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Coronavirus Updates: WHO Funding Held, Trump To Work 'In Conjunction With Governors'


Today President Trump met with coronavirus survivors at the White House. They told the president about their experiences with COVID-19, and Karen Whitsett was among them. She's a Democratic lawmaker in Detroit.


KAREN WHITSETT: I was afraid for my life. And until anyone has been in that person's shoes, until you have walked that walk and sitting there knowing that the hospitals near you are full - the very two hospitals that are near you that you have access to that you cannot get into...


And inside those full hospitals, doctors, nurses and other health care workers who are putting their own lives at risk to treat the gravely ill, like Dr. Rana Awdish, a pulmonologist in Michigan. She spoke to The Atlantic.


RANA AWDISH: Everyone's talked about their contingency plans if they did get sick. We've talked about who gets our pets, which is somewhat of an easier discussion than who gets your children.

CHANG: And then in this evening's press conference, President Trump said he would halt U.S. funding to the World Health Organization during a review of its recommendations on the spread of the coronavirus. Here to talk about all of this now are NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, national correspondent Eric Westervelt and health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hey to all three of you.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hello there.


CHANG: Franco, let's start with you. President Trump had been threatening to halt money to the WHO. How did he explain today what brought him to this decision?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the president is accusing the WHO of mismanaging the crisis and even helping China cover up some of the details of what really happened. Here is some of what he said during the briefing.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have deep concerns whether America's generosity has been put to the best use possible.

ORDOÑEZ: The United States is the single biggest funder of the WHO, I'd like to note. And Trump said the United States provides $400 million to $500 million per year to the WHO. He said the WHO failed to obtain and vet information about the virus in a timely and accurate manner. And as a result, many lives were lost.

He did actually hint at this halting some funding last week. He raised some concerns during Friday's press briefing, charging that the WHO was too close to China and even highlighted how much funding the U.S. provides to the WHO in comparison to China.

CHANG: But does President Trump actually have the power to unilaterally halt U.S. funding to the WHO?

ORDOÑEZ: That is unclear. You know, sometimes when Congress appropriates funds, it gives a president discretion over how they're used. Sometimes it does not. He may have some executive powers, and that's something that we are asking about. And just to put as an example - in the Ukraine affair last year that was at the center of the impeachment hearings, the Government Accountability Office concluded that Trump's withholding of assistance for Ukraine actually violated the law. Trump's budget proposal from earlier this year, which is a political document, also proposed cuts to the WHO, just FYI.

CHANG: Well, Rob Stein, what would this mean for the WHO in practical terms if the U.S. is the largest source of funding for the organization?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, if the Trump administration follows through with this, it would be a blow to the WHO. You know, it - as we heard, the U.S. is the biggest funder for the WHO - the single funder. And this certain - thing would certainly come at a - couldn't come at a worse time, in many ways, in the WHO's (unintelligible) trying to help coordinate the world's response to a pandemic. You know, and developed countries like the U.S. and countries in Europe have the resources and health system to try to respond effectively. But the WHO is a major player in many poorer, less developed parts of the world that are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic right now.

CHANG: All right. Well, Rob, I want to stick with you, but I want to turn now to the health care workers on the front lines right now. I understand there's been some pretty grim news about the toll this pandemic is taking on them. Can you tell us about that?

STEIN: Yeah. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first report about how many U.S. doctors, nurses and other health care workers have gotten infected with the virus. And the news is sobering. At least 9,200 health care workers have caught the coronavirus, and at least 27 have died. And the CDC says that's probably an underestimate.

CHANG: An underestimate, which is obviously horrible news for these workers and their families, but this does carry implications for our front line, doesn't it?

STEIN: Right. We obviously, you know, need doctors and nurses and other health care workers to fight the virus. And if the pandemic takes a big toll on them, then our ability to save lives is threatened. And we've all heard these tragic stories about how hospitals are scrambling around the country to - and running short looking for masks and gowns and other equipment needed to protect them.

CHANG: Eric, I want to turn to you now because there's also this other conversation going on in parallel about when to reopen the economy. And today, Governor Gavin Newsom of California talked about that. What did he say about how California will make the decision to reopen?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, good evening. Governors like Newsom are sort of trying to, as best they can, ignore the fights daily in Washington and focus on their states. And Governor Newsom today said any decision on restarting the economy here, the nation's largest, will be based on science and public health data, not on politics.

He laid out some key parameters - six of them - for easing the state's, you know, stay-at-home order. The most important one, really, Ailsa, is expanding the ability to test more Californians and to conduct contact tracing of anyone infected and to support those who were exposed. And those - that really is the biggest one of the six he named. The other ones include, you know, setting out - preparing hospitals for a surge, protecting the state's high-risk people - homeless and the elderly. But contact tracing is really going to be big.

And he emphasized, you know, any opening, if it happens, will be staggered. He likened it to sort of a light dimmer going back and forth between more restrictive and less restrictive, depending on the situation and the data. And it was interesting. He tried to paint a rosy picture, or at least a little positive picture that, you know, the state's bending the curve. Hospitals are not overwhelmed. We're doing things right.

But he also warned, look; life is going to look very different in the short term. He said, you know, kids might have to go back to school in staggered shifts in the fall - you know, a morning and an afternoon session to create social distance. Even little things - going out to dinner - he laid out a kind of slightly dystopian vision of going out to eat, saying that, too, will be different.


GAVIN NEWSOM: You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask - dinner where the menu is disposable, where your temperature is checked before you walk into the establishment. These are likely scenarios.

CHANG: That is quite a dystopian picture. Rob, I just want to turn back to you because one of the keys to reopening will be having enough testing. Where does that stand right now?

STEIN: Yeah. So the White House says nearly 3 million Americans have now been tested, and more than 110,000 are being tested every day. But we'll need way, way more than that. And now that one of the ways the White House task force says that could happen is by getting all the labs in the country testing at full capacity. Let's listen to Vice President Mike Pence.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: If our governors and state labs would simply activate the machines that are already there, we could double the amount of testing in the United States literally overnight.

CHANG: Double the amount of testing overnight - is that really feasible?

STEIN: Well, that's not what the labs say. I talked with Scott Becker today about this. He's with the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

SCOTT BECKER: That's not realistic. I mean, public health labs are doing all that they possibly can with every instrument that they have available to them. They're eking every test they can out of every piece of equipment that they have to do the best job that they can.

STEIN: Now, Deborah Birx from the task force - Dr. Deborah Birx from task force has been complaining that labs have testing machines sort of sitting around idly. And she tried to get lab directors to explain this. I talked to one of them earlier this week, and he said, look; we're running out of supplies. We can barely keep up with the tests we need to do right now, and we just can't do any more than we're doing.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein, Franco Ordoñez and Eric Westervelt.

Thank you to all three of you.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.