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News brief: omicron overwhelms ERs, NATO-Russia talks, Trump interview

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

White House COVID adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky took questions from lawmakers yesterday about coronavirus test shortages and confusing guidance. And as they spoke, the U.S. hit a new pandemic record.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There are now more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic, and emergency rooms across this country are overwhelmed.

MARTIN: NPR's Will Stone has been talking to ER doctors across the country, and he joins us now. Hey, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What are you hearing in these conversations?

STONE: Many doctors are saying this is the busiest the ER has ever been during the pandemic, and the astronomical number of infections are leading to these excruciating wait times. The hospitals are so full it's hard to admit new patients. Dr. Gabe Kelen at Johns Hopkins says it's as bad as he's seen in his lifetime.

GABE KELEN: The emergency departments are, like, the one open venue for everybody, and we are being absolutely crushed.

STONE: And this is happening across the country. Some hospitals are putting patients outside in tents or keeping them in hallways. I spoke to Dr. Bradley Dreifuss in Tucson, Ariz., and he told me he's seen people in the ER wait for over 200 hours to get a hospital bed. And the problem is there are none.

BRADLEY DREIFUSS: Our hospitals are totally full. We're not able to admit patients. We don't even have admitting teams currently. We are not able to get patients where they need to be because our system is literally collapsing.

STONE: And Dreifuss says the fallout is happening all over the ER. And he's seen patients leave the ER only to come back later even more sick.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, it's just really jarring to hear him say that the system is literally collapsing. Why are things so bad?

STONE: Well, omicron is so infectious and it moves so fast that the sheer volume of patients pouring into the ERs is just staggering. And there's, of course, a staffing shortage because so many hospital staff are getting sick and having to quarantine. But this surge is different in some ways. ERs are busier than ever, but doctors tell me the proportion of COVID patients who show up in the ER and need to be admitted to the hospital is actually smaller than earlier in the pandemic, and that's largely because people have immunity from vaccination or prior infection. And it's because of omicron itself. Studies in the U.S. and from overseas show people have less severe illness from omicron compared to delta.

I spoke to Seattle ER doctor Gregg Miller - he's chief medical officer for Vituity; that's a company that has thousands of ER doctors around the country - and he describes the situation this way.

GREGG MILLER: And so you've got these two competing forces - increased infectiousness, decreased lethality. Which one of those forces is going to win out? And unfortunately, what we're seeing right now is it's the increased infectiousness that's really winning out and driving hospital admissions.

MARTIN: So tell us more about the COVID patients who are showing up in the ER.

STONE: Yeah. Well, most of the vaccinated people who are sick enough to be admitted often have several underlying risk factors, and COVID just tips them over the edge. Then there are still the unvaccinated people, some of them young, otherwise healthy, coming in very sick, struggling to breathe. Then there's some people coming into the ER for a different medical emergency, and they turn out to be positive. And actually, there are quite a few people who are showing up simply to get tested, which is not how this is supposed to work.

MARTIN: Wait. So that means people counted as COVID hospitalizations may not even have symptoms, right? They went to the hospital for a broken foot, say, had to get tested because that's protocol, and now they're being counted as hospitalized for COVID, even though that's not why they were in the hospital.

STONE: That's right. Some of these are basically incidental hospitalizations, and the national data doesn't really differentiate who is there primarily for COVID versus some other medical reason. But broadly speaking, the data on hospitalizations is our best indicator of the stress on hospitals. And you put this all together, and it has an enormous impact on people who don't have COVID. Surgeries are canceled. And when there are emergencies, doctors are telling me they can't always find beds and get people the care they need.

MARTIN: NPR's Will Stone, thank you.

STONE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: NATO officials are meeting with a Russian delegation in Brussels this morning to try and prevent Russia from invading Ukraine again.

INSKEEP: Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula back in 2014. Russia is also seen as supporting warfare in other parts of Ukraine. And now more than 100,000 Russian troops are at the border near Ukraine. Here's how NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the growing threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: The Russian military buildup has not stopped. It continues. And they are gradually building up with more forces, more capabilities. We see armored units. We see artillery.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Eleanor, what is it like to be there right now?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, Kyiv is a lovely jewel of a little city. You know, it has this gold, onion-domed churches. It's snowy. Everything seems normal. People seem to be in a festive mood. It's the Orthodox Christmas season. And you know, Ukrainian people have gotten used to this intense friction with Russia. Remember this fighting in eastern Ukraine has now been going on for eight years. It's never ended. It's kind of like an open sore.

But Ukrainian soldiers are killed every week in fighting these Russian separatist proxies, and there are actually thousands of displaced families from the east who have moved to Kyiv. So the danger is there, but at the same time, life goes on as normal. And here's one man who lives in Kyiv, Ukrainian father of four Artyom Klyuchnikov. He says everybody kind of has a split personality when it comes to this, and he opened the newspaper to give me an example.

