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News Brief: Pregnancy And COVID Vaccinations, Taliban Gains, New Census Data


The CDC has a message for those who are pregnant - please get a shot to protect against COVID-19.


In this country, fewer than 1 in 4 pregnant people have gotten vaccinated. Pregnant people who don't get the vaccine are not protected from the virus. They can, they do and they are ending up in hospitals.

ELLIOTT: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is with us now. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Debbie. Nice to talk to you.

ELLIOTT: Likewise. So what's behind this recommendation? Why now?

PALCA: Well, the CDC's actually been recommending that pregnant people get vaccinated for a while now. But the agency has now strengthened that recommendation based on data from a program called V-safe. It's a cellphone-based surveillance system, and they looked at nearly 2,500 pregnant people who participated in V-safe and who had had at least one dose of one of the mRNA vaccines. The CDC did not - did not - see any increased numbers of miscarriages when they compared the rate in vaccinated people to the numbers expected in a group of similar pregnant people who had not gotten vaccinated.

What's more, the CDC says an increasing number of pregnant people are getting infected with the coronavirus. And it seems that pregnancy makes it more likely that if you do get sick with COVID, you'll get very sick and possibly need hospitalization. And then there's the delta variant, which seems to be causing more infections. So CDC says there's an urgent need to get people vaccinated.

ELLIOTT: Is it possible to say which vaccine is best for people who are pregnant?

PALCA: Well, any of the ones that have been authorized is the short answer for which one is best, the one you can get. But the National Institutes of Health is sponsoring a study that intends to enroll 750 pregnant people to get more definitive answers to questions like, which vaccine is best? Flor Munoz of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston is co-director of the study.

FLOR MUNOZ: Pfizer and Moderna are the ones that are used mostly in pregnancy. They might be very similar, but no one has really looked at differences between the vaccines.

PALCA: And another question Munoz is hoping to sort out is when the optimal time to get the vaccine is if you're pregnant.

MUNOZ: Is there any difference if you get the vaccine the first, second or third trimester, in addition to the different types of vaccines?

PALCA: Munoz says she and her colleagues will also follow the babies born during the study to see whether they inherit some of the protection the vaccine provides to their mothers and, if so, for how long.

ELLIOTT: OK. Now, has it been difficult for researchers to find pregnant volunteers who are willing to be part of these studies?

PALCA: No, not really. I spoke with one participant, Emily Podany. At the time we talked last month, she was pregnant with twins. She's also a physician who did a stint in the ICU at the start of the pandemic.

EMILY PODANY: I know what COVID can do to people unvaccinated. I've seen it, and it was horrific.

PALCA: Podany says she understands the hesitancy some people have about taking a vaccine that's new and not all that well studied during pregnancy. But once she knew she was pregnant, she was certain that she wanted the vaccine, both for her - so she wouldn't wind up in the ICU - but for her children as well.

PODANY: I felt like I needed to protect these babies and my daughter. My daughter is 2. She can't get vaccinated, so I felt like I needed to protect her by getting vaccinated. And I felt like if this could protect my twins, absolutely I would do it.

PALCA: So I'm happy to report that Podany has now had her twins, and the mother and babies are doing very well.

ELLIOTT: Oh, congratulations to that family.

NPR's Joe Palca, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're very welcome.


ELLIOTT: The Taliban have taken control of another provincial capital in Afghanistan.

KING: This happened in just the past few hours. In fact, when we started preparing for today's show, it was nine cities they controlled. Now it is 10. The Taliban now effectively control two-thirds of Afghanistan. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby says it is up to Afghan forces at this point.


JOHN KIRBY: No potential outcome has to be inevitable, including the fall of Kabul, which everybody seems to be reporting about. It doesn't have to be that way. It really depends on the kind of political and military leadership that the Afghans can muster to turn this around.

ELLIOTT: With us now is Lynne O'Donnell. She's a journalist in Kabul and writes for Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks for being with us this morning.


ELLIOTT: So what does it feel like there in the Afghan capital?

O'DONNELL: To be honest with you, it feels like a city under siege in a besieged country. People are flooding into the capital from all over the - all over Afghanistan. They're getting away from fighting. And so resources here are really, really under strain. Public parks have become camps for displaced people. The traffic is horrendous. Prices have been going up for food and fuel for some weeks now because the Taliban have seized border crossings, and as a landlocked country, imports are incredibly important. Rents are going up. We're looking at inflation of 10 to 20% already. It's heaving.

ELLIOTT: You know, if you look at a map of Afghanistan and the places where the Taliban have now gained control, it's like they're circling Kabul. Is there a fear that Kabul might be next?

