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News Brief: Coronavirus Relief Package, Vaccine Distribution, Russia Protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What is the right amount of money to get Americans through a few more months of the pandemic?

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden is hoping Congress approves COVID relief now that they're done with impeachment. A lot of the money would finance payments to Americans - $1,400 for most people. Cities, states and schools would also get some money. Earlier this month, the White House economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, said all of it is needed.

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JARED BERNSTEIN: We have to hit back hard. We have to hit back strong if we're going to finally put this dual crisis of the pandemic and the economic pain that it has engendered behind us.

KING: The administration is asking Congress for, in total, $1.9 trillion. It politely turned down a call by some Republican senators to spend less. But economists still have questions about the price tag.

INSKEEP: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us now. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would there be doubt about the price tag?

HORSLEY: Well, there is some sense that maybe it's just too much. You know, one of the more prominent critics is Larry Summers, who was Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. He was also an adviser to former President Obama. Summers told NPR's Weekend Edition that while it's important for the government to go big, maybe it doesn't have to go this big.

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LARRY SUMMERS: If your bathtub isn't full, you just turn the faucet on. But that doesn't mean you should turn it on as hard as you can and as long as you can. The question isn't whether we need big stimulus. The question is, do we need the biggest stimulus in American history?

HORSLEY: Summers worries that spending this much money on short-term relief would make it harder for the administration to make the kind of long-term investments that it wants to in things like infrastructure. And he's also warned that a rescue package this big could overheat the economy and trigger something we haven't seen in a long time, which is inflation.

INSKEEP: I guess inflation could come back some time, but they've borrowed so much without that happening, do we really need to worry about that?

HORSLEY: Well, the administration is certainly more worried about, you know, the people who've lost jobs and the parents who can't go to work because their kids aren't in school. The latest congressional forecast predicts it's going to be 2024 before we get back all the jobs we've lost. And the administration says that's not good enough. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN she thinks the U.S. could be back to full employment next year if Congress were to pass the president's rescue plan. And keep in mind, Steve, Yellen used to be chair of the Federal Reserve, where keeping an eye out for inflation was a big part of her job.

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JANET YELLEN: I've spent many years studying inflation and worrying about inflation. And I can tell you we have the tools to deal with that risk if it materializes. But we face a huge economic challenge here and tremendous suffering in the country. We've got to address that. That's the biggest risk.

INSKEEP: What does she mean when she says we have the tools to deal with inflation if it were to appear?

HORSLEY: Traditionally, when an overheating economy causes a jump in prices, the Fed tries to cool things off by raising interest rates. And for decades, the Fed was pretty aggressive about that. Often, it would raise rates preemptively just in case prices might go up. But now the central bank has really changed its thinking about that. In recent years, we've seen that unemployment can go much lower than people thought without triggering inflation and that low unemployment was really good for a lot of people, especially at the bottom of the ladder. So the Fed is just not very worried about inflation right now, even though we could see some price hikes this spring when the pandemic recedes and people start spending more. The Fed is going to be very, very patient before raising rates.

INSKEEP: You know, I just have to ask, when we're talking about the sheer size of this $1.9 trillion package, many people in this administration were around in 2009, including the president. Did they learn anything from that experience when they were trying to recover from the financial crisis?

HORSLEY: Well, there is a feeling among many that they, the government, didn't spend enough back then to jump-start the economy. And so this administration would rather be accused of doing too much than too little.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks very much for the update.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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INSKEEP: Is it the right time to be easing some coronavirus restrictions? State and local officials are deciding how to respond to encouraging news.

KING: Right. If you look at a chart of the number of COVID cases diagnosed every day in this country, you see a red line that started rising sharply in November of last year. The line peaked early this year. On one day in January, there were more than 300,000 cases, but then the line started to fall sharply. The pace of vaccinations is accelerating, too. Almost 1.7 million doses are being administered every day.

INSKEEP: So what now? NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us, as she does most Mondays. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are states doing as the news generally improves?

AUBREY: Well, many places are reopening restaurants at limited capacity, and a number of states have changed or lifted their statewide mask mandates, including Montana, Iowa, North Dakota and Mississippi. And though cases are dropping, Steve, there is ongoing concern about the more contagious variants. The U.K. strain is spreading here in the U.S. and may be more virulent. Over the weekend, scientists pointed to multiple new variants identified in the U.S. They may also be more contagious. So CDC director Rochelle Walensky says it is just too early to lift mask mandates.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We are still at around 1,500 to 3,500 deaths per day. And if we want to get our children back to school, and I believe we all do, it all depends on how much community spread is out there. We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask wearing, so that we can get our kids and our society back.

