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News brief: monkeypox cases rise, flooding and climate change, economy slows

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Monkeypox cases are rising quickly here in the U.S., with almost 5,000 already reported.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. And San Francisco announced a state of emergency. New York City declared the virus an imminent threat.

Health secretary Xavier Becerra says every American should be paying attention to the outbreak.

XAVIER BECERRA: Monkeypox is not COVID, but it is contagious. It is painful. And it can be dangerous.

KHALID: NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now to share the latest.

So, Pien, it is clear that the monkeypox outbreak is growing. And I know this is something that the White House has certainly been keeping an eye on. I'm curious how you see their strategy.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, Asma, the main strategy seems to be vaccinating enough people at risk - at high risk - to stop the outbreak. And that's been hard since the U.S. started with a very limited number of monkeypox vaccine doses. The situation is getting better. The administration has now shipped more than 300,000 doses of the vaccine to states and territories. And yesterday, they said that they were getting more shots. So that means in total, 1.1 million doses will have come online as of this weekend. And they say more doses are coming.

KHALID: And it does seem like the administration is focusing quite a bit of its effort on vaccines. Do you feel like that is enough to - at this point to really get the outbreak under control?

HUANG: Well, it's hard to say, and it's hard to say how long it will take. In fact, federal health officials were asked how many people needed to get vaccinated to stop the outbreak, and they didn't give a hard number. Part of the reason is that we don't actually know the full scope of the outbreak right now. The official case count is almost 5,000, as you said, but there are definitely more cases. And even though testing's improved this month, every person with a new rash is not necessarily getting tested for monkeypox. You know, they might not know where to go. They might not have a doctor. Or their doctor might not know to test for it. Or they might not be able to afford it.

Health secretary Xavier Becerra also said vaccines won't be enough on their own.

BECERRA: We believe that we have done everything we can at the federal level to work with our state and local partners in communities affected to make sure we can stay ahead of this and end this outbreak. But everybody's got to take the oar and row.

HUANG: By everybody, he's talking about state and local health officials and the communities at risk, which, so far, have mostly been men who have sex with men. And what will those preventative measures look like? He didn't actually elaborate. But health experts say this generally includes contact tracing, finding and treating cases early and isolating people with monkeypox for the several weeks when they're infectious.

KHALID: You know, you mentioned state officials. So what do states actually think about this?

HUANG: Well, I asked Dr. Marcus Plescia. He's the - he's with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. And he says, metaphorically, states have grabbed the oars.

MARCUS PLESCIA: We're all rowing as hard as we can. And, you know, I think states do feel like the government - the federal government - is doing everything they can to procure vaccine. But, you know, we can't give out vaccines that we don't have.

KHALID: Pien, we have now seen local emergency declarations. What kind of difference would any sort of national emergency declaration make?

HUANG: Yeah. The White House is now considering whether it rises to the level of a federal public health emergency. And that would open up more funding and resources for the monkeypox response.

Lindsay Wiley, a health law professor at UCLA, says it would also put people on alert.

LINDSAY WILEY: A federal public health emergency declaration - any emergency declaration - also has a signaling effect to the public in terms of, you know, take this seriously; educate yourself about the risk.

HUANG: It would also allow them to appoint a monkeypox czar to coordinate the response, among other things.

KHALID: NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks so much.

HUANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF REMYSFELLON SONG, "7 FLOPS")

KHALID: Residents in Saint Louis braced themselves for more floods just days after a record-setting downpour earlier this week.

FADEL: The National Weather Service issued another flood warning last night. And several roads remain closed in the area. This week also saw deadly flooding in Kentucky, as well as flash floods in Arizona. Climate change is making natural disasters more severe and more common all over the country.

KHALID: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team is here to talk about why all of this is happening.

Rebecca, what is going on? You know, when I think about climate change and flooding, I mostly think about sea-level rise. But that's not where all of this is happening. I mean, we're talking about cities far from any coastline.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Yeah. And, you know, there are many ways that climate change can cause floods. Coastal floods get a lot of attention, as you say, especially when they happen during a hurricane. But actually, inland flooding is more common. And the kind of devastating heavy rain that we've seen this week is something that climate scientists have predicted for many decades - that as humans keep burning fossil fuels, the atmosphere gets hotter. The air holds more moisture. And so when it rains, it rains harder.

KHALID: And has that turned out to be true?

HERSHER: Yeah. The climate models are correct. And actually, scientists can observe it in real time now, which is pretty scary. So heavy rain has increased all over the U.S. And in the southeastern U.S., including in Kentucky, it's increased by almost a third.

KHALID: Wow.

HERSHER: Now, that might not sound like a lot.

KHALID: Yeah.

HERSHER: But an extra inch of rain, if you think about it - if that falls in a short period of time, that is how you get a flash flood.

KHALID: So explain that, because I do think it is shocking to see some of the damage that all of this rain has caused, particularly in Kentucky, as you mention.