O'DONNELL: There's very much a fear of that. The people who are coming in are fleeing, as I said, places where the Taliban have already taken control or are looking as if they will take control very soon. So with a government that really isn't doing very much or doesn't look like it's doing very much, either politically or militarily, there is a very deep fear here in Kabul that Kabul is going to fall, that the Taliban will take over the country militarily, and they are clamoring to get out.

ELLIOTT: So what are you hearing from the places where the Taliban is already in control?

O'DONNELL: It's really been quite a brutal rout, to be honest. We heard rumors a couple of months ago of the sort of abuses and atrocities that were being committed by the Taliban on the battlefield and when they went into districts. And I went into a couple of districts in the provinces over the last couple of months, and I heard from people who had been under the Taliban control, even if it was for a short time. Women were told that they had to stay in their homes. They weren't allowed out unless they were accompanied by a male relative. They had to wear full hijab. Girls were taken out of school, and girls schools closed. Women were told, also, that they would be rounded up and they would be married off to Taliban fighters. There's been terrible reports of atrocities on the battlefield, of bodies being mutilated and other things I'm not going to go into. So all of this is putting a real fear amongst all of Afghanistan right at the moment.

ELLIOTT: Now, the Afghan forces have just appointed a new army chief and a new head of Special Operations Command. Is that going to make any difference?

O'DONNELL: You're talking about General Sami Sadat. He's been appointed as head of the army's Special Operations Command. It's really difficult to know whether or not it's a timely appointment. He's a very charismatic and an inspirational leader. He's been leading the fight in Helmand in the south, which has been quite a tough one. Whether or not at this stage appointing one man who is a good fighter and a good leader to the top of the army command in the country as the country is facing an overrun by the Taliban is really difficult to know. It could be too little, too late, or it could make the difference.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you so much - journalist Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul.

O'DONNELL: Thank you.


ELLIOTT: Today's the day we get a new picture of just what America looks like. The Census Bureau is set to reveal its latest count after significant delays.

KING: This new population data will give us the most up-to-date look at this country's racial and ethnic makeup. But remember a lot of that data was collected in the middle of a pandemic. So how accurate can it really be?

ELLIOTT: NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang joins us now. Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So exactly what kind of information are we talking about? What are we going to get from the Census Bureau today?

WANG: We're getting new population counts for local communities, the size of their adult populations, numbers of people living in college dorms, prisons, other group living quarters, plus the racial identities of people around the country and whether or not they identify as Hispanic or Latino. You know, it's the basic demographic information political map makers need to redraw voting districts, prepare for elections for the next decade.

But, you know, this census data will be getting a lot of attention in large part because it gives us a portrait of the diversity that makes up the United States. And, you know, it's important to remember, no census is perfect. And the picture the census gives us about the country's residents has always been flawed, going back all the way to the very first census more than 200 years ago in 1790.

ELLIOTT: So no census is perfect, but this count seemed like it was just nearly an impossible job because of the pandemic. How did they go about making sure they got accurate numbers?

WANG: It was a very big challenge because the pandemic upended plans for door-knocking, in-person outreach that's been key to getting immigrants, renters, rural residents, people of color, other historically undercounted groups counted. And we can't forget there was interference from former President Donald Trump's administration leading up to the count. There was that failed push to add a question about U.S. citizenship status to census forms. And then, during the census last year, Trump officials cut short the time for counting. And so it was just a tumultuous census. And now this data we're getting, the bureau says it's high quality and, quote, "fit to use for redistricting." But all these challenges have raised concerns about how reliable the data is, especially about race and ethnicity.

ELLIOTT: So how could these challenges affect the numbers the census is releasing today?

WANG: Well, the thing to keep in mind is census data, like other data, does not just appear out in the world waiting to be gathered. It is produced through a series of decisions. And decisions by the Trump administration plus the conditions during the coronavirus pandemic could have contributed to an undercounting of Black people, Latinos, Native Americans - groups that were undercounted in 2010. Now, we're not going to get undercounting rates from the bureau for the 2020 census until early next year, so we'll have to see. But the bureau has said that for last year's census, there was a higher rate of households not answering the race and ethnicity questions compared to past counts. That means the bureau had to fill in those blanks using government records, interviews with neighbors or educated guesses through a statistical technique called imputation. All those alternatives could have skewed the race and ethnicity data.

You know, I should also point out the Trump administration stalled on approving some policy changes that would have allowed the 2020 census forms to collect more accurate data about people's Hispanic origins plus information about people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa. And we're going to have to live with all these choices for this data until the next census in 2030.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thanks.

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

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.