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THE SITUATION ROOM

Medical Screening Spark Long Lines, Chaos at U.S. Airports; White House to Hold Press Briefing on Coronavirus; Germany to Restrict Border Crossings Amid Coronavirus Pandemic; Interview with Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) on Coronavirus; Cruise Ships with Coronavirus Patients Scramble to Find Port; State of Emergency in Spain as Outbreak Worsens. Virus. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 15, 2020 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:15]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and this is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, we're following breaking news. We're monitoring several key developments in the fight against the coronavirus. The number of new cases surging on this Sunday, now surpassing 3100 infections in the United States alone. And the death toll is also growing here in the U.S. Now it's 62, following another patient's death in New York.

As the cases rise, confusion at so many airports following a U.S. travel ban. Americans returning from Europe forced to stand in massive lines in very close quarters for hours on end, all while waiting to be screened for coronavirus. And several cruise ships right now, they are stranded, barred from docking, following new confirmed and suspected cases onboard. Several are now being denied port in New Zealand, the Bahamas, Chile, and Brazil.

The top infectious disease expert here in the United States warns daily disruptions like these could last for months and warns that the U.S. needs to be proactive in fighting the virus' spread.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: This is a bad virus. Certainly, it is conceivable that if we don't do that, you could get as bad as Italy. But I don't think we're going there if we do the kinds of things that we are publicly saying we need to do. We need to be very serious about, for a while, life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States. We have to just accept that, if we want to do what's best for the American public.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We expect the White House to address these issues and more during a press briefing. That's happening at the top of the next hour. We'll, of course, go live to the White House for that.

Let's begin with the turmoil taking hold at some American airports. CNN has a team of reporters covering the confusion and the chaos that Americans are certainly enduring as they return from overseas.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is joining us from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Omar, what was the situation like there?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, right now, officials are trying to get a handle on what was a very, almost disturbing situation coming in last night, as a major influx of flights landed here at O'Hare Airport, one of 13 doing advanced screening for the coronavirus, as people come back into this country. So there's a major influx of flights coming in, and then major backups at customs.

Hundreds of people packed into a tight area, which as we know from health officials at this time, is the exact opposite of what should be happening. Now, on the local level, because of that, Governor JB Pritzker for Illinois and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot say they are now requesting from the federal government more screeners so what we saw last night does not happen again tonight.

And let's remember, this all stems from the European travel ban that we have seen here and some of the confusion that Americans have had trying to get home. We spoke to a few students who were studying overseas as part of a study abroad program, and they say one of their biggest issues was just finding reliable information.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN HAYES, KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: So if I'm an American and I don't get out of here by midnight, I'm just stuck here? How does that work? That doesn't make any sense? And if there's a process for me getting out after that 12:00 a.m. deadline, that's fine. But there's no process communicated. There's no idea about what we were supposed to have done if we had not gotten out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JIMENEZ: And one of the few things we are waiting on to again make sure what happens tonight isn't like tomorrow night is the city officials say, they are talking to the FAA about doing things like staggering flight arrival times to try and stem some of the flow when we expect more flights and even more passengers to land tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Some of those passengers had to wait for hours and hours, through the -- before they got to customs for the screening in very, very tight quarters, that's dangerous right now.

I want to go to CNN's Kristen Holmes, she's over at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Kristen, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Control, he's now commenting on these very long and dangerous wait times. What's the latest?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's absolutely right. And Dulles, again, one of those airports where you saw those massive lines last night. People waiting for hours in the exact opposite of conditions that you would expect in a pandemic.

Now I want to pull up this statement that you just mentioned coming from the acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It says, "The CBP recognizes that the wait times experienced yesterday at some locations were unacceptable. As we work collaboratively with federal, state, and local agencies to address the spread of COVID-19 and some of the resources of our partners are stretched thin. CBP continually adjusts its resources in real time as needed and we will continue to do so."

[16:05:09]

So the big question here at Dulles is whether or not they will actually be able to do that before tonight. We know that there are several European flights, that's when they come in, in the evening and we'll be waiting to see whether or not these people who are getting off these long flights are able to actually get through customs in an orderly manner.

BLITZER: All right, Kristen, we'll check back with you. Hopefully they're going to try to fix this problem, because it is a really serious and potentially very dangerous problem. These people right on top of each other.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is over at New York's JFK International Airport.

