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News brief: COVIDtests.gov, Biden news conference, Blinken's Ukraine trip

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

A new website, covidtests.org is now up and - dot-gov - is now up and running, aimed at making it easy for people to order these tests.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

After many weeks of promising that more tests will be available soon, the administration will begin distributing millions of rapid at-home COVID tests to people's homes free of charge. The Biden administration is also planning to give out 400 million N95 masks for free through pharmacies, grocery stores and community health centers. It's all part of the effort to increase access to high-quality masks to control the spread of COVID-19.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to discuss. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So let's start with the basics. What's the process like for ordering?

AUBREY: You know, it's really straightforward. You go to COVIDtests.gov. You type in your name, address. You share an email if you want shipping updates. And the tests will be mailed to you free of charge. In my experience - I ordered some yesterday - it's super easy. It took me less than a minute. Now, there is a limit for each household. You can request four tests as of now. And they will be shipped out via the U.S. Postal Service, usually within seven to 12 days of ordering, the administration says, with the first shipments in late January.

ELLIOTT: Late January. That's a bit of a wait given that we're in a surge right now. What's taking so long?

AUBREY: You know, part of the explanation is that manufacturers are still trying to ramp up production. Also, it takes a bit of time to scale up a new program that will reach tens of millions of households. The Biden administration is purchasing 1 billion at-home rapid antigen tests. About 420 million of these tests are already under contract, with more contracts in the works. And remember, Debbie, these tests are in addition to the millions of other COVID tests also being purchased with federal funds that are being distributed to long-term care facilities, community health centers, rural health clinics and schools. The American Rescue Plan included about $10 billion in funding to support COVID-19 testing in schools.

ELLIOTT: So what do we know about the accuracy of these tests?

AUBREY: You know, these rapid tests are not great at detecting early infections before people are symptomatic. They're just not as sensitive as the PCR tests. So there may be some people asking, you know, can you really rely on them? The answer is, while they're not perfect, these tests do give you some real-time information to act on if you follow the manufacturer's directions. So for BinaxNOW tests, this means doing two tests more than 24 hours apart because often, early in an infection, the first test may come back negative. And there is some new data to show that these rapid antigen tests are about as reliable at detecting omicron as they were at detecting delta.

ELLIOTT: OK. Now, what about people who might not have internet access or people who just don't want to deal with ordering something online? Are there other options?

AUBREY: You know, the Biden administration announced a phone line will be set up for people to call to order tests. They're also working with community-based organizations that can help submit requests. And they say they'll prioritize processing orders to households in areas that have experienced a disproportionate share of COVID cases and deaths. This is one step the administration says it's taking to ensure that this program reaches the hardest hit communities across the country.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELLIOTT: For the first time in a while, President Biden will hold a formal news conference today.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It comes at the one-year mark of his presidency. It also comes as Senate Democrats appear all but certain to hit a dead end trying to pass voting rights legislation, a key priority for the president.

ELLIOTT: We're joined now by NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: We'll get to Biden's presser here in a moment. But first, I want to ask about some news overnight. New York State Attorney General Letitia James is accusing Donald Trump's family business of inflating its property values. What could an accusation like this mean for Trump?

MONTANARO: Well, in court filings late Tuesday night, the New York Attorney General's Office says it's requiring now Trump's testimony and the testimony of his children, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. The reason, they say, is because in order to get loans, the Trump Organization made, quote, "pervasive and repeated misstatements and omissions" related to Trump's net worth and other assets. Investigators say they need to resolve who's responsible for that. Trump's other child, Eric, and former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, testified last year. They asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and that, quote, "certain others have professed faulty memories or asserted that they were following instructions from more senior employees." Now, they say because Trump doesn't really use email, a lot of his stuff was written down, that they don't have access to all of the material that they need to. They say that people are essentially - are not remembering what happened or aren't coming forward more forthrightly, and that they want to get to the bottom of it.

ELLIOTT: Now let's turn to Capitol Hill. What are Senate Democrats attempting on voting rights today?

