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News brief: voters consider inflation, dirty bomb claim, respiratory infection surge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Less than two weeks before Election Day, President Biden is addressing an issue that has endangered his party's control of Congress.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've talked about this recently, how focused voters are on inflation. Regardless of party, voters are feeling it in their daily lives. Republicans blame spending by Democrats. So today, President Biden speaks in Syracuse, N.Y. And he's going to argue that Republican economic policies would make inflation worse.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So having come to grips or tried to come to grips with this issue, how is the president trying to draw a contrast with Republicans?

KHALID: Well, you're going to see the president - and we have been seeing the president - try to turn this inflation story on its head. The White House says that the GOP would try to cut Social Security, extend tax cuts for the rich and repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, which, you know, I'm sure you recall, is that massive bill Democrats passed this summer to curb climate change and lower health care costs. This message is something, I will say, the president has been campaigning on in recent weeks.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Democrats are lowering your everyday costs, like prescription drugs, health care premiums, energy bills and gas prices.

(CHEERING)

KHALID: And Biden is trying to cast this election now as a choice rather than a referendum on his economic performance. Republicans have been hammering the White House for being the party in power as inflation reached a four-decade high. And now we're seeing Democrats respond very bluntly to that message.

INSKEEP: When you talk with voters, what do you hear from them about these competing arguments?

KHALID: Well, frankly, Steve, it depends which voters you ask. Republicans and Democrats that I've interviewed agree they are frustrated with rising prices. But they differ on who is to blame. I was in Georgia last week. And I went to an early voting site just north of Atlanta. And that's where I met Richard Johnson (ph). He's trying to buy a new house. But mortgage rates have spiked because the Fed raised interest rates to curb inflation. Johnson has been feeling the effects of inflation, but he does not fault Biden.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Our economy is cyclical. This is just one of those things. This is beyond any one individual's control or one particular party. And we just have to live through it.

KHALID: Johnson voted for all Democrats this year. He's more concerned with other issues like threats to democracy. But in Georgia, I also met Darryl Sheets (ph). He's a Republican who blames Democrats for his economic woes.

DARRYL SHEETS: Our 401Ks are down by 25 to 35%. So you can only draw some correlation between what's going on today to what's happened politically over, you know, the last 18, 20 months.

INSKEEP: Asma, I'm interested that you noted that one of those people has already voted. At least one of them has already voted. Millions of people at this point probably have already voted, as Democrats make their closing argument. So it becomes relevant - how have they addressed this issue over the past couple of years?

KHALID: You know, Steve, there was a sense last year, especially as prices began rising, that the White House was slow to acknowledge people's pain. But as the problem persisted, the White House has tried to show that it has done everything in its power to help curb costs, whether that's unsnarling supply chains or releasing an unprecedented amount of oil from emergency reserves.

I spoke with one of Biden's top economic advisers, Jared Bernstein. And he acknowledged that some people want to see change faster. But he says the economy is moving in the right direction. And so what we're seeing now, I would say, in this final phase of campaigning is a moment where both parties are trying to use fears about what the other party will do to the economy to drive voter turnout. It's just a matter of whose fears are actually more convincing to people.

INSKEEP: NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid. It was a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

KHALID: My pleasure.

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INSKEEP: Just how far can Russia push a disinformation campaign about Ukraine?

MARTIN: President Vladimir Putin is picking up a theme previously brought up by lower-ranking Russians. He is making an evidence-free claim about Ukraine that the U.S. says is false. Putin spoke at a meeting of intelligence chiefs from former Soviet republics.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: What he said there - we are aware of plans by Ukraine to use a dirty bomb as a provocation. Now, Russia gave no evidence of Ukraine planning to use a bomb that would spread radiation on its own territory. The U.S. has warned Russia - has warned that Russia may be setting a pretext for its own future actions.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is covering this story from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How has Russia injected this claim into the global discourse?

MAYNES: You know, it all started over the weekend, when members of Russia's defense ministry held calls with U.S. officials and started talking about dirty bombs. Then we heard from Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, then the foreign ministry and, of course, state media. So it's been a steady drumbeat here. And the Russian argument basically amounts to this - Ukraine civilian nuclear facilities are being used to create a dirty bomb to detonate in Ukraine to then blame on Russia. And yesterday, as you said, Putin himself made the same charge in a video address. And that's raised concerns over what Putin might do next.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have this claim being made again and again without any evidence given. Although, the United States has already warned that it would be an incredibly serious mistake for Russia to detonate some kind of explosive device and blame it on Ukraine. How has this - how does this fit into Moscow's broader efforts to use nuclear threats in the war?

