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Coronavirus Ravages New Jersey Family, Killing Four; White House Coronavirus Task Force Leader In The Spotlight; Coronavirus Testing Faith Around The World. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired March 20, 2020 - 07:30   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: One New Jersey family has been ravaged by the coronavirus. Seventy-three-year-old Grace Fusco, the matriarch and mother of 11 children, died Wednesday from the virus. Three of her children, all in their fifties, also died this week from the virus. Two of her other children are in critical condition this morning.

One of Grace's daughters spoke to CNN last night.


ELIZABETH FUSCO, LOST FOUR FAMILY MEMBERS TO CORONAVIRUS: They were the root of our lives. That was my mother and my oldest sister. They were everything. Like, it's surreal to think like who's going to -- it's insane.

And my two oldest brothers -- like, they were the core of our family since my dad's been gone. They have held us together like no other.

And it's like the second we start to grieve about one, the phone rings and there is another person gone -- taken from us forever. It's not like it was one. By the time we got over my first sister -- not over -- it settled in our brains -- we got the next call.

I listened to those doctors and those machines code my mother on the phone when she passed last night. I'll never get over that. But I never want to hear that again. That's why we are just begging for help. We never want to get that call anytime soon, ever again because of this.

We're lost. We lost -- it's impossible and I can't -- I want to go get my two sisters and my brother that's left there and be like we're going to be OK, but I don't know that that's true because we have no answers.


CAMEROTA: Joining us now is Monsignor Sam Sirianni. He's the pastor at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church and a dear friend of the Fusco family. Pastor Sirianni, thank you very much for being here with us this morning.

This story is heartbreaking and baffling. It's shocking. I mean, just -- let me just run through the numbers as we know it right now.

Nineteen family members of the Fusco family were tested on Saturday, OK? So, almost a week ago. As far as we understand it, they still don't know if they're positive. They haven't gotten results back yet.

Two of the family members, as we said, are still in critical condition this morning.

Can you give us an update on how the family is doing with all this uncertainty and particularly, the condition of those two in critical condition?


I've been in contact with members of the family. It is very difficult. I think you heard -- I believe that was Elizabeth --


SIRIANNI: -- and they are devastated. And they can't even gather to grieve together and to be together because they are all in quarantine.

So it is devastating for them as a family, it's devastating for the parish, and for the whole community. They were a well-known, well- established family here in Freehold, well-liked, and it just has unsettled and upset the community.

CAMEROTA: How could it not? I mean, you hear Elizabeth there still grasping -- trying to grasp what has happened to her family in the space of one week -- this wildfire that's run through her family.

What I've read -- everybody wants to know how this happened, OK? And so, was it -- have they been able to trace it back, as far as they know, to this big family gathering -- this big Italian-American family dinner that so many of us in all of our families are familiar with?

SIRIANNI: They believe that that is that moment where everybody caught the virus. And, you know, it wasn't -- I don't believe it was for a special event. It is what this family does. By God's grace, with grandma still at the helm, you came home. They did this every Sunday.

I believe it was a gathering -- I had heard, you know, not from the family, that it was on a Tuesday. It could have been a Sunday. All I know is that it might -- it -- that began the illness.


Because within days afterwards -- and I don't even know the date -- I need to pull that one back. All I know is that on February -- excuse me, on March 13th, I received a call from one of the sisters telling me that Rita had died and that two brothers and her mother were in critical care.

CAMEROTA: And I know that you were closest to Rita. She's the eldest child of Grace, and Grace, the matriarch --


CAMEROTA: -- who was 73 years old.

Just tell us in our final --


CAMEROTA: -- moments here about the family and what they did mean to your community.

SIRIANNI: Well, number one, the family was one of our founding members of the parish. The parish has only been here since 1971 and so we do have a few members who were those first who began worshiping under the banner of St. Robert Bellarmine.

Rita, herself, was very involved. She was in the choir. She was a religious education instructor. She was on the gardening committee.

And most recently, she was coordinating our wedding coordinators. Those are the women who are with the bride right before she goes down the aisle and reminds them to breathe.

And so, she has been very active.

But the whole family has been present. Grace has been very present. It was part of her being to be Catholic. She was very proud of her faith, her church, and above all, her family.

If you see any of the pictures of the family together you will see Grace's head held high. And really, all of them held their heads high and they had a right to. They were a loving family, they were a strong family and our hearts break for them.

CAMEROTA: Ours, too.

Monsignor Sirianni, I know that one of the family members had said that they want to get a warning out that this -- if it could happen to them in this family --

So many of us gather for big dinners and big family gatherings and they -- at this time, they just want people to know now is not the time for that and let their family be a tragic lesson for the rest of us, too. Obviously, continue to socially distance.

Pastor Sirianni, thank you very much for sharing your experience and long friendship with this family with us this morning.

SIRIANNI: Thank you, and God bless and stay healthy.

CAMEROTA: You, too.

NEW DAY will be right back.

[07:42:13] CAMEROTA: Dr. Deborah Birx, the leader of President Trump's coronavirus task force, has become a familiar face at the president's press conferences. She's also now moved into the West Wing. But who is Dr. Birx?

