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News Brief: Congress' Policing Hearing, COVID-19 Hotspots, Government PPE Contracts

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

George Floyd's death ignited mass demonstrations and calls around the world for justice. And today, his story will echo in the halls of Congress.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. Congressional lawmakers will hold their first public hearing on policing since Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. The House Judiciary Committee will listen to testimony from Floyd's brother and also from a range of other witnesses.

MARTIN: We've got congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell with us. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: What should we expect from today's hearing?

SNELL: Well, this is expected to be a lengthy hearing. There is an extensive witness list. I think the person that people will be watching closely is, as you mentioned, Floyd's brother, Philonise. He's expected to set the emotional tone for this hearing. He gave a speech at the funeral yesterday that was very moving, telling of George Floyd's life. And his public calls for justice have been a big part of the family's response. We'll also hear from Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP defense fund, the Floyd family attorney and several other witnesses who study policing in the U.S.

Now, Republicans have called three witnesses. And they have a conservative commentator, Dan Bongino. He's a former law enforcement officer and a favorite of President Trump. They also called the head of President Trump's national diversity coalition and Angela Underwood Davis (ph). She's a former Republican candidate for Congress in California. And her brother, a federal officer, was killed near recent protests in Oakland, Calif.

MARTIN: So Democrats have proposed this wide-ranging set of police reform. How does this hearing fit into that legislation?

SNELL: Well, this is their first attempt to have, you know, a public and open conversation about that. You know, the bill the Democrats have proposed will work through the regular process. So it won't be up for a vote just yet. And this gives them an opportunity...

MARTIN: OK.

SNELL: ...To have a conversation about policing. And it could set up an argument for future bills. Republicans didn't have any say in what was put into this Democrat bill that's coming out. And this could be an opportunity to see where they in the House are and where their concerns lie and where there might be room to work together. And there's also potentially going to be a flashpoint where they can have an opportunity to air some differences.

MARTIN: So is the bipartisan effort the thing that's more likely? - because that's always seems kind of extraordinary. Or are Republicans offering any of their own proposals for how to respond to police brutality and injustice in policing?

SNELL: You know, as you said, the concept of getting something bipartisan through Congress right now is very difficult. I've heard some members that I've talked to over the past couple of days express some degree of confidence that maybe they could get some very narrow changes through. Though, it's really hard to see exactly where that common ground lies other than potentially adding more funding for more research and - or, potentially, a database to share information.

Senate Republicans, led by Tim Scott - the only black Republican in the Senate - are working on a legislative package. They're considering increasing training to focus on de-escalation and to lessen the potential of chokeholds. They don't love the concept of a chokehold ban, which is a premier piece of what Democrats are putting forward. They don't want to constrain local police. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters in the Capitol yesterday that the White House wants to see a bill sooner rather than later. So we're waiting to see what Republicans will put out.

MARTIN: All right. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Maybe you don't need this reminder because you're still on some kind of stay-at-home order, or maybe you do need it because life feels like it's back to normal in your corner of the country. But it does bear repeating, we are still very much under threat from the coronavirus.

GREENE: Right. So states keep opening back up. But in some places, the virus is just taking off. So what exactly are these new hot spots?

MARTIN: We've got NPR health correspondent Rob Stein with us. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we're seeing new surges of coronavirus cases in new places. Where, exactly?

STEIN: It's scattered coast to coast. Things have gotten much better in places that were hit hardest the earliest, you know, like New York, New Jersey. But infections are rising in more than 20 states, including Florida, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Arizona, also Texas, California, even Montana and Idaho.

Now, in some places, the total number of cases is still pretty small. But infections may be starting to go up quickly. And this is especially a concern in more rural places that don't have a lot of hospitals and, you know, so could get easily overwhelmed. And hospitalizations for COVID have already started rising in some places, raising fears about, you know, running out of intensive care beds.

MARTIN: So does that mean we're seeing more infections in the country overall?

STEIN: Well, overall, the pandemic seems to be stuck where it's been for a while now. About 20 to 25,000 Americans are getting infected every day. About 800 to 1,000 people are dying every day from COVID-19. And more than 112,000 Americans have already died. And, you know, the toll just keeps going up every day. So as soon as you start looking more closely at individual states, these red flags start popping up all over the country, you know, especially over the last couple of weeks.

MARTIN: So this, I know, is a complicated question. But do we know why? Do we know what's causing the uptick in COVID-19 cases in these particular areas?

STEIN: It's probably the re-openings, you know? The testing is also going up. So it could be we're just spotting more infections. But testing isn't up enough to really explain it.

MARTIN: Right.

