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News brief: Biden speech, COVID testing critique, Pentagon extremism rules

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There has been a dramatic surge in COVID cases across the country.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This is primarily from the omicron variant, which, according to the CDC, now makes up nearly three-fourths of all new infections. And that means it is now the dominant strain in the U.S. It's making people wonder and worry about things such as, is it safe to get together with family and friends over the holidays? Well, in a speech today, the president is expected to address that concern.

DETROW: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now with a preview. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So, Tam, when the Omicron variant first hit our radar right around Thanksgiving, the president said it was, quote, "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic." Now that we are seeing record-setting case levels all over, should we expect a shift in tone?

KEITH: For the vaccinated, he's still expected to say that Omicron is a cause for concern but not panic, that people should feel comfortable celebrating the holidays. Wear masks on airplanes as required. Rapid test if possible. But essentially, don't cancel Christmas. But for the unvaccinated, he is going to warn people again in stark terms that they have a big risk of getting severely sick and even dying.

DETROW: We are seeing a lot of vaccinated people get this variant. There was a case like that in the White House this week. What can you tell us about it?

KEITH: Yeah. A fully vaccinated and boosted mid-level staffer flew on Air Force One on Friday. They tested negative right before the flight but tested positive on Monday. The president has since twice tested and been negative both times. But part of what the president is going to do is prepare Americans for the reality of omicron, which is highly contagious, that they're going to see a lot of cases just like this. But if they're vaccinated and boosted, they should be OK. And he likely won't say this part out loud, but the White House is shifting its emphasis to focus on hospitalizations and deaths and not cases so much. And at this point in the pandemic, they'll say it's March 2020. It's not March 2020 or even December 2020. There are more tools. And hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated now, even if the numbers aren't as good as they'd like.

DETROW: I mean, still, the way that professional sports and life is shutting down makes a lot of people feel like it is early 2020. I mean, you're right that the hospitalizations are not at the same level because of vaccinations. But still, many hospitals are struggling, filling up already. This is expected to grow and grow. How is the White House going to deal with this critical problem?

KEITH: He's going to announce that about a thousand military doctors and nurses will deploy to hospitals as needed. There will be ambulances and paramedics sent to hotspots to move people from overcrowded hospitals to ones that have room. And FEMA is going to preposition supplies and ventilators to help with the surge.

DETROW: Will there be any new restrictions, any new lockdowns going into place?

KEITH: No lockdowns and no shutdowns other than those that are happening on a spot basis because of COVID cases and the resulting staff shortages. And there's going to be an increased emphasis on testing. They're going to quickly set up more free testing sites run by the federal government in places like New York, where there have been long lines. And in January, there will be a website set up where you can go and ask for at-home tests to be mailed to your home for free. The president will announce they are buying half a billion of these tests. That's a big increase and a shift. And as previously announced, you'll be able to buy them on your own and get reimbursed by insurance.

DETROW: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

DETROW: One group of people listening very closely to what the president will say today will be public health and infectious disease experts.

MARTINEZ: That's because with many Americans traveling to and attending holiday gatherings, hospitals are bracing for another winter surge.

DETROW: NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein has talked with some of those experts and joins us now. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: So the administration made getting COVID under control a central promise and focus. Do public health experts think the White House has been taking the right approach on this?

STEIN: You know, the administration gets high marks for some things, especially rolling out the vaccines quickly. But the general feeling I've been getting from public health experts is that the White House has kind of put all of its eggs in one basket - the vaccine basket - and hasn't done nearly as much as it could and should in other ways. Here's how Dr. Eric Topol at Scripps Research describes the administration's response.

ERIC TOPOL: It's highly reactive. There's no aggressive boldness, proactive features whatsoever.

STEIN: And Topol and others say that's why there's always kind of the sense that the country keeps getting blindsided by the virus and is constantly playing catch-up.

DETROW: Yeah. Given that, what do these experts want to hear today from the president?

STEIN: There's a long list of steps that public health experts have been calling on the administration to do for months now. So a lot of this may sound familiar. And at the top of that list is tests. You know, finally make those fast at-home tests really cheap and even free and really easy to get. If other countries can do that, why can't the U.S.? Tests are still way too expensive, and they're too hard to find. Here's Rick Bright. He's a former federal health official now at The Rockefeller Foundation.

RICK BRIGHT: We shouldn't have to win the Hunger Games to get a test in America. They should be freely available, and they should be in every home, so we can use them to know when we're infected to trigger the appropriate actions to reduce transmission. And that's how we will save lives.