CNN's Alex Marquardt takes a look at the background of this global health expert.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You've been doing a fantastic job in just the short time we've --

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She's the steady experienced hand in this crisis.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS TASK FORCE RESPONSE COORDINATOR: And so, we have been working on models day and night around the globe to really predict because some countries are in a very early stage, like the United States.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Dr. Deborah Birx brought on by the vice president when he was put in charge of the coronavirus task force.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She has served in the uniform of the United States, she has served in multiple administrations, and she's going to be our right arm.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): In a time of hyperpartisanship and division over the American response to COVID-19, Dr. Birx is that rare breed of someone universally respected on both sides of the aisle, as well as by the medical community.

REP. DONNA SHALALA (D-FL): I'm a big fan of the deputy that they just appointed, Deborah Birx. Colonel Birx has been running the PEPFAR program -- the big AIDS program -- for three previous administrations. She's first-rate.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Birx is something of a legend in global health, making her name over three decades of fighting HIV-AIDS and developing vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a leading voice for the administration in this crisis, has known Birx since the early 80s and gushed when she joined him on the task force.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: She was actually a fellow in my program as a trainee, and we knew she was a star then. And now, what has happened over the years, she's become a superstar.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Birx left the military after 20 years and joined the George W. Bush administration's AIDS relief program. She took over in 2014 when President Barack Obama named her an ambassador and global AIDS coordinator in John Kerry's State Department. JOHN KERRY, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: So, for Debbie, the last thing I'll say to you all is that taking the fight to AIDS is not simply a career; it really is a calling.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Unlike other Obama officials, Birx was kept on by the Trump administration and was just moved from the State Department to the White House.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: She will do an excellent job for the American people and we're proud to have her being part of that team.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): After rising to the top of her field, Birx is now facing something no one has seen before, with the whole country and many around the world looking to her for wisdom and guidance.

BIRX: We're at our best when the country comes together in a bipartisan way, and that has really been extraordinary to witness.


MARQUARDT: Now, there's another story that's worth telling about Dr. Deborah Birx. In 1983, when she was giving birth to her eldest daughter, she suffered severe blood loss.


And at the time, she had just read a report about an unknown deadly disease that made blood transfusions risky. A blood transfusion was called for by the hospital but before Birx passed out from the pain, she screamed in the room "Do not let them give me blood," so her husband turned down the transfusion. And it's a good thing he did because the hospital later found out that the blood that she would have been given was contaminated by HIV.

Now, that's a story that was told by Sec. Kerry when she was named as an ambassador in the Obama administration. AIDS, of course, was a disease that would come to define her career; perhaps, John, until now.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That's an unbelievable story, Alex.

We're going to need her. You know, we're going to need her strength, we're going to need her knowledge over the next months if not years, Alex Marquardt in Washington, very much.

So really, there are two things we're going to need to get through this crisis. One is science; the other is hope. More on that, next.



CAMEROTA: An early episode of "The Good Stuff" for you now because there is so much fear and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. But, CNN's Martin Savidge also found stories of hope and inspiration. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There is so much good going on it's hard to keep up.

Like Syracuse, New York with the Burn (ph) family determined to celebrate their grandmother's 95th birthday, practice social distancing with (audio gap) proving you can still safely party in a pandemic (audio gap).

In Birmingham, Alabama, the Tooey (ph) family wasn't about to let restrictions keeping them out of their parent's retirement community ruin St. Patrick's Day. The music still flowed. That's daughter Neva (ph) on the violin and dad on the balcony.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's still got it.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Speaking of holidays, you may have noticed Christmas making a comeback.

This is Lauren Gabriel Buran's (ph) house in Brandon Falls, Tennessee.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are lit up to bring some hope and some joy and put a little light into the world.

In Alsip, Illinois, it's the phones that are lighting up at the Country House Kitchen restaurant since they began offering free meals to the elderly now homebound by the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seventy-five thousand responses kind of caught us not off guard but we didn't think it was going to go like that on the first day.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Waitresses deliver meals right to the door.

Concerts canceled, music stars are up to a lot of good. Country singer Brad Paisley says his free grocery store is delivering to seniors during coronavirus.

BRAD PAISLEY, SINGER-SONGWRITER: We're mobilizing a group of volunteers to deliver groceries -- one week's groceries to elderly people that should not be out shopping on their own in these times.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Like so many musicians, for Willie Nelson, the show must go on -- online. He's offering a free streaming star-studded concert from his hometown in Luck, Texas. There's a digital tip jar to help musicians now without gigs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And she is standing a little bit back because of social distancing.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Speaking of artists, Kennedy Center artist-in- residence Mo Willems is a parents' savior each day at 1:00, offering homebound kids doodle lessons. The coronavirus is making a lot of you creative, like this Israeli man who figured out how to walk his dog without going outside, using a drone. It looks crazy but there's a message to his madness, telling people to stay safe but don't forget their dogs.

And now that all the tourists are out of Venice, Italy, gondoliers are reporting an unexpected side effect -- the waters are looking crystal clear. Many Venetians seeing something they've never seen before in the canals -- fish.

