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News Brief: COVID Surge And The Unvaccinated, German Floods, DACA Ruling

NOEL KING, HOST:

Back this winter, around the middle of January, the number of new COVID-19 cases in this country started dropping.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There was a blip upwards in April, but immediately after that, cases just kept going down, down and down. Then in late June, something happened - cases went way up. On June 21, the CDC recorded just over 8,000 new cases in the U.S. On July 16, there were 39,000 new cases. Hospitalizations are going up; deaths are going up. What gives?

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here with some answers. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: These numbers do not sound good.

AUBREY: Yeah. The U.S. is averaging about 30,000 new cases a day. This is far fewer than the 200,000 or so cases a day back in the winter, but it's triple the number of cases compared to just late June. What's happening is that there are significant increases in states with low vaccination rates, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned yesterday on CNN that the rise in hospitalizations and deaths that are largely preventable may continue.

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VIVEK MURTHY: I am worried about what is to come because we are seeing increasing cases among the unvaccinated in particular. And while if you are vaccinated, you are very well protected against hospitalization and death, unfortunately that is not true if you are not vaccinated.

AUBREY: In fact, 97% of people hospitalized now with COVID are unvaccinated. I mean, there are instances where fully vaccinated people are getting infected, so-called breakthrough cases, but they tend to get much less sick. And as CDC Director Walensky has said, this has really become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

KING: What role is the delta variant playing? Because we keep hearing about how contagious it is, et cetera. Is that what's going on?

AUBREY: Yeah, the delta variant is about 225% more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. So when it finds pockets of unvaccinated people, Noel, it just spreads much more quickly. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke on CBS yesterday about what this means in the coming weeks and months.

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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: This variant is so contagious that it's going to infect the majority - that most people will either get vaccinated or who've been previously infected or they will get this delta variant. And for most people who get this delta variant, it's going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital.

AUBREY: He says the variant just cannot be underestimated. And that's why there are yet again more pleas to the roughly 30% of adults who have yet to be vaccinated in the U.S. to go ahead and get the shots.

KING: You know, I was in the grocery store this weekend, and I noticed a lot of people not wearing masks, which I have seen for the past few weeks, but it was just very noticeable this weekend. Is anyone pushing to reinstate mask mandates or any of the other measures we did all winter?

AUBREY: Well, Los Angeles County has reinstated a mask mandate for both unvaccinated and vaccinated people. And though this is very unlikely to happen nationally, lots of public health experts tell me, you know, it makes good sense to stay masked up in crowded indoor settings because it is still possible for fully vaccinated people to become infected. I spoke to Dr. Sage Myers. She's an emergency department physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She says this can help protect kids, too.

SAGE MYERS: We're expecting our unvaccinated children to continue to wear those - wear their masks and helping them to feel more comfortable takes us doing it, too. And so I definitely will wear my mask when I'm with my 11-year-old who can't be vaccinated yet who has to have her mask on, even if it's a situation that as a vaccinated person I may otherwise have been able to not wear it.

AUBREY: She says, bottom line, it's just a simple way to stay protected, and it's not hard to do.

KING: For sure. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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KING: All right. So at the moment, Germany is trying to recover from its worst natural disaster in about 60 years.

MARTINEZ: Flooding killed at least 158 people in western Germany. Whole towns were destroyed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured some of the affected areas yesterday and called the past several days terrifying. Severe flooding also impacted parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in the disaster area in western Germany. He's with us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So the floods started last week, last Wednesday. It's been a few days. What does it look like there now?

SCHMITZ: Well, I spent the day yesterday in the town of Bad Neuenahr, and it sort of looks like a tidal wave hit it. The Ahr River, which is actually more of a creek, flows through this town, and it's typically less than a foot deep. Residents told me that they usually walk across it barefoot in the summer. But on Wednesday night, this region received so much rain that this tiny creek went from inches deep to 25 feet deep within just a couple of hours.

KING: Wow.

SCHMITZ: Waves of water carried cars, parts of houses and uprooted trees into this valley, slamming them into other homes and bridges, destroying everything in its path. I spoke to Claudia Krah, who was busy cleaning up mud and debris from the first story of her damaged home. Here's what she said.

CLAUDIA KRAH: It's so truly sad because we love (ph) the people of our hometown. And it's gone. It's gone - historical buildings, no restaurant, no businesses running. It's over.

