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Coronavirus: Trump Expands Europe Travel Ban


It probably won't surprise you to learn that we're going to spend today's program talking about the coronavirus pandemic. We're going to tell you what we know from the official briefing so far. We'll talk about some of the political and economic fallout and how the crisis is affecting particular groups. We'll talk about how to handle all the information coming at you - especially how to weed out the false and misleading messages.

And we'll have a little fun. We've got some music suggestions from our friends at NPR Music to help you relax if you're a bit on edge. And, of course, we're going to talk about food. We have some ideas from our friends at Epicurious for budget-friendly meals you can make at home with ingredients you should still be able to get without breaking the bank.

But first, the latest news on the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as answers to some basic questions about the virus. For that, I'm joined by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who's been following this story.

So good to have you here.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Pleased to be here.

MARTIN: So, earlier today, President Trump and top administration officials held a press conference to update the public on their response to the pandemic. What's the big takeaway from that briefing?

HARRIS: Well, the most actionable piece of information, at least for some people, is that on Monday, travelers from the U.K. and Ireland will also be prevented from coming to the United States. That expands a travel ban from other parts of Europe. Now, U.S. citizens and permanent residents can come home, but they will be screened at airports when they arrive, and then they'll be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The president also said he's considering restricting some travel within the United States, which would be a huge deal if that happens. But the military, in fact, announced that they are asking their personnel to do that today.

MARTIN: So what about the president's recent contact himself with people who were exposed to the coronavirus? What more do we know about that?

HARRIS: Well, it was interesting. The news conference started out only after someone from the White House medical office swept through with a remote thermometer and made sure nobody was running a fever. And it turns out one person was, and that person was sent away. That testing will apparently be standard going forward for White House visitors.

The president, as you mentioned, had some contact with people who later tested positive for the coronavirus. And he was tested last night after sort of pooh-poohing that idea previously. He said he'd also try to stop shaking hands, which he keeps doing. That's a hard habit for a politician to break, though.

MARTIN: So here are some questions that I think a lot of people have, and the first one is something that I think the president may be confused about as well. I mean, earlier this week, the president sent a tweet that seemed to compare coronavirus to the common flu. He tweeted that last year, 37,000 Americans died from the common flu, whereas only 22 people have died so far from the coronavirus at the time he sent that tweet. And he made a similar point at today's briefing.

But what about that? I mean, what does the science say about whether that is a valid comparison?

HARRIS: I think that's a misleading comparison, though there are some similarities. The coronavirus spreads like the flu. It's airborne and can be transmitted from surfaces, which is why people are telling you to wash your hands all the time. And symptoms are similar. And most people don't get too sick from either disease.

But here's the big difference. The case fatality rate for the coronavirus is much higher - maybe around 1%. We don't really know. Flu kills about 30,000 people a year, and if this virus ends up being as widespread as the flu, it means that could kill 10 times as many people or more. So, you know, maybe in future years, once a lot of people have been exposed, it won't be that nasty. But where we are right now, you know, it's looking like it could be a really very, very serious disease.

MARTIN: And who is particularly vulnerable?

HARRIS: Well, people with serious underlying medical conditions are at the most risk because they aren't as able to fight off infections. Older people fall into that category just because your immune system sort of declines as you get older.

But most deaths are among people in their 70s and beyond who have these underlying health problems - people with diabetes and other conditions like that aren't like - as - more likely to catch the virus, but they're more likely to have serious consequences if they do.

MARTIN: And could I ask you about that?


MARTIN: Because diabetes is, you know, fairly common in populations, you know, across age groups. Why would that be? Why would people with something like - a condition like diabetes be more vulnerable?

HARRIS: Well, in the case of diabetes, people have weakened immune systems if they have diabetes, for one thing. Also, once somebody with diabetes gets sick, it's harder for them to control their medical condition. So, as a result, the ramifications of getting sick are stronger.

MARTIN: And we've heard a lot about why these extreme measures are being put into place. That's to flatten the curve, so to speak. What does that mean, and why is that so important?

HARRIS: Well, right now, the number of cases is just rocketing up. We had something like 500 at the beginning of this week. And I just checked, and we're well over 2,000 cases as of today. And if it keeps going like that, hospitals simply won't be able to keep up, you know?

So the idea of flattening the curve is to spread out those new cases so that they can come into hospitals at a more manageable rate. That means slowing the spread of the virus, which is the reason that sports events are being suspended, schools are being closed and people are being told to work from home if they can.

MARTIN: And we're going to have more on this in a moment. But before we let you go, Richard, we've heard a lot about the testing issue in the United States. A lot of people have criticized the United States for a very slow response around testing. What is the specific issue that they're talking about, and why does that matter? And is anything being done about it?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think the technology is finally here. Two big test manufacturers have systems that can test thousands of samples at a time, and they can do that quickly. And they just got FDA approval in the last couple of days in the U.S.

But, you know, the real problem is that the infrastructure is not there to get people's samples to those testing systems. And so, you know, even though LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics are stepping up their ability to go out there and sort of deliver those tests and run them once they get them back to their labs, the problem is figuring out how to do that. And, you know, I think that's a major problem that really needs to get sorted out.

MARTIN: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Richard, thank you.

HARRIS: Pleased to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.