And finally, elsewhere in Italy, where the death toll has now surpassed even China, comes this magical moment as a quarantined couple can't resist a dance to the song "Cheek to Cheek" as a neighbor projects Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire on the side of their apartment.

Doing good these days is downright contagious.

Martin Savidge, CNN.


BERMAN: Oh, our thanks to Martin Savidge for that.

Look, this pandemic is testing our imaginations, it's testing our hearts, and it's testing our faith.

Joining us now is Rabbi Jeffrey Myers from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the site of the deadly mass shooting in October of 2018.

And, Rabbi, if there was ever someone who knows where to find hope when things seem hopeless, it's you. So we thank you for being here this morning.

CAMEROTA: Great to see you, Rabbi.

BERMAN: And our question --


BERMAN: -- how is your flock this morning? You know, how is your congregation doing? What are you doing for them?

MYERS: I would say they're probably just like every other American -- nervous, worried, the entire range of emotions. And as you said, if there's a congregation that understands what it means to be traumatized, to be displaced from their house of worship, it certainly is the Tree of Life.

And I'm hoping that many of the lessons that we've learned in these past 18 months we can put to good use to help not just our congregation but those beyond our congregation who feel the same way.

CAMEROTA: And, Rabbi, what have those lessons been? I mean, it's been a while since we've checked in with you. And I know that back then, of course, you were a beacon of light for your congregation and for so many of us around the country.


But what has this year and a half been like for everyone in Pittsburgh, and what are the lessons that you've taken from them?

MYERS: I would say first, is that we're not alone. We've never been alone throughout any of this. That there's a vast storehouse of love and humanity to help us throughout all of our challenges.

And you saw just with the piece you just posted just before me perfect examples how that's the way humanity is in general. Good decent people who are there not just for themselves but selflessly give to help others. And that's how we get through these major challenges in our life -- together as a community.

BERMAN: What are the mechanics right now of worship because I know there are so many people who would love to run to a synagogue or a church? That is where they would feel most comforted right now but they just can't. I mean, how do you get them in? How do you perform a service?

MYERS: Great question. I came to learn after we were displaced from the Tree of Life that the Tree of Life is a community concept and we're Tree of Life wherever we are. So that means for us right now, we can be online as a virtual community. We still are the Tree of Life because you can take away the building but you can't take away the soul of who we are because that's deep inside here.

So we're having virtual services morning and evening. I have -- my Friday evening service is livestreamed tonight through our Facebook page at 6:00 right here from my living room. You're both invited to join me right here.

And I'll be premiering a Saturday morning service also at 10:00 a.m. -- a one-hour service, also livestreamed, to find different ways to connect to people.

CAMEROTA: You know, it's paradoxical, of course. I love your message of we're not alone but by definition, we almost have to be alone right now. With the social distancing, we are more literally alone or physically alone than we have been in a long time.

And I know that in your congregation, I imagine there are some high- risk people. There are some people, I'm sure, over 65. I met them, obviously, when I came out to visit you. And so, how are you making sure that they're not isolated or feeling that way?

MYERS: Well, I'm glad you used the word social distancing because I read a blog about it two weeks ago and I said I understand the use of the word, but I think it's the wrong word. What we're looking for really is physical distancing but we want social connection. We need to get closer to people as we pull away more from them physically. So, for example, in our case, we know who's who in our congregation. We have lists. We know about those who might be more susceptible to the disease -- those who live alone, those who are older and need greater help.

And we're in touch with them and their families, who may not live in town, through the telephone to find out how are they doing, what are their needs. How can we meet their needs -- not just to us as the Tree of Life but the greater community? What can we do? What are the things that you need to be taking care of, whether it's the food shopping, if there's a medical issue -- anything.

So, again, it's the same thing that we did 18 months ago. Reach out to everybody, reassure people, and identify what their needs are -- and that hasn't changed.

CAMEROTA: Rabbi Myers, it's so great to see you. It's great to hear your words.

And I think that that is something -- a message that will carry forward -- physical distancing, social connection. So thanks for framing it that way, and we will stay in touch with you.

BERMAN: And I hope people do tune in on Facebook to your service tonight. If they do, they will be in for a treat. Rabbi, thank you.

MYERS: Thank you so much, and thank you both and CNN for all that you do as you reach these challenging times. We appreciate the challenges you face to keep us safe and informed.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, Rabbi.

BERMAN: A kind word makes a big difference -- thanks.

CAMEROTA: Thank you.

OK, a major move in the state of California to try to contain this pandemic. NEW DAY continues right now.


GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): We direct a statewide order for people to stay at home. We are confident that the people in California will abide by it.

TRUMP: We said stop, you can't work. We were paying a lot of money to stop things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion proposal.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D) NEW YORK CITY: The federal government has essentially two weeks to get us major resupply or the people in New York City are going to be in much greater danger.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): We are battling two things: a virus and fear and panic, and I'm as afraid of the fear and the panic as I am of the virus.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

BERMAN: All right, good morning and welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, March 20th. It is 8:00.