News brief: COVID-19 surge, NPR/Ipsos democracy poll, Capitol police gains
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A new year is upon us, but an old challenge remains. There are no signs that the omicron variant is slowing. Right now the U.S. is averaging between 300 to 400,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Several states just hit their all-time COVID case records, and the number of children hospitalized is going up. All of this comes as students finish up their holiday break and districts decide whether to hold in-person classes, return to remote learning or try some kind of hybrid model again.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Allison, happy New Year.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning. Happy New Year.
MARTIN: So we've got this record number of cases right now. What about hospitalizations, though?
AUBREY: You know, hospital admissions are not rising as quickly as cases. Cases are up by about 200%. Hospitalizations are up 25 to 30%. Now, some areas are being hit particularly hard - New Jersey, seeing record numbers; Ohio's governor has called for the deployment of National Guard members to assist in hospitals. In Houston, Texas, the head of Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. Marc Boom, he described to me what he's seeing among the people being admitted to the ICU amid this omicron surge.
MARC BOOM: There's really two kinds of patients who are getting really sick and going to our ICU. One is the immunocompromised patient, the very people we've been trying to protect and who we know don't mount good antibody responses. The other are unvaccinated, and we're really not seeing healthy younger people who are vaccinated end up to our ICU.
AUBREY: He says vaccines are working to keep people out of the hospital, especially people who are boosted.
MARTIN: That is good news. So what about kids? What are hospitals reporting in terms of pediatric cases?
AUBREY: You know, right now, cases among kids are up significantly. About 200,000 kids tested positive in the week leading up to Christmas alone. I spoke to David Kimberlin - he co-directs the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham - about the hospitalizations.
DAVID KIMBERLIN: We have seen about a 50% increase over the last couple of weeks in pediatric hospitalizations around the country. But our overall numbers compared with prior waves, at least so far, are lower. So it's a mixed story right now, but I think it's going to be bad over these next four to six weeks.
AUBREY: He says even if most kids get mild illness, with such a huge spike in cases, just a small fraction ending up in the hospital is enough to put stress on these hospitals because resources are just stretched so thin, Rachel. You heard Dr. Kimberlin say there he thinks January will be bad, but the hope is that then the surge will begin to recede, similar to what's happening in South Africa.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what schools are doing then, Allison, because, you know, my kids - elementary school age - just got vaccinated a few weeks ago...
MARTIN: ...And now we've have the holidays. I know. They were so excited. They thought...
MARTIN: ...Everything was going to be better. And now their own school has been delayed because everyone has to get tested.
MARTIN: I mean, what are schools doing right now?
AUBREY: You know, I think a mix of everything - testing more, you know, really trying to answer parents' questions about, how are they going to keep kids safe? We received a message from our daughter's elementary school over the weekend explaining how to opt into a testing program. Dr. Fauci said on ABC yesterday, kids who are vaccinated are going to be much more protected.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: I plead with parents to please seriously consider vaccinating your children, wearing masks in the school setting, doing tests to stay. All of those things put together, it's safe enough to get those kids back to school.
AUBREY: He says the benefits outweigh all the downsides of kids missing out on school.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.
AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: One year ago this week, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol building and tried to overturn a democratic election.
MARTINEZ: Twelve months later, a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe U.S. democracy is, quote, "in crisis and at risk of failing," but not for the same reasons.
MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose is with us now. Joel, good morning.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: This idea that U.S. democracy is in crisis - I mean, the poll found that it's a sentiment held by Democrats and Republicans, right?
ROSE: Right. I mean, the majority of Americans agree across the board, regardless of partisanship. Overall, 64% of poll respondents say U.S. democracy is in crisis. But this sentiment is really strongest among Republicans. A big percentage of Republicans agree with the false claim that there was significant fraud in the 2020 election. Here's Mallory Newall. She is a vice president at Ipsos, which conducted the poll.
MALLORY NEWALL: It is Republicans that are driving this belief that there was major fraudulent voting, and it changed the results in the election. And fewer than half of Republicans are willing to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.
ROSE: That last number - that fewer than half of Republicans say they're willing to accept the results - is pretty much unchanged from last January. In fact, it's actually down a little bit. Almost two-thirds of all poll respondents agree that democracy is more at risk now than it was one year ago. Among Republicans, that number climbs to 4 out of 5.
MARTIN: NPR did some follow-up interviews with poll respondents. What did you hear from that?
ROSE: Well, the answers differed, you know, sharply, depending on whether you're talking to Democrats or Republicans. Two-thirds of Republicans in this survey agree with the false claim that, quote, "voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election," which is a key pillar of the so-called "Big Lie" that the election was stolen from former President Trump. This has been thoroughly disproven, but many Republicans are simply not persuaded. I mean, we talked to Stephen Weber from Woonsocket, R.I.
