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News Brief: Pandemic Survey, Vaccine Allocation, Online Learning Report


President Trump's controversial COVID-19 adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, is leaving the White House. His departure comes as the nation braces for the COVID-19 pandemic to spiral even further out of control.


A new national survey out this morning shows how exactly the U.S. got to this deadly point and how public health became so partisan. But it also offers a sliver of hope.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR health reporter Rob Stein is here with all the details. Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is this survey? What does it show?

STEIN: It's the biggest ongoing national survey about the pandemic in the U.S. Researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern Universities, they've been questioning tens of thousands of Americans every month since the spring. And the latest results out today are pretty striking, Lulu. It shows that the U.S. let things get as bad as they are right now. And the choice of how they did it - the proportion of people doing things to prevent the virus from spreading just plummeted between April and October. For example, spending time indoors with people not from their immediate household doubled; going to restaurants tripled; going to work, gyms, churches - all way up. Here's David Lazer. He's from Northeastern. He helps run the survey.

DAVID LAZER: We let our guard down, and it was still lurking. It was still there, right? And COVID-19 came roaring back.

STEIN: Now, there is a bit of good news. Mask wearing did increase during the same period but apparently just not enough to offset how much people stopped doing things like keeping their distance from other people, and even washing their hands religiously fell dramatically.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that is pretty sobering. Who exactly stopped following those guidelines?

STEIN: Yeah. So the survey finds some interesting differences, actually. Women are more likely to practice social distancing than men. Asian Americans and African Americans are more likely to do it than whites; so are older and more educated people than younger and less educated people. There's also a partisan divide. Democrats have consistently scored higher than Republicans on a 100-point scale the researchers used to measure people's overall behavior. And that gap became a chasm over the summer. Here's David Lazer again.

LAZER: Differences between Democrats and Republicans in the spring were very small. Both were in the 80s on this 100-point scale, and Democrats have slipped to 60-something and Republicans have dropped to 40-something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, isn't this partisan divide going to be a huge problem in getting the country on the same page as we deal with this terrible winter we're facing with surging deaths and a new administration coming in trying to steer the ship?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, it is. But the survey actually has some encouraging news about that. There are still big differences between Republicans and Democrats in terms of their support for things like, you know, asking people to stay home and avoid gatherings, requiring businesses to close, canceling football games and concerts, limiting restaurants to carry out only. Democrats are far more likely to support all those things. But the good news is even a majority of Republicans say they support many of those same things, you know, not closing businesses or schools, but they do support avoiding gatherings, canceling sports and entertainment events and even restricting restaurants and domestic travel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And finally, Scott Atlas is resigning. What can you tell us about that?

STEIN: Yes. So NPR confirmed last night that Dr. Atlas has resigned. Atlas is a radiologist, not an infectious disease expert. He pushed fringe theories about the coronavirus, including the idea that large numbers of people should get infected in order to reach so-called herd immunity. Public health experts were appalled by his ideas, saying they would take a devastating toll.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much. That's NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein.

STEIN: You bet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So who should be the first in line for a coronavirus vaccine?

