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News Brief: U.S. COVID Status, Ga. Voting Law, Plot Foiled In Jordan


The pandemic in the United States is changing in two dramatic ways.


That's right. Tens of millions of people have now been vaccinated with older and sicker people mostly going first. But at the same time, kids and young adults are driving up infection rates in more than 20 states.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is reporting on the effort to avoid one more surge. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Common sense or what seems like common sense would tell you that just having some people vaccinated would lower the number of people exposed and maybe lower the infection rates. What's really happening?

AUBREY: Well, the virus is still circulating widely, but only 23% of adults in the country have been fully vaccinated. I mean, the good news is that the pace of vaccinations has really picked up and the supply, too. The CDC says 208 million doses of the vaccine have been delivered. But the bottom line, Steve, states have loosened restrictions. People are out and about. They're traveling. If you look at Florida, for instance, the destination of many spring break travelers, there's not only a steady increase in cases but also an increase in the number of people infected with B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain that is much more contagious.

INSKEEP: So new variants with less cautious people. Does all of that point to what would be a fourth surge in the pandemic?

AUBREY: You know, a lot of experts say so, or at least an uptick after a plateau. Now, if you look at the hot spots, you can see somewhat of a repeat of last year with surges in the Northeast, upper Midwest, followed by increases in the Sun Belt states. That's how Michael Osterholm sees it. He's the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He spoke on "Meet The Press" yesterday.


MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We're now, I think, in that cycle where the upper Midwest is just now beginning to start this fourth surge. And I think it was a wake-up call to everyone yesterday when Michigan reported out 8,400 new cases. And we're now seeing an increase in number of severe illnesses, ICU hospitalizations and individuals who are between 30 and 50 years of age who have not been vaccinated.

AUBREY: So this is just really a reality check. The pandemic is not over.

INSKEEP: Amid all this concern, though, hasn't the CDC loosened some of its restrictions on travel?

AUBREY: Yeah, the new guidance is an acknowledgment that people who are fully vaccinated can resume some activities. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has talked about her own concerns of what she's called impending doom given the increase in cases and hospitalizations. So she says it's very important to remain vigilant. The extent to which cases continue to rise, Steve, will depend a lot on what we do, whether people continue to wear masks and avoid crowds. But she says it is low risk for fully vaccinated people to travel.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: For example, fully vaccinated grandparents can fly to visit their healthy grandkids without getting a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining, provided they follow the other recommended preventive measures while traveling.

AUBREY: Though for people who are not yet vaccinated, the agency continues to advise against nonessential travel, so getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible really is the ticket back to resuming all these activities we've missed.

INSKEEP: Is it known yet, Allison, how long people have been vaccinated will be protected?

AUBREY: You know, the latest data released by Pfizer shows that six months after getting the second dose, people in the Pfizer clinical trial remained more than 90% protected against symptomatic COVID. So, you know, that's really encouraging. But beyond that, it's just not clear. Many experts I've spoken to say this could end up being similar to a flu shot where people need to get a shot every year or perhaps periodic boosters to protect against variants. So this is something that vaccine makers are watching very closely.

INSKEEP: Not the most pleasant thing, but certainly better than staying at home constantly. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.


INSKEEP: You know, some of this country's biggest corporate brands are based in Georgia.

KING: And now Black church leaders and civil rights groups want those companies to fight the state's new voting restrictions. They're calling for boycotts of Coca-Cola, Delta and the Home Depot. Major League Baseball has already said it's moving this summer's All-Star Game out of Atlanta. Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, who signed the law, responded with a common Republican buzz phrase.


BRIAN KEMP: Cancel culture and partisan activists are coming for your business.

KING: Georgia Republicans tightened voting rules after losing the 2020 election. They got a ton of criticism and backed off some of the restrictions, but they added new ID rules and outlawed giving water to people standing in line at the polls. Remember, Georgia is a hot state. The law also reduces the power of Brad Raffensperger. He's the Republican secretary of state who resisted efforts to overturn a Democratic election.

INSKEEP: Emil Moffatt of our member station WABE joins us now. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So these companies are under pressure, but I want to note Delta has said the new laws are, quote, "unacceptable." Coca-Cola said it was disappointed, which has not saved them from a boycott. What is it that activists really want from the companies?

MOFFATT: They want them to support the lawsuits against these laws, to hold press conferences to denounce these and similar voting laws across the country. And they want companies to use their national influence to push for voting rights protection at the federal level. Here's Bishop Reginald Jackson with the Georgia AME Church.

