News Brief: Whistleblower To Testify, Wis. Court Order, Mexico Pandemic Cases
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rick Bright once ran the federal agency overseeing vaccine efforts.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
He did so until the Trump administration removed him last month. Bright is one of two witnesses testifying today, both of whom say they warned the Trump administration about the pandemic in January. Dr. Bright says he also resisted the president's effort to promote unproven drugs. And that is why the administration transferred him out of the job.
MARTIN: NPR's health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin has been following this and joins us this morning. Hi, Selena.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. So some of this story came out last week when Bright filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. Can you remind us what we already know about his situation?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Bright was the director of BARDA, a biodefense agency that's part of the federal Health Department, before he was transferred against his will to the National Institutes of Health. The complaint details how he warned the Trump administration about the seriousness of the coronavirus really early. He claims he pushed back against the White House's promotion of unproven COVID-19 treatments, like hydroxychloroquine, and that the administration put what he called cronyism over science.
And attached to the complaint are emails between Bright and the other witness testifying today, Mike Bowen, a businessman with a Texas-based face mask company. And the documents show Bowen emailing an offer to the federal government to ramp up production of masks in January, an offer Bright supported, and how that was turned down by higher-ups. I should say, President Trump has dismissed the allegations and painted Bright as a disgruntled employee. But late last week, Bright's lawyer said the Office of Special Counsel had said, there were reasonable grounds to believe he was retaliated against and recommended he be reinstated while his complaint is investigated.
MARTIN: So both of these men, Bright and Mike Bowen, are set to appear separately before this House subcommittee. What do we expect to hear from them?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Both witnesses submitted written testimony to lawmakers. Bowen's statement outlines how he tried for years to get the federal government to engage with his company and other domestic mask makers. He argued it was a national security issue. And in a pandemic, it would be hard to get the needed supplies. He told NPR last month how no one took his warnings seriously.
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MIKE BOWEN: Everybody ignored it. I mean, reporters ignored it. Pandemic experts ignored it. Our government ignored it. Hospitals ignored it. Everybody ignored it. I don't want to say I told you so. I just want to help everybody.
MARTIN: All right. And Dr. Rick Bright, what does his prepared testimony say?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the fact that Bright's early warnings went unheeded clearly pains him. Here he is on CBS' "60 Minutes" last week.
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RICK BRIGHT: We see too many doctors and nurses now dying. And I was thinking that we could've done more to get those masks and those supplies to them sooner. And if we had, would they still be alive today?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For today's appearance, though, Bright writes he wants to be forward-looking. He says there's the need for a clear voice from the federal government that's consistent and truthful even when that truth is difficult. And in his view, the truth is incredibly difficult. He writes that the coronavirus pandemic could be worse than the 1918 flu, which claimed over 50 million lives. And he says the window to prevent things from being worse here in the fall is closing, writing, quote, "without clear planning and implementation of the steps I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history."
MARTIN: There's another element to this in that he's a whistleblower, right? And that inherently...
MARTIN: It lends a kind of political air to any kind of testimony.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Absolutely. Bright is a witness Democratic lawmakers want to hear from. And they hold the majority in the House, which is why he's showing up today. One thing to watch is how Republicans on the committee engage with Bright and whether they use this as a platform to defend the president or not.
MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks, Selena.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. For many of Wisconsin's 5.8 million residents, life may have just changed overnight.
INSKEEP: Because Wisconsin's Supreme Court ruled that the state's stay-at-home order is unlawful. The court found that the administration of Governor Tony Evers, who's a Democrat, exceeded its authority when it ordered businesses closed without legislative approval. So what rules apply to businesses now?
MARTIN: We're going to put that question to Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson, who joins us now. Shawn, good morning. Thanks for being with us. Let's start with what life was like in Wisconsin, say, Monday? What kind of restrictions were in place before this court ruling?
SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah. If you look back over the past couple months, going back to March 24, we've had some form of a stay-at-home order in place. And it covered different businesses differently. A lot of businesses like hardware stores, grocery stores were open. Many businesses were closed, though. Restaurants, bars were closed, everything but delivery and takeout.
And Republican lawmakers didn't like this latest extension. They brought this challenge before the state Supreme Court saying that the governor's administration should have gone through them first. And this is something that the court, which is, you know, officially nonpartisan but has a conservative majority, agreed with and sided with the legislature.
MARTIN: It really is interesting how public health has become so politicized. So it's not a free-for-all opening, though, right? I mean, tell me what restrictions are in place today.
JOHNSON: So for businesses, it really opened things up pretty quickly. I mean, there were businesses, bars that opened last night in Wisconsin pretty shortly after the order was handed down. I think there's one key thing to know about Wisconsin's order is that it does not impact schools. They remain closed. So even though the rest of this order was struck down, schools are closed.