Polo, what's the situation like there?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, right now, we're trying to find out if there has perhaps been a shift in the strategy or at least a methodology here that we're seeing officials carry out these kinds of health screenings. When you hear from passengers here at one of the busiest airports in the country, they've recently been telling us that they're noticing something different, where some of these officials are perhaps asking many of these questions to these passengers, fresh after the plane actually lands.

These passengers are essentially being told to remain in their seats. They're asked exactly where they've traveled to. These health declaration forms are then taken from them, and of course if any of them do exhibit symptoms, then they could be referred to CDC officials. That in an effort to try to potentially lighten the load of people who have been waiting in those cramped hallways.

I had an opportunity to speak to a passenger just a few moments ago and he says, in spite of these slight modifications, this is still adding up to a massive headache for many travelers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES TAKATSCH, AMERICAN TRAVELER: Customs was rough. Like they put us on this line and this guy was taking forever for each person that was going through, and then he even, like, he had to walk certain people to go through for clearing and he would close his gate, and -- you know, I was waiting for at least an hour and a half to two hours to just get through customs.

You're in a big crowd, everybody is real close. You know, it's -- I don't even know what to do anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANDOVAL: Acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf did speak out early today saying that he completely understands that this is happening. They're currently working to try to expedite this process, working with the airlines and also trying to increase their screening capacity -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. This is a serious issue, indeed.

All right, Polo Sandoval, Omar Jimenez, Kristen Holmes, guys, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, the White House is now scrambling to manage this growing and very dangerous crisis. Today the nation's top infectious disease expert told CNN he would not rule out supporting a temporary national lockdown to slow the pandemic. It's something already taking place in other hard-hit countries around the world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Would you like to see a national lockdown, basically people -- you can't go out to restaurants, bars, you need to stay home?

FAUCI: Well, I would like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see in restaurants and in bars. Whatever it takes to do that, that's what I'd like to see.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Jeremy Diamond is over at the White House for us right now.

Jeremy, we're standing by for a coronavirus briefing from the Trump administration right at the top of the next hour. A lot of new developments unfolding right now. Big questions facing the administration, as it tries to figure out the next steps in this fight against the outbreak. What's the latest? What are you hearing over there now?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's exactly right, Wolf. And look, so far what we've seen from this administration is a big focus on these travel restrictions. First, those with regards to China and then those with regards to Europe, as well as the United Kingdom and Ireland, which were added over the weekend to that list of countries.

And then we also saw a focus on rectifying the lack of testing around the country. That is still definitely something that this administration is focusing on. Playing catch-up here to try to get more testing available across the country. And also to set up some of those mass testing centers that the president referenced on Friday.

But there is also an increasing focus at the White House, we're told, on this question of social distancing and on how to encourage Americans to really take more precautions in their daily lives. We were already seeing the daily impacts to Americans across the country. And this morning, as you mentioned, Dr. Anthony Fauci really not ruling out the notion of some kind of a national lockdown.

And in fact, we're told that there have been discussions at the White House concerning the possibility of some kind of national lockdown, but those discussions have not reached a serious point at this stage.

There's also a focus, really, on the messaging here. What more can they do from a messaging perspective to really make clear to Americans that this is within their own hands to try and do more to prevent the spread, to mitigate the spread, really, of this virus across the United States.

And so we will be waiting to see during this briefing in about an hour, Wolf, whether the administration delivers a more concerted message on that front.

BLITZER: I understand the vice president, he's expected to be at the briefing. What about the president? Sometimes he shows up as well.

DIAMOND: That's right. Well, yesterday, the president's attendance wasn't announced at all during that briefing, but he did show up. So we'll see whether the president decides to make the same kind of surprise appearance today.

[16:10:02]

What is clear, though, Wolf, is that the president beyond focusing on the administration's response to coronavirus, his Twitter feed has really been business as usual. Despite the outpouring of calls from his own top officials for an end to partisanship, for an end to criticism and bickering, the president is really continuing with his own hyper partisan combativeness on Twitter.

He is, for one, talking about the possibility of pardoning his former National Security adviser, Michael Flynn, accusing the Justice Departments of having lost a memo relevant to Flynn's case. He's also going on the attack against the former vice president Joe Biden for the Obama administration's handling of the h1n1 flu pandemic. And the president is also attacking the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.

And also, of course, Wolf, going after the media, despite the fact that we have seen his administration talking so much about how much they need the news media's help here to get the message out about all of this.

