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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

All across Puerto Rico, people are starting to assess just how much destruction Hurricane Fiona has caused.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Floodwaters are starting to recede in some places, but other parts are still facing threats of flash floods, mudslides and collapsed bridges. Much of the island is also still without power, and a lot of people don't have drinking water. It could be days or longer before all that is restored.

FADEL: For more, we have NPR's Luis Trelles joining us from Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. Hi, Luis.

LUIS TRELLES, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what is the power and water situation right now, not just in San Juan, where you are, but in smaller towns that are harder to access?

TRELLES: Yes, the power blackouts began Sunday, right before the storm arrived, and by Monday night, power had been restored to more than 100,000 customers, this on an island of 3.2 million people. So as you can see, many people remain in the dark today. Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, is telling the public that it could take days to fully restore electricity across the island. He is calling the power outages and the massive flooding and landslides that have come in the wake of Hurricane Fiona - he's labeled them as catastrophic.

And just as critical is the island's supply of clean water. With no electricity, there is no power to run filtration systems and no power to pump water into homes, and that means no clean water for drinking, bathing or flushing toilets. And by Monday afternoon, more than 800,000 customers, two-thirds of the total on the island, faced cuts and disruptions to their water service.

FADEL: Now, I can't help but mention, you know, it's been five years to the day since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Billions of dollars were allocated by Congress to harden the island against future storms, storms like Fiona. And yet here we are seeing the island without power, so much devastation. Why?

TRELLES: I have to tell you, Leila, this is the story of a blackout, we're told. The electric grid is run by a private company called LUMA. And Puerto Ricans have been facing blackouts throughout the summer and even the summer of last year. So when the hurricane was announced and we knew that a direct hit was coming, the question was not would there be a blackout but how long would it last? Funds that have been allocated to Puerto Rico have been slow to reach projects that need to be built. And the government has also - the local government of Puerto Rico has also been slow to deal with all the requisites put in by the federal government to access those funds.

FADEL: Right now what's the weather like? I mean, is there still this deluge of rainfall?

TRELLES: The heaviest rainfall fell on Sunday, but still, yesterday, once the Hurricane Fiona had moved on to the Dominican Republic, tropical storm winds and levels of rain could be felt throughout the island. This is very concerning, especially in smaller towns on the southeastern tip of the island and across central mountainous region in the island. And so rivers have been overflowing, and the National Guard has reportedly rescued more than 900 people from the floodwaters. Today, it does look a bit clearer, but thunder clouds are still overhead.

FADEL: That's NPR's Luis Trelles in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thank you so much.

TRELLES: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: President Biden was asked a question about the pandemic on CBS' "60 Minutes" over the weekend, and his answer surprised a whole lot of health experts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: Is the pandemic over?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's - but the pandemic is over.

FADEL: With us now to help unpack that statement is NPR's Rob Stein. Thanks for being here, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

FADEL: So I think we'd all really like this pandemic to be over. But, Rob, you've been talking with public health experts, infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists about this. Is it over?

STEIN: You know, Leila, the short answer from many of the experts I've been talking with is a pretty definitive nope, not even close. While things are certainly way better than they were, say, a year ago, what you need to do is take a look at the number of lives that are still being lost every day to know that COVID is far from being in the rearview mirror. Here's William Hanage at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

WILLIAM HANAGE: Four hundred deaths a day - is that what we're going to be happy with? I think we have to recognize that we still have a big public health problem, regardless of whether or not President Biden says the pandemic is over.

STEIN: If the number of people dying at this rate continues, nearly 150,000 people could die from COVID in the next year, and that doesn't even count all those ending up in the hospital and all those lives being upended by the virus - kids missing school, workers missing work, plans being derailed. And the big concern is the president's statement comes at what could be a pivotal moment in the fight against the virus.

FADEL: What's the pivotal moment?

STEIN: Winter is coming, bringing big fears of yet another winter surge. So the administration is struggling to convince people to once again roll up their sleeves to get new boosters to protect them against omicron. Most people eligible for the first boosters never got them, and declaring the pandemic over is not a great selling point for the new ones. Here's Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We need to get as many people in this country as possible vaccinated with the new boosters. And we already knew we had a challenge to accomplish that, but by declaring the pandemic over, there will be many people who say, well, why do I need to get it?

