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News Brief: Infrastructure Plan Criticized, Chauvin Trial, Herd Immunity

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House is taking President Biden's infrastructure bill on the road.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. The president and his team hope to sell this plan inside and outside of Congress. Inside, they face some challenges. Republicans criticize a $2 trillion measure partly financed by tax increases. Democrats might have ways to pass the bill alone, but they do not all love it. Outside, the president is banking on building public support. The measure would upgrade U.S. roads and bridges, improve rail lines and do a lot more, like care for the elderly and people with disabilities.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us to discuss all these things. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So President Biden a week ago unveiled this plan. He called it a once-in-a-generation investment. How is the White House pitching it?

DETROW: Well, we're going to hear from the president later today. This is part of a real aggressive push over the past week from the entire Cabinet. Vice President Harris has been on the road. Cabinet secretaries have been on seemingly every single news program talking about this. They are all making the case the U.S. is decades behind in spending on physical infrastructure but also things like broadband access, energy spending. They are also increasingly - we're increasingly hearing Biden make this case that this is also a national security issue, that China especially is just lapping the United States on research and infrastructure spending and the U.S. needs to catch up. So going forward, expect a lot of meetings with lawmakers of both parties in the Oval Office, also a lot of that external outreach that you were talking about to private sector groups, to climate groups, to organized labor, things like that.

MARTIN: So Steve mentioned this in the intro, but it's not like all the Democrats are on board with this plan, right? Tell us a little bit about the internal tensions here.

DETROW: Yeah. A few lawmakers are really flexing that power that you get when Congress is so closely divided. The Senate is 50/50. Democrats said this week that the Senate parliamentarian issued a ruling that could allow them to use this reconciliation process we talk so much about more often. That is likely how this bill is going to proceed that they haven't quite made that clear yet. But that ruling would give Democrats more chances to pass their agenda. Party-line votes in a 50/50 Senate gives Democrats - every single one of them - a lot of power. You are already seeing more dissent than you did before on the initial COVID relief bill. One prime example is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. He wants to see a smaller increase in the corporate tax rate than what President Biden is proposing. And he has been increasingly vocal about the fact he wants to see that before he votes for this measure.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the scope of the infrastructure package. This is something that Republicans have criticized - Mitch McConnell calling it a Trojan horse, that the infrastructure proposal by his characterization is just a liberal wish list. How is the White House responding to that?

DETROW: You're hearing two different pushback arguments. First of all, President Biden and several aides have been pointing out a lot recently that if you go back to previous recent Republican infrastructure bills, a lot of them have these things in it that go beyond roads and bridges - broadband, job training, funding, things like that - certainly not at the $2 trillion level, but it's a wide range. One thing that's in here that has not been in a lot of Republican infrastructure bills is climate efforts, you know, money for clean energy research, money to build out electric vehicles, to speed up the shift to wind and solar. I spoke yesterday to Ali Zaidi. He is a top White House climate adviser. He helped craft a lot of these proposals. He made the argument that needs are changing, especially with extreme weather doing a lot of physical damage.

ALI ZAIDI: We need to recognize that one of the risks that our infrastructure faces today comes from the unleashed impacts of a changing climate, whether it's wildfire or flood or heat wave.

DETROW: And that's why the administration has so much stuff on climate infrastructure here.

MARTIN: In the broad scope of the bill, in some ways, a product of the tight margin in the Senate, right?

DETROW: Absolutely. The Biden administration knows as crazy it sounds this early, there aren't that many chances to pass big measures like this. There's a lot of stuff Biden talked about on the campaign trail in this measure that he wants to see passed.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: More officers in the Minneapolis Police Department are coming forward to testify against Derek Chauvin.

DETROW: The former Minneapolis police officer, you will recall, is charged with murdering George Floyd by pressing his knee against the back of Floyd's neck. And prosecutors are focusing this week on the use of force. They questioned a sergeant and a lieutenant who train officers in the Minneapolis Police Department.

MARTIN: Paul Blume is a reporter for FOX 9 in Minneapolis. He's been following the trial and reporting on how the community is absorbing all the testimony that's been unfolding. Paul, thanks for being here.

PAUL BLUME: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: We heard from quite a few people in the police force over the past couple of days, more testimony expected. What is the prosecution's strategy?

BLUME: Well, certainly on Tuesday, Rachel, the prosecution called several witnesses involved in training at the Minneapolis Police Department, the prosecution here trying to prove to this jury that Derek Chauvin's tactics during the deadly arrest of George Floyd were outside of police protocol and that his excessive use of force ultimately led to Floyd's death; jurors hearing from Sergeant Ker Yang - he's the department's crisis intervention coordinator - about how officers are supposed to react and work to de-escalate situations. We heard from an officer who trains in rendering medical assistance in the field and pointed out Chauvin was trained in CPR and yet no aid was given to Floyd until emergency paramedics arrived. And then on the stand, Lieutenant Johnny Mercil, who was asked by prosecutors about Chauvin's use of his knee to the neck and back of George Floyd for more than nine minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sir, is this an MPD-trained neck restraint?

