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COVID-19 Updates: Federal Reserve Acts, Deal Eludes Congress, Trump Speaks


In today's briefing from the coronavirus task force at the White House, President Trump sounded optimistic at times about the timeline for revising social distancing practices and getting the American economy back to business as usual.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We're not going to let the cure be worse than the problem. At the end of the 15-day period, we'll make a decision as to which way we want to go, where we want to go, the timing. And, essentially, we're referring to the timing of the opening - essentially, the opening of our country.

CHANG: Also today, more governors, including those in Maryland and Massachusetts, issued their strongest orders yet to keep people at home and slow the spread of the coronavirus. That means many more businesses will close their doors, something the Federal Reserve is keenly attuned to. Today the Fed announced new efforts to get credit flowing to struggling industries and corporations. And in Washington, D.C., Senate Republicans tried and failed to move the nearly $2 trillion aid package along.

To talk through more of the day's coronavirus news, we're joined now by three of NPR's finest - congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hey, guys.




CHANG: All right. Richard, I want to start with you, as always. The Surgeon General Jerome Adams had issued a pretty stern warning in an interview this morning with the "Today" show on NBC News.


JEROME ADAMS: I want America to understand, this week, it's going to get bad. Everyone needs to be taking the right steps right now, and that means stay at home.

CHANG: OK, so I get it staying at home might be the simplest line of defense against COVID-19, but where do things stand now with respect to drugs that might help treat people with infections? - because just tonight, we heard President Trump again mention at his press conference the malaria drug, chloroquine. This is the drug he keeps touting, right?

HARRIS: It is, indeed. It's his favorite hope for a quick fix to the coronavirus outbreak. The president said the drug would be delivered to New Yorkers tomorrow. Though, in actuality, it will be available specifically for people who enroll in a clinical trial, not everybody in New York by any means. There are lots of other drugs also, and let's remember; they're being tested precisely because we don't know if they work. In fact, we recently learned that one drug that was among the first to go into clinical trials in China didn't actually help. It was a - it's a drug that's now used for HIV. So, you know, we need to expect disappointments along the way, too. And I will say that there are new drugs coming along all the time getting ready for clinical trials, but it'll be many weeks, probably many months before we really have answers about them.

CHANG: All right, then - so between the surgeon general's pretty harsh warning and the actions of states to further impress upon people to stay at home, that's all on one side. But then on the other side, we've got the president's hopes for returning to business as usual. It sounds like there is a disconnect here.

HARRIS: Indeed, there does. The president seems to be getting impatient with the huge impact of this public - these public health measures, and he's now promising that things will be over sooner than we think. He's very unspecific about when exactly that might be, but he also says the decision will be based on science. And that's where the conflict comes along because the emerging idea in public health science is that it's going to take quite a while to bring this under control. It's going to get harder before it gets easier. The emerging idea - and maybe this is - in the long run, this could happen is if they can identify places where the disease is absent or under control, health officials will be able to relax the restrictions. That's kind of what happened in South Korea. But there, they had massive testing programs...

CHANG: Right.

HARRIS: ...To figure out who was infected so they could isolate those people immediately. We're really quite far from that situation right now.

CHANG: OK. Claudia, I want to go to you now. I want to talk about the aid package that the Senate's trying to pass. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been getting pretty frustrated by the process to pass this package. Here's a little bit of tape from him.


MITCH MCCONNELL: And hopefully, some adults will show up on the other side of the room and understand the gravity of the situation and the need to act before the markets go down further and the American people become even more depressed about our lack of ability to come together under the most extraordinary circumstances. We've never been confronted with anything like this before.

CHANG: All right. Claudia, there is still no deal on this massive relief package. It's going to be close to $2 trillion. What is the status of negotiations right now?

GRISALES: Well, they are in the thick of it now. And as we heard from McConnell there, in that moment, there was a lot of tension on that Senate floor today - a lot of finger pointing and back-and-forth. However, behind the scenes, we understand, the talks continue among Democrats and Republicans. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is intimately involved as well. Also, today we saw House Democrats roll out highlights of their own proposal. They're getting closer to a $2.5 trillion-mark...

CHANG: Oh, wow.

GRISALES: ...In their proposal. Yes. And what they want to focus on more, they say, are the workers - making sure there's unemployment insurance to cover these folks who have lost jobs during this crisis, as well as coverage for child care - emergency child care that they may need, as well as other concerns such as payments to Americans. They want to ensure that there will be sufficient access to that among people - so a lot of issues ongoing right now.

CHANG: And what are the specific provisions in the Senate Republican bill that both sides are fighting over right now?

GRISALES: So one issue that they are fighting over specifically is Democrats say Republicans haven't gone far enough when it comes to American workers and when it comes to coverage of this unemployment insurance, coverage that they say is going to be needed more now than ever, as well as concerns about how much money will be directed towards some of these larger industries.

Democrats want to look at aid for small businesses that have been hit hard by this pandemic. But when it comes to these larger industries, such as airlines, such as major corporations such as Boeing, they want to make sure it's a measured approach. And they want to make sure there's some strings attached. They're not giving away money without requiring some specific details when it comes to workers and layoffs and making sure the money doesn't go directed towards CEO pay and other concerns.

CHANG: OK. Scott, let's go to you now. Let's talk about the Federal Reserve. They're expanding their efforts to provide a financial lifeline for businesses at the moment. Tell us what they announced today.

HORSLEY: The central bank is really pulling out all the stops. It's pumping even more money into the banking system to try to keep credit flowing. The Fed has basically said it will buy as many Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities as it has to to keep financial markets from seizing up. They're also setting up three new programs to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in financing for both corporations and consumers, and the Fed's even working to get a program - working on a program to get financing to Main Street firms. The idea behind all these measures is to provide a kind of economic ventilator to keep businesses breathing in hopes that once this pandemic is under control, workers and customers will have something to go back to.

CHANG: Well, can you give us some historical context here? - because, I mean, I'm curious. How does this compare to what the Fed did during the financial crisis a dozen years ago?

HORSLEY: Well, a lot of these efforts are modeled on what Ben Bernanke and his colleagues did back in 2008. But Jerome Powell and today's central bank are moving even more quickly. And, in some cases, they're going further, being more creative. The Fed said today, look. The pandemic is causing tremendous hardship and that aggressive efforts have to be made to limit the losses to both jobs and incomes.

CHANG: Now, I notice that investors had initially welcomed the Fed's action, but then the rally didn't last. Why not?

HORSLEY: No. The Dow closed down about 580 points or about 3% percent, the S&P down a similar amount. Investors are like Sen. McConnell; frustrated at the slow pace of that rescue package. It's making its way through the Senate. Although, I should say President Trump, who's often been critical of the Fed, did call Jerome Bell today to congratulate him on all these moves.

CHANG: And, Richard, just to end this by pulling back a little bit and looking at the global picture - today Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said this today.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: More than 300,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO from almost every country in the world. That's heartbreaking. The pandemic is accelerating.

CHANG: Really quickly - is he correct? Is the pandemic accelerating?

HARRIS: It is. It took 67 days - more than two months - for the world to reach 100,000 cases of coronavirus. It took another 11 days for the world to add another 100,000 cases. And it took just four days for the world to add...

CHANG: Oh, wow.

HARRIS: ...Another 100,000, so things are really moving fast.

CHANG: That is NPR's Richard Harris, Claudia Grisales and Scott Horsley.

Thanks to all three of you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.