News Brief: State Reopening Conflicts, Sen. Burr, COVID-19 Rapid Test

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 12:17 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The latest move to reopen the country comes with a reminder that no central authority is calling the shots.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control issued new guidelines for reopening businesses and institutions. But they are guidelines, not orders, offered up by an administration that has given contradictory messages. States decide how to apply these guidelines. And conflicts are emerging even within states. Some county and city governments are not always willing to abide by state rules.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt has been watching those conflicts in states including California, Pennsylvania and Texas. Eric, good morning.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's happening in Texas?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. Over the last two weeks, Texas has allowed some restaurants, other businesses, retail to get back to business, but with, you know, the usual social distancing orders - or suggestions, really. And more business opening, Steve, are expected to be announced on Monday by Governor Greg Abbott. I mean, the oil and gas industries have been hammered super hard. There are thousands of jobs have been lost. So most Texas lawmakers are backing the governor's strategy.

Their argument is, you know, COVID-19 is manageable if people follow social distancing, if they follow the handwashing guidelines, you know? But, we have to point out, Texas this week saw its largest daily increase in both new cases and deaths. And, you know, health officials, of course, are warning that any reopening could increase the number of infections. It's just not really clear yet, you know, what impact those numbers, that reality will have on the governor's announcement and his thinking about Monday. And an ongoing debate, Steve, is when to allow bars to fully reopen in Texas.

INSKEEP: And there are localities making different decisions about things like what to do with bars and so forth?

WESTERVELT: There is pressure on him. Some are calling out for bars to reopen now. And that's the ongoing debate.

INSKEEP: OK. And then in Pennsylvania, is there also a question, a debate between state and local authorities?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. And today, you know, a big part of western Pennsylvania will start to reopen. That's, you know, partly because of that pressure on the governor. Some 13 counties will move into what, you know, the state's calling its yellow phase. It has a tri-colored reopening plan. And in that yellow phase, nonessential businesses - most of them - will be allowed to open back up, but with - again, with some requirements to protect staff and customers. It'll include some state-owned liquor stores - again with the booze debate. You know, real estate's also allowed, Steve. But gyms and salons will remain closed. And, you know, as we mentioned, the governor, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has faced pressure and protest. Some businesses have openly defied the state shutdown order and reopened, a trend the governor recently denounced.

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TOM WOLF: To the politicians urging businesses to risk their lives and to risk the lives of their customers or their employees by opening prematurely, they need to understand that they are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.

INSKEEP: And briefly, Eric, in California, where you are right now, is there a conflict there?

WESTERVELT: Well, indeed. It's sort of playing out rural versus urban. Los Angeles County has the highest number of infections and deaths. And no big city in the state has met the, you know, key public health criteria set by the state for reopening more businesses. This week, a few handful of more rural counties got the green light. But, you know, even those counties are saying more openings are needed.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks for the update.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

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INSKEEP: OK. The Abbott ID Now test is a small machine with big expectations.

MARTIN: It's about the size of a toaster. And it's really fast. Within 15 minutes, it is supposed to be able to spot people infected with the coronavirus. But is it reliable? The Food and Drug Administration has concerns about this. And now it's warning about the accuracy of those tests.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. We should note that Abbott Laboratories is an NPR supporter. But we are reporting on their problems just the same. Hi there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wasn't this test supposed to be a game-changer?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, it's the test that President Trump has praised a lot. In fact, it's the test used to screen people at the White House. And it's in big demand around the country. The company that makes it has distributed at least 1.8 million of the tests and is making about 50,000 new tests every day to keep up with the demand.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the FDA's concern about this test?

STEIN: So the FDA issued a statement last night alerting the public that research is raising questions about the reliability of the test. Specifically, the FDA is concerned about false negative results, meaning the test may tell people they are negative when they're really positive. In other words, the test may miss too many people who are really infected.

Now, the FDA isn't citing any specific research. But NPR reported back in April that researchers at the Cleveland Clinic had found the Abbott ID Now test appears to be significantly less reliable than several of the other widely used tests. In their study, the test missed about 15 out of every 100 infections. And, you know, another study came out just this week from researchers at New York University. They found the test could miss between a third and a half of infections.

INSKEEP: Whoa. That's getting in the range of a coin toss. What's the company say?