Of course, Wolf, we will continue to do that despite the president's attacks. BLITZER: You would think he would put some of that on hold as the

country, indeed, the world is going through this global pandemic right now. But he's tweeting a storm on those issues, as well.

Jeremy Diamond over at the White House, thank you very much.

There's breaking news coming in from Germany right now, where that country says it's effectively closing several major border crossings, including those with France, Austria, and Switzerland.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Berlin for us.

So, Fred, what are the German authorities now saying about taking these really drastic measures?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely drastic measures, Wolf. And the German authorities are saying -- are acknowledging that this is something that's really unprecedented, post-World War II Europe and post-World War II Germany.

As we can see, public life not just in Germany but a lot of European countries subsequently essentially starting to shut down. You're absolutely right, the Germans closing a lot of those borders essentially. They say that cargo traffic, for instance, trucks between the borders is still allowed and people who have to commute between these borders are still allowed to go, as well.

Just for our viewers, in the U.S., right now here in the Europe crossing those borders is almost like crossing state lines in the U.S. The borders basically hadn't existed up until today. But come tomorrow morning, those borders are going to be back in place and people who do not live in Germany and do not have a good reason to go to Germany, like for instance work are not going to be able to get in.

And this, Wolf, has come especially towards the end of last week, the measures, the restrictions here have really gone into effect. Schools in a lot of places here in Germany now shutting down until about the end of April, they say, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred, we'll get back to you. Germany and other countries in Europe taking drastic measures right now, as well.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, several local and state governments are voicing their deep frustrations with the federal government's response to this outbreak. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times," pleading with President Trump to step up efforts saying, and I'm quoting Cuomo now, "Mr. Trump, don't let bureaucracy get in the way of fighting this virus. Break the logjam, let states fully take over testing so they can unleash hundreds of labs tomorrow and bring testing to scale. It is the only way we will have a chance of keeping up with this rapid spread of this contagion."

Joining us now, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.

Governor, thank you so much for joining us especially on a critically important day like today. In that op-ed that you just wrote, you made three specific suggestions to help slow the spread. You said localized testing, federalized shutdowns of schools and businesses, and mobilize the Army Corps of Engineers to expand hospital capacity.

Do you anticipate, Governor, that the president will take your advice?

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: I certainly hope so, Wolf. I had a good conversation with the president on testing and he's actually allowed New York state to start doing its own testing. But look, here's the big point, we have been behind on this disease from day one. OK? It was happening in China, we knew it was happening in China, what was happening in China. We knew someone was going to get on an airplane and come to the United States of America.

We've always been behind. Right? They say, don't fight the last word. We have to get ahead of this. Everybody talks about flattening the curve. And we're doing everything we can to flatten the curve, the testing, the density reduction, et cetera. I believe on any projection that that flattening of the curve is not going to be enough. I don't see it as a curve. I see it as a wave. And the wave is going to crash on to our hospital system.

Our hospital system does not have the capacity to deal with any of these projections. These people, Wolf, all need intensive care. They need ventilators, it's a respiratory illness. I already have 60 people in intensive care.

[16:15:04] I only have 600 available intensive care beds in the state of New York. We're already at 60. Now, a state cannot build hospitals in this period of time. We can, we can use the Army Corps of Engineers to come in, retrofit dormitories, retrofit old facilities, and come up with medical facilities that could at least take some of the people out of hospital beds into these medical facilities to free up capacity.

What happened in Italy was the health care system became overwhelmed. We will be overwhelmed, every number says it. We were slow on testing. Let's not make the same mistake and sit here six weeks from now and say, we should have been building more medical facilities.

BLITZER: Yes.

CUOMO: Because we left people on gurneys in the hallway.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a real serious problem. And older people are already nervous that if they come down with the coronavirus and they go to the hospital, the medical personnel will focus in on the younger patients and they're worried about that, as you well know.

You've also called, Governor, for federal guidance on shutting down schools. You're leaving school closings in New York state up to the local school districts. Why not do what several other states have already done, cancel classes on a state level.

CUOMO: Well, in this state, Wolf, and you know this state, it's a different picture all across the state. We have down state New York, we have upstate New York, we have some counties that virtually have no cases whatsoever. And then I have New Rochelle in Westchester that has the highest cluster in the United States of America. So in the areas where it is dense, we are taking action. We just said the Nassau schools, Suffolk schools, Westchester schools were going to close. I said the New York City schools should close and must close.

