News brief: isolation guidelines, sedition hunters, Theranos whistleblower
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When the CDC announced last week that it was revising recommended isolation times for COVID-positive patients from 10 days to five days, there was no mention of a testing requirement.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
And that decision drew criticism from health experts for being too lax and confusing. But the CDC is holding firm. Updated guidance from the agency last night maintained that a negative test is not needed for people who are fever free and whose symptoms have improved. Now, all this comes amid a massive omicron surge and rapid testing shortages.
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us this morning. Hey, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So as A said, the CDC drew a lot of criticism for not putting in place a testing requirement. How's the agency...
MARTIN: ...Justifying this choice?
STEIN: Yeah. So as you remember, last week, the agency shortened how long infected people have to isolate from 10 days to five as long as they wear a good mask for another five days. But they don't have to test negative to go back out into the world. Critics called the policy reckless, especially with omicron surging. And both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy strongly hinted over the last few days that the agency would revise the guidelines. Instead, the agency, last night, essentially just reiterated the new guidelines, saying people can test if they want to, but don't have to. And the agency also added some additional explanation, saying tests after five days aren't reliable. But, you know, critics strongly dispute that.
MARTIN: So meanwhile, omicron still moving along...
MARTIN: ...Still infecting all kinds of folks. Just give us the big picture right now.
STEIN: Yeah. You know, everybody feared this surge would be off the charts, and it is. According to the Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. recorded more than 1 million new infections on Monday. Now, some of that big number is because of delays in reporting over the holidays. But it still underscores how unbelievably fast this surge has soared. And that came on the same day that the CDC released a new estimate for how quickly the super contagious omicron variant has taken over in this country. The CDC estimates the omicron variant accounts for more than 95% of all new infections and as many as more than 98% in some parts of the country.
MARTIN: So Rob, do we get to a point where so many people have had this thing that the variant doesn't have anywhere else to go?
STEIN: Well, you know, a new projection just came out from this COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. And that synthesizes computer modeling from around the country for the CDC. The researchers stress that there's still a lot of uncertainty about how bad things could get, but they're pretty confident about one thing. The eye-popping trajectory of this surge is still accelerating. And because so many people are catching omicron so fast all at once, we haven't seen the worst of it yet, even if omicron tends to be somewhat milder. I talked about this with Justin Lessler at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He helps run the modeling hub.
JUSTIN LESSLER: Even fairly moderate hospitalization rates are going to result in pretty high levels of hospitalization nationwide and severely stress our health care systems. Personally, I'm preparing myself for a dark January.
STEIN: The new analysis estimates that by the middle of March, as many as 822,000 more people will get hospitalized with COVID-19, and as many as 104,000 more people will die from the disease.
MARTIN: But Rob, I keep reading that things in South Africa, where omicron was first detected, that things there have actually gotten better. Doesn't that portend good news?
STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, the good news is that the surge is hitting so ferociously, it could very well peak relatively quickly, just like, you know, it did in South Africa. It looks like it is in January. So maybe by the end of January, things could start to calm down.
MARTIN: Let's hold on to that, shall we?
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. We appreciate you, Rob. Thank you.
STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel.
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MARTIN: OK. The FBI has spent the last year trying to track down the hundreds, possibly thousands, of rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol last January.
MARTÍNEZ: But there is another unofficial effort underway working toward the same goal. Groups of amateur detectives, volunteers known as sedition hunters, have been scouring social media platforms over the last year to try to identify people who participated in last year's insurrection.
MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef has been talking to some of them, and she joins us now. Good morning, Odette.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Who exactly are these folks, these so-called sedition hunters?
YOUSEF: Well, Rachel, in the beginning, it seemed like they were anybody with a laptop, a free hour and some outrage over what they witnessed on live television last January 6. But over the last year, they've organized into a really interesting, loose-knit community online that uses publicly available resources, like Twitter, Parler, video platforms and other social media to gather information and to match faces to names. And they're believed to have helped identify hundreds of people involved in the riot.
MARTIN: You've spoken with some of them. Can you introduce us?
YOUSEF: Sure. One who spoke on the record is Forrest Rogers. He's a German American living in Switzerland. He joined up with a small crew in the days after the riot, and quickly, the crew settled on one individual that they had seen in Twitter videos who had drawn interest because she seemed to know a lot about getting around in the Capitol building.
FORREST ROGERS: One of the people we were working on at the time was Bullhorn Lady, or Pink Hat Lady.
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RACHEL POWELL: ...Coordinate together if you're going to take this building.
YOUSEF: So Rachel, Rogers' group combed through images and videos posted that day. When they spotted this woman with the pink hat, they shared those images on Twitter and asked the public for tips. And less than two weeks after they started investigating her, Rogers' group had identified Rachel Powell. They sent that information to the FBI, and Powell was arrested a few weeks later.