JOHNNY MERCIL: No, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Has it ever been?

MERCIL: Not to my - a neck restraint? No, sir.

MARTIN: How did the defense counter that and other testimony?

BLUME: Well, Rachel, the defense continues to paint the use of force issue, especially out in the field, as a real gray area - officers with leeway to adjust in the moment and in the field, in this case raising concerns about that agitated crowd up on the sidewalk, the potential dangers of an unconscious subject potentially suffering from a drug overdose eventually coming to and becoming more aggressive and also pointing out from some screen grabs of body camera footage that Chauvin's knee may not have actually been on Floyd's neck for the full nine minutes and 29 seconds that they've talked about, more towards the back and shoulder blade in what might be considered a more acceptable police tactic.

MARTIN: George Floyd's brother, Philonise, I understand, spoke at a prayer service outside the courtroom yesterday. Let's listen to a bit.

PHILONISE FLOYD: One thing I can tell you - after we get the verdict and we get this conviction, we'll be able to breathe.

MARTIN: Paul, you've been covering Minneapolis for a long time, the last 14 years or so. Can you tell us how the community is watching all this, managing the emotional context of everything happening in the trial?

BLUME: Sure, and Philonise there, a powerful moment. I was there. It came after Reverend Al Sharpton had flown into Minneapolis yesterday to lead the family in a moment of public prayer outside the courthouse. You know, this community is really hurting. I've spoken to the Floyd brother several times now. He's in the courtroom on Friday as a pool reporter. And while the Twin Cities have absolutely embraced this family, they just cannot stop crying. And they tell me everybody they meet cries with them the last week and a half, just so emotional for so many reliving Floyd's death and the horrors of seeing him, a Black man, taking his final breath under the knee of a white police officer. And really the trial here, Rachel, is unavoidable with all of this trauma and emotion playing out on live television. Of course, national networks are covering it. And let me tell you, our station in Minneapolis, a FOX television affiliate, has dropped all of our daytime programming to cover this case gavel to gavel. So it is everywhere. It is re-traumatizing. And there is this uncertainty about what comes next and what a verdict might yield.

MARTIN: Reporter Paul Blume with FOX 9 in Minneapolis, thank you so much.

BLUME: You bet.

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MARTIN: All right. President Biden announced yesterday he wants every American over the age of 16 to be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine by April 19.

INSKEEP: Eligible is one thing, actually vaccinated is another. A minority of Americans still say they do not want the shots. Some experts ask if vaccine hesitancy could prolong the pandemic.

MARTIN: NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is joining us this morning to talk about this. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: How many people are we talking about when we say vaccine hesitant?

BRUMFIEL: Well, according to an NPR/Marist poll, we're talking about nearly 1 in 3 Americans who say they will either not get the coronavirus vaccine or they're unsure about it. And the unsures only make up 5%. So we are talking about many tens of millions of people. And if these people are serious about not getting vaccinated, it could create problems for this magical unicorn we're all chasing called herd immunity.

MARTIN: Yes, the unicorn of herd immunity. Remind us what that means.

BRUMFIEL: Right. Essentially, it's the point at which a new outbreak of coronavirus will die out rather than spreading because so many people have immunity either through vaccination or previous infection. Basically, like, the virus has nowhere to go. But here's the thing - most experts think the levels of immunity have to be very, very high in the population for this to happen. Sam Scarpino is one of them, and he's at Northeastern University.

SAM SCARPINO: What most of us want is safe return to something that looks more normal. And that to me means 80%, 85% probably vaccinated. We can't get there right now.

BRUMFIEL: There's just too many no's out there in the population.

MARTIN: Eighty to 85% of the population has to get vaccinated. I'll admit that that is higher than I understood it to be. What are the consequences of that?

BRUMFIEL: Right. Well, the numbers are a little squishy, but generally 75% to 85% is sort of the range. And I want to be clear - even if we don't get there, nobody is expecting a surge like we had this winter. It's not going to get that bad. And vaccines, of course, protect individuals. So everyone should get vaccinated for that reason.

MARTIN: Right.

BRUMFIEL: But what Scarpino is worried about is large regional outbreaks, especially in the fall and winter, especially in areas where relatively few people are vaccinated. I mean, it's possible we could see hospitals fill up again, maybe new restrictions. Schools could close because, remember, most kids can't get vaccinated yet and won't be by this autumn; so not as bad as last year but not the normal we're all hoping for.

MARTIN: What are the best ways to try to convince people to get the shot?

BRUMFIEL: I spoke to some experts and the first thing they wanted to make clear is that this is, like, a really broad problem. It's not just one group of Americans. Here's Kolina Koltai. She's at the University of Washington.

KOLINA KOLTAI: It's literally everyone. And this says that, like, everyone knows someone in their life who is not willing to get vaccinated.

BRUMFIEL: Koltai and other experts I spoke to, they were saying misinformation on social media is feeding this hesitancy. And they also said the way out wasn't some big message broadcast to everyone but a bunch of small conversations led by local organizations and individual people just trying to convince people one on one and answer their questions and concerns.

MARTIN: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.