ARTYOM KLYUCHNIKOV: In one article, like, I can read, OK, these are the bomb shelters. This is a map created where you can look up the nearest bomb shelter to you. The next article will be, what are the Christmas festivities you can attend this weekend? So I mean, these two worlds, they coexist together.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. And I saw that last night, Rachel. I went to a Christmas market. You know, the Orthodox Christmas was January 7. People are off work. People were out eating, drinking with their families. It was festive. Here's what it sounded like. You can hear the mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE GOING CAROLING")

DICK VAN DYKE AND JANE LYNCH: (Singing) Ring the doors - ding, dong, ding. We're going to get the...

MARTIN: Oh, my gosh - such a different kind of vibe than the feeling in one of these boardrooms where all these NATO officials are meeting with this Russian delegation. I mean, what's the official line on this meeting?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, they know that the two sides are irreconcilable here. And Ukraine's foreign minister said that, you know, Ukraine remains united with the U.S. to defuse this Russian aggression and that they've made it clear there'll be no talks about security until Moscow pulls those troops back. And also, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has called for a summit between Kyiv, Moscow, Paris and Berlin to put an end to the conflict. But what's clear is that Ukraines (ph) really need that help and support of the West, you know, not just psychologically - you know Europe, Canada, E.U. - but, you know, psychologically and materially.

MARTIN: Do Ukrainians really think that this could end with a Russian invasion?

BEARDSLEY: Most people I talked to don't. They think that Russia just wants to keep Ukraine in chaos and destabilized. And a former Ukrainian general actually told me that Russia is much more afraid of a Ukraine that is democratic and has human rights than NATO. He said, then they'd have to explain to their own people why their so-called Slav brothers, members of the - former members of the Soviet Union, are living so much better lives than the Russians, and they don't even have, you know, natural gas and oil.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting on the ground from Kyiv, Ukraine. Eleanor, thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Great to be with you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. President Biden now says the Senate should change its rules, specifically the filibuster, to get voting rights legislation through. Here he is speaking in Atlanta yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I believe that the threat to our democracy's so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bill. Debate them. Vote. Let the majority prevail.

INSKEEP: And as President Biden spoke of voting rights, former President Donald Trump spoke of pushing his party to relitigate his 2020 election loss as they run for office in 2022. Trump said that yesterday in an interview with NPR. We first requested an interview with Donald Trump back in 2015, when he was a presidential candidate. It never happened until yesterday when he came to the phone.

Mr. President.

DONALD TRUMP: Hello, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. Thanks for taking the time today. It's great to talk with you.

TRUMP: OK. Absolutely, absolutely.

INSKEEP: There's no reason that you would know this, but we first invited you on the program in 2015, so it's great to get you.

TRUMP: Oh, wow. Well, I guess I got lucky by not doing it, right?

MARTIN: The interview came days after the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. It also came as other Republicans tried to move on. So this was a long time coming, Steve. How did the conversation go?

INSKEEP: Well, it was brief. We'd agreed on 15 minutes, and he hung up well before then - nine minutes and 21 seconds, to be exact. Our purpose here was to cover the coming election. Remember, Trump is still his party leader, which is the reason that we would talk with the former president. And we asked if he would insist that Republican candidates pursue his false claims about the election that he lost in 2020. Trump essentially said they should, and then he repeated the lies a lot and argued that Republicans would be smart to agree with him.

MARTIN: But there are Republicans who aren't falling in line, right?

INSKEEP: That's true. Mike Rounds, a Republican senator from South Dakota, said on Sunday on ABC that Trump lost. And aside from the danger to democracy of repeating a giant lie, Rounds raised a more practical problem - that Republicans want to win Congress. And most Americans, overall, do not believe Trump's claims. Rounds said that persisting in them is going to damage the party this fall, so we asked Trump about that.

Why is it that you think that the vast majority of your allies in the United States Senate are not standing behind you? We did have that statement by Mike Rounds.

TRUMP: Because Mitch McConnell is a loser. And frankly, Mitch McConnell, if he were on the other side and if Schumer were put in his position, he would have been fighting this like you've never seen before. He would have been fighting this because when you look at it - and this is long - is a long way from over. You take a look at what's going on now in Pennsylvania - take a look at what's going on in Wisconsin.

INSKEEP: As it happens, we did take a look at Pennsylvania. And in Pennsylvania, there's still no evidence that the result was wrong in 2020. But what's really happening here, Rachel, is that Pennsylvania's a good example of how Trump is using the 2022 election to his advantage.

MARTIN: All right. Say more. How's he doing that?

INSKEEP: Well, a lot of Republicans are running this fall for governor or senator in Pennsylvania. They want Trump support, and he wants ammunition for his claims. And some of them are coming up with information for him. One candidate produced a letter that hinted vaguely at some kind of fraud, and other Pennsylvania officials are starting an audit like one that has failed elsewhere to bring any evidence to Trump's side.

MARTIN: And as you noted at the top, you talked to Trump because he is currently the largest figure in his party and still very significant.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's true. He's still party leader, and so we cover him in different ways. And we try to put whatever we learn into proper context, as we would with any official. A lot of the outlets that put Trump on the air are not doing that part, and our reporting here was for a specific purpose - to track how he's trying to shape the coming election in 2022, which he definitely is.

MARTIN: Thanks so much, Steve. And to hear the conversation with Trump in full context, listen to MORNING EDITION on your local member station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.