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News Brief: Pandemic Sales, COVID-19 Hospital Data Glitches, 2020 Census

Jul 31, 2020
Originally published on July 31, 2020 9:09 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Extra unemployment benefits to help Americans get through the pandemic expire today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congress has yet to extend them, and that lack of action tops off a week of bleak economic news. Yet some people are making money. Amazon just reported its biggest profit ever. It's a good time to be in the home delivery business. It's also a good time to be Facebook as people keep in touch with friends they can't visit. So who's winning and who's losing?

MARTIN: Let's ask NPR's Scott Horsley, chief economics correspondent for NPR. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So let's start off with the unemployment benefits that are expiring today. I mean, we are still waiting to see if lawmakers approve some sort of extension. But, I mean, this has put so many millions of American families on edge. They are making it through this pandemic because of that federal help, right?

HORSLEY: That's right, Rachel. Those benefits have been a lifeline for millions of families. They've also been an important prop for the broader economy. That showed up in that GDP report we got this week. One thing we know about unemployment benefits is a very high proportion of the money gets spent to buy groceries and pay rent and pay the electric bill. Unlike some of those $1,200 relief payments, which may get squirreled away in savings accounts and just sit there, unemployment benefits go right back out in the economy. And that helps landlords and grocers pay their bills. With those benefits going away, there's going to be a drain on the economy. We are already seeing signs that the recovery is sputtering with the spike in new infections. And forecasters say unless Congress does reach some kind of compromise on a new round of relief money, we could slip back into reverse and find ourselves with a double dip recession.

MARTIN: OK. So let's talk about some of the people who are benefiting in this moment, and that's big tech. The executives of these big tech companies face questions from lawmakers this week. Investors, though, seem to be pretty happy with their performance. What did we learn from those earnings reports?

HORSLEY: Investors should be happy. A day after that contentious congressional hearing, the four tech giants' market value went up by a combined $250 billion. For Amazon, this pandemic has just pushed the gas pedal on growth. The company's profits doubled from this time last year, even though the company is spending heavily on new workers and additional safety equipment. Facebook is also doing really well. People who are worried about socializing are turning to the social network. Apple's selling lots of iPhones and iPads to people working remotely. Google's parent company, Alphabet, though, actually reported a small drop in revenue during the most recent quarter. It was only about 2%, but that's the first time the company's revenues have ever fallen. So even the mighty are not immune from the overall slowdown in the economy.

MARTIN: How do those big tech companies compare those stellar performances? How does that compare to older industrial businesses right now?

HORSLEY: Older companies are having a tougher time, especially those in the transportation business, for example. Automakers are churning out cars and trucks, but Ford said it expects a loss for the full year. GM reported a quarterly loss. Obviously, airlines are feeling the strain from a sharp drop in air travel. And Boeing, the airplane manufacturer, was having troubles even before the pandemic. It's cut about 10% of its workforce and warned this week more cuts are coming.

MARTIN: And tech has been obviously a big driver of the stock market's recent gains. Explain what that does and does not tell us about the broader economy.

HORSLEY: You know, the market has had a pretty spectacular recovery. But, remember, stock holdings are very concentrated at the top of the income ladder. So the rebound doesn't mean that much to most Americans who really depend on paychecks, not stock dividends.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley. We appreciate you, Scott. Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. We are learning more this morning about major glitches in a new federal government database for hospital information.

INSKEEP: It's a crucial source of information in the pandemic. Changes made by the Trump administration a couple of weeks ago were supposed to help. The new system supposedly would streamline and speed up distribution of data to hospitals and public health officials.

MARTIN: But NPR's Pien Huang says that's not the way it's working out. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what is the data, and why is it so important?

HUANG: So the federal government has been collecting data from hospitals since the start of the pandemic, and it's information like how many COVID-19 patients they have and how many regular beds and ICU beds they have available and whether the staff have enough protective gear. And when you have all this, health officials can see if a state's hospital system is under stress and may be in danger of getting overwhelmed. So this information was getting collected and shared by the Centers for Disease Control. But two weeks ago, the Trump administration surprised a lot of people and said CDC would no longer collect all that data. And instead now it's going to Health and Human Services, or HHS.

MARTIN: OK. And you found that despite the Trump administration's promises, this new platform is actually not faster or more complete. Explain what you found.

HUANG: Yeah. So when HHS started posting this information, they posted it to a site called the HHS Protect Public Data Hub. They said it would be updated daily. But as of this morning, none of the hospital bed estimates have been updated in over a week. Now, remember, this is data that doctors and public health officials and policymakers need in close to real time to be able to make decisions. Here's Lisa Lee. She's a former CDC official who's now at Virginia Tech.

