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News Brief: Vaccination Rate, Life Expectancy, 1st Amendment Case

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The push to get America vaccinated is going a little more slowly than President Biden had hoped.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. The president travels to North Carolina today, one of the places where large numbers of people don't have their shots. The administration set a goal, 70% of U.S. adults with at least one dose by July 4. Now that seems unlikely to happen. And in North Carolina, just 55% of adults have a shot.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is covering the president. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How does the administration view this moment?

KEITH: Well, they are giving up on vaccinating people. They say that the country will hit that 70% goal just a couple of weeks after the July 4 deadline they had set for themselves. But there's also concern about these variants of concern and what they might mean for people who are unvaccinated. At the same time, the White House is doing a bit of changing the subject or emphasizing the positive and focusing on how people's lives really have returned to something resembling normal.

You know, President Biden, when he announced that July 4 goal, said he wanted people to be able to have backyard barbecues. Well, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, says they're doing a lot more than backyard barbecues at this point.

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JEN PSAKI: Part of our objective was to return the country to normal, for people to enjoy backyard barbecues, which people across the country, millions of people, will be. And we'll have a thousand people on the South Lawn here at the White House.

INSKEEP: There, nevertheless, is this concern about the delta variant and the other variants. So what is the administration doing to keep vaccinations going?

KEITH: You know, there's plenty of outreach going on, including what the president is doing today in North Carolina. The vice president, the first lady, the second gentleman - they have all been traveling all over the country to promote vaccination. They're using some of the same tactics a political campaign would ahead of Election Day. It's GOTV, but get-out-the-vaccine.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Right.

KEITH: I know - bad pun.

INSKEEP: Well done. Well done.

KEITH: But, you know, they are getting increasingly blunt in their messaging. They are making the case that being unvaccinated is a risk and that young people, certainly older people, could die, but that any death now from coronavirus would be an avoidable death that didn't have to happen. But, you know, there's just a huge amount of misinformation out there. You know, toss in political division and a lack of trust in institutions, and there's only so much that this White House can do. There's some hope among officials that when the FDA gives full approval to the vaccines, that will sway some holdouts. But just one sign of how demand has dropped for vaccinations - the last federal mass vaccination site closed last weekend. FEMA is moving its resources to more mobile units like one that President Biden is visiting today.

INSKEEP: Well, what does all this mean for the effort to control the virus?

KEITH: (Sighing) You know, like so many things, vaccination looks to be turning into a case of two Americas. New York today is dropping its state of emergency that's been in place for more than a year, but there are hot spots in states with low vaccination rates. Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Thirty-eight percent of adults are fully vaccinated. I talked to Joanie Perkins. She's an administrator at North Sunflower Medical Center in a rural part of the state, and they've been offering COVID shots day and night, but there are few takers.

JOANIE PERKINS: My personal opinion - and I don't want this to happen. But I think we're going to see some resurgence in the areas that are less vaccinated. And I hope I'm wrong (sighing). But maybe that'll drive it home.

KEITH: So now they are asking about vaccination status as a vital sign, trying to get people, if they come in for a sprained ankle, to maybe get vaccinated. These are the conversations where they hope they can break through some of the misinformation and fear.

INSKEEP: The sighs from the medical administrator there spoke even more than her words.

KEITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Tam, thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

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INSKEEP: Americans are living shorter lives, and the pandemic is largely to blame.

MARTIN: A new study finds American life expectancy has dropped by almost two years, which is a very big deal, and the decline is even more pronounced for Black and Hispanic Americans.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the numbers here?

AUBREY: Well, in 2018, people in the U.S. could expect to live on average about 79 years. But by the end of 2020, this had declined to about 77 years. I spoke to Dr. Steve Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University. He's the author of the paper.

STEVE WOOLF: We have not seen a decrease like this since World War II. So this is - it's a horrific decrease in life expectancy. And this dramatic fall is clearly due to the pandemic.

AUBREY: In addition to all the deaths from COVID, there were also deaths linked to disruptions in health care, chronic conditions that went undertreated and drug overdoses. And what's most striking is the extent to which life expectancy is linked to race and ethnicity.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. You said that for the whole population, life expectancy declined by two years. What happens when you focus on certain groups?

AUBREY: So the study found that life expectancy decreased by nearly 3.9 years for Hispanics in the U.S. and about 3.3 years for Black Americans. Now, this gap in life expectancy predates the pandemic. But the gap had been narrowing, Steve, in recent years. So the pandemic really just wiped out these gains. You know, it's been clear that Black Americans have been hit harder during the pandemic. The death rate for Black Americans from COVID has been twice as high compared to white Americans. And Woolf says this helps explain the steeper declines.

WOOLF: For Black men, life expectancy in 2018 was 71. And it fell to 68, which is a decrease of almost four years in life expectancy.