KING: Rob, do authorities have a better understanding now of why this got so bad, how so many people could have been killed?

SCHMITZ: Well, it turns out Angela Merkel was here yesterday, and she said it's clear to her as a scientist that climate change is influencing extreme weather events like this one. And according to a recent study called the Global Climate Risk Index, Germany is among the top 20 countries in the world most impacted by climate change. It's worth noting that before this region received two months' worth of rainfall in just two days, there was a years-long drought. Here's Fred Hattermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research talking to German broadcaster RBB.

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FRED HATTERMANN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Noel, he's saying here that this year basically shows what can happen because of climate change. On the one hand, we have a persistent drought and now all of a sudden very heavy rainfall, which cannot be absorbed by the soil because it's too dry, and this leads to heavy flooding and erosion.

KING: Do authorities there know how many people are missing?

SCHMITZ: They don't. Many of those labeled missing were actually not reachable by cellphone because the towers were down, and we should have better numbers later this week.

KING: OK. Has the rain stopped? I mean, as you look at the forecast, is the weather clear from this point out? And can people start recovering?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the weather's clear, you know, but the area is far from recovered. Residents told me that it'll be weeks before electricity is restored, months before they'll have gas. The region doesn't have clean drinking water, so the German military is sending convoys of water trucks to deal with that.

KING: OK. And then lastly, Germany has a big election coming up. How might this affect that?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's interesting. Yesterday, the front-runner to be the next chancellor to succeed Merkel, Armin Laschet, was visiting the region, was caught on camera giggling in the background while Germany's president was giving a speech. And this tone-deaf response sparked widespread outrage in Germany and Laschet apologized over Twitter. Popularity rankings show him as a weak candidate anyway, but this did not help. And because this disaster is seen as one influenced by climate change, many analysts say this could be a boost for the Green Party.

KING: Interesting. NPR's Rob Schmitz in western Germany. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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KING: What does a federal judge's ruling mean for the future of DACA?

MARTINEZ: That's the Obama-era program that protects kids who were illegally brought to the U.S. from deportation. On Friday, a judge in Texas ruled the program was illegal and blocked new applicants. Now, this adds another layer to an already complicated immigration situation for the Biden administration. Attempted border crossings hit a 21-year high in June. Now, in a statement, Biden called the ruling disappointing and urged Congress to create a permanent solution to protect DREAMers. But this week, Congress will put up for a test vote one of the president's other priorities, and that's the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

KING: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following all of this from here in D.C. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: I want to start with immigration because this has bedeviled many an administration, and it seems fair to say it's happening again.

KEITH: Yeah, it has certainly been a challenge for the Biden administration to calibrate their immigration policy. President Biden and his administration has aimed to show that they are more humane than former President Trump and his approach to immigration. But they have been criticized for struggling to manage a surge of unaccompanied minors. And just generally, apprehensions are way up under President Biden - border apprehensions. In June, border agents stopped more than 188,000 migrants trying to cross the southern border. Part of that may be a pandemic effect. Administration officials point out a pandemic emergency order means most people apprehended are expelled without being detained or processed. And many of them are trying again and again, driving up the number of encounters. Thirty-four percent of people who tried to cross the border last month had tried at least once before in the past year. But just more broadly, immigration is one area where polls have real warning signs for President Biden. People broadly do not approve of his handling of immigration.

KING: OK. Let me ask you about this ruling last week. Besides appealing the court's decision, is there anything else the administration can do on DACA?

KEITH: The president says longer term, it's really up to Congress to act to protect these so-called DREAMers. And Congress has been trying to do that for 20 years now. Biden is even urging Democrats to use that process known as reconciliation, that budget process, to put it through along with some of his infrastructure goals and other budget - other economic spending, that $3.5 trillion budget plan. He says, hey, just put it in there. It's not clear that Senate rules would really allow that to happen. You know, at the beginning of his administration, President Biden put forward a comprehensive immigration reform proposal, but you'd be forgiven for not realizing it because, unlike infrastructure, he hasn't been out traveling the country pressing Congress to pass it.

KING: And then what is happening with infrastructure this week?

KEITH: Yeah, that will come up for a key test vote this week, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he wants to push that forward to sort of force them to make a deal. It includes things like roads, bridges and broadband. But the Republicans who say they support the plan are balking.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.