STEIN: Osterholm and others are especially worried about older people, who are the most likely to die from COVID. And that's not all. Critics say declaring the pandemic over could also make it even harder to convince Congress to approve billions of dollars more to make sure the company has plenty of tests, vaccines and treatments to fight omicron and potentially some new variant that could emerge.

FADEL: OK, but life has really become normal-ish for a lot of people - very few people wearing masks anymore, people are out at bars, restaurants, concerts. Is that maybe what the president might have meant, that the lockdown part of the pandemic is over?

STEIN: Well, that's how the White House has been explaining his statement, that he's just trying to point out how much progress the country has made. And, you know, some experts agree, like Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: Acknowledging that we're in a new stage, acknowledging the threat isn't gone, but the threat is very different than it was, acknowledging that people have the tools to keep themselves safe, by and large, I think, is a reasonable thing to do as we all collectively sort of move from this emergency footing that we've been on for the last couple of years and try to navigate a new normal.

STEIN: And, you know, he says there's no reason society can't walk and chew gum at the same time - you know, put COVID into proper perspective while keeping up with testing, vaccinations, treatment and research needed to keep things going in the right direction until the pandemic is truly behind us.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Johnson & Johnson was back in court yesterday defending its efforts to block tens of thousands of lawsuits linked to Johnson's baby powder.

MARTIN: A growing number of people, mostly women, say there is asbestos in the Johnson & Johnson powder, which gave them cancer. J&J denies wrongdoing, and the company is using a controversial bankruptcy maneuver to block the lawsuits.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann has been following this case and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Brian, what was at stake in the courtroom yesterday?

MANN: Well, really, the question is whether this is a legitimate use of the bankruptcy system. One of the federal appeals court judges asked point blank whether J&J's maneuver here is just a ploy to gain legal advantage over all these sick people who are suing the company.

FADEL: So remind us how the maneuver worked. How can a wealthy corporation use bankruptcy like this?

MANN: Yeah, this is really the controversial part. Last October, J&J spun off a new subsidiary, brand-new company, then they pushed all the liability tied to these baby powder lawsuits onto the books of that new firm, which then immediately filed for bankruptcy. So what that means is that overnight, roughly 40,000 people with claims against J&J, this super wealthy corporation, were told they would have to deal instead with a bankrupt company with basically no assets. I spoke about this with Hanna Wilt from New Jersey, who believed Johnson's baby powder caused her mesothelioma, and she was furious.

HANNA WILT: What I see is, who can play the game best? Big corporations trying to work the system in a way that they don't have to take full responsibility is not something new.

MANN: And, Leila, Wilt died in February while her case was still caught up in all this legal wrangling.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. Now, this case involves tens of thousands of people, but it's also being described as precedent-setting for other big corporations. Why?

MANN: Well, the concern is that if J&J is allowed to go forward with this strategy, lots of other wealthy companies will follow suit. Jon Ruckdeschel is an attorney with clients suing J&J.

JON RUCKDESCHEL: The floodgates will be opened. If companies that sicken and kill people are allowed to create fake corporations, bankrupt that company and have business as usual, there's no reason why everybody wouldn't do it.

MANN: And the U.S. Justice Department actually shares this concern. In court yesterday, a DOJ attorney argued that J&J's legal maneuver here subverts the bankruptcy system and should be rejected by the court.

FADEL: Now, J&J's attorney was in court yesterday to answer questions about this. What did he say?

MANN: Yeah, J&J was represented yesterday by one of the most high-profile attorneys in the country, Neal Katyal, who served in the Obama administration. He pointed out that J&J has promised to back a bankruptcy deal here to the tune of $60 billion, money he says would go to cancer patients. Katyal also argued the bankruptcy process could be faster than trying to deal with all these thousands of lawsuits in civil courts. I spoke with Lindsey Simon, a bankruptcy expert at the University of Georgia, and she says this argument does have merit.

LINDSEY SIMON: Bankruptcy can be very efficient. And again, it takes away some of the element of uncertainty - this idea, outside of bankruptcy, you never know what you're going to get.

MANN: So despite the controversy here, this is a big question - could bankruptcy be a shortcut to resolving all these baby powder cases?

FADEL: So where does this go next?

MANN: Well, this court in Philadelphia is expected to rule quickly, but the legal experts say this is also likely to go on to the U.S. Supreme Court; it's so precedent-setting. Meanwhile, all these people suing J&J - a lot of them, again, incredibly sick - they're just going to have to keep waiting.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann. Thank you for your reporting, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.