AUBREY: So even if you don't have kids waiting to get back in the classroom, Steve, your behavior could influence how safe it is for schools to reopen.

INSKEEP: Is it still hard for people to get vaccine doses, which obviously would be the end of this?

AUBREY: You know, vaccine makers are under contract to produce millions of more doses per week, but it's not going to happen overnight. There are continued bottlenecks. Vaccination centers receive weekly allocations. They're using them up sometimes before the week is over. So at this moment, it is fair to say that demand far outstrips supply. Now, Moderna may be able to help stretch the supply by putting more vaccine into every vial. It would also be a big help if another vaccine is authorized soon. There's hope for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

INSKEEP: OK. So I'm closely following the very important case of my mom, who's got the first vaccine dose, is scheduled to get the second one. Is there any difficulty for people getting that second dose?

AUBREY: Good. The key thing you just told me is that she's scheduled. You know, given the ongoing supply snags, there are scattered reports of people having trouble getting appointments, scheduling snafus. Now, in theory, all the vaccination sites should have doses set aside, earmarked as second doses so that they don't run out. The CDC recommends sticking as close to the recommended three to four-week interval as possible between the doses. But there is some wiggle room to delay that second shot if needed, up to 42 days after the first shot. The recommended practice, as I just said, and as it sounds like your mom did, you make that appointment for the second dose while you're at the site getting your first shot.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

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INSKEEP: OK. Let's go to Russia next because protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny have often resulted in violent fights with police and thousands of arrests.

KING: And so Russians are trying something different. Navalny supporters in cities across Russia stood out in their yards over the weekend and shone their cellphone flashlights.

INSKEEP: Reporter Charles Maynes joins us from Moscow once again. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Thank you. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: What did these protests look like?

MAYNES: Well, they looked very different, mainly because there were no crowds or police and a lot more snow. We just had a blizzard here over the weekend. So at 8 o'clock last night, which was the time Navalny's team asked people to emerge, I stepped out into a courtyard in my neighborhood in central Moscow. And what I came across were just a few people huddling with their cellphones with their lights turned on. And that included a 25-year-old IT worker named Volod, who I asked, what does this actually accomplish?

VOLOD: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And he says this is so people can see one another and understand they're not alone in their support for Navalny. He said he'd come across several neighbors with flashlights and that there was a feeling of solidarity in that. But, you know, this was a low-key affair, more symbolic than anything else. Tens of thousands took part in it across the country. It was trending on Twitter last night but, of course, a few real crowds.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about this. I suppose somebody, if they're asked about what the heck they're doing by the authorities, they could say, I was just checking my email standing out here in the snow. But what does this kind of protest say about the opposition's momentum?

MAYNES: Yeah, well, that's right. First of all, to your first point, I mean, when it's minus 20, it's a question of what you're doing outside checking your email. But this was obviously, of course, not going to shift the politics of Russia, certainly wasn't going to end up with Alexei Navalny released from jail. And authorities really seem to take it very seriously ahead of time. You know, they were warning participants they could get arrested. The foreign ministry spokeswoman said this was part of a Western-backed plot. Some universities even banned students from going out last night. And it does get to this larger truth, I think, that in the Kremlin system of so-called managed democracy, this is where outcomes are preordained. You know, even an impromptu flashlight vigil like this can look awfully dangerous. And in fact, this was an attempt by Navalny's team to appeal to Russians who are unhappy with the Kremlin but who also don't want to end up in jail, as has happened to over 10,000 people these past few weeks.

INSKEEP: Well, it seems obvious that Vladimir Putin's government is taking Navalny quite seriously. The government seems threatened when they put someone from the opposition in prison who has not been able to do that well politically because of the way the system is set up. Can Putin outlast this discontent?

MAYNES: Well, he always has before. He's been in - 20 years in power is nothing to sneeze at. But Putin himself acknowledged that Navalny, who he, of course, never calls by name famously, was using Russians' dissatisfaction about the state of the economy, about what was happening with the coronavirus, as a battering ram against the authorities. For now, fear seems to be the primary tactic to keep people off the streets. If you want to join the protests, you'll pay a price. And we've certainly seen echoes of the Soviet Union's approach to dissent in recent weeks - people fired from their jobs or expelled from universities. But, you know, in the end, Sunday was pretty quiet, just a few arrests. In fact, some people noted that their flashlights went out not because of anything Vladimir Putin did but because the iPhone batteries couldn't handle the cold.

INSKEEP: Did you say 20 degrees below zero, Charles?

MAYNES: Yes.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, try to stay warm, if you can, appreciate your reporting.

MAYNES: Will do. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Charles Maynes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.