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News Brief: Coronavirus, Oil Prices Plunge, 6 Democratic Primaries


After days of floating at sea, the Grand Princess cruise ship is set to dock today in California.


Yeah. There are around 3,000 people onboard, and at least 20 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. And the thing is, not all of them have gotten the test yet. Here's one passenger. Her name is Debbi Loftus.

DEBBI LOFTUS: They haven't even tested us yet. So there's another question is - are we going to be tested while we're still on the boat or we'll be tested as we get off or we'll - tested at the military base? There's just a lot of questions and not enough answers right now.

KING: At this point, there are 500 cases in the United States in total, and more than 20 people have died.

GREENE: OK. Let's talk about the latest with coronavirus with NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein. And Rob, let's start with this cruise ship. What is happening there in Oakland, Calif.?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. So David, the ship is expected to dock in Oakland today. It's carrying passengers from all over - dozens of countries and across the U.S. More than 20 people on board have already tested positive for the virus. So authorities have set up a system to get people who need to be hospitalized off first, and then they're going to quarantine the others at military bases in different parts of the U.S.

GREENE: OK. So that's one ship. Let's talk about the broader picture here as a new week starts. What do we know at this point about coronavirus in the United States?

STEIN: You know, so far, the West Coast continues to be hit hardest. You know, there are more than 200 cases between Washington state and California alone. But this is far from just a West Coast problem. Cases have been found in at least 34 states now. More than a hundred cases have now been reported, for example, in New York state. And the first case was reported in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, along with several other cases nearby. And that includes someone who attended a conservative conference outside Washington that was also attended by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. In fact, two lawmakers self-quarantined following that conference, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar.

GREENE: OK. So we were talking about that we might see numbers really start to increase rapidly in the U.S. That seems to be happening. Explain what might be going on.

STEIN: Yeah. You know, so there was this big delay with testing, but testing is finally really ramping up in this country. So we're finding cases now almost everywhere where we look. And that's probably going to accelerate even faster now as testing really starts to take off and the virus spreads as well.

Almost every state lab is now testing, and more hospitals are testing. And federal officials, over the weekend, claimed that more than a million tests the government's been promising for a long time now are finally being shipped out around the country. Big commercial testing companies are starting to test. So you could see that, you know, this all adds up to a scenario where numbers could really start to shoot up even faster now.

GREENE: So if the numbers are starting to increase at a higher rate, I mean, are we at a point where officials are going to have trouble ever containing it, or is that still possible?

STEIN: Public health workers around the country are doing what they've been doing now since the get-go, you know? They're scrambling to spot infected people early and to isolate them and quarantine people as fast as they can. The idea there is to prevent, you know, any trains of transmission from continuing, trying to break those chains and contain the virus. But that sort of thing only goes so far. And so broader societal measures, so-called mitigation measures, are also needed. Here's Anthony Fauci from the NIH.


ANTHONY FAUCI: I don't think it would be as draconian as nobody in and nobody out. But there'll be - if we continue to get cases like this, particularly at the community level, there will be what we call mitigation, where you'll have to do, essentially, social distancing.

STEIN: So you know, more and more Americans could see their daily lives get disrupted as officials try to contain this virus.

GREENE: And a lot of difficult decisions officials might have to make going forward.

STEIN: Yeah.

GREENE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, David.

GREENE: All right. Now, Saudi Arabia has cut oil prices, and this is due in part to the coronavirus.

KING: Here's what's going on. Demand for oil has dropped because people are traveling less and all these events are being canceled. That makes Saudi Arabia nervous because its economy revolves around oil. So you would expect it to cut supply and drive the price back up. Instead, it plans to flood the market, which will affect other countries that produce and sell oil, including the United States and Russia.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR's correspondent who covers cars and energy, Camila Domonoske. Good morning, Camila.


GREENE: So this a complicated but incredibly important economic story. So walk us through exactly what's happening.

DOMONOSKE: Right. So it starts with the coronavirus. And you think about all the things that are done to slow the spread of a pandemic. They involve people traveling around less, stuff traveling around less. That reduces the demand for fuel. So prices go down, and that hurts producers like Saudi Arabia. So yeah, Saudi Arabia really wanted to push the price of oil back up. That meant cutting production across the world, not just by Saudi Arabia. And there was a big effort for weeks to get OPEC and its allies to agree on production cuts. Saudi Arabia was leading the charge there. This is why OPEC exists, right? It's a cartel of oil producers that tries to stabilize prices when something like this happens.

But OPEC isn't as powerful as it used to be. And it can't act alone and change markets anymore. It needs help. And specifically, it needs Russia. For several years now, Russia's been going along with cuts that are agreed upon by OPEC and giving some more oomph to those decisions. And this time, Russia said no. Russia was not going to cooperate with cuts to production. And after Saudi Arabia lost that fight and talks broke down late last week, Saudi Arabia said, OK, fine. If we can't keep prices high, we'll push them as low as we possibly can.

