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Healthcare

News Brief: Delta Variant, Defrocked Cardinal Charged, Taliban Revenge Killings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you haven't quite had a chance to focus on the dangers of the delta variant, an internal document from the CDC may help.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's a presentation on the highly contagious strain of the coronavirus. And the document, first reported by The Washington Post, urges officials to acknowledge we're in a very different phase. This is not just a blip in an otherwise improving pandemic. Consider two numbers. On June 28, the CDC recorded just over 9,000 new cases in the U.S. A month later, on July 28, there were 86,000 cases.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I've been looking at this document, and it's kind of a PowerPoint presentation, I guess you'd say. When I look at it, it makes me imagine some scientists in a room in front of a screen giving a warning to other scientists.

STEIN: Right, right, right. That's really what it looks like. And, you know, there's one sentence in there that kind of sums it up - the war has changed. And that's basically the conclusion of this 25-page document, which summarizes what the CDC experts determined about some of the most crucial questions about the delta variant. How fast has it grown inside people's bodies? Why does it spread so easily from one person to another? How sick does it make people? And on all those scores, delta clearly poses a huge threat.

INSKEEP: We have heard a lot of this before, but what feels new to you?

STEIN: One of the most dramatic parts says the delta variant could be as contagious as chicken pox, which is one of the most transmissible viruses out there, and it could be more transmissible than the common cold, Ebola and smallpox. The document includes evidence for why that is. Studies from India, for example, show that people infected with delta are carrying around far more virus than earlier strains. They have higher viral loads, perhaps 10 times higher. Also, you know, there was this investigation of a super spreader event that occurred July 4 weekend on Cape Cod, Mass., and it found that vaccinated people are carrying around as much virus as unvaccinated people, which means they could spread it to other people just as easily as unvaccinated people. That helps explain why the CDC did that big about-face on masks this week and told vaccinated people to start wearing them again in places where there's a lot of virus.

INSKEEP: Are there even more reasons to worry about this variant?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, another worrying conclusion is that delta may make people sicker than the earlier strains. There's been a big debate about that. You know, one study out of Scotland suggested that might be the case. This document cites additional evidence from Canada and Singapore that people who catch the delta strain are more likely to get really sick. For example, in Canada, patients infected by delta look like they were more than twice as likely to end up in a hospital, almost four times as likely to end up in intensive care and almost 2 1/2 times more likely to die. In Singapore, patients were nearly twice as likely to develop pneumonia and almost five times as likely to need oxygen, end up in intensive care or die. So, you know, all this is obviously pretty disturbing.

INSKEEP: In fact, it causes people to wonder, are we heading back into the nightmares of last year? But is there reason to hope that we're not?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, this analysis also concludes that while the vaccines may not completely protect people from catching or spreading the virus, they are still incredibly powerful at reducing the risk of getting really sick and dying. This analysis concludes the risk of infection is reduced by threefold and the risk of severe disease or deaths is cut by at least tenfold. So this document recommends what we've been starting to already see, things like, you know, vaccine mandates for health care workers and more masking.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A defrocked Catholic cardinal is the highest ranking Catholic official in America to face criminal charges involving the sexual abuse of a minor.

MCCAMMON: Ninety-one-year-old Theodore McCarrick is the former archbishop of Washington, D.C. He was expelled from the priesthood in 2019. An investigation confirmed he had sexually molested adults, as well as children. McCarrick is now charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery of a minor in 1974.

INSKEEP: Let's talk this through with Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter, who has covered McCarrick extensively over many years. He's in Rome. Joshua, welcome back.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Of course, it's been known for years that McCarrick did a variety of things, was blamed for a variety of criminal acts. But there's something new here. What are the specific accusations?

MCELWEE: Yeah. Mccarrick, who, as you say, was for decades one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Catholic Church and retired in 2006 as the cardinal archbishop of Washington, is being charged in Massachusetts with indecent assault and battery on a teenager. The assault allegedly took place in 1974 when McCarrick was still a rising figure serving as a priest and secretary to then New York Cardinal Terence Cooke. According to the Boston Globe and other outlets, the alleged victim says he was abused by McCarrick during trips McCarrick took with the teenager's family in New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. The victim says McCarrick molested him at his brother's wedding reception and in later meetings at several Massachusetts hotels.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to sort through why it would take 47 years for him finally to be charged. And I'll acknowledge the obvious. There were decades of abuse, but these abuses have been uncovered for many years still. Even this seems like an exceptionally long wait.

MCELWEE: Yeah. National Catholic Reporter, we have been reporting extensively on sexual abuse cases in the U.S. church since 1985. In our experience, it was often very difficult for victims to come forward with allegations against church figures, fearing they wouldn't be believed or that police wouldn't follow up. Obviously, that atmosphere has changed dramatically. McCarrick himself has faced a number of civil suits in other states, but often the statute of limitations on events, you know, that happened in the 1970s or '80s had prevented prosecutors from bringing criminal charges forward. The Globe was reporting yesterday that prosecutors in Massachusetts were able to bring this case forward because McCarrick had not been a resident in the state. And so essentially the statute - the clock on the statute of limitations had not been running.

