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News Brief: Biden Defends Afghan Withdrawal, Booster Shot, Aid For Haiti

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In his early months as president, Joe Biden has only rarely sat down for an interview.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the few times came yesterday as the president defended his course in Afghanistan. He took questions from ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who asked if chaos was baked in to his withdrawal decision.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that somehow there was a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens.

INSKEEP: The president spoke as the U.S. military tried to limit the chaos at the Kabul airport. A few thousand U.S. citizens have been able to leave from that airport that is secured for the moment by U.S. troops. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens remain around Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. And the president said the U.S. will stay long enough to get them out. He was a little less definite about tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who helped the United States over the last 20 years.

MARTINEZ: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us now to discuss some of the political stakes for the president. Domenico, this was the second time that Biden talked at length about Afghanistan. How did it compare to Monday's first time?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, look, the biggest piece of news out of this was the president saying that he will keep the U.S. military in Afghanistan until all American citizens are out, even if it's after his self-imposed August 31 deadline. But he's not explicitly making that same guarantee for Afghans who help the U.S. or others who want to get out. Though he said the goal is to get everyone out who helped the U.S. and NATO forces. Also you just heard Biden say that it wasn't very surprising that there was chaos but that chaos was expected. That's far from what Americans heard from the president in the run-up to the withdrawal. And if you believe that, he certainly didn't do a whole lot to prepare Americans for that expectation.

MARTINEZ: there have been a lot of opinions going all around the talk shows. So what have the last several days meant for President Biden and Democrats?

MONTANARO: I mean, the biggest political challenge this presents is that what happened cuts against the narrative of competence that Biden has tried to sow for himself. You know, he ran in 2020 as the antithesis of former President Trump, that he knew how to govern, provide the competent leadership America needed and that he'd restore the U.S. image around the world. You know, the way this exit happened really undercuts that. And that's frustrating for a lot of Democrats who have this tenuous hold on the House already. And they're fighting a full plate of attacks from Republicans, from the resurgent coronavirus to inflation to the surge of migrants at the southern U.S. border, for example. It's also really a reminder that presidents really should never make rosy assessments or definitive-sounding predictions. You know, Biden said just last month that there'd be no hasty rush to the exit and that it was, quote, "highly unlikely" that the Taliban would overrun the country.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, that's exactly what happened.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. And that is a big reason for why you're seeing the backlash that he's getting. And, arguably, had he been more measured in his assessment of the withdrawal and lowered expectations, the backlash might not be so swift.

MARTINEZ: Stepping back here a second, what might all of this mean for the president?

MONTANARO: Well, just when we talk about not making predictions - right? - I mean, we're making predictions, but I do think that that's part of it. For us in the media as well, we don't know exactly how all of this is going to play out in the end. And I think we have to remember that. You know, this withdrawal has not gone as planned. But for the better part of the last 15 years, Americans have been generally against a large footprint in Afghanistan. In recent years amidst economic turmoil, a pandemic, Americans have really turned more inward. Former President Trump was reflecting that, too, setting this withdrawal in motion. So the White House may be hoping that this is managed well from here on out at least, that no Americans die in this evacuation and that he can weather this initial storm of criticism and people will think more broadly about the larger policy direction.

MARTINEZ: Under promise, over deliver. That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: The Bush administration has made it official. Millions of Americans will soon be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

INSKEEP: Now, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration had resisted that step for a little while. And the World Health Organization even urged wealthier nations to hold off on booster shots until less affluent countries could get more of their citizens vaccinated. But health officials in this country now say the boosters are necessary.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with all the details. Allison, what's behind the change?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning. Well, CDC Director Walensky pointed to several new lines of evidence showing that protection really begins to decrease over time among vaccinated people. For instance, new data from New York showed that vaccine effectiveness against new infections declined from about 92% in May down to 80% or so in July. And Dr. Walensky pointed to a Mayo Clinic study that found between January and July, there was a fairly pronounced reduction in effectiveness against infection.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Even though our vaccines are currently working well to prevent hospitalizations, we are seeing concerning evidence of waning vaccine effectiveness over time and against the delta variant.

AUBREY: Walensky says it's important to stay ahead of this, so the plan is to start offering boosters as soon as September 20.

MARTINEZ: All right, so who's up first?