But in New York, it's not as easy as just saying, close the schools. I want to make sure we have child care capacity for our central workers. We need our first responders coming to work. It can't be that we close a school and the police officer calls up the next morning and says, I can't show up because I have to stay home with my child. So we do need to have child care. We do need to have the food programs in place. Many of the schoolchildren in New York get breakfast and lunch at school, but we have to close the schools.

So we will be closing schools, New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester County. That's all of downstate New York. And then we'll see what happens upstate New York.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens. The New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is looking to establish a statewide curfew right now. The mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, is doing the same thing.

Do you see your state, New York state, imposing a statewide curfew at some point?

CUOMO: You know, curfew, that word makes me nervous. Wolf, I do -- we have already started having businesses reduce their capacity, reduce their size. I see that continuing. I could see setting a time for businesses to close earlier than usual. But, you know, curfew, depending on what you mean by that, it depends, but the word has a bad connotation to me.

Governor Murphy's a good friend of mine. We work together. And it is very important that states coordinate these efforts. And that's why I would like to see the federal government do more, because when every state, Wolf, comes up with their own policies, you just have people shop among states. New Jersey creates a curfew, I don't. Everybody will drive to New York. You know.

Connecticut does something, I don't, everybody will drive to Connecticut. So that's why it would have been nice to have a federal government that really stepped up to the plate and said, once and for all, this is what we're going to do. All schools, all stores of this size, et cetera. I do believe this is a federal role. None of these other countries, China, South Korea, Italy, none of them have done this with 100 different strategies from different states and local governments.

This is a federal responsibility. Let local governments do the testing. Make the set rules. Make the decision on schools, make the decision on businesses, and get the Army Corps of Engineers building medical facilities. It's going to be too late, and we're going to regret that we never did it. You mark my words, Wolf.

BLITZER: The New York City Council speaker, Cory Johnson, Governor, he's calling on a complete shutdown of nonessential services, including bars and restaurants. Do you see that happening at some point down the road in New York state?

[16:20:07]

CUOMO: I could see businesses being closed over a period of time, right? This is -- I make my decisions based on science and based on data, so these are not political decisions to me. They are data- related decisions. As those numbers continue to go up, do you have to have more and more restrictions? Yes, you do.

BLITZER: And you make an important point, what may be good in New York City may not necessarily be good in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. So we're watching all of this carefully.

Governor Cuomo, as usual, I know you're incredibly busy right now. Thanks for spending a few moments with us.

CUOMO: Buffalo is doing OK, Wolf. Don't you -- I have Buffalo. You take --

BLITZER: All right.

CUOMO: You take the country.

BLITZER: Let's hope it stays like that. All right. Thanks very much, Governor, for everything you're doing.

Coming up, a standoff at sea. Cruise ship passengers stranded on ships with nowhere to dock.

And next hour, we'll hear directly from the vice president, Mike Pence, and other members of the Coronavirus Task Force. We'll have live coverage of the briefing from the White House as soon as it begins. We'll see if the president shows up, as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:18]

BLITZER: All right. Looking at live pictures coming in from the White House briefing room. That's where we expect the vice president, Mike Pence, and other members of the coronavirus task force to brief reporters right at the top of the next hour, about 35 minutes or so from now. We'll see if the president shows up, as well. We'll, of course, have live coverage once it begins.

Right now, hundreds of passengers are stranded at sea on at least three cruise ships, each have confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus cases onboard and all are now scrambling to find a port.

CNN's Matt Rivers is following the late-breaking developments from Mexico City.

Matt, what can you tell us about whether these ships will be allowed to dock? MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, eventually, you

think they will be, Wolf, but it's just a question of where and when at this point. A number of different ships being affected right now. You've got the Silver Explorer, it's a ship docked or quarantined currently off the coast of Chile with one confirmed case. We have the Silver Shadow off the coast of Brazil, one confirmed case also quarantined.

You've got the Gold Princess which is off the coast of New Zealand. There are suspected cases onboard and that ship is being denied entry to New Zealand. The worst of the ones, though, at least so far, Wolf, is going to be the Braemar. That's a ship with hundreds of people onboard that's currently anchored about 25 miles off the coast of the Bahamas. That ship is in negotiations according to the British government to try and dock at either the United States or in Cuba to let those passengers off.