And then, you know, what Wisconsin looks like elsewhere really depends on where you live. So for example, I'm talking to you in Madison. That's in Dane County. Dane County issued its own stay-at-home order last night. The city of Milwaukee did the same. And so now you could have this patchwork of local orders that cover the state instead of one statewide order that covers everybody.
MARTIN: So there is this clear split between the governor, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled state legislature. Where are the people in all this? What do we know about where Wisconsin residents stand on the matter?
JOHNSON: We've had a couple polls of Wisconsin residents since all of this started done by Marquette University. In late March, support for these business closures and the school closures was especially high. Eighty-six percent favored them. In a poll that was released just this week, there was still a strong majority of people, 69%, who favored the closures. But you've seen slippage among Republican voters, who are now kind of divided on whether they support them or not.
MARTIN: So what now? Is this the end of it?
JOHNSON: Well, the Supreme Court ruling says that a new stay-at-home order could be issued but only with approval of a key legislative committee, which is controlled by Republicans. Here's what Governor Evers said after the ruling.
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TONY EVERS: They have provided no plan. There is no question among anybody that people are going to get sick and that Republicans own that chaos.
JOHNSON: Republicans issued their own statement saying that they're willing to work with the governor. But it sounds like they only want to work in the case COVID-19 reoccurs, in their words, in a more aggressive way.
MARTIN: Shawn Johnson. He covers state government for Wisconsin Public Radio. We appreciate it. Thank you, Shawn.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. Do Mexico's official coronavirus numbers tell the whole story?
INSKEEP: Health experts say, no. In fact, the government itself admits its own COVID-19 infection numbers probably fall far short of reality. There just hasn't been very much testing in Mexico. The available numbers do show a surge in coronavirus cases. Yet the government is pressing ahead with lifting lockdown measures.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn has been out reporting in Mexico City, one of the country's COVID-19 hot spots. And she joins us now. Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. So how many COVID-19 cases is Mexico officially counting? And then, how are hospitals dealing with that?
KAHN: Well, officially, we've been told that we've now passed 4,000 deaths and 40,000 cases. But I have to start off by saying, there's not a lot of testing done here. Mexico has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. And even the deputy health minister said the real figures could be eight times higher. And like you said, Mexico is the epicenter of the outbreak. I did go to a hospital this week to go talk with family members that are outside. They say they didn't have a whole lot of complaints. But they're not allowed in. And their perspective is very limited.
Nationwide, officials tells that they have 60% of beds still open. But in places like - in Mexico City, and especially in hard-hit areas of the city, that's down to about 30%. And they even opened an overflow at this racetrack just yesterday and started putting patients there. I did talk to one doctor who was taking a smoke break outside the hospital, the general hospital here. And he told me he was specifically warned not to talk to the press. And he said the situation inside the hospital was reaching capacity and was getting critical.
Just yesterday, there was yet another protest by hospital personnel blocking a major thoroughfare, just demanding more protective equipment there. There are frequent protests throughout the country. And you hear of medical personnel buying their own equipment or asking for donations. Officials here tell us, this is the peak of the outbreak. And it's expected to last a couple of weeks. And this week, we've seen about, on average, 300 deaths a day.
MARTIN: Wow. So the health ministry has said the actual number of cases is probably higher than the official, quote, unquote, "count." What about funeral homes? I mean, are they reporting more deaths than usual?
KAHN: Well, death figures here are being widely disputed. There are a lot of deaths labeled suspicious COVID or atypical pneumonia with a long lag time. So we're not going to get official numbers for months. I did speak with funeral directors and visited a crematory here in the capital. And they say they are at capacity. Cemeteries are overwhelmed.
Funeral directors that don't have their own crematory are waiting four days to get into one of the city's public ones. And bodies are stacking up at hospitals. And the government has ordered more refrigerated storage trucks. Here's Rene Bautista Portillo (ph). And he runs a small crematory here in the city. And he was describing me his dealings with grieving families and said he was just overcome this week with the grief from families.
RENE BAUTISTA PORTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He was telling me about helping one family and just their pain and their crying was heartbreaking. They hadn't seen their father the whole time he was in the hospital. Now, he can only give them five minutes through a glass viewing window to say goodbye. And he said he's been doing this for 22 years. And he hasn't felt this impotent to help grieving families.
MARTIN: Wow. And yet, despite all this, the Mexican government is planning to start lifting restrictions, right? What's going to open up?
KAHN: Yeah. The president's under extreme pressure here to open up the economy. Unemployment numbers for April were high. But a lot of people work in the informal sector. And job loss there has been huge. There's not a lot of economic stimulus. So he's been under a lot of pressure at home to loosen restrictions. And on top of that, U.S. officials, politicians and businesses, have been pressuring Mexico to open up. U.S. factories can't reopen without goods from their Mexican suppliers.
KAHN: So the president says those industries will now be reclassified as essential and will begin opening up next Monday.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thank you.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.