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News Brief: Pandemic Toll, California Businesses, Venezuela Failed Coup


How many Americans will end up dying from COVID-19?


Obviously, that's something we don't know exactly as of right now. But the Trump administration is trying to offer some estimates. Over the past few weeks, those numbers, the official expected death toll, have gone up. And then yesterday, The New York Times reported that it got hold of an internal White House document that says the administration might be expecting many more people to die than it has been saying publicly.

KING: NPR's Nurith Aizenman has been looking into this. Good morning, Nurith.


KING: So what is this document that The New York Times got hold of?

AIZENMAN: So this document looks like slides for presentation, at least that's how it's formatted. It's stamped with the logos of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, you know, FEMA. It's titled, quote, "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Situation Update." And it includes graphs projecting that by June 1, the U.S. will see more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases per day and more than 3,000 deaths per day with no end given.

But - but - I spoke with the epidemiologist who came up with those graphs. He is Justin Lessler, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, part of a team that FEMA has contracted to help them with COVID-19 modelling. And he says, those are not his final projections. This was a work in progress.

KING: Just a work in progress. So what does that tell us?

AIZENMAN: Well, Lessler says those figures, they reflect only about a third of the various scenarios he's been running of how the pandemic might play out, you know, depending on what assumptions you make about variables, like how the virus transmits, et cetera. So he can ultimately come up with a final projection.

KING: So yesterday, there were all these questions about, well, has the White House been telling the truth? Should we be more worried than we are? What are the CDC and the White House saying about these numbers?

AIZENMAN: Right. So let me add - first, Lessler says he does not know how that - it made it into that document and what that document really was. Was it used to brief anyone? Or was it just some sort of draft? NPR contacted the CDC. They gave us a statement saying this data wasn't theirs. They directed us to FEMA. NPR then reached out to FEMA. We have not heard back from them.

The White House, their spokesman, Judd Deere, said it was not a White House document. It has not been presented to the coronavirus task force. It's not gone through interagency vetting. He said, it does not reflect any modelling done by or analyzed by the task force as it worked on the phased guidelines, those phase-like guidelines to reopen the economy.

KING: But it reflects how fluid all of these numbers are. I know that in the meantime, there is a research group that also has a model. The White House has said in the past, well, their model shows similar numbers to our model. That group offered new projections yesterday. What did they say?

AIZENMAN: That's right, a major revision. Researchers with the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now project that the current wave of infections in the U.S. won't be over until August 1, by which point nearly 135,000 people will have died. That's nearly double the deaths IHME was previously forecasting. And they say a big reason is so many states are now easing social distancing rules. And cellphone and other data sources suggest people are already increasing face-to-face interactions. Here's what Chris Murray with the IHME told CNN yesterday about what's behind these new projections.


CHRIS MURRAY: We had previously assumed that the mandates were going to stay in place until the end of May. That was going to bring transmission really down to a very low level. Now that, you know, people are out and active, states are taking off the mandates, we're seeing a very different story.

KING: Just real quick - all of these are predictions about what's going to happen in the future. Where do we stand right now today?

AIZENMAN: Nationwide, cases no longer rapidly rising. The increase each day is more like 2%. But it's been stuck at that level. We're in this prolonged plateau.

KING: Nurith Aizenman, thanks so much.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

KING: All right. Most U.S. states are now at least partially reopened.

GREENE: And by the end of this week, the most populous state is going to join them. The governor of California said yesterday that some retail stores will be able to reopen as early as this Friday, we should say, with modifications and under certain guidelines. So how far will this easing of stay-at-home orders in California go?

KING: NPR's Nathan Rott has been following this. Hey, Nate.


KING: OK. So the news is in California. You are in California. But before we get to California, can you just define what partial reopening means?

ROTT: Sure. What's your ZIP code?

KING: 2000.


ROTT: I joke. But, you know, it really does depend on where you are, especially when we zoom out and talk about this nationally, because of course, there are the federal government's reopening guidelines, which the Trump administration released. But those are really broad. And, you know, we've already seen states like Georgia basically throw them out and plow ahead on their own path.

So you've got dozens of states making their own definitions of partial reopening. And in some cases, including here in California, you've got counties or cities that are doing the same, breaking from the state to make their own reopening guidelines. So it's this really piecemeal approach, with some places being really aggressive in reopening parts of the economy and others being a bit more measured.

KING: And where does California fall on that spectrum?

ROTT: So based off of what we know now, it's definitely more of a slow-rolling, let's-wait-and-see approach. So on Friday, some nonessential retail businesses are going to be allowed to reopen. We're talking, like, sporting goods, clothing stores, bookshops, florists in time for Mother's Day. Those are going to be back, but only for curbside pickup and under strict rules, so very limited. But remember, California was the first state to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. So even that is a big deal to folks.