MARTIN: Wow. So you characterize them as a loose-knit community. But I mean, are they a united front in this effort?
YOUSEF: Well, you know, the ways that they've organized and maintained confidentiality around their investigations have really been notable. But over the last 12 months, it's also been interesting to see that, you know, there are some differences within this community over, say, questions like whom they should investigate. You know, should they look into anybody who trespassed into restricted areas, or should they focus on those who committed acts of violence? Another maybe surprising area of difference is this question of what to do with people they've identified. For Forrest Rogers, it was always about gathering information to send to the FBI to help build cases against participants. But there are other sedition hunters who don't believe in working with law enforcement. So instead of sending information to authorities, they'll send it to a journalist.
MARTIN: So is there a way to measure what kind of differences this group, loosely affiliated, has made?
YOUSEF: Well, the FBI estimates 2,000 people were involved that day, Rachel. And so far, over 700 have faced charges. I spoke with Ryan Reilly, a journalist at HuffPost. He says the FBI hasn't been able to keep up with the tips that sedition hunters have sent in, so we may still see a very long tail to their work.
RYAN REILLY: This is going to unfold, I would say, at least over the next - I would say definitely well into 2024, we're still going to be seeing new cases.
MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you so much.
YOUSEF: Thank you.
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MARTIN: This week's conviction of Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, would have never happened without whistleblowers like Tyler Shultz.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Tyler was fresh out of Stanford University with a biology degree when he started working for Holmes in 2013. Now, he eventually learned the machine that was supposed to scan blood droplets for disease just did not work. In 2014, under an alias, Tyler reported his misgivings to New York Department of Health regulators. Now, in the process, he became estranged from his grandfather, the late George Shultz, former secretary of state, who at the time was a board member of Theranos.
MARTIN: We've got NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn with us. Bobby, you talked to Tyler Shultz. What did he tell you about the tipping point for him? When - what did he see that eventually compelled him to alert authorities?
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So before we go there, I mean, I should say he was really inspired by Elizabeth Holmes when he first met her. I mean, he was a biology major at Stanford. And the idea of disrupting blood testing by making it faster, easier and more painless than ever before just really appealed to him. But like you said, he saw some red flags pretty quickly. And the first one was, you know, Theranos was doing these quality control inspections that were mandatory. Theranos would roll out these big Siemens commercially available blood analyzer machines, not Elizabeth Holmes' miracle device. That seemed weird because they were using the so-called miracle device known as the Edison on patients.
The second problem Tyler noticed is when he actually looked inside of the Edison itself, he realized there was nothing innovative about it at all. I mean, you know, the promises that Elizabeth Holmes was making that it could scan for hundreds of conditions with a tiny little pinprick of blood, that just could not be fulfilled with this technology. I talked to Shultz about this.
TYLER SHULTZ: It was clear that there was an open secret within Theranos that this technology simply did not exist.
MARTIN: And the decision to blow the whistle - I mean, this affected his life, right?
ALLYN: He said it was a nightmare. Holmes hired private investigators to go after him. She hired lawyers to intimidate him. He became socially isolated. He was living in constant fear, Rachel - really sounds miserable. And you know, he had to confront his grandfather, the, you know, former secretary of state, George Shultz, by telling him, this woman you believe so much in, this person who you recruited all of your friends to back, she's a liar, and she cannot be trusted. And it didn't go over so well.
SHULTZ: He didn't believe me. He said Elizabeth has assured me that they go above and beyond all regulatory standards. I think you're wrong is what he told me.
MARTIN: Wow. So what does Tyler Shultz think about Elizabeth Holmes' conviction now?
ALLYN: Yeah, he sees this as a moment of vindication. I mean, he wasn't the only whistleblower at the company. There were others. But, you know, he was the first to file a complaint to regulators. So that was a bold and risky move. And you know, he told me when he saw that the jury had convicted Holmes of four fraud-related charges, he met up with his family and popped a bottle of Champagne because, I mean, this Theranos saga has been involved in his life for more than a decade. So he's, you know, more than eager to have some closure here.
MARTIN: So what has been the main takeaway for Tyler Shultz from Holmes' downfall?
ALLYN: Yeah, he's done a lot of self-reflection, and it's interesting because he himself now is a startup founder. He runs a little biotech company out in the San Francisco Bay Area. And you know, now he's pitching investors. He's finding himself making exaggerated claims about his goals, much like his old boss Elizabeth Holmes. And you know, investors are telling him, we're going to be totally done with you if you can't double in size in a year. And he told me - and look, Rachel, I thought this was really powerful - he could really see how this cutthroat culture gave rise to Elizabeth Holmes. So you know, that's to say Shultz is not overly optimistic that this single jury verdict is going to radically change how business is done out here in Silicon Valley.
MARTIN: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thank you.
ALLYN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.