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News brief: monkeypox cases, Democrats' climate and tax bill, Alex Jones trial

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Biden administration has declared monkeypox a public health emergency.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

New cases have climbed above 7,000 in the U.S. And Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra made the announcement on Thursday.

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XAVIER BECERRA: And we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus.

FADEL: And scientists have some big questions about the current outbreak, like why exactly is the virus spreading so quickly?

MARTINEZ: NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now to discuss what we know. First of all, why declare a public health emergency?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, it does a couple of things. It brings attention to the problem, first of all. And secondly, it opens up funding and resources for federal agencies. Larry Gostin, who's a health law professor at Georgetown, says it's about time they declared it.

LARRY GOSTIN: It's the textbook case for an emergency. It's a fast-moving infectious disease that's crossed state borders. And we've had a really flawed and, you know, cumbersome response so far.

HUANG: Gostin says that the declaration opens up the toolbox for federal agencies and also injects some much-needed urgency into the response. It comes a few days after the White House named an official monkeypox response coordinator whose job is to improve vaccine efforts and data collection. And the issue is that cases are really rising very quickly right now. While testing has improved, access to vaccines and treatments has been really limited.

MARTINEZ: Now, it sounds like a lot of monkeypox cases are connected to sexual contact. I mean, should we all be thinking about this as a kind of an STD?

HUANG: Well, the CDC and the World Health Organization don't officially classify this emerging disease as an STD, but a sexually transmitted disease is basically one that's spreading primarily through sexual contact. And that's what we're seeing with monkeypox right now. You know, the vast majority of cases in the U.S. are concentrated in the queer and gay community, primarily among men who have sex with men through physical skin-on-skin contact. And scientists are also looking at evidence that suggests that the virus can be spread through semen. Now, it can spread in other ways, so it is possible for anyone to catch the virus with sustained exposure.

MARTINEZ: In what other ways, and how transmissible is it?

HUANG: Well, the other ways you can get it are from face-to-face interactions with someone or from touching contaminated surfaces. But the data right now shows that it's really rare, and that only happens if you're in the same household for hours and hours with someone who's infected. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong is an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, and he says you're really not likely to get it from trying on a jacket at the thrift store or maybe brushing up against someone with a rash at a festival.

PETER CHIN-HONG: And, I mean, you'd have to, like, brush against them like a scrubbing brush to then make an abrasion in your skin for that monkeypox to then come inside you and then cause the lesion on your arm, which we haven't really seen in this outbreak.

MARTINEZ: All right. So that's some good news right there. I mean, do we have any idea of when a person is contagious?

HUANG: Well, a person with monkeypox is thought to be most contagious when they have rashes and lesions on their body. Some people also go through this phase where they start feeling generally sick. You know, they have a fever, headache before they have a rash, and they might be possibly contagious in that phase. What we still don't know for sure is whether someone can spread the virus without having any symptoms at all. And that's something that's still under investigation.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Thanks a lot for the information.

HUANG: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Senate Democrats cleared a big hurdle last night when it comes to the Inflation Reduction Act, a climate health care and tax package.

FADEL: That's right. Last night, the final Democratic holdout, Kyrsten Sinema, came on board, and Democrats are finally ready to introduce the bill in the Senate, and that's expected to happen on Saturday.

MARTINEZ: All right. Here to tell us more is NPR's Barbara Sprunt. Barbara, what brought Senator Sinema on board?

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Well, this is a major piece of legislation. It includes $300 billion in deficit reduction and $370 billion in energy and climate spending provisions. It's been a massive goal for Senate Democrats, but it also included a carried interest tax provision. So that changes the way that private equity income is taxed. And it was reported that Sinema, a centrist Democrat, had concerns about that. She'd been radio silent on this all week. But late last night, she came to an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

MARTINEZ: And this really was not a linear process for Democrats. It wasn't a straight A to B. Walk us through the twists and turns.

SPRUNT: Is it ever?

MARTINEZ: No, it's not.

SPRUNT: That's right. This legislative deal is the result of negotiations that were kept under wraps between Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The deal has been months in the making. Manchin had backtracked his support for a larger bill last month, saying he was hesitant to approve more spending with inflation being so high. A lot of Democrats felt deflated by that. But then last week, this deal surfaced, and there was renewed optimism for getting this done. And Sinema's support is seen as sort of one more step in that direction.

MARTINEZ: All right. So can Democrats pop champagne bottles? Is it a done deal now?