STEIN: And if you look at cellphone data, that shows there's been a big increase in people leaving their homes. In fact, the amount of movement is back up to at least two-thirds of where it was before the lockdown. So that supports the idea that these increases in infections are real. Lots of people have emerged from hiding in their homes. They're going back to work, going to stores, bars, restaurants, socializing. And that's how the virus spreads.

MARTIN: Yeah. So what about the protests, Rob? I mean, we saw mass demonstrations over the past 10 days. Do we know, at this point, whether or not that has contributed to the increase at all?

STEIN: The virus could spread at those mass gatherings. But it's just probably too early to see that yet.

MARTIN: OK. So with this increase in cases we're already seeing, does that mean we might see another large shutdown?

STEIN: Hopefully not, you know? Public health experts say the country can still slow the virus down by making sure that people don't let down their guard, you know? Keep wearing those masks. Keep staying six feet away from each other. But the country's already on track for maybe another 100,000 people to die by the fall. And it could be even worse if people just kind of give up and let down their guard. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha. He's a global health expert at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: It's stunning to me that we have just decided it's OK for tens of thousands of Americans to die. And we aren't going to do what we know we can do to prevent those deaths. And that is, to me, unconscionable.

STEIN: So Jha and others hope people will remain vigilant, and that we'll get enough tests, finally, to spot outbreaks quickly and track down everyone who might be infected to stop them from spreading the virus.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Stein. We appreciate it, Rob. Thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So think back to early spring. In March and in April, doctors, nurses, hospitals, they all desperately needed masks. They needed face shields and other personal protective equipment - or PPE.

GREENE: Right. And so the government went to the market to try and get the medical gear, signing contracts that were worth $25 billion with hundreds and hundreds of companies. But here's the question, did those contracts actually go to the companies with the best chance of delivering?

MARTIN: NPR has been trying to answer that question. Our team of investigative journalists has been looking into those contracts. And we're joined now by one of them, Cheryl W. Thompson of NPR's investigations team. Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What'd your team find?

THOMPSON: So we looked at contracts where the government didn't require companies to go through a full, competitive bidding process. And more than 250 of those companies that got contracts worth more than $1 million fit into that category. My colleagues, Joel Rose and Robert Benincasa, and I reviewed those and then reached out to many of the companies listed to learn more. And one of the things we found, Rachel, is that many of these companies had almost no experience either manufacturing or delivering the PPE. It wasn't their typical line of work.

MARTIN: So no experience. And yet, they got multimillion-dollar contracts?

THOMPSON: That's exactly right. One company we looked at was a school security consultant. Another was a liquor importer. And that last one was a California contractor who imported vodka. The company got a $48 million contract from FEMA to supply KN95 respirator masks. And I'm still waiting on an answer from the agency on what he has produced so far.

In another instance, at least three companies form just days before they got the contracts. And I talked with the owner of a company who got a $10.2 million FEMA contract to provide COVID-19 test kit supplies, like swaps. And he was awarded that contract a week after the company was formed.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, why? I mean, aren't there rules that would require the government to pick companies that know how to do this, that have reliable track records?

THOMPSON: There are, indeed, rules. And FEMA and other agencies say they have a rigorous vetting process. And they look, for example, to companies with prior government contracting experience. But, Rachel, there's also a theory that, in a crisis, you just do what you have to do. And Juliette Kayyem is a former official at the Department of Homeland Security. And she explains it this way.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: The theory is, you go big or stay home. You just do a lot. Some of it may be mistakes, some of it may not. And then - but, you know, if it can solve the problem, no one is going to be mad at you.

THOMPSON: That's the theory. But there's a price to pay - whether the government ends up paying too much or whether companies just can't deliver.

MARTIN: Right. And, I mean, could you tell whether companies were able to deliver, given lack of - their lack of experience in cases?

THOMPSON: Well, some - yes, some did, and some didn't. Or some couldn't on time and needed an extension. And remember, Rachel, this was at a time when it was urgent to get the equipment fast. In one case, I spoke to the owner of a three-person company in suburban Dallas who has two contracts worth up to $20 million to supply face shields. He had to bring in - because his company's so small, he had to bring in subcontractors to do the job. And he got FEMA to extend his delivery deadline. So the risk is that while a few companies without any prior experience can deliver, there are many, many more that won't.

MARTIN: Cheryl W. Thompson from NPR's investigations team. Cheryl, thank you for sharing your reporting. We appreciate it.

THOMPSON: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: And before we go, we want to let you know about another story we've been watching - the massive lines and delays that voters faced in Georgia yesterday. After rescheduling the state's primary twice because of the coronavirus, some voters waited in line for more than five hours to cast their ballots.

Many are pointing to new, state-ordered voting machines that were reported to be missing or just not working, which, of course, leads many to wonder if the debacle in the Georgia primary is a sign of things to come in the general election in November. For more, you can listen to NPR on your local station or go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.