MAYNES: Well, you know, from the beginning, Putin has issued not particularly veiled threats to keep the West from getting too involved in Ukraine. For example, he raised Russia's nuclear alert level in the early days of the conflict. Although, U.S. officials said - and this is important - they saw no actual change in Russia's nuclear posture. Now, more recently, Putin said Russia would use any means necessary to defend what Moscow claims are these newly annexed Russian territories in Ukraine, with Putin warning it was no bluff.

And, you know, there are some in the West that are worried that this latest Russian charge concerning the dirty bomb reflects Putin's dwindling options on the battlefield. You know, as Russia has struggled, in part because of Western arms support to Ukraine, there are even voices here in Moscow that argue only a massive strike or the threat of one could shift Russia's fortunes. And so Russia's dirty bomb allegations, true or not, could, some in the West say, provide Moscow with a pretext to take more drastic measures.

INSKEEP: Russia also did something else that could be seen as saber-rattling - nuclear saber-rattling, if we can mix metaphors there - a test of its nuclear defenses yesterday. Here's some of the sound of that sent by their defense ministry.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Somewhat ominous sounds there. What do we make of that?

MAYNES: Well, you know, let's be clear. You know, the Russians do these drills around this time every year. And Russian officials did warn the U.S. of these maneuvers in advance, as they're supposed to. So it wasn't a surprise. And the U.S. has its own version of this. Putin oversaw tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles fired by land, air and sea in what was a simulation of Russia's response to an enemy nuclear attack. So you know, it's a drill. But it's also a message, given the timing, and one that leaves the West with the same question it's had throughout the conflict in Ukraine - how far is Russia willing to go? We might get some more clues later today, when Putin's expected to give a major foreign policy speech.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes will be listening from Moscow. Charles, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Here in the United States, some hospitals are overflowing again, but not because of COVID-19.

MARTIN: Yeah. Many are running out of beds because of an early surge in respiratory infections, particularly RSV.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's happening?

STEIN: You know, Steve, this virus, the RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, tends to surge every winter, just like the flu. And for most people, it just causes something like a cold, you know? But RSV can be more serious, even life-threatening, especially for very young children and older people. What's different this year is that RSV is surging much earlier than usual. Here's Dr. William Schaffner. He's an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: RSV is remarkably earlier this season. It usually is prominent in January and February. But here we are in October. And in many parts of the country, it's really started to make young children and some adults sick.

INSKEEP: We've had some people sick in our household in the last few days. And everybody's passing the COVID tests, which now makes me wonder - although, people do have their flu vaccines over here - is there also danger from the flu?

STEIN: That's right. That's right. Well, I'm sorry to hear folks are sick in your house. But, yeah, the flu - doctors have been bracing for an early flu season this year because of what happened in parts of the southern hemisphere during the winter there. And sure enough, Steve, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says flu activity is now increasing in most of the country. So far, flu is hitting earliest and hardest in southern and south-central states. But it's already pretty widespread in parts of the northeast, like New York and Washington, D.C. That's why officials are urging everyone to get their flu shots right away.

INSKEEP: Why would it be that the viruses would be hitting so much earlier than expected?

STEIN: You know, most of the common respiratory viruses, like RSV and flu, kind of disappeared the last couple of years because of all the masking and social distancing and other precautions people took to protect themselves from COVID. Here's Dr. Kristin Moffitt, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Boston Children's Hospital.

KRISTIN MOFFITT: It's what's being referred to as this immunity gap that people have experienced from not having been exposed to our typical respiratory viruses for the last couple of years, combined with re-introduction to indoor gatherings, indoor venues, indoor school and daycare, without any of the mitigation measures that we had in place for the last couple of years.

STEIN: And so these viruses are spreading fast again, hitting babies and other young children especially hard because RSV tends to make kids sickest the first time they get it.

INSKEEP: Which would explain why we're hearing stories about children's hospitals across the country that are filling up.

STEIN: Right. Right. Yeah. And these hospitals, a lot of them are getting really slammed, especially in northern states. And this comes at a time when many are already having a hard time finding enough doctors, nurses and other staff. I talked about this with Dr. Mark Wietecha, who heads the Children's Hospital Association.

MARK WIETECHA: Most - all the big kids' hospitals are completely full. We have overflow going on in numbers of them, where we're putting tents and temporary shelter capacity outside the hospitals. Many of our hospitals are on diversion, meaning they're not taking anyone new. But there's really nowhere to divert to.

STEIN: And that's leaving some very sick children waiting for hours in emergency rooms for hospital beds to open up. And, you know, Steve, all this is happening just as the country might be on the verge of yet another winter surge of COVID, raising the prospect of not just the long-feared twindemic of both flu and COVID, but now possibly a triple-demic of RSV, flu and COVID.

INSKEEP: Ow. NPR's Rob Stein. Thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.