At least five cases onboard that ship so far confirmed positive for the virus, Wolf. And this is why government officials in the United States are saying, do not get on cruises. A lot of these cruise lines have shut down operations, Wolf. The reality is, these are just floating petri dishes where the disease or the virus can easily spread -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's clearly a disaster on these cruise ships. Thanks very much, Matt Rivers, in Mexico City for us.

Let's go to Spain right now, where the prime minister's wife has now tested positive for coronavirus. The country is on virtual lockdown, as officials scramble to contain the outbreak. And now the second biggest in Europe, just after Italy.

Scott McLean is in Madrid for us.

Scott, what measures are you seeing there?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. Well, the number of cases jumped up significantly today. We're now at nearly 8,000. Almost half of those are in Madrid. And so yesterday, the prime minister of Spain announced some pretty strict restrictions on people's movements. Stores, restaurants, businesses, they are all closed with very few exceptions. People are not even allowed to leave their houses, unless they are going to the grocery store or going to work.

This is the main square in Madrid, the Puerta del Sol. Normally this would be packed with people. There are hardly anyone out. You'll see the odd bike go by, food delivery person. You'll also see police officers and they are handing out tickets to people who are out, who don't have a good reason to be. Those tickets start at about a hundred euros. We even saw in one case today, one of those police stops escalate into a full-blown arrest.

The airport when I came in today was nearly deserted. That's only going to get worse as airlines are starting to announce they are scaling back their flights to Spain or in some cases shutting them down altogether.

One other thing to mention, obviously, the hospitals are quite busy. The Ministry of Health just announced tonight that they are now opening military hospitals to treat the general public, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. The great fear here in the United States is what's happening in Italy, in Spain, elsewhere in Europe, could wind up within a week or two happening here in the United States, as well.

Scott McLean in Madrid for us, thank you very much.

Up next, tough new restrictions on residents and businesses in Hoboken, New Jersey. I'll speak with the city's mayor about the coronavirus curfew.

And next hour, right at the top of the next hour, we expect to hear directly from the vice president, Mike Pence, and other members of the Coronavirus Task Force. We'll bring you the briefing live from the White House, as soon as it begins.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:33:37]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. This just coming in to "The Situation Room." In response to the coronavirus, the Illinois governor, J.B. Pritzker, is now ordering all bars and all restaurants in Chicago, indeed, throughout the entire state, to close beginning tomorrow night for two weeks. Listen to this.

(START VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. J.B. PRITZKER, (D) ILLINOIS: I know how difficult this will be on small businesses around the state. This is another hard step. But we must do everything that we can to safeguard the health and safety of the citizens of the state of Illinois. And that requires urgent action. I tried earlier this week to appeal to everyone's good judgment to stay home, to avoid bars, not to congregate in crowds. It's unfortunate that many people didn't take that seriously. The time for persuasion and public appeals is over. The time for action is here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The move follows the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, which is implementing similar measures, a statewide curfew starts tomorrow. All residents are being told to stay in their homes from 10:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning, unless they are required to work. And all restaurants and bars in the city must stop serving food and alcohol. Only takeout or delivery will be allowed.

Ravi Bhalla is the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, the city official who implemented this new lockdown. The mayor is joining us right now. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

Earlier, Zeke Emanuel praised you right here on CNN for taking these steps. Tell us why you decided, mayor, to impose this curfew, these new restaurant restrictions.

[16:35:21]

MAYOR RAVI BHALLA, HOBOKEN: Thank you for having me, Wolf. As mayor, our -- my primary responsibility is to protect the health, welfare, and safety of our residents. There is nothing more sacred than the sanctity of human life. And that, in my view, precedes or takes precedence over all other concerns.

So, we had a situation similar to what the governor of Illinois was describing where people were not heeding warnings that we were trying to push out to the community related to social distancing. And we had to take measures that were appropriate to protect and save lives.

BLITZER: How are the residents of the businesses reacting, mayor, to this lockdown?

MAYOR BHALLA: There has been a ground swell of support from residents who are very thankful that they feel that they have a government that represents them and that they have a government that wants to keep them safe.

I am also, and it's not lost upon me, that this will have a severe impact on small businesses and the employees that work for small businesses. So, we are very actively working, both at the local level, as well as trying to impress upon officials at the federal level to take the necessary actions to help small businesses, to help the employees that work for them.

