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Trump Back On Campaign Trail After Coronavirus Diagnosis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three weeks and a day until Election Day and both presidential campaigns are trying to make the most of it. President Trump was diagnosed with the coronavirus 12 days ago, but his doctor has cleared him to get back on the trail again. He's going to be holding a rally in Florida tonight. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey are both with us this morning. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Franco, I want to start with you. Let's start with President Trump. He is pushing ahead with campaign events this week. I mean, it's been less than two weeks since he was hospitalized for COVID-19. He is clearly, though, Franco, eager to get back in the public eye.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, no doubt about it. You know, on the one hand, the president says he feels great. His message on COVID has been that you can't let it dominate your life, to downplay the severity, you know, to say that schools and businesses need to open up. And in this way, Trump is doing that.

On the other hand, though, there are big political reasons to get out there. Polls show the president is losing by clear margins, largely because of how he handled this virus. His campaign actually got into a squabble yesterday with Dr. Anthony Fauci because he said they used him in an ad without his consent and misrepresented views. So in many ways, the Trump campaign is feeling the pressure to shake things up and make up some ground, especially with this week's debate canceled. And there's only going to be one left, on October 22.

MARTIN: Right. OK. So, Allison, can you just give us some ground truth on the president's condition? And we need to ask that because there hasn't been a whole lot of transparency about his illness from the get-go. I mean, is he still contagious?

AUBREY: Well, over the weekend, the president's physician said he's no longer considered a transmission risk to others. Tests show there's no longer evidence of active virus in his body. And I've spoken to several infectious disease experts - outside experts - who say the evidence is sufficient that the president is no longer contagious. Saturday marked Day 10 of the onset of his symptoms. He's reportedly feeling much better. They say there's no reason to doubt this assessment that he's no longer contagious.

Now, the president has said that he thinks he's immune to the virus now. His doctors have said that there are detectable levels of antibodies in his blood work. He did receive that experimental antibody cocktail drug. I spoke to an infectious disease doctor about this, Rochelle Walensky of Massachusetts General Hospital. She says it's reasonable that President Trump would have some immunity at this point.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: It is the case that most people develop antibodies after about seven to 10 days and that they peak in their antibodies at around 49 to 50 days. So he may very well have a robust antibody response right now.

AUBREY: But - and this is a big but - it's just really not clear how long that response may hold up. It may not be for the long term.

MARTIN: Mm hmm. So, Franco, the president is going to Florida tonight. Just explain how important that state is in the president's path to reelection.

ORDOÑEZ: Very, very important - you know, it's really hard to see how he could win reelection without winning Florida. And the polls show him down there at the moment, too. You know, he's been trying to make inroads with some key Latino groups. And he's had some success in the area, especially trying to link Biden to socialism. But another key constituency is seniors, and they are a crucial voting bloc in the state. And many of them have really been turned off by the president's handling of the virus. You know, Trump actually recorded a video specifically aimed at seniors, but it may be hard to convince them at this point about his leadership when he caught the virus himself.

MARTIN: We're talking to you, Franco - you're actually in Delaware. You are going to be traveling with the Biden campaign today to Ohio, which is a state that Trump won by a big margin in 2016. I mean, clearly, if Biden is going to Ohio at this stage of the game, they think they've got a chance there.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, that's right, I mean, Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016. You know, Democrats have not been paying much attention. But now Biden, you know, has a - you know, a sizable lead in the polls. And the map of competitive states has expanded. Democrats have also raised a ton of money. So they're able to spend money on ads in different places, like northeast Ohio but also, you know, places like Erie, Pa., where Biden campaigned yes (ph) - on Saturday. And that's another area that had swung away from Democrats. So there's a lot that can be done now.

MARTIN: So here we are at the final stretch of the campaigns. At the same time, Allison, I mean, we're seeing increases in coronavirus cases in different pockets around the country. Can you just give us the latest about where the virus is really bad right now in the overall picture?

AUBREY: Sure. Over the last week, there have been about 48,000 new cases documented each day. That's about a 10% increase compared to just early October. Deaths are decreasing, about a 5% decline compared to two weeks ago. But at the same time, hospitalizations are inching up in many spots in the Midwest - Ohio, Wisconsin. And that is not a good sign as we head into these colder winter months, especially as the virus continues to spread widely through many parts of the country - the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountain states, including Utah, Montana. In Florida yesterday, the state department of health reported nearly 5,600 new cases. That's the highest number of new infections since August.

MARTIN: Hmm. So you just said Florida and Ohio, which is where...

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: ...We just talked earlier - that's where President Trump is going, to Florida, and Joe Biden's going to Ohio. So clearly, their campaigns are going to take extra precautions.

I mean, the president plans to rally in other states this week - Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina. Joe Biden's going around the country. I mean, how safe is this electioneering at this point?

AUBREY: You know - I mean, many public health experts say we need to be doubling down on social distancing and masking to be super vigilant. So there are certainly concerns about these campaign events. I spoke to Rochelle Walensky of Mass General about this. She said, you know, even if Trump is no longer infectious, it could be risky to gather so many people together.

WALENSKY: He's thinking very much about himself and not about the people he would be putting at risk in those rallies. We saw after the Tulsa rally, there were infections; after the Rose Garden event that there were infections. So there is this habit of people gathering around the president leading to superspreader events.

AUBREY: And given that the virus is circulating so widely, this just could be dangerous.

MARTIN: All right. NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey; we were also joined by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey, thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.