LISA LEE: If we know, for example, that a community's all ICU beds are taken up that we're going to say, OK, emergency medical personnel, you know, you got to take them to the next town over or to the next county. So there are very real things that happen as a result of these data. And if they're not accurate, that could cost lives.

HUANG: Yeah. And the other issue is completeness. So Trump officials argued CDC wasn't managing to get every single hospital to report. And that was one of the reasons for the switch. But what we're seeing now is that they also haven't managed to get 100% of hospitals to report. And also rehab and veterans facilities are not included, but they were for the CDC data.

MARTIN: So they're like flying blind without this information. I mean, in your reporting, you also came across strange numbers that don't make sense since this change in data collection happened. Explain and give us an example, if you could.

HUANG: Yeah, sure. So, for example, in the last data set collected by the CDC in July right before the switch, there were about 30 to 100 COVID patients in Arizona. And they were taking up about 24% of the hospital beds. When the switch happened, that rate jumped way up to 42% of the beds, but the actual number of COVID patients dropped. And so a CDC official told me that makes no sense. And also a lot of the data for other states doesn't make sense or match what the states are reporting on their own websites. For example, the new HHS site shows Rhode Island having over 100% of their ICU beds occupied, which is just impossible.

MARTIN: What's HHS saying about this?

HUANG: Well, HHS just told me last night that they're only planning to update the hospital estimates once a week, not every day. And they also said that some hospitals and states have made errors submitting the data. And so they're going to work hard to collaborate with them to fix it.

MARTIN: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you so much. We appreciate your reporting on this.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: And finally today, a major development in the effort to update the U.S. Census.

INSKEEP: Yeah. It's another story where numbers are the news. NPR has learned the Census Bureau is ending its door knocking program one month early. You know, this was my job one summer, meeting people face to face to be sure they're counted. Well, the bureau no longer knocks on every door but does knock on many to make sure that nobody is missed. Democrats in Congress are accusing the White House of pressuring the bureau to stop counting earlier than expected to give Republicans political advantage.

MARTIN: We've got NPR census reporter Hansi Lo Wang with us. He broke this story and joins us now from New York. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why are they doing this? Why are they stopping the door-to-door counting early?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau says it wants to get this done as soon as possible. But what's really interesting here is that this door knocking - and this is at households that have not filled out a census form - it's only just started in some parts of the country. It's set to rollout nationwide on August 11. And what I've confirmed is that it's now supposed to end on September 30 instead of October 31. And this new date has not been officially announced, but I've confirmed it with three Census Bureau employees who learned about it during internal meetings. And many Democrats have been concerned the bureau is essentially being forced to do this, to cut door knocking short, by the White House because, for months, the bureau says it needs more time to try to finish counting every person living in the country. And right now, roughly 4 out of 10 households nationwide have not been counted yet.

MARTIN: So, I mean, that's a lot of people still to be counted. How much time does the Census Bureau need to finish the count?

WANG: The bureau says it needed until the end of October to keep door knocking. And, you know, at this point in the census, you really need as much time as you can to try to send out those door knockers, especially to try to reach people of color, immigrants, other historically undercounted groups who don't trust the government. And in order to keep counting through October, the Census Bureau needs Congress to step in because under current federal law, new state population counts are due to the president by the end of this year. So the bureau asked back in April Congress to pass a new law and extend legal deadlines.

MARTIN: Has Congress done that?

WANG: No. Only Democrats have introduced bills in Congress to extend those deadlines; nothing so far from Republicans. And what's interesting - there's a twist here. Back in April, President Trump publicly backed these 120-day deadline extensions. And I dug up a clip from a press conference back in April when President Trump basically suggested Congress doesn't have a choice here because of all the delays caused by the pandemic. Let's listen to the president.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know that you even have to ask them. This is called an act of God. This is called a situation that has to be. They have to give, and I think 120 days isn't nearly enough.

WANG: But this week, when Republicans released their coronavirus relief proposals with input from the White House, there was no mention of census deadlines.

MARTIN: So, I mean, we heard the president talking there, but where is the White House right now on this change ending the door knocking early?

WANG: I have not been able to get a direct response from the White House, but one thing to keep in mind is that President Trump recently put out a memo trying to exclude unauthorized immigrants from population counts that would redistribute seats in Congress. And those are the population counts due to the president at the end of this year if you were to stick to the current deadlines and rush the census. So by sticking with the current deadlines, President Trump, even if he loses the election in November and is lame duck president, he will get these numbers.

MARTIN: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang - he covers all things census related and brings us this news. Hansi, thank you.

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