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News Brief: California COVID-19 Surge, Trump And Biden Campaign, SCOTUS Ruling


This week, our country reached and then crashed right past another grim milestone - 3 million cases of coronavirus nationwide.


States including Texas and California are battling overcrowded hospitals, overwhelmed medical staff. Dr. Joseph Varon works in the emergency department at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. He says the majority of his patients can pinpoint the day they contracted the virus, and most admit they weren't properly social distancing.

JOSEPH VARON: Everybody wants to be out, and it's funny because then you see them in the hospital sick near death, almost connected to a respirator and then they tell you, yes, I screwed up. We see that every single day.

MARTIN: California had early success containing the virus. For comparison, that state now has more positive cases than the entire United Kingdom. Dr. Bob Wachter heads the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. He says his state was overconfident when easing lockdowns.

ROBERT WACHTER: I think we just opened up badly. Too many people heard the governor say it's OK to begin opening up and didn't hear the next part of the sentence, which is we have to do it safely. And if we don't, we're going to see a surge the way states that didn't take it seriously are.

GREENE: We have health reporter Stephanie O'Neill joining us from southern California. Stephanie, thanks for being here. And I guess just start by telling us how bad these numbers look.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Well, the numbers are growing, David. California now has more than 300,000 positive cases confirmed statewide. From a per capita perspective, it hasn't been slammed nearly as hard as states like Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts and New York, of course. But still the news is grim. Over the last week, California has been averaging more than 7,600 new infections per day. Testing is up, of course, but the percentage of positive cases is also up to almost 8%. The state also had a record single-day death toll reported this week. Hospitalizations are climbing. And some areas are nearing or exceeding ICU capability.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, that tells you when things are getting to a breaking point sometimes. Tell us about the situation in different parts of the state. I imagine some places are seeing things worse than others.

O'NEILL: Exactly. You know, California is a really large, diverse state with 40 million people. And after the reopening, the first place to get hit hard by the virus was Southern California. Los Angeles County is the most populous county in California with the most cases statewide. But on a per capita basis, Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California is really struggling with a disproportionately large number of cases. This is a rural desert area of about 180,000 people that shares a border with Mexico and hard-hit Arizona. The region is heavily agricultural, blue collar, practically everybody is an essential worker of some kind. And as is often the case with these vulnerable populations, these are the people who are hardest hit in disasters like this, and that's happening there.

GREENE: Am I right? I mean, we didn't really see this coming because California was sort of seen as a model for taking early action in this pandemic.

O'NEILL: Yeah. You know, initially when the pandemic hit, California was doing really well, in part because, first, the San Francisco Bay Area counties shut down. Then Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order before any other governors nationwide did so. But then came the reopening in late May, you know, and the temperatures warmed and Californians flocked to the beaches without masks. And over Memorial Day, friends and families celebrated together, many forgetting or defying pleas and orders to wear masks and to keep 6 feet apart. Then there's the transfer of prison inmates around the state to reduce overcrowding during the pandemic. And then one really tragic instance - there was this group of Southern California inmates moved north to San Quentin prison. And unfortunately, among them were about two dozen inmates who later tested positive. And now a third of San Quentin's inmates are infected.

GREENE: Oh, wow. Well - so how are elected leaders, how are public health officials in the state going to deal with this?

O'NEILL: Well, right now, masks are required statewide. Harder hit counties are reeling back the reopening. The governor's ordered them to close bars and wineries and indoor dining and movie theaters. Officials are transferring COVID patients in some crowded hospitals to less crowded ones around the state to free up ICU space. That's a scene that's playing out most graphically in hard-hit Imperial County, which has only two hospitals. And for several weeks they've been airlifting COVID patients to open beds in nearby San Diego, Palm Springs and then to the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento about five to six hundred miles away. And at the same time, those Imperial County hospitals have set up triage tents outside to help accommodate the overflow. You know, we saw that at the beginning of the pandemic. A lot of hospitals did that and didn't need it. And now, you know, it's coming back. So it's a bit of an unnerving scene that's likely to be played out elsewhere in California as this virus continues its spread.

GREENE: Health reporter Stephanie O'Neill in Southern California. Stephanie, thank you.

O'NEILL: You're welcome.


GREENE: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the eastern half of Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa, is a tribal reservation.

MARTIN: Which is not how the state has been acting for the last hundred years. And this decision might have a lot of legal implications. Here's the attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, Sara Hill.

SARA HILL: There is an emotional reaction to seeing the Supreme Court say what, you know, tribes and tribal advocates have been saying for a long time, which is that these promises that were made in these treaties had meaning.

MARTIN: So what are the implications going to be for Oklahomans?

GREENE: Well, let's talk about this with Allison Herrera, who is the Indigenous affairs reporter with member station KOSU in Oklahoma. Allison, welcome. And can you just give us the background on this case? I mean, how did Oklahoma officials not know that this wide swath of the state was part of a reservation?

