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News Brief: Jan. 6 Probe, Vaccine Mandates, Opioid Trial

NOEL KING, HOST:

Four police officers who defended the Capitol against a mob of former President Donald Trump supporters on January 6 will testify today.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

They will speak before a House select committee that's holding its first hearing. There are nine members on the panel. Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy is one of the committee's seven Democrats.

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STEPHANIE MURPHY: I think that the law enforcement officers who sacrificed their physical well-being to keep members of Congress safe on January 6 deserve to have a platform to share their perspectives of what they saw on the very front lines of the attack on the Capitol.

MCCAMMON: The two Republicans on the committee were not appointed by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. They were appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many Republican lawmakers have written the investigation off as partisan.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales will be watching today. Morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Who are the four officers testifying today, and what are we expecting?

GRISALES: We'll hear from those officers you mentioned. That's Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell of Capitol Police, plus two officers with the D.C. Metropolitan Police. That's Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges. Fanone and Hodges, for example, are two of the officers we've seen in some of this dramatic footage from that day, but we'll also hear new evidence. California Democrat Adam Schiff, another committee member, talked to reporters about this. Let's take a listen.

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ADAM SCHIFF: I think it's going to be quite informative and emotionally very powerful.

GRISALES: So we expect one round of questions from this panel of the seven Democrats and two Republicans. That's Wyoming's Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. All were appointed by Speaker Pelosi, as you mentioned. But first, committee chairman Bennie Thompson will start the hearing with an opening statement, followed by an opening statement from Cheney.

KING: OK. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says most Republicans are not going to be present today, but they have their own plans, yeah?

GRISALES: Right. McCarthy saw two of his picks blocked by Pelosi. This is Representatives Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. So McCarthy pulled all five of his appointments to the committee. Now McCarthy will join other GOP House leaders and members he wanted on that panel to do their own counterprogramming in the form of a press conference today. I talked to Jordan about this off the House floor. Let's take a listen.

JIM JORDAN: Look, we know what this is about. This is partisan politics, just plain and simple. It's obvious That's what this is about.

KING: So what is he saying about the two Republicans who are on the committee?

GRISALES: Well, Jordan reiterated a point McCarthy made yesterday. He called Cheney and Kinzinger, quote, "Pelosi Republicans" and actually laughingly said there are no Republicans on this committee. But it's possible this panel's efforts will eclipse Republicans' boycott and perhaps give the public the impression they are bipartisan with Cheney and Kinzinger taking part.

KING: Sure. This is just the first day. What happens next?

GRISALES: This panel has subpoena power. And Schiff told reporters last night that they're outlining the scope of this probe with a focus on getting documents from relevant agencies and parties linked to the attack and also to identify which witnesses they need to hear from. And this could very well include former Trump administration officials and what order to call them in. And he's optimistic about hearing from these witnesses since they'll get help if they need it from a Department of Justice operating under a President Biden administration, as opposed to one previously under former President Trump. And they'll look at intelligence that was shared and not shared that day, its ties to white nationalist groups and what Trump administration officials did and did not know and why it took so long to secure the Capitol that day.

KING: OK. Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

KING: That was NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. And you should know that NPR stations start live coverage of the hearing today at 9:30 a.m.

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KING: OK. As with masking in the early stages of the pandemic, individual states, cities and counties are now making their own rules about COVID vaccinations.

MCCAMMON: In California, state workers and health care workers will soon need to show proof that they are vaccinated or wear masks and get regular COVID tests. The Veterans Administration has become the first federal agency to require its 115,000 frontline health care workers to be vaccinated. And in New York City, all city workers are being told they have to be vaccinated by mid-September.

KING: NPR's Jasmine Garsd is in New York. Good morning, Jas.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hey.

KING: Three hundred forty thousand people work for New York City. That is a lot of people. What prompted this order?

GARSD: Well, cases in New York have nearly doubled over the past week, and there is a lot of concern over the delta variant. September is this month when New Yorkers tend to come back from summer travels, school gets back in session, people head back to work, the city's reopening, and meanwhile, cases are creeping up. So there is this sense of urgency. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he wanted to make it clear there will be no tolerance for unvaccinated city employees breaking this mandate. And Governor Andrew Cuomo put into words what I think a lot of New Yorkers feel right now.

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ANDREW CUOMO: We cannot go through what we went through over the past year. We can't. We can't. You can't. I can't. The economy can't. Society can't.

GARSD: And this applies to all of those roughly 340,000 city workers you mentioned. New rules go into effect in just a couple of weeks for city employees whose professions bring them close to vulnerable populations, like those in foster care, shelters or senior centers. September is the deadline for the rest of the workforce on city payrolls.

