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News Brief: COVID-19 Pandemic, Calif. Wildfires, Beirut Blast Aftermath

NOEL KING, HOST:

Memorial Day and the Fourth of July taught us a lesson this year.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is that holiday weekends lead to surges in COVID-19 cases. And now here we are on Labor Day. So if you have the day off, be mindful that the way you choose to celebrate matters. The number of new cases is declining across this country in most areas, but it's still far higher than other parts of the world.

KING: NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey is with us for a check-in. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Let me start by asking you broadly, as we often do on Mondays lately, where do we stand on COVID-19?

AUBREY: You know, Noel, after weeks of about a thousand deaths a day, that number has declined to about 850 deaths a day. That is still a lot of deaths, but it's an improvement. And the number of new cases, as you say, is lower - about 40,000 per day compared to 60,000 cases a day back in July. But, of course, it's Labor Day weekend. So if people have been out and about in crowds, as we saw on Memorial Day, this could set us back. And there are already hotspots throughout the Midwest and South. New cases remain high - you know, the Dakotas, Illinois, Louisiana.

And infectious disease experts I talked to say with fall coming, people spending more time indoors, people back to work or school, there will likely be a bump in cases, given how widely the virus has been circulating and the change in seasons.

KING: Well, it's certainly true for schools and colleges. We've seen, you know, an uptick in the numbers there. When it comes to students on campuses and in classrooms, is it possible to prevent those kind of outbreaks?

AUBREY: You know, there's a range of strategies being used in group settings in schools and daycares. CDC Director Robert Redfield has pointed to evidence from Rhode Island, where hundreds of daycares opened over the summer. Now, there were some students and teachers to get infected. But by identifying them and isolating them, they were able to limit community spread. He says that's a success. Now, of course, to do this effectively, you got to be able to identify people quickly. That's why some college campuses have mandated entry testing.

I spoke to Eric Lander about this. He's the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. They've ever seen a testing program for about a hundred college campuses in New England. Now some of these schools, Noel, are testing students and faculty two times a week. And he says so far, this seems to be paying off.

ERIC LANDER: Testing has identified already 450 infected people. Because we know that, they're not out there spreading to other people on the campus. That's the case for testing right now. That information is immediately actionable by knowing we can cut off the spread.

AUBREY: So when a student tests positive, some of these colleges have a dedicated space, a dorm where, you know, students can have their meals, do their classes online, a kind of supported isolation. Now, of course, to prevent outbreaks, you need to do more than testing. You need social distancing and masking, as we've been hearing about for so many months, and, sometimes, more stringent measures. If you look at University of Illinois, where there's a rigorous testing program, the school announced a temporary lockdown for undergraduates, given that they were able to quickly detect a rise in cases. So the goal there is to quickly turn it around before it gets big or bigger.

KING: Kind of nip it in the bud. We, of course, do not yet have a COVID-19 vaccine. There's this big push going on, I've noticed, for the flu vaccine this fall. Every time I go to the pharmacy, someone approaches me.

AUBREY: That's right.

KING: Do you want to get the flu - what's going on there?

AUBREY: You know, doctors are concerned because people have put off routine visits during the pandemic. You know, child immunizations have been way down. An analysis by Komodo Health found they were down 50% this April compared to last year. They've bounced back up. But it's important to get the flu shot. If you end up getting flu and COVID, which is possible, you could really get sick. And, really, this could overwhelm the health care system if more and more people are coming in not knowing which one they have.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. It was hot in California this weekend.

INSKEEP: With record temperatures across the state. In the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, 121 degrees. In San Francisco, it was 100, which is really odd for San Francisco. And wildfires have come along with the heat. Here is Chris Robbie (ph), whose house in central California is threatened by the fires.

CHRIS ROBBIE: You know, I did what I could - cleared as much brush and trees and - I don't know - cleared at least 70 feet from the house. If I can get much as I could away from the house, it will help. But we'll see.

INSKEEP: One of California's fires in the Eldorado National Forest apparently started after people used a smoke-generating device at a party.

KING: Alex Hall is a reporter with member station KQED. And she's with us now via Skype from Fresno. Good morning, Alex.

ALEX HALL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the big one we were hearing about all weekend is the Creek Fire. Where is that, and what's happening with it now?

HALL: Yeah, so this is a fire that started on Friday in an area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains here in central California, not far from Fresno, where a lot of people go just to be outside. You know, there's camping, backpacking, hiking. People have cabins there. Some people live there. And it's, you know, very forested. It's very dry. By Saturday, the acreage that was burning was just around several thousand. But overnight, it grew very quickly. It's now over 17,000 acres and 0% contained. And the list of areas being ordered to evacuate keeps changing and growing.

