look a lot more like normal life by the end of the year.

DETROW: Rob, thank you very much for this report.

STEIN: You bet, Scott.

DETROW: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

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DETROW: The Biden administration is extending temporary protected status to Venezuela.

MARTIN: So this means hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled the political and economic turmoil in their home country can now legally remain and work here in the U.S. The order affects more than 300,000 people, many of whom currently live in Florida.

DETROW: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now with more. Good morning, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So what does this order mean for Venezuelans living in the United States without this status?

ALLEN: Well, you know, Venezuelans have been coming here for more than well over a decade fleeing the economic and political turmoil back there in their home country. Those who've come here on visas like student and tourist visas that expired have long been in limbo. You know, they're unable to work, and they can't really return home safely, they feel. So under this program, they can now legally remain here and apply for work permits. It applies to people who arrived here by yesterday, March 8, and it goes for 18 months. But it is likely to be renewed as long as the conditions remain the same down there in Venezuela. In some ways, the Biden order mirrors one that was signed just weeks ago by President Trump the day before he left office. That was an order called Deferred Enforced Departure. It remains in place. They're similar programs in some ways, but lawyers say TPS may have some advantages.

DETROW: Can you remind us why people were leaving Venezuela in the first place?

ALLEN: Well, right. You know, it's been 20 years since Hugo Chavez took power down there. And first under his regime, then Nicolas Maduro, there's been this political repression, violence, runaway inflation. It's severely eroded the quality of life in a country that really was one of the most prosperous in Latin America for so many years. Many of those who've come to Florida are professionals, you know, doctors, lawyers, engineers. Here's Lea Salama Dimitri. She's an immigration lawyer and member of the Venezuelan American Bar Association. She says many of her clients just want to go back.

LEA SALAMA DIMITRI: They still have businesses there. They have homes. They have families. I mean, they don't want to be here indefinitely. Many of them don't even want to be here. But, you know, because of the circumstances, they've kind of gotten stuck here.

ALLEN: You know, most of the Venezuelans I speak to here in Florida over the last several years are firmly opposed to the Maduro regime and support his ouster by any means necessary, including force many of them are increasingly saying.

DETROW: So you are talking to Venezuelan migrants in Florida. What are they saying about this latest order?

ALLEN: Well, they clearly welcome this TPS order. This is something they've been looking for for many years. And certainly under the four years of President Trump, they were always asking for this, although he courted the Venezuelan American vote here in Florida and elsewhere, he wouldn't extend TPS, you know, here or in many other countries. It's something they just refused to do. Instead, in his final hours as president, he kind of surprised people with that Deferred Enforced Departure order that did some of the same things as TPS but, you know, doesn't go that full route. I talked to Ernesto Ackerman. He heads a Venezuelan activist group here. And like many Venezuelan Americans, he supported President Trump in the election. But he thinks Biden's now playing catch-up with this group of Venezuelan American voters.

ERNESTO ACKERMAN: I still don't see what - in which way this is going to help the Venezuelans, the 20 million Venezuelans that are sequestered by a criminal group in Venezuela.

ALLEN: You know, Ackerman believes that really that the important thing now is for the Biden administration to start doing something to get Maduro out.

DETROW: All right. NPR's Greg Allen, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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DETROW: Four of America's biggest health care companies, including Johnson & Johnson, are close to a settlement for their role in the nation's deadly opioid crisis.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot about Johnson & Johnson lately and their recently approved single-shot COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time that the company is working to end the coronavirus pandemic, it is one of the first expected to pay for its role in the opioid epidemic. The settlements these companies will pay will likely total in the billions of dollars. But they're also planning to use corporate tax breaks, including a new one created during the pandemic to offset these opioid payouts.

DETROW: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been reporting on this story. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So what companies are we talking about here aside from Johnson & Johnson?

MANN: Yeah, as you mentioned, Johnson & Johnson's the name brand American company involved here. The other three, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson, work more behind the scenes. But these are some of the biggest health corporations in America. And they all earned huge profits making and distributing highly addictive opioid medications. Now, Scott, they face this wave of lawsuits tied to opioids. And we know from financial filings that the companies are close to a settlement that would resolve all those suits. Here's Cardinal Health CEO Michael Kaufmann speaking to investors last month.

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MICHAEL KAUFMANN: I'll just cover the opioids quickly. You know, as I've said in the past, it continues to be, as you know, complex negotiations, a lot of moving parts. But we're continuing to make progress there.

MANN: And under tentative terms of this deal, Cardinal Health and these other three big companies, they're not expected to admit wrongdoing, but they could pay out as much as $26 billion. That's money that would go to help communities slammed by the opioid crisis.

DETROW: I mean, that is an enormous amount of money, even for a multinational company. What are these companies saying about how they will deal with having to pay out settlements this big?

MANN: Yeah, this is where it gets a little controversial. In financial filings, the firms also say they plan to declare those opioid payments as operating losses, which is a deduction, right? It's similar to one you or I might use if we want to pay less in our federal income taxes. So if they pay $26 billion, it looks like these four companies together would get roughly $4 billion back in tax benefits. That really angers some lawmakers, including Congressman Jimmy Gomez. He's a Democrat from California.

JIMMY GOMEZ: If they get away with it, that means less money going into the Treasury. That means less money for programs that will help deal with the fallout of the opioid crisis.

MANN: These companies, meanwhile, say they're just following federal tax law, and that appears to be the case.

DETROW: And if that's angering critics, it sounds like this next aspect is as well. There are also these new tax breaks signed into law last year that are meant to help companies struggling because of the pandemic. But it sounds like at least one of these companies is trying to use these tax breaks as well, even though these payouts are the result, of course, of corporate behavior, critics say, fueled the addiction crisis.

MANN: Yeah, and that's - also even though these health care and drug companies have done really well financially over the last year, Cardinal Health has confirmed it plans to use that pandemic tax benefit to recoup as much as $420 million. Members of Congress have started looking at this. They're really angry. They call it outrageous and wrong.

DETROW: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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