STEPHEN WEBER: I think the Democrats rigged the election because I saw how, all of a sudden, the numbers changed at, like, 3 a.m. And who the hell would vote for Biden?
ROSE: Eighty-one million people voted for Biden, compared to about 74 million for Trump. But Weber says he doesn't trust mail-in voting or Democrats, and he still believes that the election was stolen. Clearly, a lot of Republicans feel that way, too.
MARTIN: So Democrats also believe that America's democracy is fragile, but for very different reasons, right?
ROSE: Right. Democrats are also dismayed about the state of democracy, but they voiced concern about the voting restrictions that have been passed by a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures this year. You know, and they're struggling to make sense of this persistent belief in the fiction that President Trump won re-election. Here's Susan Leonard from Lyme, N.H.
SUSAN LEONARD: It's like a group mental illness has hit these people. I can't even wrap my head around it. I cannot believe this is happening in our country. I am scared.
MARTIN: Here we are almost to the day a year since the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. I mean, Joel, did the poll address the events of January 6? Is there any agreement among respondents about what happened that day?
ROSE: Yeah, we did ask about it. And the results are, you know, all over the place. No one thinks it was a reasonable protest, pretty much. But beyond that, Americans really cannot agree on what it was. More than half of Democrats call it, quote, "an attempted coup or insurrection," unquote. Republicans are much more likely to call it a, quote, "riot that got out of control," unquote. And a pretty significant number of Republicans - almost a third - told us it was actually carried out by, quote, "opponents of Donald Trump, including antifa and government agents," unquote, which is a baseless conspiracy theory that has been debunked.
MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks, Joel.
ROSE: Hey, you're welcome.
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MARTIN: More than 80 U.S. Capitol Police officers were injured in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last year. Several have died since then.
MARTINEZ: Tom Manger, chief of the Capitol Police, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday. He's held the job for less than six months after several top officials were forced out. Manger recently spoke with NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales about his vow to his officers.
TOM MANGER: This department cares about them. We're not going to let them down in the future the way they felt let down on January 6.
MARTIN: Claudia joins us now. Claudia, thanks for being here.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Just talk a little bit about what the past year has been like for members of the Capitol Police force.
GRISALES: Right. They suffered tremendous loss. For example, of the 80 injured, some are still on medical leave, and more than 130 have quit. They also saw more emergencies, including an April car attack at a Capitol checkpoint that left another officer dead. So Manger says he's working all sides of this, including addressing morale.
MANGER: The discussion that I often have with officers about morale is, think back to why you took this job in the first place. And think about that, and then think, you know, is the job now harder than you thought it was going to be? And so that impacts morale. You know, you think, oh, well, this wasn't what I expected; this is much harder.
GRISALES: The agency will add a new wellness center this year near the Capitol for officers, and Manger wants to hire nearly 300 more cops this year and eventually get up to about 2,000 total officers to address increasing demands. This is all going to be in focus this week with the anniversary as well as when Manger testifies before Congress for the first time.
MARTIN: So after the January 6 attack, Claudia, the Capitol Police force took a lot of heat - right? - for not being able to secure the actual building. What have they done to fix those security concerns?
GRISALES: Right. Manger says Capitol Police have bulked up their intelligence sharing. This was a key January 6 failure. They hired a longtime Secret Service agent to help oversee large-scale events and added several new intelligence analysts. Manger said they also ramped up training, equipment and staffing deficiencies for the riot control division, and they boosted communications, which was another area of weakness.
MARTIN: So - I mean, we heard Manger earlier say that the Capitol Police force, that members just feel like the work is more difficult, that their expectations about the work have changed. But has it? I mean, has the fundamental job of the Capitol Police force had to evolve since the January 6 attack?
GRISALES: It has. They've shifted more from a reactionary to a protection role, and the threats have just skyrocketed. Capitol Police saw more than 9,000 threats against their members, of the Capitol lawmakers. So it's more than double the level seen five years earlier, and they still saw setbacks. Last month, a worker got past security with a gun in his bag, and it happened to be the same day that President Biden was expected at the Capitol. A first officer missed the gun on an X-ray machine. But later, a second officer caught it, triggering a hunt for the employee who Manger said was located 12 minutes later.
MANGER: But the bottom line is, it shouldn't have happen. But it was human error, and we certainly reinforced with those two officers and will reinforce their training. And no one has to convince anybody, me or any of the officers here, how critical it is that we not make those kinds of mistakes.
GRISALES: The agency is also winning praise for their reforms from lawmakers. But they want to hear about their progress, addressing more than a hundred fixes recommended by the Capitol Police watchdog, whereas only a third have been completed so far.
MARTIN: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Claudia, thank you. We appreciate it.
GRISALES: Thank you much.
(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA AND PHILANTHROPE'S "NAUTICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.