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Health, Science and Environment

News brief: Elizabeth Holmes verdict, Philly's COVID surge, Marine hearing

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Former one-time billionaire and Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes has been found guilty on four of 11 charges of defrauding company investors and patients.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Holmes founded Theranos when she was just 19 years old, claiming she invented a way to scan for hundreds of diseases using just a drop or two of blood from the prick of a finger. She raised billions of dollars for her medical invention, which produced flawed or false results for patients. Her investors and board members included big names, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The government argued in the trial that when the technology failed, Holmes covered it up.

MARTINEZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn covered the four-month trial. Bobby, take us through what the jury found.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So it was a mixed verdict, right? They found Elizabeth Holmes guilty of defrauding investors of millions of dollars through her startup Theranos, as you mentioned. But the jury also acquitted Holmes of three separate charges connected to the allegation that she intentionally deceived patients who went into Walgreens in Palo Alto, Calif., or Arizona and got a Theranos blood test and got a bad result. The jury didn't think there was enough evidence to convict Holmes of, you know, defrauding those patients. To further complicate things that way, the jury could not unanimously agree on three additional fraud charges, and those are likely to be cast aside.

MARTINEZ: Now, the way it all shook out, was that expected somehow?

ALLYN: You know, it was surprising, I think, because some were speculating that the jury would not be able to agree on any of the charges, since they were deliberating for a long time - right? - 50 hours over seven days. But the fact that they unanimously agreed that she knowingly and intentionally scammed investors by making exaggerated claims and, you know, sometimes making outright lies about what her startup's technology could do was pretty stunning. It's almost unheard of in Silicon Valley to see a tech startup CEO be convicted in a criminal trial in the wake of a business collapsing, so this is a pretty big deal.

MARTINEZ: So Bobby, then remind us how Elizabeth Holmes was able to raise billions and convince so many accomplished people to believe in her company and then back it financially.

ALLYN: Yeah, it's befuddling, isn't it? She is famously charismatic. I mean, I saw her every day for many weeks, and she has an aura about her. Every time she would walk by, I would feel it. I mean, she's enigmatic. She's kind of fascinating. I mean, people found her downright entranced. She wore black turtlenecks like her idol, Steve Jobs. She spoke confidently and surrounded herself with former secretaries of state, four-star generals like Jim Mattis, a former director of the CDC. She had credible and high-caliber people all around her. And when anyone asked any probing questions about her technology, she would say, hey, it's a trade secret; I can't go there. And that worked until it didn't - when, you know, The Wall Street Journal and the federal government launched investigations and eventually led to the collapse of the company.

MARTINEZ: I think, you know, in Silicon Valley, exaggeration and self-promotion is common. Could this case possibly change anything?

ALLYN: That's the big question. I mean, many see Theranos as kind of a one-off - that it's just too much of a particular case to really draw any broad conclusions. Others say no, this is a symptom of a larger problem in Silicon Valley, the fake-it-till-you-make-it culture that is based on exaggerations, these startup companies that say they're going to sort of disrupt entrenched industries and bring in lots of venture capital money based on a hope sometimes, right? And Elizabeth Holmes here was reaching beyond her grasp, and she was caught. And she's now found to be a fraud, and she might go to prison. But is this really going to change the culture in Silicon Valley? Most long-timers I've talked to, A, have said, no, it's probably not. People are looking at this and have already learned lessons, and the go, go, go culture of Silicon Valley is going to just keep chugging along.

MARTINEZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, A.

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MARTINEZ: Schools across the country are returning from winter break this week as the number of COVID cases is dramatically on the rise.

MARTIN: In Philadelphia, everyone from school bus drivers to students and teachers, they've all fallen ill, many of them from the coronavirus. And that has affected the school district's ability to offer in-person classes.

MARTINEZ: With us now is WHYY education reporter Mallory Falk. Mallory, today's the first day back for students in the School District of Philadelphia. What's it looking like there?

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Well, about a third of the district's schools are starting off the new year virtually, and that wasn't the initial plan. The district had repeatedly insisted they were fully committed to coming back from winter break in person. They kept saying it's important to keep the doors open and that in-person learning is best for students, with schools serving as a safety net for children. Then last night, the district announced that 81 of its more than 200 schools will be remote through at least Friday because of staffing challenges due to the spike in COVID cases. But the remaining schools are starting back up in person.

MARTINEZ: So what's the reaction been to that?

FALK: Many parents are frustrated that this call was made at the last minute the night before school is starting back up. They'd been watching COVID cases surge in Philly and were really concerned about what the first week back would look like. Some have been saying for a while now that a lot of students and teachers might be out, so they feel like this decision could have been made earlier instead of catching families off guard.