INSKEEP: Which made it possible for him to be prosecuted at this point. When you put a timeline together, it was not really that many years ago that McCarrick was - officiated during funeral rites for Senator Ted Kennedy, officiated during funeral rites for current President Biden's son, Beau Biden. Was there concern about his past even then?

MCELWEE: I think it's safe to say that several news outlets had been looking into McCarrick and into allegations or rumors that had been brought forward. What we know for certain is that no allegation was deemed substantial or credible until 2018, at least in the church. And at that point, he was investigated for an event that happened in the 1970s in New York. He was defrocked in 2019. And then last year, the Vatican released an unprecedented 400-and-some-page report looking at all the errors that had happened to let him have this career, to let him rise up to be the cardinal archbishop of Washington, despite these allegations against him for decades.

INSKEEP: Joshua, I want to ask about one other thing. You mentioned that your publication has been covering these cases since the mid-1980s. And we still continue to learn about decades-old cases of sexual abuse. What does this prosecution signal for the possibility of even more investigations and prosecutions to come?

MCELWEE: Yeah. Something the National Catholic Reporter identified in our first reporting on a national scale in 1985 was the wide-scale problem for the church if it were covering up abuse or if abuse was not being properly investigated or reported. I think it's fair to say that Pope Francis, as well as Pope Benedict before him, have put in place a number of reforms that are helpful and certainly are trying to show the church is taking this seriously and won't allow a child to be harmed or put in harm's way. But there are lots of cases probably from past decades that are still, you know, could be prosecuted or could be brought forward.

There are also - you know, the church is a global institution, 1.6-some billion members across the world. And it's not clear exactly, you know, if the same process is being put in place in other countries around the world and what cases we might be waiting to see in countries where, you know, the spotlight hasn't been shown yet. I think what we're going to see in coming years and decades is even more reporting on cases from decades ago. And it's probably going to be a difficult period for the Catholic Church as it kind of deals with its past history and tries to convince believers that it is taking these cases seriously and children are not being harmed.

INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter in Rome, thanks so much.

MCELWEE: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. As of this hour, as of the time that I'm speaking - and this is a number that changes - we can confirm that about 200 Afghan interpreters have been flown from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Virginia. They're among thousands of Afghan civilians that the Biden administration is trying to airlift to the U.S. because of their service to American forces.

MCCAMMON: For a dozen years, the U.S. granted special immigrant visas to Afghans who worked alongside U.S. military personnel. Now the effort to get out has become urgent for many. American troops have almost completely withdrawn, and the Taliban are violently taking back parts of Afghanistan and often executing Afghans who worked with foreign troops.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence covered the war in Afghanistan, has covered veterans in the aftermath of the war and joins us now. Good morning, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so we said a couple hundred are out. That is of how many, roughly?

LAWRENCE: Well, there's this first wave of 750 Afghan interpreters who've already gone through this lengthy background checks to get this visa. With their families, that's about 2,500 people who are already sort of through this long process. And the first 200, as you mentioned, have arrived at Dulles Airport overnight. But there's a backlog of maybe 70,000 of them if you count their families, possibly more than that. And these Taliban gains across the country have them feeling desperate. There's this feeling that the U.S. doesn't have much time to get them out. Ambassador Tracey Jacobson heads the Biden administration's new Afghanistan task force, and she was trying to be reassuring on a conference call with reporters about this special immigrant visa program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRACEY JACOBSON: We will continue to relocate eligible SIV applicants and their families who have our gratitude for their service. I also want to underscore that the U.S. partnership with Afghanistan is continuing, as Secretary Blinken said. Even as we're withdrawing our forces, we're remaining very much engaged in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Although they cannot protect people in, of course, the same way. So what are you hearing when you speak with Afghans still inside the country?

LAWRENCE: I think anyone who worked in Afghanistan over the years is getting a message now from people you know well or people you met once saying, help us get out. The Taliban have taken over lots of new areas of the country. So some of the people who live in those areas, those contested areas, are on the run. They're bribing police stations to sleep there at night, things like that. Some have already been killed on the roads at Taliban checkpoints, which they've set up. Ambassador Jacobson said the U.S. can't help them get to Kabul at this point, and they can't really protect them when they get there, which is just, I think, an admission that the U.S. troops are gone and the U.S. can't do what it used to be able to do when it had so many troops on the ground. She said the U.S. is looking at airlifting all of these applicants to a third country where they could maybe do this visa process in safety.

INSKEEP: Well, for the 200 who have made it to the United States, what happens to them?

LAWRENCE: They're staying at an Army base, Fort Lee, Va., and they're going to have medical exams, and COVID vaccinations are being offered. If they have family ties in the U.S., they're going to try to relocate them there. Through the 20 years that we've been at war in Afghanistan, about 70,000 Afghans have already resettled in the U.S. through this visa program. So there are some family connections that they could make.

INSKEEP: Quil, thanks for your reporting over the years, means a lot.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.