News brief: COVID tests, vaccine mandate hearing, Jan. 6 events
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
If everything goes according to plan, households across the country could soon receive coronavirus test kits by mail.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The White House is reportedly finalizing details with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver half a billion of those tests. That's according to our friends at The Washington Post. But this news comes as rapid COVID tests are in short supply across the country and prices are rising. In my home state of Indiana, shortages mean that at-home tests are now limited to symptomatic individuals 50 and older, as well as anybody 18 and younger.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR health correspondent Yuki Noguchi is following this story. Yuki, demand is still outstripping what's available. When will that resolve?
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: There are now a dozen companies with FDA authorization to sell their rapid tests in the U.S., and they're obviously all ramping up production. So supplies are increasing, but how many and how quickly they'll be available is the main question. There were 200 million rapid at-home tests available in the U.S. in December. I spoke with Arizona State professor Mara Aspinall. She closely tracks testing supply. She anticipates modest increases in January and February, and in March, the U.S. will get to half a billion tests a month. But she says that's by no means a sure thing.
MARA ASPINALL: I know what it's like to scale up a manufacturing plant. I know what it's like to scale up production for a product. So when somebody says they're going to do 100 million in month one - eh.
NOGUCHI: So she's also skeptical. The whole economy obviously is struggling with staffing problems and importing from overseas, and test makers feel that, too.
MARTÍNEZ: Meanwhile, the Biden administration is promising to offer half a billion free tests through a website. Will that ease supply?
NOGUCHI: You know, it should. The White House says those additional tests won't take away the supplies headed to drugstores and other retailers. But when is the question. This program isn't up and running yet. This week, the government got bids from companies that make the rapid tests, and the contract will be awarded soon, maybe as early as today. But then the government needs to set up its website. That hasn't been done yet. So when will consumers start receiving them? The White House says in coming weeks. But Walgreens' chief financial officer told investors he thought it might take months.
MARTÍNEZ: OK. Since that's weeks or maybe even months away, what about drugstores? I mean, when might more tests be available there?
NOGUCHI: You know, those stores are seeing lots of sales from at-home tests. But the chain drugstores say they're basically in the same boat waiting for supply to increase.
MARTÍNEZ: And that's hard to believe because we're almost two years into this pandemic.
NOGUCHI: Yeah, I know.
MARTÍNEZ: I mean, schools, workplaces, travel, they all depend on these tests. Why is this still a problem?
NOGUCHI: Well, you know, until this fall, the U.S. really didn't prioritize testing like it did vaccines. It comes down to investment and demand. The government made no big investments in testing until recently. And at least earlier in the pandemic, there wasn't the demand. So, really, if we want a ready supply, Mara Aspinall says, we need predictable demand.
ASPINALL: There has to be sustainable demand for companies to make significant investments.
NOGUCHI: You know, like, big government contracts lasting years, not months, building a national stockpile ahead of the next variant - we haven't been doing those things. In fact, we lost interest in tests until the delta variant came and then omicron. And at that point, of course, there was no real existing inventory.
MARTÍNEZ: And given how scarce rapid tests are, I mean, there's talk now of allocating them to the most vulnerable. How might that work?
NOGUCHI: You know, the government does have existing programs to distribute free tests through clinics that serve the poor, for example, so they might use that. Some public health experts are even saying if you're sick and vaccinated, don't test, just assume you're infected and take precautions. Right now, the focus really is on, you know, solving that problem by increasing supply.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Thanks a lot.
NOGUCHI: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: The Supreme Court is holding a special session this morning to review two of President Biden's vaccine rules for workers.
INSKEEP: These rules were supposed to be enforced starting on Monday, but that has been delayed about a month. It's now up to the court to decide whether they'll take effect at all.
MARTÍNEZ: With more is NPR's Andrea Hsu. And remind us, what are the rules that the Supreme Court will be reviewing today?
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning, A. Well, first, there's the rule that applies to companies. So under that rule, about 84 million workers either have to get a COVID vaccine or be tested weekly for the virus. So that's the rule that was blocked by a federal appeals court just a day after it was issued. Then it was unblocked by another federal appeals court about a week before Christmas. And so currently, it stands, but now dozens of businesses and religious organizations and a bunch of states have asked the Supreme Court to block it again. Then there's the separate rule covering health care workers at nursing homes, hospitals and other places that are funded through Medicare or Medicaid. They have to get the vaccine. And that rule has also been stuck in courts. It's now blocked in about half the states, so the Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court to unblock it.
MARTÍNEZ: How do employers feel about all this?