MONTANARO: Well, as soon as today, Senate Democrats plan to again bring up voting rights to the floor. It's expected to fail, with all Republicans lined up against it. And then Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to bring changes to the filibuster. He wants to move to what's called a talking filibuster on this issue specifically, where senators actually need to hold the floor. Here's what Schumer said about that last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: On something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office. They got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights, the wellspring of our democracy.

MONTANARO: You know, for all of that animation there, you know, the problem for him and for other Democrats is that his own caucus isn't united on changing the filibuster or making these changes to these rules. They need 50 votes. But Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are still, you know, strongly opposed to changing the Senate rules. So they aren't going to be able to, you know, get to a point where they're - they get to 50 votes. They just don't have them still. And it's a rebuke to President Biden, who in recent days had stated very clearly he now views the filibuster as an impediment to this voting rights legislation.

ELLIOTT: So with his agenda stalled, now public anxiety over the pandemic and rising inflation, how do you size up the president's first year and what he'll be asked about today?

MONTANARO: You know, he got some big things done when you think about the infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan, which put thousands of dollars in many people's pockets, you know, trying to deal with COVID. But he's going to be asked about a lot of the issues that we just talked about - not getting voting rights, being able to get voting rights passed, being able to get the rest of his agenda through. And, you know, how is the pandemic going to end, because he essentially tried to declare independence from it in July? And it just didn't happen because of all the new waves.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELLIOTT: As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to ratchet up, the Biden administration has dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a mission to defuse the crisis.

MARTINEZ: Speaking at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv today, Secretary Blinken expressed concern over Russia's maneuverings at the border.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice. And that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: A series of diplomatic talks last week did not produce any meaningful progress between the two countries. Blinken is scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday. But today, he is in Ukraine.

ELLIOTT: Traveling with the secretary of state is NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. And she's on the line now from Kyiv. Who's Blinken meeting with today? And what will be his message?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, his main goal is to show solidarity with Ukraine at this very dangerous moment. He's meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. And he started his day at the U.S. embassy to talk about contingency planning in the case - in case Russia escalates further. As you heard him say there, the U.S. is really worried that this Russian military buildup is continuing. Russia moved troops into Belarus over the weekend. Blinken says he hopes that Russia will take a diplomatic path. But he says the U.S. and its partners have to be ready for anything. And he wasn't the only one making this case. There was a bipartisan congressional delegation here earlier this week. And CIA Director Bill Burns quietly visited last week.

ELLIOTT: So just what is the U.S. willing to do? How much support will the U.S. give Ukraine in the event of an invasion, which the White House now seems to think is a real serious threat?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Well, the U.S. has provided defensive weapons to Ukraine. And an official told us today that the administration recently approved another $200 million in security assistance. And it's not just the U.S. The Brits are also sending weapons. In fact, there was a British cargo plane on the tarmac when we arrived here in Ukraine today. There are other areas where the U.S. is trying to help, too - pushing back on Russian disinformation, beefing up cybersecurity. A lot of this, Debbie, is really just about deterrence. But so far, the Russians don't seem very deterred.

ELLIOTT: What about the Ukrainians? What are they hoping will come out of these talks?

KELEMEN: Well, they want the U.S. to keep its promise that it's not going to negotiate with Russia about Ukraine without Ukraine. That's kind of the motto these days. They say their military is not the same as it was in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and stirred up that separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, areas that are still controlled by Russian proxies. But, you know, Ukraine does want the help of U.S. and other NATO countries. They want military assistance and diplomatic backing.

ELLIOTT: So Secretary Blinken next goes to Germany, presumably to shore up solidarity on this issue among NATO allies. Then he goes to Geneva to meet with Russia's foreign minister. Do you have a sense of what he might be willing to offer to encourage the Russians to stand down those troops?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, the Russians have been demanding written responses to the ideas they laid out, ideas that include, among other things, a promise that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Blinken is not expected to deliver that to Lavrov. But the two men did agree to talk, said it made sense to meet. So that's a good sign. At least that diplomacy is not dead yet.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ukraine today. Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "7TH SEVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.