AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This morning, the Navy hospital ship called Comfort arrived in New York Harbor. Mayor Bill de Blasio praised its arrival as a morale booster for New Yorkers, a clear sign that relief is on the way.
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BILL DE BLASIO: It's not just about the beds and the doctors and the equipment. It's also about hope.
CHANG: And here in Los Angeles, sailors aboard the Mercy, another Navy hospital ship, have begun accepting patients. Like those aboard the Comfort, they're treating people without coronavirus who need medical attention. It will help take pressure off hospitals dealing with the pandemic. Meanwhile, in the Seattle area, which diagnosed the first coronavirus case in the U.S., new mathematical modeling is showing that social distancing is working there, dramatically slowing down the local infection rate. All right, to talk about all of this, let's bring in NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and national correspondent Martin Kaste.
Hey to all three of you.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Afternoon.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: Martin, I want to start with you. Did I hear we have some actual good news now about the coronavirus in Seattle, at least?
KASTE: Believe it or not, good news, yeah. It's coming from this analysis by a group called the Institute for Disease Modeling. Usually, what they do is use computer modeling to track things like malaria and AIDS overseas, but now they're modeling COVID-19 here in their home base in the Seattle area. And they've been looking at the effect of social distancing, which started here in early March. But it kind of came in stages until it got really serious, sort of mid-March. And they calculate that through March 18, at least, their models shows that that had an effect of reducing the physical social interaction by about 50% - fifty; five, zero percent - which means about half the rate of person-to-person contagion that they can see in the model.
In other words, people talk about the R factor. That was about 2.7, meaning each person infected 2.7 people on average. Now that's down to about 1.4. And that was about 10 days ago, so it might even be lower now. And that's giving some people here some reason for cautious optimism. You can hear that here in the voice of Jeffrey Duchin. He's the public health officer in Seattle.
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JEFFREY DUCHIN: What we're doing now appears to be working. We should in no way take these findings as an indication to relax our social distancing strategy, that we need to continue this for weeks.
CHANG: OK, I do hear him using a cautious tone there. But is Seattle starting to talk about how social distancing will eventually end there?
KASTE: Well, I mean, it's a little too soon for people to even be talking about the end here, I mean, in part, because we haven't even seen the crest of the wave in medical cases because of the delay between infection and serious symptoms. The hospitals haven't seen the worst of it here yet. The governor, Jay Inslee, came out later today after that good news came out and said it's still - you know, there's still too many cases of businesses that are operating that shouldn't be. The state's going to be stricter about enforcing the rules. And, really, health officials here - public health officials want to have better, faster - they want a lot more fast turnaround virus testing in place before they start lifting the lid on anything here so they can track the disease if it comes back.
CHANG: Well, Richard, I mean, based on Seattle's mathematical modeling, is that experience there maybe a hint of what's to come elsewhere in the country?
HARRIS: Well, it has to happen that way eventually or we're in serious trouble. But Seattle has had a head start, so they're leading the way. New York is, at least, seeing the catastrophic rise there slowing down. It's gone from a case doubling rate of two to three - for every two to three days, doubling every six days. Still, that means that with more than 60,000 cases now, there will likely be 120,000 cases sometime next week. New York is hoping the disease will crest in mid-April, and Seattle might be providing some positive reinforcement that all the sacrifices people are making for social distancing will eventually pay off.
CHANG: Well, Franco, let's turn to you. I mean, this might be just the kind of thing that Americans need to hear right now because after last night, when President Trump extended the social distancing guidelines after weeks of stressing that the country needs to just get back to work - I mean, what happened there? - why this shift from the president?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It does appear that the president was convinced by his own public health experts of the risks of easing the guidelines too soon. He actually defended the decision this morning in an interview on Fox News.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And the worst that could happen is you do it too early, and, all of a sudden, it comes back. That makes it more difficult.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he kind of reiterated that in today's briefing in the Rose Garden. He really urged people to follow the social distancing guidelines. And he acknowledged, even if this is contained over the summer or before the summer or during the summer, that we could see another spike in the fall. And he talked about some of the death totals that the country could see without continued interventions.
CHANG: I mean, let's talk about those death totals because it's striking to hear some of these figures that the president is citing now. A month ago, he was saying deaths could be near zero here in the U.S. And now he's saying holding deaths just under 100,000 would be a very good job, right?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. The president is prepping the country for some tough weeks ahead.
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TRUMP: This is our shared patriotic duty. Challenging times are ahead for the next 30 days, and this is a very vital 30 days. We're sort of putting it all on the line.
ORDOÑEZ: And those numbers are if everything goes right. If no intervention is done, it could be over a million, potentially two million. I mean, the fact is the president is saying that he really appears to be moved by what is happening on the ground, what he's seeing on television, including in his own neighborhood, his old childhood neighborhood. He talked yesterday about watching television and seeing all the, quote, "body bags" in hallways at a hospital near his childhood home in Queens, N.Y. And Dr. Birx - she said tomorrow, they're going to actually share more details about the extended guidelines. And then Trump hopes to have things up and running again by June 1.
CHANG: You know, talking about all these different regions of the country, I'm curious, Richard, whatever happened to the idea of having different parts of the country stop social distancing and just restart normal life but at different times? Is that still a viable option?
HARRIS: Right, the president did - yeah, the president did suggest that recently. And he got support, actually, from one of the top scientists there, Dr. Birx. But today at the press conference, she actually retreated from that idea. She now says, as many other scientists do, that a small outbreak simply means the disease hasn't had a chance to get up to speed. But given time, they will, so that calls for a more cautious approach to relaxing social distancing, even in places that aren't badly hit right now.
CHANG: And as for President Trump's hopes to have things up and running by June 1, is that realistic, Richard - June 1?
HARRIS: Well, the model that forecasts a peak around mid-April also shows that the disease has - will have abated significantly by June 1, but, of course, that's just one forecast. And it doesn't mean everything goes back to normal, so we're going to really have to do some of the measures that Martin was alluding to at the beginning of this conversation - really making sure that there are things in place to test people, to isolate them and so on before we can really start relaxing these guidelines.
CHANG: All right. That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and national correspondent Martin Kaste.
Thanks to all three of you.
KASTE: Thank you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.