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: So the background is the case was filed by a Seminole man named Jim C. McGirt. He was convicted of child sex crimes. His guilt was never in question. However, he said Oklahoma - the state of Oklahoma didn't have jurisdiction to try him in state court. And the Supreme Court agreed and said that he should have been tried in federal court. But I have to give your listeners a quick history lesson here because the question is really about tribal sovereignty. So members of the five tribes like the Muscogee Creek Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw and the Seminole were removed from southeast Oklahoma in the 1800s on the Trail of Tears. And we're told that Oklahoma would be their permanent home, that they could govern and tax and control the land. But that didn't last long because, you know, when the government wanted to open up Oklahoma for white settlers, they dismantled tribal governments and divided up communal lands, giving the leftovers to white settlers. But they didn't do one thing. Congress forgot one big detail that it became the crux of this case. They never explicitly dissolved the reservation.

GREENE: Wow. That's an important detail, as we see now from this case. So what is the response to this ruling?

HERRERA: Like I've said, this is a really - reaffirms tribal sovereignty. Yesterday, the five tribes and the attorney general of Oklahoma released a statement said that they're committing to working together. But the state and tribes already work together. There's a patchwork of tribal and nontribal land. So there's tribes of Oklahoma, and they have a long history of working together. And the state attorney general, Mike Hunter, says that he expects that to continue.

GREENE: So what does this all mean? I mean, this could have implications not just in Oklahoma but in tribal areas elsewhere, right?

HERRERA: Yes, indeed, it does. This gives tribes a stronger seat at the table with the state and federal governments when they negotiate these agreements. It's a big win for environmental and land advocates. The tribes will likely have a greater leverage in protecting land and water resources in their jurisdiction. Oil and gas companies - they think that it'll be harder to drill. But it also gives tribes greater authority to investigate and prosecute crimes against Native women who are twice as likely to experience violence or be murdered. So I think all of those things, but it also just reaffirms tribal sovereignty and just like, you know, Sara Hill said at the beginning, these treaties have meaning.

GREENE: A big decision from the Supreme Court yesterday. This is KOSU member station reporter Allison Herrera. Allison, thanks so much for reporting on it.

HERRERA: Thank you so much for having me this morning.


GREENE: So talking about the economy, it's usually a pretty good way for presidential candidates to get the attention of voters.

MARTIN: Yeah. This week, both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden tried to position themselves as the best person to rebuild the economy. But this is anything but a normal election year. And there are indications that those kinds of plans may not be as important to voters this year.

GREENE: We'll talk about that with NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben. Hi, Danielle.


GREENE: So talk me through what kind of cases we're hearing from the president and from Joe Biden on the economy.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So both of them are, of course, talking about rebuilding because, right now, we have super high unemployment. But aside from that, Donald Trump is on the attack. He's saying that Joe Biden is bad for the middle class. He has a new ad out attacking Biden for supporting trade deals like NAFTA. Biden, meanwhile, is saying that, yeah, I want to rebuild, but I also want to fix basic problems in the economy. So, for example, he wants to shrink racial economic gaps and boost unionization.

GREENE: So the economy is not doing well right now, and that would seem to be bad for the president, an incumbent, in November. Does that give Biden, as we would usually expect, an opening to make his case here?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, it's certainly good for him to some extent, but I wouldn't want overstate it too much because, first of all, right now, we're not sure where we'll be in November in terms of trajectory, if we'll be healing or if things will be getting worse or if we'll just be stuck. But also the economy is Donald Trump's best area. While his approval rating overall has generally been pretty negative, especially lately, his economic approval rating has been better than his overall approval rating. So a big part of Trump's argument is we will rebuild the economy to where we were pre-pandemic because before all of this, the economy was doing well. But to zoom out and look at past elections, there has been good evidence that jobless rates, personal income, that those really have affected voters and to the extent that it matters that it would matter most in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, that it affects voters on the margins.

GREENE: So the whole - that whole phrase, it's the economy, stupid - I mean, might that just not apply as much this year in 2020?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, it's not so much that this year is different as it's a more intensified version of something we've seen before, that partisanship changes how someone sees the economy. We've seen that in the past. During Democratic administrations, Republican have seen the economy as bad and vice versa. During Republican administrations, Democrats have done the same. But those gaps have exploded under Donald Trump. So what that means is Republicans and Democrats might not have it affect their votes as much.

GREENE: Interesting stuff. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, thank you so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that five Native American tribes were removed from southeast Oklahoma in the 1800s on the Trail of Tears. They were removed from the southeast United States to Oklahoma.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 11, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that five Native American tribes were removed from southeast Oklahoma in the 1800s on the Trail of Tears. They were removed from the southeast United States to Oklahoma.
Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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