AUBREY: Well, people who got the Moderna and Pfizer shots will be eligible for a booster shot eight months after getting their second dose. And since health care workers, people in long-term care facilities, older people were among the first to be vaccinated, they will be first up for boosters, too. I should point out, this whole plan is pending FDA evaluation. Now, people who got the Johnson & Johnson shot probably will be eligible for a booster as well. But that's pending a review of more data. And separately, the administration announced a plan to require nursing homes to mandate for their staff these vaccines or risk losing Medicare and Medicaid funding.

MARTINEZ: Where will people be able to get the booster shots?

AUBREY: You know, there's going to be a lot of options. Some people go back to the pharmacy where they got their initial doses. Some doctors offices and clinics plan to offer the shots. Large health care systems have been planning for the possibility of boosters for months. Here's Michelle Medina of the Cleveland Clinic.

MICHELLE MEDINA: Cleveland Clinic is planning to give out booster shots in our mass vaccination sites that just do COVID vaccine all day. But, really, when you walk into a primary care office, if you happen to be in one of our ambulatory pharmacies, we have some community sites, you're able to actually get the vaccine in all of these places.

AUBREY: And no matter your location anywhere in the country, administration officials say booster shots will be free.

MARTINEZ: All right. So all that's the plan to push forward. What's been the pushback?

AUBREY: You know, there's a wide consensus that a waning of protection was predictable, that it's not surprising. But there is criticism given that so many people in other countries don't have access to vaccines yet. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy addressed this concern at the White House yesterday.

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VIVEK MURTHY: I do not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world. We clearly see our responsibility to both, and we believe we have to work on both fronts, as we have been.

AUBREY: Administration officials say the U.S. shipped more than 100 million doses of COVID vaccines to other countries in June and July, and they'll continue to support manufacturing and distribution around the globe, they say.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Haiti is still struggling to recover from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck on Saturday.

INSKEEP: A tropical storm isn't helping, and the death toll now stands at nearly 2,200. Aid is starting to arrive slowly. Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, talked with NPR's All Things Considered.

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BOCCHIT EDMOND: Now we need much more, you know, medical attention, medical equipment and all those things would certainly help us to save more lives.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us from the southern city of Les Cayes. And we should mention communications are difficult in that region right now. Jason, you've been in and around the city for the last few days. Are conditions getting any better?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: You know, not really. You know, even with Tropical Storm Grace having passed last night, we got slammed with another huge rainstorm. And this is falling on tens of thousands of people who are homeless. Many of them are sleeping in just flimsy shelters, sometimes not much more than a sheet of plastic. Cleanup has started, but it's been pretty much just to clear the roads. People are picking through some of the collapsed buildings, but really most of those buildings, you know, those piles of rubble, they're just still there where they fell. The soccer stadium has become a tent city. In some neighborhoods, people have taken over the streets and strung up tarps from one side to the other so they have a place to sleep and to get some shade during the day. Staff and hospitals say they continue to get a steady, heavy stream of patients with quake injuries. Water is a huge problem because water pipes broke, so it's getting delivered in trucks and people have to come out and fill their buckets in the streets. So, yeah, things remain incredibly rough.

MARTINEZ: Are supplies getting to the people that need them?

BEAUBIEN: They are starting to. Supplies are getting flown in in helicopters and planes. Several convoys of goods made it into the region yesterday. I saw the first distribution of stuff into a community west of Les Cayes. UNICEF and the Haitian Red Cross, they were handing out tarps, blankets, water cans, five-gallon buckets with sanitary supplies. But really, it is a drop in the bucket. People continue to say they need help, particularly with tarps and building supplies, also food. You know, many people, their entire kitchen pantry was destroyed when their house collapsed. Businesses were damaged. So the needs, you know, they remain huge.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Those pictures are awful to see. Is there a plan, though, Jason, for people who lost their homes?

BEAUBIEN: You know, not yet. You know, it's an interesting question what people are going to do. A lot of people have moved into schools and are sleeping in the classrooms. Other schools collapsed. Fortunately, school wasn't in session or there could have been some horrific scenes in some of them. Bruno Maes, the head of UNICEF in Haiti, also points out that thousands of kids in this region, they're supposed to be going back to school in the next couple of weeks.

BRUNO MAES: You have 94 schools who are fully destroyed or damaged; 20 fully destroyed, 74 partially damaged.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and he went out and was touring some of them, you know. So what is going to happen with the schools is a big question. Some are going to have to be rebuilt. It's pretty hard, however, to see how the school year is going to start here on time and as normal.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Les Cayes, Haiti. Jason, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.