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News Brief: Breakthrough Infections, $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan, Flood-Prone Homes

NOEL KING, HOST:

Senators come back from their summer recess today with a lot to get done.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. At the top of their list is a big priority for the White House - a a $3.5 trillion spending bill. Democrats have a small window of time to work out details on policies such as expanded health care, universal pre-K and programs to fight climate change. Also today, a House panel holds the first public hearing on the Biden administration's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

KING: NPR's Deirdre Walsh covers Congress and is covering this one. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's start with the public hearings on Afghanistan and the withdrawal and how it went. What are you expecting today?

WALSH: Well, Secretary of State Tony Blinken is definitely going to be on the hot seat this week. He's before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow. He can expect a lot of tough questions about why this administration didn't have a plan to get all Americans and our Afghan allies out by the August 31 deadline. He's also going to be pressed about the Taliban, the leadership who control the country now and what kind of diplomatic relationship the U.S. will have with them. The Biden administration has also asked Congress for $6 billion in emergency money for refugee programs, so lawmakers are going to want details about how many people are coming from Afghanistan to the U.S. and how they're going to be vetted.

KING: OK, so that's one thing on the to-do list. And then there is the $3.5 trillion spending bill.

WALSH: That's the big one. Democrats set this week as their own deadline to try to pull together all the details of the policies in this, but West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has repeatedly said he's not going to vote for $3.5 trillion in new spending. He's raising concerns about inflation and some of the tax changes Democrats want to use to pay for it. Here's Manchin on CNN's "State Of The Union," calling for a pause.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

JOE MANCHIN: What's the urgency that we have? It's not the same urgency that we had with the American Rescue Plan. We got that out the door quickly. That was about $2 billion.

WALSH: Democratic leaders are saying they're not going to wait. Their plan is to move this broader spending package with a process that avoids a Republican filibuster. And they're trying to do it by the end of this month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding off having a House vote on the separate trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill until September 27. She wants to move both of these things in tandem.

KING: But if Joe Manchin is not on board, what happens?

WALSH: It likely means this overall spending plan is going to get smaller. Manchin says he thinks the bill should be more in the $1- to $1.5 trillion range. Progressives are not happy with anything less than $3.5 trillion. Here's Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders also on CNN reacting to Manchin's demand to make this a smaller bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

BERNIE SANDERS: It's absolutely not acceptable to me. I don't think it's acceptable to the president, to the American people or the overwhelming majority of the people in the Democratic caucus.

WALSH: But the reality is in the 50/50 Senate, any one Democrat has leverage. Manchin's not the only one. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema also opposes $3.5 trillion, and there's a group of House moderates who have some heartburn over this price tag. Democrats I spoke to in the last few days say they think the differences can be worked out. But the process of deciding which policies get scaled back or maybe even dropped will be very painful and messy, and it's going to go on for weeks.

KING: Weeks. NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: As the delta variant spreads, more fully vaccinated people are getting infected.

MARTINEZ: And that raises questions, such as can vaccinated people get long COVID? That's the type of illness where symptoms last for weeks or even months.

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into this question. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Are breakthrough infections causing long COVID?

STEIN: You know, Noel, the short answer is doctors don't really know yet, but it's definitely something they're trying to figure out. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first one is that it's becoming increasingly clear that you don't have to get severely ill to get long COVID. Symptoms can linger for weeks or even months after mild cases. I talked about this with Dr. Avindra Nath. He studies long COVID at the National Institutes of Health.

AVINDRA NATH: We've seen that with the infection itself in the unvaccinated individuals, about 30% of those individuals continue to have these long-haul COVID symptoms. And so the concern is that even if you are vaccinated, if you got the infection, you got the virus - going to do the exact same thing to these individuals, too. So I think it's a good question.

STEIN: So, Noel, researchers are studying people with breakthrough infections to find out if it happens and, if so, how often.

KING: And what have researchers found?

STEIN: You know, there was this Israeli study that produced the first evidence that it's possible. It found that 19% of vaccinated health care workers with mild breakthrough infections developed persistent symptoms lasting at least six weeks. But it was a very small study - just seven patients. More recently, a big British study found 5% of people who got breakthrough infections had lingering health problems.

Now, it's important to note that vaccinations cut the risk of long COVID by half in that study. And beyond that, there have been anecdotal reports from people. I spoke to a few of them, including Kathleen Hipps. She's 40 and lives in Los Angeles. She developed something known as neuropathy - an intense burning sensation in her feet and tingling and numbness in both of her hands after she thought she'd recovered from a mild breakthrough case. More than six weeks later, she also gets really tired really fast when she tries to work her full day as an attorney.

