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News brief: Omicron variant, Build Back Better, Chile's president-elect

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As the holiday week begins, the omicron variant of the coronavirus is quickly becoming dominant.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The U.S. is now averaging more than 125,000 new COVID cases a day. Cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are blowing through daily case records, and hospitals are now bracing for a surge as people travel around the country.

MARTINEZ: With us now is NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Allison, a busy travel week ahead and, once again, it's like 2020 all over again, Allison. We're facing another COVID surge.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: That's right. I think we're already seeing it. Cases are up about 30% since the end of November. Projections are that cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. Right now, there are about 60,000 people in the hospital with COVID all across the country, close to 1,200 deaths a day. This is mostly still from delta, but now omicron is taking over. It's happening fast. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about the rise of omicron on NBC yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: It is just raging through the world. The information we're getting from our South African colleagues still suggests the hospitalization to case ratio is less than with delta. But even if it is less severe, our hospitals, if things look like they're looking now in the next week or two, are going to be very stressed.

AUBREY: And hospitals are already stretched thin, A, so this is a concern.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. The U.K. is ahead of the U.S. What are they learning about the severity of cases among people infected with omicron?

AUBREY: You know, there's some new information from researchers at Imperial College London. They say there's no evidence so far that infections from omicron or - are any less severe than infections from delta, meaning many people may get mild illness, but others may get very sick, especially the people who are not vaccinated. The latest government data from the U.K. shows hospital admissions in London are up about 28%. But the mayor of London said the vast, vast majority are unvaccinated. One other concern - the mayor says they're starting to see a big increase in staff absences. Now, in the U.S., I spoke to Dr. Jim Musser at Houston Methodist Hospital, where on Friday omicron cases accounted for about 45% of positive cases sequenced at the hospital. Now it's up to 82%. That includes patients in the hospital and outpatients.

JIM MUSSER: Well, we've seen a dramatic increase in our omicron case counts over the last week, but its doubling rate is unprecedented. Let's just compare it to delta. The doubling time for delta was between five and seven days. We're now at two to three days.

AUBREY: So far, they've had about a hundred patients with omicron, and he says it's too soon to determine whether cases are, on average, more or less severe.

MARTINEZ: What about the protection the current vaccines offer against the omicron variant?

AUBREY: You know, it's pretty clear that the vaccines don't offer as much protection against infection from omicron, though they do help protect against serious illness and death. What's become more clear, also, is that when people get a third dose, the booster dose, protection goes way back up to about 75% effectiveness against symptomatic COVID. So you know, it's not 100%, but it is a significant improvement. And that is why we've heard so much from the Biden administration and others promoting booster shots and vaccines. We will likely hear that again tomorrow when President Biden is expected to address the nation.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: President Biden is heading into the Christmas holiday with plenty to feel Grinchy about.

DETROW: For months, he and other Democrats have whittled down and rewritten Biden's key domestic policy bill, Build Back Better, to win Manchin's support. Last week, the White House says Manchin indicated to Biden a deal was close, certainly possible. But yesterday, Manchin went on Fox News and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

JOE MANCHIN: I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there.

BRET BAIER: You're done. This is a no.

MANCHIN: This is a no.

MARTINEZ: NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us now. Domenico, what happened there?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: A, good morning. Look; all along, it was unclear what Manchin would agree to. He appeared to be in favor of some things, then he wouldn't be. The White House is now saying that he was disingenuous. They released a scathing statement over the weekend. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Manchin, just last week, had put in writing to the president a framework of what he could support within Build Back Better. But his comments on Fox, she said, were a breach of his commitments to the president and congressional Democrats.

So you know, what's going on here? You know, Manchin was always going to be tough to get on board for this part of the president's agenda, being from West Virginia. You know, part of what happened here is that the president's political stock is just in decline. We have a new survey out this morning from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist that shows Biden's approval rating hitting a new low at just 41%. That's the lowest we've ever recorded since he took office, and it was just 29% with independents. So you can imagine what Biden's numbers look like in West Virginia, a state former President Trump won by almost 40 points. So public pressure - it's a pretty hard time working when your numbers are that low.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So what does this all mean, then, for President Biden's agenda?