GREENE: OK. And what is the impact of that, potentially?

DOMONOSKE: Well, low prices hurt all oil producers. And I think it's worth emphasizing, they hurt Saudi Arabia, too. Right? But this is a weapon. It's literally called a price war when you follow this strategy. Saudi Arabia is making a bet here. They have so much oil, and they can produce it so cheaply that they figure they can wait out the competition, grab some market share and push Russia back to the table to negotiate for long-term cuts. In the meantime, this hurts a bunch of countries with economies that rely on producing oil, and it also hurts producers in America.

GREENE: And we're already seeing the impact of this - right? - I mean, after Saudi announced that it would slash prices and start flooding the market.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Markets went a little haywire. I mean, the first thing that happened was crude prices plummeted 30%. This was the largest drop in years - almost three decades. And then this also had effects across other markets. At one point, Dow futures dropped a thousand points. S&P 500 futures dropped so fast it triggered these automatic protections that put limits on trading. There were reverberations across the world.

GREENE: So questions about whether this is a negotiating tactic and Saudi can talk to Russia again - but assuming this remains in place for some time, what happens now?

DOMONOSKE: Well, the question is how low oil will go. But you also have to remember the reason for this crisis in the first place, which is that the coronavirus was suppressing demand for oil. Right? So there's a question about if Saudi Arabia is trying to flood the market with cheap oil, who's even going to buy that? And that means consumers won't feel as much of a benefit as they might otherwise because if you're not driving or flying, you don't get a benefit from cheap fuel.

GREENE: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks so much.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. So Bernie Sanders, last night, was visiting one of the great college towns of the United States.

KING: Ann Arbor, Mich.

GREENE: Right.

KING: Here's Sanders at a big rally.


BERNIE SANDERS: We are capable of making sweeping change if we have the courage to do it.


KING: Michigan is one of six states where people will be voting tomorrow. There are five primaries and a caucus.

GREENE: And let's catch up with NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow, who is following all of this. He is in St. Louis, Mo., which is another state that is going to be voting tomorrow.

Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: Let's start with Michigan. Why is so much focus on Michigan as really a big one to watch?

DETROW: Two big reasons - the simple one, it has the most delegates at stake - 125 pledged delegates, which is more than the current lead that Joe Biden has over Bernie Sanders, though, of course, they're still figuring out some delegates from last week from California and the other states still sorting through its votes.

More importantly than the delegates, though, this is a state with huge symbolic importance. First, for Bernie Sanders, this was the site of his biggest upset win in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. And also, of course, in November of 2016, Democrats lost Michigan for the first time in a generation. And this entire campaign has really been an argument over which candidate is best positioned to take on Donald Trump in the places like Michigan that flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016.

So Sanders had that big rally in Ann Arbor with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And in one interesting moment to me, he's really gone from predicting that each week there'll be record turnout - young voters swarming the polls - to kind of urging, even almost begging, young supporters to show up and vote for him.


SANDERS: Tell them to stop complaining and to stand up and fight back.


DETROW: So that's Sanders there urging people at the rally to make sure their friends get out and vote. His team is essentially conceding this is a must-win state, and you've seen him cancel events in other states, like here in Missouri, to spend more time on the ground in Michigan.

GREENE: Well, Scott, I mean, this basically became a two-candidate race after Super Tuesday. As you've been watching this, what has stood out to you, you know, as you've been watching Sanders and Joe Biden?

DETROW: Yeah, Joe Biden has been on the campaign trail the last few days in Missouri and Mississippi. But it's interesting to me - he actually hasn't been doing a ton of campaigning. It's almost like a sports team with a big lead in the fourth quarter taking it a little conservatively, which sometimes doesn't work out for those teams with the big lead...

GREENE: Right.

DETROW: ...As we know - focusing on rolling out all these endorsements that keep coming in. He'll be in Michigan today campaigning there for the first time before this vote with California Senator Kamala Harris, who's the latest high-profile Democrat to endorse him. And Sanders is actually switching things up a little bit today, too. He's going to hold a roundtable on coronavirus in Detroit. That's not the type of thing that Bernie Sanders typically does. And this is one of the first few acknowledgements, other than a line at a rally here or there, about this enormous story that keeps spreading but so far has really stayed out of presidential politics.

GREENE: So apart from Michigan, I mean, what does the landscape look like in all of these states tomorrow?

DETROW: Couple of interesting things to watch - both Washington state and Idaho have switched from caucus to primary. That is a switch that, even though Bernie Sanders was the driving force in getting rid of a lot of caucuses, that has actually hurt him. In states he won big in caucuses, he's had a harder time in primaries. So that's one thing to watch, also voting in Mississippi and Missouri and, of course, Michigan.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow covering the presidential campaign. He's in St. Louis. Missouri is one of the states voting in another big voting day tomorrow. Scott, safe travels and thanks so much.

DETROW: Thanks. Talk to you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.

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