KATHLEEN HIPPS: I'm really scared. I mean, I'm really scared that there are things that are going on with me that I'm going to have to deal with for the rest of my life.

STEIN: But Hipps is still glad she got vaccinated. She knows it probably kept her from getting even sicker and possibly even dying.

KING: It's a very scary story. I imagine if there are researchers saying this may be happening, there are probably also other researchers at this point saying, no, we don't think it is.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. There are some who are highly skeptical that long COVID from breakthroughs are a big problem. Here's Dr. Monica Gandhi at the University of California, San Francisco. She says the immune response generated by vaccination should prevent long COVID.

MONICA GANDHI: Pathophysiologically, it's quite unlikely to get long COVID from a breakthrough infection.

STEIN: But, you know, other researchers are convinced the problem is real, like David Putrino. He studies long COVID at Mount Sinai.

DAVID PUTRINO: We need to behave as though there is the same chance as always of developing long COVID from a mild to asymptomatic infection because, you know, once you have it, you can't unring that bell. And you're looking at months to years of illness.

STEIN: So Putrino is working to figure out how breakthroughs could cause long COVID. One theory is that abnormal response by the immune system may be the culprit.

KING: Interesting. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. This we know - climate change is causing more severe flooding.

MARTINEZ: One example - the devastating deep water after Hurricane Ida. And coastal areas in Texas and Louisiana could see more flooding this week from Tropical Storm Nicholas. But an NPR investigation finds the top federal housing agency is selling homes that are prone to such flooding without fully disclosing the risk.

KING: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team has been digging into this one. Good morning, Rebecca.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So we are talking about the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, and what did you find HUD doing?

HERSHER: Well, you know, HUD is mainly known for subsidized rental housing, but HUD also sells homes, and we found that thousands of those homes around the country are located in flood zones. And that raises a lot of questions about how HUD is dealing with climate change. You know, HUD's mission is to provide safe, affordable housing. HUD says it's important to sell these homes for low prices and make sure they don't sit vacant. But many of the housing experts we spoke with said it's very concerning that HUD would be selling homes that are prone to flooding and basically allowing families to move into harm's way.

KING: Sure. Well, where are these houses located?

HERSHER: So these are houses that were foreclosed on by banks and then handed over to HUD to be sold. And NPR analyzed nearly 100,000 houses that HUD sold between 2017 and 2020. And there were hot spots. Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey all stuck out.

KING: All of them are states on the coast, so likely they're just more prone to flooding in general.

HERSHER: You know, we thought that too, but we found that HUD is selling a disproportionate number of homes in flood zones. So, for example, in Louisiana, about 20% of homes sold by HUD were in flood zones. That's compared to just 0.1% of all homes sold there during the period we looked at. So the data really suggests that the homes HUD is selling are more prone to flooding than the general housing stock.

KING: OK, so there's an interesting tension here. You said that HUD has a dual mandate - provide safe housing, provide affordable housing. Right now, it is very hard to find affordable housing in this country. And so I imagine that these houses are very attractive to some buyers. And yet it can mean some really bad things.

HERSHER: Yeah. And we interviewed people who bought these houses in multiple states who are basically gambling that the house they bought won't flood while they live there. And that brings up another question, which environmental justice experts have raised. You know, is HUD doing enough to protect low-income families from the effects of climate change? Buying a house is a way to build generational wealth in the U.S. People put their life savings into their homes. And a flood can wipe that out.

KING: Yeah, it can and does, as we've seen over the past couple of years. Becky, what is HUD saying in response to what you found?

HERSHER: So a HUD spokesperson, Michael Burns, told NPR that the agency recognizes that climate-driven flooding is a problem for housing in general, and that, quote, "ensuring that federal agencies, including HUD, have the right tools and policies in place to increase resilience nationwide is a key priority of the Biden-Harris administration." The agency did not respond to questions about how low-income families might be affected by their program.

KING: Has HUD or anyone else talked about solutions?

HERSHER: You know, there are a couple of options that we heard from experts and from homeowners themselves. First, HUD could disclose flood risk earlier and more fully, explain to buyers, you know, how likely is it the water will end up in this house? How much water? How expensive is flood insurance? You know, many buyers of these homes are required to purchase flood insurance. Second - do more to make homes safe from flooding before HUD sells them; so, for example, lift foundations or waterproof basements. And HUD says it's studying the overall risks of climate change, including flooding, but didn't provide any more details.

KING: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. Thanks for this, Becky.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.