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News Brief: Pandemic Surges, Texas COVID-19 Cases, Ethiopia's Civil War

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've grown a little numb at this point to news of the pandemic, and that may make it hard to grasp how much worse it is than just a month ago.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. This country is now reporting 1 million new cases per week. Rates are still soaring. About a thousand people are dying every day from COVID-19.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been covering the coronavirus pandemic since day one, and she's with us now to talk about the surge. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how different - when we hear about that many people being infected, how different are the numbers than just a few weeks ago?

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, new cases are increasing so quickly that just since the beginning of the month, there's been about an 80% increase, and we have not reached the peak yet. We're averaging a thousand deaths a day, as you just said. That is 42 people every hour, Steve, and close to 70,000 people are hospitalized. I spoke to Marc Boom. He's a doctor who is the CEO of Houston Methodist. He says right now, there are about 150 people being admitted to Texas Medical Center hospitals every day. And if current trends continue, it's just not sustainable.

MARC BOOM: So two weeks from now, that's 300, and then two weeks after that, that's 600, and two weeks after that, that's 1,200 if that trend continues. And that's what we cannot allow to happen. And it just - things get so much worse so quickly, and we've got to be vigilant and we've just got to persevere.

AUBREY: He says it's absolutely crucial that everyone take precautions to slow the spread.

INSKEEP: Allison, when I look at a chart of infections, it's starting to look like we're climbing a mountain. It's even becoming a cliff, it's going up so steeply. Is there's still a possibility to get this under control before absolute disaster?

AUBREY: You know, take what they've done in England. They've basically gone back into a nationwide lockdown. They've kept schools open, but restaurants, pubs, nonessential businesses have closed. Here in the U.S., we have a hodgepodge, Steve. Chicago has a stay-at-home advisory. There are new rules in Michigan, Washington, you know, new ones being announced every day at a state level. North Dakota just issued a mask mandate. I spoke to one of President-elect Biden's coronavirus advisers, Loyce Pace. She told me at their very first meeting last week, the focus was to lay the groundwork for a much more unified approach. And what we're likely to see is a set of evidence-based guidelines on when to issue restrictions and when to loosen them.

LOYCE PACE: You know, these things are a dial, not a light switch. And so I think that that will be a part of our discussion is really understanding better when and where to turn up that dial based on data.

AUBREY: You know, she says this will be crucial going forward.

INSKEEP: So we have this crisis with Thanksgiving just 10 days away. What's the safest approach to the holidays?

AUBREY: You know, there's a new element to this pandemic fatigue, Steve. Most people get it that this is not the year for big parties or big family gatherings. But many people are expanding their bubbles ever so slightly, getting together with just one more friend, allowing, you know, one more kid for a play date. It's this very incremental expansion of our social bubbles, combined with more time indoors, that some experts say is leading to the spread of virus in the household. So the safest thing for the holiday is to just gather with your immediate household or your immediate social bubble.

INSKEEP: Yeah. People in my family and circle are certainly changing their plans right now. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: All right. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

People say everything is bigger in Texas, and that now includes the pandemic.

MARTIN: It's the first state in the U.S. to have more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases. Among other places, El Paso is in crisis. Intensive care units across El Paso County were reaching capacity more than two weeks ago. Things have grown so much worse that the city has turned its convention center into a field hospital. Remember when things were that bad in New York in the spring? Well, cases across the U.S. are a lot worse now than they were then.

INSKEEP: Mallory Falk of our member station KERA is in El Paso. Good morning to you.

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: As best you can tell, what makes Texas different from other states?

FALK: Well, Texas doesn't have tight coronavirus restrictions in place like in some other states. The governor issued a statewide executive order on COVID, and it doesn't allow individual communities to implement their own restrictions. Texas very much is a place that lets people do what they want to do. And I should also point out Texas has a high rate of residents who are uninsured or live far away from hospitals and medical care. So there are many people here who have the type of untreated underlying conditions that mean they'll get sicker if they get COVID. And that's part of the problem, too.

INSKEEP: So Texas is taking a sort of freedom-first approach to the pandemic, but what is being done to try to limit the spread?