MONTANARO: Well, really feels like he's going backwards in some respects. You know, the main - a main piece of his agenda's now been derailed by Manchin, and we're talking about COVID again as a main issue in the country. You know, people, you know, are going to get sick. You know, we're seeing record - we may see record cases in some places. We're seeing some schools shut down, sports games being pushed off, theaters facing cancellations. It really feels like it did, in some respects, at the beginning of the year, not that summer of freedom that the White House was really hoping for. And we've seen COVID be a main driver of President Biden's, you know, political stock here. So you know, we know that the president again is going to be speaking, making a major address on COVID, and that's one of the big things that he was elected to fix. And we're going to hear him talk about that tomorrow.

MARTINEZ: Did the president, you think, maybe just set expectations too high among Democrats?

MONTANARO: Well, this was always going to be difficult, but it wasn't set up from the president that way. He didn't really talk about it that way. Instead, this went on - this negotiation, this public negotiation with Democrats themselves - went on for months and months and months, made Democrats really look like the gang who couldn't shoot straight. And Biden just never had the numbers. I mean, we have to remember - in 2010, when they - when Democrats passed the final part of the Affordable Care Act, you know, they had some room to maneuver. They let senators from conservative states not vote for it. And they just don't have that luxury in a 50-50 Senate. And, you know, progressives know this. But President Biden put so much emphasis on his own personal politics, and I think that that really has to be questioned today.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: All right. Huge crowds flooded the streets of Chile overnight, celebrating the election of a brand-new president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Whistling).

DETROW: Thirty-five-year-old leftist candidate Gabriel Boric will become Chile's youngest president. He defeated a far-right candidate by more than 10%.

MARTINEZ: NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves has been following events in Chile. Philip, many expected this election to be very close. How did it turn out in the end?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, Boric did much better than many people expected. He got 56%. And as you say, that's 10 points ahead of his rival from the far-right, Jose Antonio Kast. In fact, his victory was so decisive, so large, that Kast conceded within about 90 minutes of the polls closing. And for Boric's supporters, this was a great triumph, obviously. Kast is ultraconservative, a hard-liner on law and order who's expressed sympathy for some aspects of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Boric managed to convince Chileans that they did not want their country to make a sharp turn to the right and to get out and vote. And turnout was well above the generally low average for Chilean elections.

MARTINEZ: Tell us more about the president-elect, Gabriel Boric.

REEVES: Well, he's only 35, which makes him one of the youngest leaders in the world and the youngest in Chile's modern history. He comes from the far south of Chile and made his name in student politics 10 years ago as a student leader who led protests demanding better-quality education. In this election, he positioned himself as the champion of those huge anti-government protests over inequality that erupted in Chile in late 2019. Those protests, you'll remember, were driven by many grievances, but particularly a general sense that the country's conservative economic model pioneered during the Pinochet years just wasn't delivering a fair deal for most Chileans. And Boric is promising to change that.

MARTINEZ: Chile's been through a couple of years of political turbulence, really. What impact, if any, will this victory make for Chile?

REEVES: Well, it makes a big difference in one area in particular. Those mass protests resulted in a national referendum in which Chileans overwhelmingly voted to scrap their Pinochet-era constitution. They went on to elect an assembly, a very diverse body, half comprising women, to write a new one. Now, this is a big deal. We're talking about writing an entirely new set of rules for the country. Had Kast won, that process would have been in jeopardy 'cause he was against it. Now it stands a better chance of going ahead, although the final document must still be approved by popular vote.

You know, Kast was an apologist for Pinochet and won support from conservative Chileans nostalgic for those years, seeing them as more secure and stable. Many will now hope Boric's victory symbolically means Chile has finally turned a page and that the brutal Pinochet era is finally consigned to history.

It's also a generational change. When Chile's current president, Sebastian Pinera, leaves office next year, he'll hand over his chair to a millennial, a young man who led marches against him. It marks the end to - of the dominance of traditional political parties. None of them made it even to the runoff. And it also means, I think, that we are going to see a change in the face of the country. This is a very youthful guy, completely different kind of politician. And I think for Chile and for the region, that will be seen as a significant difference within the history of Chile.

MARTINEZ: NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves. Philip, thanks.

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