AUBREY: He says that changes of this magnitude are pretty uncommon and striking. His findings are published in a British medical journal called the BMJ, and there's an editorial published alongside the study. It concludes that the pandemic has just magnified problems that have existed for a long time in the U.S., including structural racism and lack of access to health care.

INSKEEP: Can I just pause for - it's hard not to get angry when you think the overall population has life expectancy in the very late 70s. And then if you focus on Black men, it goes down to 68. That's not a small - that's a huge difference. It's a decade.

AUBREY: Yeah, it's stunning. I mean, the researchers were just stunned by this. It's - yes, it's a big differential. But around the globe, it's really interesting to look at this because the new study estimates that the decline in life expectancy was only a couple of months in a group of 16 other wealthy nations. That includes Austria, France, the U.K., Israel, Taiwan. That's compared to the two-year decline here and the even steeper declines for Black Americans. Here's Dr. Woolf again.

WOOLF: The really bigger reason why Americans are so sick compared to people in other countries has to do with our social and economic conditions - the huge amount of income inequality, poverty, stagnant income, the lack of good jobs that pay good wages and the lack of support systems for people who are going through difficult times.

AUBREY: He says post-pandemic, the life expectancy is likely to rebound some, Steve, but not completely, not until these systemic issues of inequality are addressed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: The Supreme Court gave students a victory in a case pitting free speech against school discipline.

MARTIN: Brandi Levy is the person at the center of this case. She was 14 years old when she went on Snapchat to express her frustration at not making the varsity cheerleading squad at her school. The message that she posted included a photo of her flipping her middle finger and four F-bombs. The school suspended her from the JV cheerleading team as a result. Now the court has ruled the school went too far. And her extended vulgarity is now part of the historical record, quoted directly in the court's opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer.

INSKEEP: Andrew Chung joins us next. He covers the Supreme Court for Reuters. Good morning.

ANDREW CHUNG: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why did the justices side with the student here?

CHUNG: Well, the justices said that the school's special interest in regulating students' speech was not strong enough in Brandi's case to warrant the punishment she received, getting kicked off the team. You know - and that was for a few reasons. The justices said that, you know, her posts on Snapchat was outside of school hours. She didn't do it from the school. She didn't identify the school. And her post didn't target any specific school member with vulgar or abusive language. So schools can punish vulgar language, but the fact that she was on her own time made a big difference. And the court also talked about this principle where, you know, schools get a lot of their authority from this idea, this principle that they stand in the place of parents. You know, in this ruling written by Justice Breyer, the school did not stand in the place of parents. The punishment just wasn't warranted in this particular case.

INSKEEP: So, Andrew, I'm listening to you. And it sounds like the justices are saying that free speech is not absolute in this case or almost any case - that schools can interfere with students' speech. But they have to have an interest. They have to have a reason, and they failed to show a good reason.

CHUNG: That's exactly right. I mean, Brandi Levy did win this case, but, you know, the key aspect of the ruling was that, you know, the justices said the schools must have the ability to regulate speech by students in certain circumstances. And they gave some examples that they, you know, they heard about during the litigation, like threats or severe harassment, targeting a person, cheating or even hacking into, like, school computers and devices. These are areas that the school must have the power to act on, they said. It's also important, especially in the internet era where social media is ubiquitous. What students say through social media can be transmitted anywhere, and so the geographical boundaries - on campus, off campus - is blurred. And so they took that into consideration.

INSKEEP: Now, eight of the justices took that into consideration. There was one dissent from Clarence Thomas. What was his concern about this?

CHUNG: Well, Justice Thomas was indeed the sole dissenter to rule in favor of Brandi Levy. You know, he reiterated how historically schools have had the ability to regulate student speech. And he primarily said the court's ruling will be very difficult for lower courts to apply. And essentially, that's because it was deliberately vague. You know, the ruling said that while schools retain the ability to punish students for their off-campus speech, that authority is diminished. And it gave a few reasons why. But again, it was very broad and vague. And Justice Thomas said that it was not at all clear how those lower courts would apply it.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if that vagueness is related to the fact that Justice Roberts and the others managed to get eight votes together. This is a court whose chief justice tries for big majorities, tries for consensus, even if that means the ruling has to be quite narrow. Is it possible that's what happened here?

CHUNG: It's possible. And you're right that the court has been ruling, especially this term - you know, with six conservative justice supermajority, it has been ruling in a lot of cases quite coherently. There has been a lot of unanimity even. So that has, I think, surprised a lot of people. And, you know, it shows that there has been, despite this ideological divide, an attempt at least at bringing some cohesion to the court. I mean, there are some really controversial cases coming where we might see a bit more of a cleavage, as it were, on the court. I mean, you've got next term a hugely consequential abortion rights case, as well as a gun rights case and potentially even one on affirmative action. So, you know, this is what's happening now. But we have to wait and see what will happen next.

INSKEEP: Andrew Chung of Reuters. Thanks.

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