AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For months, public health experts have believed the first COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. happened on February 26 in the Seattle area. Now we're learning the coronavirus was killing Americans even sooner than that.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
That's right. Officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., have traced two deaths earlier in February back to the virus, one as early as February 6. Here's Dr. Sara Cody, health officer for Santa Clara County.
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SARA CODY: I think what these deaths tell us is that community transmission had arrived much earlier than we were able to detect it, and I think it really highlights the importance of the shelter-in-place and protecting the community and preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
CHANG: Meanwhile, there's been a shake-up at the top of the federal vaccine agency known as BARDA. Dr. Rick Bright used to head it up, but he has been removed. Bright says it's because he questioned the value of a malaria drug as a coronavirus treatment. For more on all of this now, I want to bring in national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.
Hey to both of you.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, there.
CHANG: All right, Richard. I want to start with you. Let's talk about Santa Clara County. Why are we just learning now about these deaths from early February?
HARRIS: Well, remember. There was very little testing being done in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. It was essentially reserved for people who had traveled overseas, and these particular people hadn't traveled. But the coroner in Santa Clara County followed up on those deaths to find out more about these people. And the results just got back from the CDC in Atlanta, and they show that they - these two had - who had flu-like symptoms actually died of COVID-19. And there was also a third death in early March as well.
CHANG: OK, so what do these deaths tell us about the course of the disease here in the U.S.?
HARRIS: Well, the first case had been reported in this country by the CDC on January 20, and that was in the Seattle area. But this is further evidence that the disease had been spreading silently and, apparently, just mistaken for the flu, which is understandable when you can't test for it, right?
HARRIS: So today Dr. Sara Cody at the Santa Clara County Health Department talked about these cases in an outdoor news conference.
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CODY: They're really like iceberg tips, so they're indicators. When you have an outcome like death or ICU, that means that there's some iceberg of cases of unknown size that underlie those iceberg tips. So there must have been, you know, a somewhat significant degree of community transmission.
CHANG: OK, so what I hear her saying is that the coronavirus must have been circulating in Santa Clara County a lot longer than we previously assumed, right?
HARRIS: That appears to be the case, yeah. And, remember. This county is the heart of Silicon Valley, so it's an important part of this country for sure. And it was one of the early ones to tell people to stay home in order to reduce the spread of the disease, so that decision must seem like a really good one right now.
CHANG: Well, still, Mara, I mean, President Trump has been pressing to get the country's economy restarted, and some states have been announcing plans to lift stay-at-home orders. But Trump flat-out disagreed with the governor of Georgia's plans at today's briefing. Tell us what happened there.
LIASSON: That was an incredible surprise. Up until now, President Trump has associated himself with the people who are protesting the shutdown and the lockdowns. He's tweeted, liberate Michigan; liberate Minnesota. And today he said something very unusual. He said that he strongly disagreed with the Georgia governor, who has decided to reopen tattoo parlors and beauty salons as early as Friday. Here's what he said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I love those people that use all of those things - the spas and the beauty parlors and barbershops, tattoo parlors. I love them. But they can wait a little bit longer, just a little bit, not much because safety has to predominate. We have to have that. So I told the governor very simply that I disagree with his decision, but he has to do what he thinks is right.
LIASSON: So he's definitely muddied his message. I mean, before, he seemed to be drawing pretty clear us-versus-them battle lines, people who want to open up the economy right away, especially members of his base who are having these Tea Party-style protests in various states, and the public health officials and CEOs who say, hey, we want to open the economy as fast as possible. But we want to do it as safely as possible or else it's going to hurt the economy, not to mention kill more people.
CHANG: Right, so another shift there, OK. Well, Richard, I want to turn back to you because as we mentioned, there's been a change in leadership at the federal vaccine agency known as BARDA. Can you just tell us a little more about who Dr. Rick Bright is, the guy who's been removed as head of BARDA?
HARRIS: Yeah. Dr. Bright headed up an office. It's in the Department of Health and Human Services, and BARDA stands for Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Actually, what it's supposed to do is work with industry, giving them a lot of money to produce products like vaccines and drugs to defend us against health disasters like biological or chemical attacks and, in fact, pandemics. And they - you know, they are trying to keep these products flowing, even though it's not profitable for these companies to make these products on a normal basis. And he's a leading vaccine researcher, but he has now been ousted from that job. In a scathing statement he first gave to The New York Times, he says he was being pressured to promote dubious products like hydroxychloroquine, which is much-hyped as a coronavirus treatment despite the fact that there's actually almost no evidence that it works.
CHANG: Right, much-hyped by President Trump - and, Mara, I want to turn to you for the politics on this because President Trump has talked about the value of hydroxychloroquine at numerous press briefings. What do you see as the political significance of this departure that he's forced?
LIASSON: I think this is, once again, the president at odds with his public health officials and scientists. Sometimes, he takes their advice. But sometimes, he pushes back against them. Hydroxychloroquine has not been approved for treatment of COVID-19. And Dr. Bright is going to fight this removal. He's hired a lawyer. He says he wants the inspector general - the Health and Human Services Department to investigate. In that scathing statement, he said that he was removed because he clashed with political leadership and resisted, quote, "efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections." We assume he's talking about hydroxychloroquine. And so he is going to fight this, and I think that's not the kind of thing that the administration needs at this point. Today the president was asked about this at the briefing. He said he'd never heard of Dr. Bright. And he said maybe he was, maybe he wasn't removed for the reasons that he said. And it's important to, quote, "hear the other side."
CHANG: Well, Mara, on the stay-at-home orders, I mean, while necessary to preserve human lives, it has, obviously, crippled the economy. The president signed an executive order temporarily halting immigration, he says, to protect American workers who are desperate to get back to work. What do we know about what exactly is in this order?
LIASSON: Well, the order, I think, is more politically significant than it is substantively. It's only for 60 days. It has a lot of exceptions. He says that its main goal is to preserve jobs for Americans. But, in fact, the legal immigration system is almost shut down completely already. The U.S. isn't issuing new visas. Very few foreigners are coming to the United States. They're not having any citizenship ceremonies. And Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies - that's a nonprofit that is against more immigration of any sort - called it a PR stunt more than anything else.
CHANG: All right. Well, we will have to leave it there. That is national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.
Thank you to both of you.
LIASSON: Thank you so much.
HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.