SPRUNT: Not quite. This will go through a wonky process called reconciliation. And the rules of that process are that each piece of the legislation has to produce a significant impact on federal revenues and spending for it to qualify. So the Senate parliamentarian has to go through everything and make sure that it's all proper. This process will allow Democrats to pass this all on their own with a simple majority, which is good for them because no Republican will vote for this. But because there's always a but in the U.S. Senate, that means they have to get everyone in the family on board. And that's no small feat, even with Sinema's support. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats, has already said that he thinks the bill doesn't go far enough. But is he really going to be the one to vote against this and be the senator to tank the deal? It feels unlikely, but he has said that he may offer amendments to it, and that can sometimes throw things into chaos.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what are the next steps?

SPRUNT: Schumer has said that the Senate will convene on Saturday afternoon, and they'll take up a procedural vote to begin debate on the bill. That debate could last up to 20 hours. After that comes what we call the vote-a-rama, which is when all senators can introduce as many amendments as they want. They can even call for the entire bill, which is over 700 pages long, to be read out loud. So it could last well into next week. There's some pressure to get this bill done sooner rather than later. The Senate has had a successful couple of weeks. They've worked across party lines to pass gun safety legislation, a bill that would boost the manufacturing of semiconductors here in the U.S., which power everything from medical devices to chips in our phone. They approved Sweden and Finland's bid to join NATO. And although this is a Democrats-only bill, it's a massive victory for the Biden administration. It's something that they're going to want to capitalize on, not to mention campaign on for the midterm elections. And those might seem far down the road, but it's only three months away.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Barbara Spunt taking us through all those steps. Barbara, thanks.

SPRUNT: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: A jury in Texas is ordering Infowars host Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a young child killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre.

FADEL: The conspiracy theorist maintained for years on his radio and internet platform that the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax staged by the federal government designed to push for gun control. Of course, that's completely false. And the parents sued, saying that lie caused them enormous emotional damage.

MARTINEZ: NPR's John Burnett joins us now from Austin, where the defamation trial has been taking place. John, you've been covering this trial's twists and turns. Were you surprised by the $4 million verdict?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, A. You know, I was. The families had asked for $150 million, and the jury gave them this far lower sum, $4.1 million. But the lawyer for the families, he's indicated that they're satisfied with it because, as you said, it's compensatory damages, compensation for the mental anguish that these broadcasts caused the parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who was killed in that horrible mass shooting. But Alex Jones and his legal team seemed to go out of their way to insult everybody in the courtroom. It's like he was playing to his devoted Infowars audience the whole time.

First, his lawyer shoots the finger at the family's lawyers. Infowars produces a video implying the judge is connected to human trafficking and pedophiles when she was a defense lawyer for the state. Jones also goes on his internet show and says the jury is full of people who don't know what planet they're on. And my favorite - at one point, the judge says, Mr. Jones, take your chewing gum out. He says, well, I've got a hole in my mouth where I got a tooth pulled. And he opens his mouth to show her, and she goes, I don't want to see inside your mouth. Here's state district judge Maya Gamble reading the verdict yesterday.

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MAYA GAMBLE: Question 2a - $1.5 million dollars; question 2b - $500,000. Is this your verdict, the 10 of you who signed it, all of you - all 10 of you?

UNIDENTIFIED JURY: Yes.

BURNETT: I think a lot of observers thought the jury would clean his clock, but this thing isn't over.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now the jury begins deliberating on punitive damages. What should we expect in this phase?

BURNETT: Right. The jury gets to decide the size of the monetary damages that will punish Alex Jones for knowingly and repeatedly lying about the Sandy Hook shooting over and over between 2012 and 2018. During the trial, Jones tells the parents he never intended to hurt them, never even knew who they were. But his falsehoods did hurt them. The mother and father testified about how for 9 1/2 years, deranged Infowars fans who'd heard Jones' lies stalked them, threatened them with death, shot up their house and car, gave them panic attacks, forced them to go into hiding. It was really gripping testimony. In his defense, Jones said he's just a pundit with a healthy skepticism of headlines, and that should be protected under the First Amendment. So we'll see today whether the jury buys that argument or not.

MARTINEZ: Considering it was 4 million bucks, I mean, what do we know about how much Alex Jones is worth?

BURNETT: Yeah, you know, as it happens, Jones' company, FreeSpeech Systems LLC, filed for bankruptcy during the trial. The parents' lawyers have maintained all along that Jones is hiding millions of dollars in assets. But there's a new book out, "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth," and it states that Infowars' online store brought in $50 million in revenue in a single year, selling items like alternative medicines, freeze-dried food and survivalist gear. So today, the plaintiffs' lawyers will try to prove how much Alex Jones really has.

MARTINEZ: NPR's John Burnett. Thanks a lot, John.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.