REGINALD JACKSON: We need them to speak out against any effort to suppress votes, any effort that is racist and any effort to turn back time.

MOFFATT: And Bishop Jackson says he continues to meet with these corporate leaders hoping to stave off this boycott, but he still wants commitments from them.

INSKEEP: Can you just help me understand what Governor Brian Kemp is thinking and saying? It's very clear, we've reported, that the claims of fraud in last year's election were completely false. They were rejected in lawsuit after lawsuit. Even Governor Kemp at the time resisted those false claims of fraud. And yet now he embraces this law that is based on the claims of fraud. How does he defend himself?

MOFFATT: He defends himself by saying that these are needed laws. And he accused Major League Baseball of just taking its cues from prominent Democrats, and he accused them of not reading the law. He said what baseball is doing is a continuation of what he calls cancel culture that targets conservatives.


KEMP: What sport are they going after now? What event are they going to go after? What convention? What are they going to do if the Braves make the playoffs? Are they going to move the damn playoff game?

MOFFATT: And Kemp claims that the new laws actually expand access to voting and make elections more secure. We should note that some measures do expand voting opportunities but mainly in smaller counties. In larger areas like here in metro Atlanta, the laws either keep the status quo or reduce access. Already several lawsuits have been filed against the new laws. And Georgia's Republican attorney general, Chris Carr, will have to defend the state.


CHRIS CARR: Anybody who actually reads this bill quickly sees that it strengthens security, expands access and improves transparency in Georgia's elections.

MOFFATT: And Carr, like Kemp, accused President Biden and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams of using misinformation about the bill to pressure companies like Major League Baseball into speaking out against it.

INSKEEP: Just got a couple of seconds, but how much is Atlanta affected by losing the All-Star Game?

MOFFATT: It's going to pay quite a heavy economic toll, especially in the area around the ballpark in Cobb County in the Atlanta suburbs.

INSKEEP: Emil Moffatt, thanks so much.

MOFFATT: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: Jordan's former crown prince says he's under house arrest.

KING: Yeah, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein and 20 other people are accused of a plot to threaten the country's, quote, "security and stability." The half-brother of King Abdullah II said he isn't allowed to communicate with anyone and that his Internet has been shut down. Through his lawyer, he released this statement to the BBC.


HAMZAH BIN HUSSEIN: It's reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.

INSKEEP: Jared Malsin of The Wall Street Journal is covering this story, and he's on the line from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.

JARED MALSIN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So I recognize this is all about intrigue and things happening behind the scenes, but have you been able to figure out what prompted the arrests?

MALSIN: Well, what the government is saying is they're describing what they say is a foreign-backed plot to destabilize Jordan involving Prince Hamzah and two other men, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, who's a member of the royal family, and Bassem Awadallah, who is a former chief of the royal court and a finance minister. And they're accusing all three of these men of participating in this alleged plot.

INSKEEP: When you say foreign plot or when they say foreign plot, which foreign entity? Who overseas is trying to destabilize Jordan, according to the government?

MALSIN: They haven't said, and they haven't given a lot of details at all about what the nature of this plot was, of who else might have been involved, of who the foreign parties involved allegedly were. They've just said that all three of them were in communication with one another and with some unspecified foreign body. Prince Hamzah himself in his video that he released to the BBC has denied this, that there was any such conspiracy. And diplomats that we've spoken with are also skeptical of the government's narrative, pointing out that if there was any coup attempt or plot to unseat the king, that there would have to be involvement from someone in the military or the security forces. And right now, we're not seeing any evidence of that.

INSKEEP: So Prince Hamzah also made this statement about how it was actually a crackdown on dissent, a crackdown against any criticism whatsoever. Was he being critical of the government publicly? And if so, in what way?

MALSIN: He was. He criticized the government in the two videos that he released on Saturday when he said he went into house arrest, saying that the country was being ruled by corruption and nepotism. He said this publicly in the past. He's been reaching out to the Jordanian public and has really become sort of an embodiment of the kind of discontent that you're seeing in Jordan right now, given the state of the economy, which is struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic. You've also seen a lot of labor unrest in Jordan the last few years. So it's really an expression of those internal tensions.

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, is that discontent visible on the streets? Have people protested different things, for example?

MALSIN: There have been several waves of protests in Jordan in the last few years, including one enormous one in 2018 that resulted in the resignation of the prime minister. So this is a situation to see how it unfolds.

INSKEEP: Jared Malsin, thanks for your reporting, really appreciate it.

MALSIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.