KING: We know that people tend to feel some kind of way about words like no tolerance. How are New Yorkers responding to this?

GARSD: Reactions have been mixed. DC 37, which is the city's largest public employee union, said they encourage vaccination, but the city should negotiate with the union over weekly testing. We did get a stronger reaction from FDNY EMS Local 2507. They represent EMTs, paramedics and fire inspectors. They said they strongly oppose this new rule and that a lot of members feel uncomfortable with a vaccine that hasn't gotten final approval from the FDA being mandated. But there was also a positive response. The teachers union said they support the policy because it makes schools safer and it ultimately allows for individual choices. You don't want to get the vaccine. Fine. Then wear a mask and get tested.

KING: OK, so we've been talking about city employees, but what does the governor have to say about everyone else in New York who isn't getting vaccinated?

GARSD: Well, you know, even though 54% of New Yorkers - that's more than half - are fully vaccinated, the rates vary tremendously from one neighborhood to the other. Only 31% of Black New Yorkers are vaccinated. The Bronx lags way behind. Governor Cuomo acknowledged that in many communities of color, there is a well-founded skepticism of the medical establishment. And he says he understands the mistrust.

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CUOMO: We don't know the long-term consequences of the vaccine, but we don't know the long-term consequences of COVID either. And I would rather take my chances with the long-term consequences of the vaccine than with the long-term consequences of COVID.

KING: OK. Jasmine Garsd in New York. Thank you, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you so much.

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KING: A city and a county in West Virginia say three of the country's biggest drug wholesalers flooded their rural communities with opioid pills.

MCCAMMON: Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the companies ignored rising overdose deaths and addiction rates. Today, each side will make closing arguments to a federal judge. These are the same companies trying to convince thousands of communities to end opioid-related lawsuits in exchange for a $26 billion settlement. The West Virginia city and county that are suing were unconvinced.

KING: NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann is in Charleston, W.Va., this morning. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Noel.

KING: Tell me about the area that's suing. Can you see the effect of opioids there?

MANN: Oh, yeah, it's devastating. You know, these three drug distributors, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, they shipped tens of millions of these highly addictive pills to Huntington and surrounding Cabell County, its population of about 90,000 people. Experts say these pain pills sparked a crisis where 1 in 10 people is now opioid dependent. That addiction is being fed with street heroin and fentanyl. One of the people I met during my visit there was Shani Damron, who lives on the streets of Huntington.

SHANI DAMRON: I mean, that fentanyl is no joke. And it's just a split second, you know? And every time we stick a needle in our arm, we're taking a 50-50 chance, you know, we could die.

MANN: And people are dying, Noel. Fatal overdoses have surged 40% in West Virginia over the last year. That outpaces a 30% spike around the country.

KING: What have we learned during the trial about why these companies shipped tens of millions of pills to a rural area?

MANN: Yeah, the companies say the fault lies with doctors who wrote all the prescriptions and with government regulators who knew about these shipments and failed to stop them. But this trial has forced the firms to disclose huge amounts of internal documents, a lot of it pretty embarrassing. For one thing, just the sheer quantity of pills shipped - experts I've spoken to say it's hard to justify that flood of opioids at a time when addiction was rising. We also learned executives at AmerisourceBergen shared an email mocking people with addiction, calling them pillbillies.

KING: That is appalling. Last week, these three companies and Johnson & Johnson agreed to a tentative settlement worth $26 billion. So why is this case going forward if a national settlement is already in the works?

MANN: Yeah, these West Virginia communities that we're talking about don't plan to sign on to that national deal. They say their recovery from the opioid crisis alone, just those communities, will cost $2 billion and more.

KING: Wow.

MANN: Right. So officials in some other parts of the U.S. have also signaled they just don't think the national settlement provides enough money.

KING: So if these companies are forced to pay, where would the money go?

MANN: Yeah, so it's heartbreaking sometimes, Noel, covering this opioid epidemic and realizing how much of the public health fight to keep people alive is on a shoestring budget. I spoke with Jennifer Chapman about this, who runs a shelter for moms and babies who are opioid dependent.

JENNIFER CHAPMAN: This past year with the pandemic, it has been harder. Everyone had to worry about their own finances, people being off work and all that. So it was kind of a struggle, but we're still here.

MANN: So if this court in Charleston finds the companies liable, it'll mean more funding for programs just like that one to help people with opioid addiction.

KING: OK. NPR's Brian Mann in Charleston, W.Va. Thank you, Brian. We appreciate it.

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