KING: Let me ask you something. We saw these reports of protests in California, people gathering to say, you know, we don't want to be locked down anymore. Is the government responding to those people?

ROTT: According to Governor Gavin Newsom, no. He's not. Here he is explaining the rationale during the announcement about these reopenings yesterday.


GAVIN NEWSOM: This is a very positive sign. And it's happened only for one reason - the data says it can happen.

ROTT: So Newsom says that the curve has been flattened here in California. State officials showed graphs yesterday basically illustrating as much. Now, there are still thousands of new cases here every day, dozens or more people dying. So it's not good by any definition of that word. But it's not as bad as it was. So state officials are going to try to loosen things up, closely monitor and see what happens.

KING: And it's worth noting that this is a big state. And there's a couple counties in California that have defied the stay-at-home order and just done their own thing, right?

ROTT: Yeah. So those are three fairly rural counties in northern California that, as one person I talked to there yesterday said, are closer to the snow than they are the beach. So they have not had as many coronavirus cases as, say, like, the Bay Area or LA, where I am. So local officials decided to break from the state and start allowing activities like dine-in eating with limited seating and all that. Here's Kristel Martin with the Yuba City's Downtown Business Association.

KRISTEL MARTIN: We're not trying to go against anything. We just want to get back to the new norm, bring our economy back and lower our unemployment and get people back to working again.

ROTT: Now, it's unclear if the state is going to fight them on this. So far, it has not. Newsom did say that they're going to allow different counties and areas to move at different speeds. You know, he recognizes that this scenario is not really a one-size-fits-all approach here. But the state is going to make sure that counties have the ability to test and trace, if they have hospital room, before they do any reopening to try and prevent another surge. If that goes well then, maybe, someday, other activities will open up.

KING: NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you.


KING: All right. So last night, Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, went on TV.

GREENE: That's right. He held up two U.S. passports. And he said, these belong to two men who he said were captured while leading a failed invasion of his country. Maduro said the U.S. had sent them to assassinate him. We should say, these two men were captured on Monday off the coast of Venezuela.

KING: NPR's Philip Reeves does a lot of reporting in Venezuela. He's on the line now from Rio. Hey, Phil.


KING: OK. So Maduro often says that the U.S. is plotting to overthrow him. This time, he has these two Americans. He says this is proof. What happened here?

REEVES: Well, Venezuelan authorities say they intercepted a group of what they're calling mercenaries and terrorists. They say these guys landed in boats early Sunday on a beach not all that far from the capital, Caracas. They claim eight of them were killed during those landings. And since then, Maduro's security forces have been carrying out a manhunt for others involved.

And now they're saying the two individuals, who they identify as Americans, were picked up yesterday. Maduro's claiming that this plot was thwarted because it was infiltrated by his intelligence agents. And he's alleging that these invaders were trained and funded by the U.S. and Colombia.

KING: And for some reason carrying their own passports. Who are these men? What do we know about them?

REEVES: Yeah. That is strange, the passport detail. Venezuelan officials have displayed pictures of what they say are their U.S. passports. And one of these Americans also had with him his veteran's ID card issued by the VA. So anyway, the Venezuelans have named these two men as Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who both are reportedly former U.S. special forces. Their names have been confirmed by a former Green Beret, a guy called Jordan Goudreau, who now runs a security company in Florida.

Goudreau says that he's one of the people behind this operation. He appeared in a video Sunday announcing that a daring, amphibious raid was underway in Venezuela. And he said that the mission was to capture Maduro. And he also says that more than 50 other fighters involved in this alleged operation are still in Venezuela. And most of these are reportedly Venezuelan military defectors who fled to Colombia.

KING: What are U.S. authorities saying about this?

REEVES: Well, you know, they've been working to oust Maduro for well over a year. They make no secret of their desire for him to be kicked out of office. But they are saying that this has nothing to do with them. In fact, officials have suggested this is fabricated, part of the Maduro propaganda move. Maduro's certainly getting huge propaganda mileage out of this at a time when he's eager to distract attention from the disaster playing out in Venezuela, not least the coronavirus pandemic, but also the collapse in oil prices and the loss of revenue from all those Venezuelans, the millions of Venezuelans who've moved abroad to find work.

At the moment, there's a lot we don't know about what happened in this particular instance. One U.S. source told me that this whole thing just doesn't add up. It doesn't make sense. But I'm hearing from Venezuelan contacts in Caracas that there's a general suspicion that this is the work of some freelance adventurers, but that Maduro's milking this story for all its geopolitical worth.

KING: NPR's Phil Reeves in Rio. Thanks, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.