MARTINEZ: I know schools in other parts of the country, such as Atlanta and Detroit, they're also going virtual this week due to a COVID surge. In Philly, where you are, how widespread are absences there?

FALK: Yeah, absences are a big concern across the region here. This is being felt in many, many places. One of the largest school districts in Pennsylvania, Central Bucks, postponed the first day of school after break, partly because of a winter storm, but partly because there weren't enough staff members. It's back in person today, but said this could be an ongoing issue. And in some districts, this was already being felt before winter break. I talked to a school district outside Philadelphia called Upper Darby that was averaging about a hundred teacher absences a day in the weeks leading up to break. And the superintendent there stressed that they were out for legitimate reasons because they had COVID or were caring for sick family members. And all this is complicated further by the shortage of substitute teachers. There are often just not enough subs to fill classes. And that means healthy teachers are giving up lunch or planning periods to cover classes for their colleagues who are sick.

MARTINEZ: Speaking of teachers, how are they reacting to these developments?

FALK: Like many parents, teachers are also frustrated by the late decision-making. And the head of the teachers union had been calling for the entire district to go remote for a week to make sure schools had COVID mitigation measures in place. He wanted the district to ensure there were N95 masks for students and staff and that classrooms had good ventilation. And he wanted a stronger testing program. Last night, the union said the district's plan leaves parents and staff scrambling to make plans.

MARTINEZ: That's WHYY education reporter Mallory Falk. Mallory, thanks.

FALK: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: In July of 2020, nine service members drowned when their landing craft sank off the coast of Southern California.

MARTIN: As a result, the U.S. Marine Corps announced just this past December that amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs, will no longer deploy or train in the water during military exercises. Hearings are now underway at Camp Pendleton in California to find out what went wrong in 2020.

MARTINEZ: Steve Walsh is here from member station KPBS. Steve, remind us what happened 18 months ago.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: So it was horrific. Eight Marines and a sailor drowned when their amphibious landing vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California. They were coming back to their ship from San Clemente Island when the craft stalled. The troops' compartment began slowly filling with seawater. There was no safety boat. Keep in mind, these craft almost looked like little floating tanks. They're really heavy. And under the best of conditions, they sit really close to the water.

MARTINEZ: Now, you've been talking to the parents of some of the young Marines. What's their reaction been?

WALSH: So they're upset, as you can imagine, but not just at the loss of their sons, but at how the Marines have - what the Marines have been telling them about how the accident happened. I talked with Carlos Baltierra. His 18-year-old son, Bryan, died. That day, Bryan texted his father that they had broken down on the beach. Eventually, they were ordered into the water so they could head back to the ship with the other AAVs.

CARLOS BALTIERRA: This could have been 100% preventable. It was just a reckless decision that was made by the military, the Marines, whoever was in command there.

WALSH: So reports released by the Marines show that the craft used that day had a history of mechanical breakdowns. Some of the Marines had not passed their swim test. The unit was stretched thin. From the time the troop carrier began taking on water, their leadership had 45 minutes to get the young Marines to safety before their craft finally sank.

MARTINEZ: All right. so unreliable equipment, untrained Marines. So why even put them at risk for a training exercise?

WALSH: The answer I get, in part, is that it's the Marines' mindset. I talked with Jonathan Wong, who is a former Marine officer. He's now with the policy director with the RAND Corporation. He calls it the Marines' get-'er done (ph) mindset.

JONATHAN WONG: I think that is the kind of root cause of the accident. It's that belief, the sunny optimism that, particularly, you know, officers - non-commissioned officers in the Corps have, where they're handed something to do, and they're going to get it done. They're not going to complain.

MARTINEZ: So Steve, what happens now?

WALSH: So this week, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Regner, who is in charge of the battalion, faces either being kicked out of the Marines or potentially retired at a lower rank, so does the platoon sergeant for Bravo Company. Three other Marines are expected to go through a similar hearing process in the coming weeks.

You know, just before the hearing began, the Marine Corps did finally pull the AAVs from sea duty, saying that the risk of failure was too high. I talked with Aleta Bath, the mother of 19-year-old Pfc. Evan Bath. She says it's not enough. She is traveling from her home in Wisconsin to be in the room for every single hearing.

ALETA BATH: This is the only justice we get. And it's not really justice. But this is all we get. And so I will be there for every single one. It's my son. He was my only child. They took everything from me.

MARTINEZ: That's Steve Walsh from member station KPBS. Steve, thank you very much.

WALSH: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.