So you have people who are preparing to leave. And even some are doing what they can to protect their homes before they have to leave. This is also an area with a lot of ranches, so people are trying to figure out what to do with their horses and their other livestock. It's also Labor Day weekend, as you said. And there's a lot of people out. So now you have people coming down from the mountains either because they have been evacuated, or they're getting ready for when they have to.

KING: So just a lot of movement on the ground. And then there was an incident near Mammoth Pool Reservoir this weekend. I was watching video of people saying they weren't sure they were going to survive. Can you tell us about what happened there?

HALL: So over the weekend, there was this rescue of people who were in an area affected by the fire called Mammoth Pool Reservoir. And they were there camping, like a lot of people were this weekend. And there were a thousand or so people, according to The Fresno Bee, who were there and found themselves trapped. The roads out were blocked. And it wasn't safe to drive out. And 200 or so had to be airlifted out by California National Guard helicopters. Some of them were injured and taken to the Fresno Yosemite airport and then to hospitals nearby in this area. Now it's being reported that some people are still there, and it's unclear exactly when they will be rescued.

KING: Wow. That is remarkable. Let me ask you lastly - you mentioned, of course, it is Labor Day weekend. How does that exacerbate things or help things?

HALL: Yeah, I think it's a combination of things. You know, with the pandemic, you're seeing a lot of people get outside and go camping and in a way that you really didn't see before because it's one of the things that we can still do. And this area was packed. I was up there camping myself. And it was really crowded. And yes, it was smoky. But that's not really a red flag anymore here in California. You know, and that didn't keep people away. We've had wildfire smoke on and off for weeks. Fresno also has a poor air quality, so the haze is not a red flag. So you've got large numbers of people out in the woods. Here's this fire and these high temperatures. And so I think a lot of people are making their own judgment calls on whether to stay or to go. And people were kind of caught off guard.

KING: Alex Hall with member station KQED in Fresno. Thanks, Alex.

HALL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. In Beirut, rescuers who were looking through rubble from a massive explosion thought they heard signs of life last week.

INSKEEP: So they hoped. After an exhaustive 72-hour search, they found nobody alive. Francisco Lermanda is the head of the volunteer rescue group that led the search and speaks here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCISCO LERMANDA: (Through interpreter) Pitifully, today, we can say that there is no life inside of the building.

INSKEEP: You will recall this is an explosion that devastated Beirut's port area. So what does that area look like now?

KING: Leila Molana-Allen is a Beirut correspondent for France 24. She joins us now. Leila, let me start by asking you what happened with this rescue effort. There was some hope, and then it vanished.

LEILA MOLANA-ALLEN: So this is a building in the Gemmayze area of east Beirut, that main thoroughfare that you're going to see many images of, where all the bars and restaurants are, that was almost completely destroyed. And this really was one of the buildings that had collapsed in the worst possible ways. You know, really, really just a pile of rubble at this point. And we had all walked past it day after day.

And, suddenly, there was a thought. A month after the explosion last Thursday, people thought that there might be at least one person alive underneath it. And this Chilean rescue team, Topos, came. Now, this is the team that famously after the last Haitian earthquake found a man alive underneath the rubble 27 days later. And they had this rescue dog Flash, who came and became the mascot, really, of hopes that there might be somebody else under here. And they thought it might be a child.

And so they were searching for hours and hours. And they were sure that they could hear - initially, people thought it was beats per minute - a heartbeat. It was actually breaths per minute. And this went on for three days. And the team kept saying, we're absolutely sure. Our equipment is 80% effective. And a huge crowd gathered. And it actually became sort of symbolic of the way that the Lebanese have reacted to the fact they feel their government is not helping them properly in this situation because when the search got called off at the end of the first day because they didn't have the right equipment, people who were gathered around decided that they were going to get the equipment for themselves because the army was refusing to get it.

And a young woman who works for a local NGO actually called in a crane herself. It then turned out it was the wrong kind of crane. But this crowd stayed overnight as the Chilean workers worked on. And then the Lebanese Civil Defense came. And so initially, while it was quite fractious between these different groups, what eventually happened after three days was that all these groups started working together.

KING: And, unfortunately, it came to nothing. Can I just ask you in the last couple seconds, how are people doing with that knowledge?

MOLANA-ALLEN: People obviously are sad - that they believe there might be somebody alive. But, of course, on the other hand, people are saying, well, that means there's one fewer person dead. You know, there isn't a body there, which is wonderful news. And we still know there are around seven people missing. It's hard to know exactly who - how many. But at the moment at least, that wasn't one more body to be found. So on the plus side, slightly positive news there.

KING: Leila Molana-Allen is Beirut correspondent for France 24. Thanks, Leila.

MOLANA-ALLEN: Thank you. Goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.