BLITZER: Well, let's hope that the help comes from the state, the federal government, local authorities because these folks are going to need as much help as they can get.

As you know, the governor of your state, Phil Murphy, is saying he's looking at a statewide curfew, he says, very seriously. You've already made the move. Do you think your state and other states should do the same thing right now?

MAYOR BHALLA: You know, as a mayor, I am literally on the front lines, and all mayors across the country, we are on the front lines of our community. Every mayor should do whatever is in the best interests of their community.

I felt this step was necessary to protect the safety of our residents and to literally save lives, Wolf. And I would encourage other mayors to prioritize the safety of their residents over politics, over businesses, over anything else. And if this can offer some encouragement to other mayors to take bold leadership to protect human life, then it is well worth it. If we can save just one or two lives through these measures, which might seem aggressive at first, but are for the benefit of human life protection, then it's well worth it.

BLITZER: I'm sure you're going to save a lot more than just one or two lives. Thanks so much, mayor, for what you're doing. Mayor Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken, New Jersey, we appreciate it very much.

MAYOR BHALLA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're waiting for this briefing over at the White House on the coronavirus response. We're told new measures are about to be announced. The Vice President Mike Pence, members of the coronavirus task force, they are about to brief reporters. We'll have live coverage right here in "The Situation Room."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:42]

BLITZER: Sobering new figures are signaling just how rapidly the deadly coronavirus is spreading around the country. Right now, the number of U.S. cases topping 3,000 as the nation's top infectious disease doctor and the fight is issuing a very dire warning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Are you thinking that hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from this?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: You know, I say that and it sometimes gets taken out of context. But we have to be realistic and honest. Yes, it is possible.

Our job, our challenge is to try to make that not happen. But to think, if we go about our daily lives and not worry about everything, that it's not going to happen. It could happen and it could be worse. It might make a point that people sometimes think that you're overreacting. I like it when people are thinking I'm overreacting because that means we're doing it just right.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen is a CNN senior medical correspondent. Dr. James Phillips is a CNN medical analyst. Dr. Phillips, you're here with me in "The Situation Room." You notice that there's a little distance now. We're not as close as we used to be for understandable reasons. But what do you think of that warning we just heard from Dr. Fauci, 100,000 potential deaths here in the United States?

DR. JAMES PHILLIPS, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: It's the messaging that I think we've been waiting for for weeks. It's exactly the truth. That's why we've been out here trying to get this message out and at the risk of being called alarmist by folks. We can see the math. We know epidemiology. And we know the true risks to our health care system.

As I've said before, individual actions by Americans are going to be the sole decision between the health care system being stressed and being broken. And what that means is, if the health care system breaks, ambulances will be delayed, heart attacks and traumas won't get care in time. Emergency beds in hospitals will be taken up by COVID patients; and therefore, sickle cell disease and heart failure won't be treated appropriately. If we look at the surgical world, emergency surgeries will be the only ones available, not the non-emergent things that people need. So, the individual actions taken by Americans, and now increased actions taken by our governors to shut things down, are the only answer.

BLITZER: Yes, it's important. You know, Elizabeth, huge question on the minds of Americans right now is, where are the test kits? Why is this country, the greatest country in the world, struggling to keep up with demand, while so many other countries aren't?

[16:45:09]

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Wolf, I want to say, it's going to get better. Doctors are telling me it is getting better and it will get better, but it is still nowhere near where it should be, Wolf. It's all about trying to play catch-up.

I was talking to the manager of German test manufacturer. And he said they started sending out tests January 13th. And now, we're sending out about a million tests a week. That is one manufacturer in Germany. We weren't even close to that on January 13th. So, you can see now, we're a bit stuck.

BLITZER: Yes, we certainly are. Elizabeth Cohen and Dr. James Phillips, I want both of you to stand by. There's more news we're following right now. What to do, what to avoid as far as the coronavirus is concerned and when to see a doctor? CNN's new podcast has answers. Join our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta for "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction." Listen wherever you get your favorite podcast.

And right at the top of the hour, we're going to hear from the Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the coronavirus task force. We'll bring you the briefing live from the White House. We'll see if the president also shows up.