STEIN: Now, the president is announcing those plans to distribute half a billion tests for free beginning in January. And experts say that will help. But many say it's still far from enough and may come too late for this surge. And testing is becoming increasingly important, you know, in part because of the new anti-viral drugs that are coming that need to be taken right after someone gets infected. I'm also hearing a lot of people say the federal government should authorize those new anti-viral drugs fast and dramatically ramp up production on those drugs to make sure there's enough.

DETROW: So what else do they want to see? I mean, obviously, those are key things, but there's a lot of other factors.

STEIN: Yeah, for sure. There's lots of things. And many experts say something the federal government should do is more to improve ventilation inside buildings and should be literally mailing high-quality N95 or KN95 masks to everyone's homes, maybe along with some free tests. Those cloth masks, you know, just won't cut it in the face of omicron. And some are even calling for a national mask mandate, at least for a few weeks. And also, why hasn't the administration finally required vaccination or testing for domestic travel? If you have to get tested and vaccinated to fly from London to New York, why don't you have to do it to, you know, fly or take a bus or train inside the U.S.? And there's more. You know, changed the definition of fully vaccinated to include getting boosted. Shorten the time people who test positive have to stay out of work.

DETROW: Any sense the administration is considering any of those proposals?

STEIN: So far, no. But as Tam mentioned, the administration is subtly trying to reframe the focus away from counting new infections to focus more on hospitalizations and deaths. Some public health experts tell me they think that's smart. You know, keeping people out of the hospital and alive is obviously what matters most. But others worry we're already not paying enough attention to asymptomatic or mild infections because they play a role in spreading the virus and can lead to long COVID.

DETROW: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet.

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DETROW: The Pentagon is updating its policies on extremism within its ranks.

MARTINEZ: The issue is not a new one. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been pushing the Department of Defense to address the problem for nearly 40 years. But the participation of active and former service members in the January 6 attack on the Capitol provided a new urgency.

DETROW: NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Good morning.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: So what is and is not allowed under these revised policies?

YOUSEF: Well, Scott, the key thing is that membership or affiliation with an extremist group actually is still allowed. What's not allowed is extremist activity or active participation in an extremist group. And the updated policy strives to be pretty comprehensive in what that includes, you know, such as paying membership dues or fees. One important addition to the policy, though, are some new rules around social media, namely that for the first time, service members are going to be held responsible for what they do on social media platforms.

DETROW: But let's just spell out the the way that the Pentagon is approaching this. You are saying that a service member could be a member of the Ku Klux Klan and not be disqualified from service.

YOUSEF: That's right. And this gets at a balance that senior defense officials said that they were trying to strike with the updated policy. You know, they were saying, you know, they didn't want to police ideology. So that's why they're focusing instead on activity.

DETROW: So how is the Pentagon defining activity, then? That feels key.

YOUSEF: Well, the policy lists some banned activities, from advocating terrorism to supporting the overthrow of the U.S. government. The list actually even includes liking or reposting extremist views on social media. You know, the senior defense officials who briefed reporters yesterday said, you know, it's important to remember that service members have First Amendment rights but to balance that against what they have called the corrosive effect of extremists within the ranks. But, you know, Scott, obviously, this is controversial. Representative Anthony Brown, a Democratic congressman from Maryland and a retired Army colonel, has said that he believes that membership and not just activity should be enough to disqualify somebody from service.

DETROW: What are extremism experts saying about these new rules?

YOUSEF: Well, there were a few areas that I was hearing fell short. One person I spoke with is William Braniff. He's the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. And he himself is a retired Army officer. He noted that updates to the policy seem to prioritize identifying service members that may be engaged in extremist activity by strengthening something that's called the insider threat program that the military's had for about a decade.

WILLIAM BRANIFF: The question is, what next? Is it merely to identify them in order to remove them from military service? Or is it to take a public health approach and try to address the vulnerabilities that that individuals may have, try to increase their protective factors so that they become less vulnerable to violent extremism?

YOUSEF: You know, I was also hearing concerns that this updated framework still mostly relies on people reporting instances of extremist activity that they've seen or become aware of, instead of the department actively monitoring the issue and also that there just isn't enough being done to inoculate service members who are retiring or transitioning out of the military and who are very high-value recruits for extremist groups.

DETROW: How much do we know of the scale of this problem within the military?

YOUSEF: Well, the working group says up to 100 active military engaged in substantiated cases of prohibited extremist activity in the last year. And I'll note that's a tiny fraction of the 3.2 million active-duty military and National Guard that the policy applies to, Scott.

DETROW: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Thanks so much.

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

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.