MARTIN: Two promising vaccines are up for review by the Food and Drug Administration. A committee of key advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to vote today on who is going to get vaccinated first.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us now. Welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This news has got everybody watching and waiting. The group meeting today is the CDC's vaccine advisory committee. Remind us what they're about.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. This is the ACIP, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. It's made up of scientists and public health experts who review and make recommendations for all vaccines; so mostly the ones your kids get at the pediatrician. But their job today is to figure out the allocation question for the COVID vaccine. So once the FDA greenlights one or both of the vaccines for emergency use, a complicated distribution process will kick off. And the state officials in charge of distribution need to know who needs to get these first limited doses of vaccines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm guessing health care workers will be among the first in line.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Of course. These are the people who are most at risk of exposure. There's wide agreement that health care providers will be in this very first tier. Where there's a bit of debate is whether seniors who are living in long-term care facilities should be in this very first tier, too, or whether they should be vaccinated after health care providers. So some of the issues to consider is will the vaccines work as well in older people? Because sometimes there are different efficacy rates in different age groups. At the same time, the burdens of death among this group is staggering. They represent only 6% of cases but nearly 40% of deaths. So some members of the committee have indicated they're not in favor of this plan, so there may be some spirited discussion at today's meeting. And later tiers include essential workers like police officers or people who work in grocery stores. And after that, there will likely be seniors over 65 and those with underlying conditions. But the vote today is just about that very first group.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, crucially, when might vaccination actually start?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, both Moderna and Pfizer have submitted data from their vaccine clinical trials to FDA for review. There is an FDA meeting scheduled on December 10 to consider the Pfizer vaccine, and they'll consider Moderna's a week later. And then it will be either days or weeks until the FDA makes its decision. There are some mixed messages from federal officials on exactly how long that part of the process will take. And when the FDA gives the OK, states will kick their plans into gear to start distributing those first vaccine doses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, as you mentioned, it's really states that are going to be distributing this. What stage are they at with planning?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, all states have crafted plans, and those plans have been reviewed by CDC, and they've gotten notes back. Now, several states are doing full-scale dry runs of distribution of the Pfizer vaccine. And that's the one that needs ultracold storage, which means the planning is super complicated. So that's why this advisory meeting today is so critical because officials at the state level need to know who's first in line to get the vaccine so they know where to ship those very first vials once the FDA gives that green light.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you very much.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the U.S., roughly 56 million children were projected to attend school this fall.

MARTIN: Some have returned to their classrooms, many, though, have not. One question connects them all. What has been the impact of this pandemic-driven disruption on their learning? A new report out today shows that for the majority of kids, things are actually not as bad as feared. But that may not be true for the most vulnerable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With us now to tell us more is NPR education reporter Cory Turner. Hey there.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, let's start with this. How do you measure how much learning kids have lost because of something like a pandemic?

TURNER: Yeah. So you measure learning loss with this thing called the MAP Growth test. It's a low-stakes test that millions of kids take a few times every year in the fall, winter or spring. I like to think of it as the academic equivalent of a thermometer. It's a way for school districts to basically take their kids' temperature when it comes to learning. You can figure out who's doing well, who's struggling and, even at least insofar as reading and math are concerned, what they're having trouble with. So most kids did not take the MAP test last spring because of the pandemic, obviously. But millions did take it this fall not that long ago. And it's those results that give us now the first real temperature check for kids mid-pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So are the kids all right? How are they doing?

TURNER: Well, let's start with reading. So researchers compared kids' skills this fall in, let's say, third-grade reading to the performance of an earlier group of kids who took third-grade reading before the pandemic. And what they found really surprised them. Looking at their sample of more than 4 million kids, the pandemic had little effect on reading skill. Beth Tarasawa, she's the head of research at NWEA, the not-for-profit behind the MAP test, here she is describing her initial reaction to this.

BETH TARASAWA: Wow, this wasn't as bad as we predicted and others had, particularly in reading. All things considered, given the craziness that we are in, there's some optimism.

TURNER: Now, Lulu, the news in math was not quite as optimistic. The current pandemic class of students performed about five to 10 percentile points lower than the pre-pandemic comparison group. But Tarasawa describes that as a - really just a moderate drop. And it's also important to note, as we talk about drops, that kids are not literally falling backwards. They're making gains in reading and math both, just not at the same pace, at least in math, that they were before the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is really good news. But, Cory, you have reported on really vulnerable students in high poverty and rural districts who are still struggling to even log on each day. I mean, how are they doing, as we know that they're the most likely to be impacted by changes to their learning environment?

TURNER: Absolutely, Lulu. This was a big concern for me reading this report. And unfortunately, it doesn't really tell us how they're doing because so many vulnerable kids didn't take the test this fall. Beth Tarasawa at NWEA told me that roughly a quarter of students were missing from their sample. And she told me these children are, in her words, more likely to be Black and brown, more likely to be from high-poverty schools and more likely to have lower performance in the first place. She told me this fact is screaming that we have to be very cautious about making too much of this good news. And it could be a warning sign, Lulu, of what we already know about this pandemic, that it hurts those who have the least the most.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thank you very much.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.