HSU: It's been really confusing. You know, at the beginning, a lot of companies welcomed the rules when they were first announced back in September. It gave them cover. They wanted their workers vaccinated, and they were able to say, the government is telling you to do this. But the last few months have just been a roller coaster. Companies have not been sure whether to take steps to comply or not. One frozen foods manufacturer I keep in touch with told me they've started gathering vaccine cards from those who are vaccinated, but they're holding off on testing the unvaccinated until they hear from the Supreme Court because all that testing is going to be a really heavy lift for them.
And then there are other companies who have said, we can't make this work. There's one called Phillips Manufacturing and Tower Company. They make welded steel tubes in Ohio. They've sued the Biden administration, saying the rule is unnecessary given the other safety measures they put in place and that it will lead to staffing shortages. And this week, the U.S. Postal Service asked for a temporary waiver, saying the enforcement of the rule could leave them unable to deliver mail and packages on time, maybe even some of those rapid tests we just talked about.
MARTÍNEZ: Is there enough evidence that large numbers of workers will quit if they must get vaccinated or even tested weekly?
HSU: Well, here's what we do know about this. Employers that have required vaccinations with no testing option have seen vaccination rates hit that are higher. Only 1% or 2% of workers at a bunch of hospitals have left over the mandates. Now, that still adds up to thousands of people, but we have not seen a mass exodus. Now in health care, though, there are some low-paid workers like those who care for old people in nursing homes, there is concern that they could walk away from those very difficult jobs and easily find other low-wage work where they won't have the vaccine requirement.
MARTÍNEZ: And how does the omicron surge play into all this?
HSU: Well, employers right now are facing staffing problems, of course, with so many employees testing positive. But the Biden administration says its vaccine policies are more important now than ever, that the threat to workers is not just grave but getting worse, and any further delay could result in unnecessary illness, hospitalizations and deaths. So that's what they're going to argue today at the Supreme Court.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks a lot.
HSU: You're welcome.
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MARTÍNEZ: A candlelight vigil took place outside the U.S. Capitol yesterday.
INSKEEP: People who attended marked one year since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol trying to stop the certification of President Biden's win in the 2020 election. The most notable event of the day was a speech by President Biden, although he did not mention former President Donald Trump by name. Biden's remarks were a scathing rebuke of Trump and his continued lies about the 2020 election.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.
MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. What stood out to you yesterday?
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, you know, you hit on it there. I mean, Biden really gave a forceful, direct speech blasting Trump for his role in inspiring the January 6 attack. It was maybe one of the most important speeches of his presidency so far; clearly, got Trump's attention. Trump issued multiple statements criticizing Biden and accused him of trying to deflect. And I have to say, by the way, that is one of those things when you hear an opponent say that someone's trying to deflect, it usually means the speech is politically effective. And that's something really Biden needs. He's been at a low point. This speech was a bit of a reset, reminded millions of people who voted for him of one of the big reasons why they did so in the first place - to beat Trump. And, you know, Trump is still a top threat for 2024, having only strengthened his grip on the GOP base even after the insurrection.
MARTÍNEZ: And it was noticeable the lack of Republicans at yesterday's events.
MONTANARO: I mean, that really stood out. I mean, there was a striking moment during a moment of silence in the House when the only Republicans there were Congresswoman Liz Cheney and her father, the former vice president, Dick Cheney. And they're not exactly liberals. You know, the House was out yesterday. Some Republican senators were at the funeral of former Senator Johnny Isakson. But watching that vigil last night, it really struck me to see the absence of so many Republicans, even after many of them were targeted themselves on January 6. You know, I mean, imagine what a powerful symbol of resilience of democracy it would have been to have all 535 members of Congress there on those steps together. Instead, really, it was a visual reminder of how that democracy is fraying, how notably, really, most Republicans have taken the bait of Trump's narrative and lies, hook, line and sinker.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Right now, that has to stay in people's imaginations. Was there a message, though, from Republican leaders?
MONTANARO: Well, they accused Democrats of having turned the January 6 committee investigating what happened into a partisan exercise, though they resisted even forming one in the first place. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, you know, had blamed Trump explicitly for the attack in the days following the insurrection. But, you know, he's really done an about-face in the past year. He wasn't there yesterday. He instead focused a statement earlier this week to his conference on what Democrats should be doing instead about Capitol security.
MARTÍNEZ: It was such a big day in Washington and such a partisan one, obviously. So what's next for politics?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, I mean, it was really a reflection of where the country is right now, divided on even the most basic sets of facts despite the clear evidence in this case. Right now, the Republican Party is inexorably linked to Trump. That's not going to change any time soon. I talked to a Republican strategist who said apart from people like the Cheneys and a handful of others, there aren't many Republicans willing to speak up, stand up to Trump and talk to the base to make their own case for why they should move away from Trump's politics. That really carries a lot of political risk, and it's symptomatic of what the strategist called inkblot politics. What you see even about January 6 is viewed through partisan predispositions, he said, for many.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks a lot.
MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.