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[16:50:39]

BLITZER: Amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, tonight's CNN/Univision democratic presidential debate stage is set as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders prepare to face off tonight without a live audience. Podiums, by the way, as you can see, they've been placed six feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Joining us now to discuss all of this is Abby Phillip, our CNN political correspondent, and A.B. Stoddard, associate editor and columnist for "RealClearPolitics". And we're sitting further apart than we normally do, as well. CDC guidelines make that imperative right now.

So Abby, what do you think about tonight's debate, how the coronavirus, the messaging, might play out in the course of the -- in the course of the debate between these two remaining democratic presidential candidates? ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I do think that this is going to be a unique opportunity for Joe Biden and he's really shown what he is likely to do tonight in a speech that he gave last week where he draws a contrast between himself and President Trump and how he says he would handle this situation. Biden is in a unique position because he has actually been in a White House while dealing with a global pandemic and global health crisis. So, I think you're going to hear a lot about that from Biden.

But I think for Bernie Sanders, it's also an important moment for him to make the case for his signature policy position, which is Medicare for all. He has been really talking about this repeatedly over the last several days and say, the reason we're in this position that we're in where we don't have enough tests and we can't really get our arms around the situation is because there is this fractured health care system.

But for both of the men, it's going to be a commander-in-chief test. And how Sanders really is able to make the case for himself is what I'm going to be looking for. Because unlike Biden, he has not had the sort of executive experience, and I think that Biden is going to be making that case tonight.

BLITZER: I'm wondering, A.B., if it's going to be, you know, high ground, if they're both going to be civil with each other, talk about the emergency right now, or whether they're going to go at it and really fight.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR & COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, I don't think the former vice president is going to down at that level. I think Abby's right. He has to be presidential and talk about a competent, stable response to a pandemic and what he would do if he were in the presidency right now. And he has that experience which affords him the upper hand. There's no question.

It's a different debate than Bernie Sanders had hoped for. Bernie Sanders is going to come in to dirty up Joe Biden. He's looking to scrape up more delegates and he's leading a revolution. He's going to try to contrast him on the Iraq war. He's the establishment who's created the climate crisis that's created college jet [ph], that's created, you know, all of the unfairness that his supporters, you know, are asking for a revolution to fix.

So, it's not going to be a night for Bernie Sanders to be nice to Joe Biden. And I don't picture him trying to strike a unifying message about beating Donald Trump either. I think that's going to be Biden's job. So, the Sanders' supporters feel that they have a home in the Biden campaign. But they have totally different objectives tonight. And I think Bernie Sanders is going to be spoiling for a fight.

BLITZER: Let's not forget Tuesday, there are four presidential primaries in key states with a lot of delegates at stake. Sanders did tweet today, Abby, it is at this moment that we must remember that we are all in this together. So, that's --

PHILLIP: Yes. BLITZER: -- the high ground.

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, he does have to portray to Americans that he has what it takes to bring the country together at a moment like this. I mean, putting Joe Biden aside, one of the challenges that Sanders faces, and this has been born out in our exit polling from last week's election night, is that when voters are asked, who do you think is best positioned to lead the country during a crisis like this, he loses out to Joe Biden. So, he has got to really kind of make the case to people that he cannot only address the issues, but that he can actually be a unifier.

A.B. mentioned how he is spoiling for a fight, and I think that that is true. But there's going to be a need here to see someone who is not just a fighter at times like this, but someone who can bring together coalitions to actually get things done at a time when Americans feel like they need it the most.

BLITZER: Yes. Bernie Sanders, A.B., he's 78. Biden is 77. If you're over 60, they say, you're more vulnerable. I suppose that will be an issue coming up in the course of this debate, as well.

[16:55:06]

STODDARD: It's not really one that Joe Biden can take advantage of. I don't think he's going to be able to really pick on Bernie Sanders' age. But he should make note that it would be responsible for him to remind the audience that they're both, you know, potentially in a vulnerable population.

But again, to sort of repeat the message, bring it back to, we need to unite as a country. We need to social distance. We need to protect our elderly, people with underlying conditions. And again, we need to defeat Trump. As long as Biden just keeps to what the audience wants to hear, I don't think he has to worry much about Sanders.

BLITZER: Let's not forget President Trump. He's 73 years old. So, he's not exactly a spring chicken, either. All right guys, stick around. There's more we're following. A.B. Stoddard, Abby Phillip, we'll get it right.

Coming up in about ten minutes or so, we're going to hear directly from the Vice President Mike Pence, other members of the coronavirus task force. We have live coverage coming up from the White House just ahead.

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