FALK: Well, it is all mired in politics. Here in El Paso County, the judge who's the top-elected official, last month, he ordered a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses, but several restaurant owners and the state attorney general sued. And on Friday, a court sided with them and blocked the order, saying cities and counties can't impose tighter restrictions than what the governor allows. And I should mention geography, too. El Paso is right on the border with New Mexico. And the governor there just implemented a two-week statewide shutdown, something that hasn't been done here. And El Paso is right on the border with Juarez, Mexico, and that city has a nightly curfew. There are tighter restrictions in place than in El Paso. And so there's this delicate balance because people are moving across various borders with different rules and restrictions.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm remembering that just a couple of weeks ago, we checked in on El Paso and found the hospitals filling up a couple weeks ago. And now Allison Aubrey is telling us that things are infinitely worse than just a couple of weeks ago. What's that mean for the hospitals?

FALK: Yeah, hospitals here are at capacity. There are 10 mobile morgues that are now needed because of so many people dying so quickly. And in fact, some inmates from the county jail are now being paid $2 an hour to help move the overflow of bodies at the medical examiner's office. Funeral homes are overwhelmed. I spoke to a funeral director who had to convert one of his chapels into a storage cooler. And nurses have been speaking out publicly, pleading with people to stay at home, to suspend family gatherings. And they've also been pleading with state officials to let El Paso leaders respond to the crisis and implement shutdown orders. Juan Anchondo is a nurse at Las Palmas Medical Center.

JUAN ANCHONDO: This situation is unsustainable, and it's going to get worse if we continue to set new records every day in infections, hospitalizations and deaths with our governor, our attorney general and the court as accomplices to this tragedy.

FALK: Steve, the medical staff here also talks about the psychological toll. Nurses and others describe seeing their patients vibrant and lively one day only to deteriorate rapidly and die not long after.

INSKEEP: Mallory Falk of member station KERA in El Paso, Texas, thanks for the update.

FALK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INSKEEP: And let's turn our eyes overseas now to an emerging civil war in Africa.

MARTIN: One part of Ethiopia is fighting the central government. And over the weekend, the violence crossed an international border. The rebellious regional government shot rockets into the capital of neighboring Eritrea.

INSKEEP: NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is following the story from Nairobi, Kenya. Hey there, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did things escalate to this point while our attention in the United States was turned elsewhere?

PERALTA: I mean, so the central conflict here is between the new government of Ethiopia and the old government of Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came into power in 2018, and he sidelined the TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia for nearly 30 years. And they've been fighting about elections, about a legitimacy. But all of this came to a head when the TPLF attacked a military base just about two weeks ago, and that's when this war started.

It's been really hard to get a sense of what's happening at the center of the conflict because the phone lines and the Internet have been shut off. But over the weekend, I did manage to reach out to Daniel Berhane. He's a political analyst in Mekelle, which is the capital of this rival regional government. And I reminded him that not long ago, he and I sat at a cafe there. And the overwhelming sentiment was that people in that region, that they were sick and tired of war. And I asked him, you know, what happened? And he said that people in Tigray had no choice because this is a battle about sovereignty or subjugation. Let's listen.

DANIEL BERHANE: Do you think Tigray will continue to exist with our existing territory and with our existing self-determination, with our existing proud history and heritage? Do you think they'll let us be that? No, they won't. They'll certainly destroy Tigray (ph).

PERALTA: If Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, he says, wins this war, Tigray disappears. And the government, for its part, believes that if the TPLF is allowed to remain, a united Ethiopia cannot exist. So it's hard to imagine any scenario where this conflict ends quickly because both of them are framing it as an existential struggle.

INSKEEP: So why then did the violence cross an international border into another country?

PERALTA: So the TPLF says that it shot missiles into Asmara because they believe that the Eritrean government is colluding with the Ethiopian government to attack the TPLF. We don't know if that's true, but, you know, the attack makes this conflict international. And it's almost sure to draw in Eritrea. And one of the reasons that is serious is because the TPLF in Eritrea, they've been at war before in the late '90s. When the TPLF was in power in Ethiopia, a border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, it became one of the deadliest on the African continent. And it seems that we are in the same place now.

INSKEEP: So you have people who know war in the quite recent past, and now they're in the middle of shooting again. How is that affecting civilians?

PERALTA: Sudan says that more than 24,000 Ethiopians have already crossed into their country seeking refuge. So, you know, I think it just tells you that Ethiopia is in a very precarious position right now, and civilians are very likely to bear the brunt of this conflict.

INSKEEP: Doesn't sound like there's any sign of this thing abating anytime soon.

PERALTA: No, there's no sign of it. And in fact, there are also ethnic tensions that are bubbling up.

INSKEEP: Eyder, thanks very much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.