STEIN: Yeah. So Abbott is saying, you know, no test is perfect. But it's basically standing behind the ID Now. The company says the problem is with the studies, not the test. The way the specimens used in the studies were collected and handled and stored and transported could have caused the problems. For example, the samples that were tested in the Cleveland Clinic study, they were stored in special fluids first instead of going directly into the testing machine like the company says they're supposed to. That could have diluted the specimens. And other studies found that the Abbott ID Now test is as accurate as any other test. That's what the company says.

INSKEEP: OK. So there is a bit of a conflict about the quality of the testing of the test. But what do outside experts say?

STEIN: So I talked to Michael Mina about that. He's an infectious disease expert at Harvard. And he says, a fast test like the Abbott ID Now can be very useful as long as you realize that the speed may come with some tradeoffs. But he worries about relying on it too much to stop new outbreaks, you know, especially at a time when the country is trying to reopen.

MICHAEL MINA: If you're really trying to prevent an outbreak from occurring, you know, one missed case can become a whole new transmission chain onward.

STEIN: He also worries about the White House relying on those tests. Let's listen to a little bit more of what he said about that.

MINA: We're talking about the White House. We're talking about the House in the United States that has more power and more resources at its disposal than any place on Earth. They should have the best test available.

STEIN: You know, I should note that the FDA says the tests can still be used. It can correctly identify many positive cases. But the FDA's saying that negative tests may need to be confirmed with one of the other tests that have been shown to be highly reliable. Both Abbott and the FDA say they're working together to take a look at the test more closely. And as for the White House, you know, my colleagues reached out to them last night. But the White House didn't immediately respond with a comment.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks very much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

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INSKEEP: Today, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina gives up the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

MARTIN: Senator Burr faces a question. Did he use his knowledge from that position to inform his stock trades? The FBI is investigating possible insider trading. And they seized Burr's cellphone. Back in March, NPR revealed just how early the senator understood the threat of the pandemic. He warned a group of constituents about it weeks before much of the country was paying attention. Then ProPublica revealed that Burr sold much of his stock in time to avoid the market crash.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak has been covering this story for many weeks. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What has Burr been forced to do here?

MAK: Well, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Burr would be stepping aside temporarily as chairman while the investigation is underway. And that's effective later today. For his part, Senator Burr has denied these allegations. He said that he's been cooperating with investigators. And he said he stepped down because he didn't want to detract from the committee. Here's what he told a reporter in a noisy Capitol hallway yesterday.

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RICHARD BURR: This is a distraction from the hard work of the committee and the members. And I think the security of the country's too important to have that distraction.

INSKEEP: Heard him say the word distraction twice there. Would you work us through the timeline of what Burr did when, since timing is everything in this story?

MAK: Right. So we first broke news that Senator Burr privately told well-connected constituents back in February how bad he thought the coronavirus crisis would become. He warned about travel and said that the pandemic would be possibly as bad as the influenza pandemic of 1918. But Burr never warned the general public about his views on this. And since then, federal law enforcement has been investigating Senator Burr over his stock transactions, where he dumped up to $1.7 million in stocks on a single day, February 13, right before the coronavirus market crash.

It's also hard to overstate how big this latest development is. The LA Times - The Los Angeles Times - reported Wednesday night that a warrant had been executed and Senator Burr's cellphone seized. NPR has since confirmed this. So to obtain a search warrant for a sitting senator, that's a very sensitive matter. Investigators would have likely needed to get approval from some of the highest levels of the Justice Department. And then law enforcement would have needed to show a judge probable cause that a crime had been committed to get this warrant.

INSKEEP: Now, we should remember the way that Burr has explained his stock transactions. Well-timed though they were, I believe he put out a statement saying that he was watching cable TV news reports...

MAK: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Out of Asia. And just based on public information, he made a smart decision to sell his stocks. So what contradictory evidence would law enforcement be looking for? What are the places where this trade would be a crime?

MAK: Right. Well, Senator Burr's decision to dump stocks was very unusual considering his history of transactions. When it comes to insider trading investigations, what investigators are looking for is evidence that Burr had information about the coronavirus that was material and non-public. They'll want to know whether he had access to information that the public didn't.

He was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had access to all sorts of interesting and private information. And so the real standard here is, was the information something that you or I, if we were shareholders of these companies that Senator Burr had stock and sold stock in, would we view this information as significant?

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks for the update.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.