HERSHER: Yeah. The danger and the damage comes from moving water, and that can happen in two ways. So first, when a lot of rain is falling in a short period of time, the water doesn't have anywhere to go. It can't soak into the ground, especially if the ground is already saturated. So that causes the water to pool on the surface. And then if there's a hill, even a really small hill, one that you might not even notice, all that water starts to roll downhill. It gathers speed. It gathers power. It can pick up debris. And that is a flash flood. It's really dangerous. It can carry away cars. It can carry away houses. And it can kill people.

KHALID: So how common is that type of flooding? You know, you said it is getting more frequent at this point.

HERSHER: Yeah. And unfortunately, these kinds of floods - they're so frequent that they're a part of life in some places. So there are towns and cities in the U.S. where flash floods happen every year or every other year. That's true in parts of southeast Texas and Louisiana, parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, where this week's floods happened. For example, last summer, there was a flash flood that killed nearly two dozen people in Tennessee. That same area was hit by very heavy rain this year. And it's important to say, this is not just a U.S. problem. It's happening outside the U.S. as well. So heavy rain has caused deadly flash floods in Germany and Belgium, South Africa, India, China and Australia. And that's just in the last year.

KHALID: So, I mean, I've got to wonder, are there ways to make these floods less dangerous, or do we all sort of have to learn to live with this new reality?

HERSHER: There are lots of ways to make them less dangerous. So basically, you slow the water down, give it safe places to go - for example, have less pavement so the water can soak into the ground. You can build retention ponds - you know, those low marshy areas - for excess water to collect.

KHALID: Right.

HERSHER: And in cities, you can make the pipes bigger. So a lot of U.S. cities were built 50, even a hundred years ago. The stormwater systems are not built for the heavy rain of today. It's expensive to make those pipes larger. But it's really important if you want to prevent streets from turning into rivers.

KHALID: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. Thanks as always.

HERSHER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: The U.S. economy is slowing down, and you can get an indication of what exactly that means by just looking at Silicon Valley.

FADEL: Yeah. The pandemic fueled a tech boom. But this week, many of those same companies said they're hunkering down for tougher times ahead.

KHALID: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us now. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Asma.

KHALID: So what is the mood like in Silicon Valley right now?

BOND: Well, rather than me tell you, why don't we hear from the CEOs of Facebook, Apple and Google?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I'd say that the situation seems worse than it did a quarter ago.

TIM COOK: We know that this is a time of significant challenge around the world.

SUNDAR PICHAI: What we are talking about is uncertainty.

BOND: And uncertainty - what you hear - heard Google's Sundar Pichai say at the end there - that's the word that really captures this mood. You know, Google executives said uncertainty or uncertain 13 times on their earnings call this week. And that is something that just makes executives and investors really uncomfortable. They don't like it. But right now it's what many companies are bracing for.

KHALID: So what is creating that uncertainty?

BOND: Well, there's a few things going on here - so first, the global economy, right? These companies are dealing with the effects of inflation, higher interest rates, supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine. So, you know, Apple can't get enough parts to build enough Mac computers because of supply shortages. So some of their sales are down. Meanwhile, inflation is driving up costs, and so Apple's profit dropped in the last three months.

Secondly, because of these economic worries, advertisers are pulling back. And that's hurting tech companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat that depend on advertising. Facebook sales dropped for the first time ever last quarter. And it and other ad-dependent companies are also still trying to cope with changes Apple made to its privacy policies last year that have made it harder to target ads on iPhones. And then on top of all of that, these tech companies are also coming off this wild run during the pandemic. And people's habits have changed, and the companies now have to adapt.

KHALID: So what's changing there with people's habits?

BOND: Well, we're in a different stage - right? - than in 2020, 2021. Lots of people then were largely staying home, doing much more online.

KHALID: Right.

BOND: But these days, you know, Netflix is bleeding subscribers. Amazon is - says it's seeing a comedown from the frenzied internet shopping of the past few years. So now there's just more doubt creeping in that this tech boom that drove so much demand is really sustainable.

KHALID: So how are you seeing companies in Silicon Valley cope with all of this?

BOND: Well, they're cutting expenses, slowing hiring. In some cases, there's even companies doing layoffs. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had a clear message for investors and his own employees this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZUCKERBERG: I expect us to get more done with fewer resources.

BOND: But, of course, you know, that is easier for some of these companies to do than others, right? So, you know, we heard - pretty upbeat note from Apple, right? It said it thinks sales are going to pick up towards the end of the year. You know, some of these other companies are seeing sales slow. But overall, these gigantic companies - you know, they were able to get through the pandemic. That also looked like a very tough time. And in the end, they didn't just weather that storm. It turned out to be a huge opportunity as so much demand was driven. People were turning online for school, for work, to connect. Now in the face of a possible recession - you know, those big companies may be more insulated. It's harder for smaller companies with fewer resources - the Twitters and the Snapchats and so many others - to do the same.

KHALID: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thank you.

BOND: Thank you.

KHALID: And we should note Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are among NPR's financial supporters. And Facebook parent company Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPEKTASE AND J'SAN'S "DEEP DIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.