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Interview With Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Food Supply Concerns?; Sailor From USS Roosevelt Dies of Coronavirus; Does Trump Actually Have Any Power Over When States Reopen For Business?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 13, 2020 - 15:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington.

And the United States is nearing the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the CDC director. And once we are through the worst of it, the director says we must study the data county by county to determine how to get the U.S. back to some semblance of normal.

Now, moments ago, the governors of six Northeast states holding a joint announcement of a working group to develop a plan on how to do that. Yet President Trump today, despite never issuing a national stay-at-home order, now claims it is his decision to reopen the country, a decision that he says he will make soon.

And at this hour, there are nearly two million confirmed coronavirus cases around the world, and the number of deaths here in the United States is now nearly 23,000. This is the most reported by any country at this point.

Almost half of those deaths are in New York, where there are more than 10,000 lives lost across the state, though Governor Cuomo did say he thinks the worst is hopefully over.

Let's go to CNN's Shimon Prokupecz. He is in hard-hit New York City.

And, Shimon, the death rate has been declining over the last few days, along with the number of hospitalizations. Tell us about that.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that's significant, because that is what's letting the officials here really know that maybe perhaps we have turned a corner in all of this and that we continue to be heading in the right direction.

And, as you said, hospitalizations are down. The number of people -- the key data in all this for them also is the number of people that are in the intensive care unit. That number is down, people that are receiving intubations, who need ventilators. Those numbers continue to go down. And those are all very good signals for officials that perhaps we have turned the corner here. Also, the number of people that are being discharged, that continues to go up, so all signs, of course, that things are working. Social distancing, people staying at home, that is all working.

So, the big question now is, what happens next? How do we get this country back up and running? How do people get back to work? How do people get back to living their lives? And that really is the next step in all of this.

KEILAR: And, Shimon, Governor Cuomo, along with a number of other governors from the Northeast, really laid out a coordinated plan to work towards reopening their economies and lifting restrictions.

What's the plan here?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, they want to do this all together.

So the governors from New Jersey, the governors from Connecticut, of course, the governor here in New York state, he wants everyone in the surrounding states to work together to get things back up and running.

The thing is, he doesn't want one state deciding, OK, I'm going to open this business and then people from New York, let's say if it's New Jersey, people from New York deciding to go to New Jersey.

Because all the states are so close together and because people who live in New Jersey work in New York, people who live in Connecticut work in New York, it's important, the governor feels, that everyone needs to work together to try and reopen offices, workplaces, restaurants.

The other thing, of course, is schools, right? And this is one of the things here in New York City that has sort of been the big thing. The mayor saying he doesn't want to reopen schools, the governor saying, no, that's up to me, and that's going to be ultimately my decision, and we need to do that in a coordinated fashion with the other states.

The governor essentially wants everyone working together and everything on the same timeline.

KEILAR: All right, Shimon, thank you so much for that update.

And there are some new questions today about the future of Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's a member of President Trump's Coronavirus Task Force. He's arguably one of the most recognizable and trusted doctors out there right now.

Well, not only did the president share a tweet that called for Fauci to be fired. Sources tell CNN President Trump's spent the weekend calling allies to complain about Fauci and question why the doctor wasn't saying nice things about him.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is joining us live now to discuss this. Kaitlan, this is all coming as the doctor made, it's -- I guess you

could say it's a stunning admission, but it's really just an admission of reality on CNN, about the coronavirus response.


And this came after "The New York Times" had this extensive report over the weekend really documenting how the president himself was slow to respond to the coronavirus.

And Fauci on "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday acknowledged that, if they had taken earlier steps, obviously, lives could have been saved.

Listen to what he said.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: You could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that.

But what goes into those kinds of decisions is -- is complicated. But you're right. I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different.


But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.


COLLINS: So, Brianna, Fauci said that on our air yesterday.

Then, just a few hours later, the president elevated a tweet from a former Republican congressional candidate that was criticizing Fauci. But it ended with, time to fire Fauci.

The president retweeted that. Of course, that caused a lot of speculation about Fauci's future, given the fact that the president has publicly praised him, but privately complained about him when he's contradicting him.

And now the White House is issuing a statement denying that Dr. Fauci is going to lose his job. They blame it on media chatter, calling it ridiculous, even though it was the president's own tweet that caused all of this.

But they say that his job is safe for now, though, of course, we do know the White House press shop has issued these kinds of statements before, saying someone's job is say, when later on the president does go on to fire them. So it's really a situation that remains to be seen.

KEILAR: Yes, it will be very interesting to see what he does, Kaitlan, considering Dr. Fauci actually seems to be doing a service, not only to the country, but to the administration as well, keeping some of these briefings, for instance, on track with facts and science.

And tell us today -- President Trump suggesting that it's really up to him, Kaitlan, not the governors, when states reopen?


KEILAR: We know the president never issued a national shutdown. so what's going on here? Is this really up to him?

COLLINS: Yes. It'll be interesting to see how Republican governors respond to this, because the president put out these tweets saying that the media was trying to push this idea that it's up to governors, not him, whether the country reopens.

And he says very clearly he believes that's incorrect, though, of course, the president did never issue any kind of nationwide guidance on that. He repeatedly deferred to governors when asked if he was going to issue any kind of nationwide stay-at-home order.

And even when some of those governors held out and belatedly issued their own orders, the president said he was leaving it up to them. He talked about the Constitution and said he preferred it that way, though now he's claiming it's his role to decide this, when, of course, it is going to be the governors who put those restrictions in place who decide when to loosen them.

And, so far, no governors have come out saying that they agree with the president on this, and we will be waiting to see what authority it is that the president is citing when he's making this claim.

KEILAR: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much for that. Really appreciate the report.

And joining me now is Dr. Anand Parekh. He's the former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Parekh, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to ask you about something the U.S. surgeon general said today about hot spots, including New York, New Jersey, Detroit, New Orleans, that they really seem to be seeing COVID-19 cases leveling off or even going down. This is certainly a positive sign.

What message would you send to help officials in those cities and states?

DR. ANAND PAREKH, BIPARTISAN POLICY CENTER: Well, certainly, in those particular hot spots, particularly New York City, we do seem to see a plateauing in the number of cases, particularly the hospitalizations, as well as intensive care usage.

So I think that is a positive sign. That's maybe going down as well. So, Brianna, I think we need to pay close attention there. There are other parts of the country we also need to focus on in some of the Southern--

KEILAR: All right, unfortunately, we're having some technical difficulties there. We will try to reestablish your line there with Dr. Parekh, so that we can bring you some of the latest answers to questions that may be on your mind.

At this point, medical experts say testing is crucial to determining which parts of the country are ready to start reopening.

So, are there enough tests?

Plus, the threat to the nation's food supply -- why the shutdown of one meat plant might need problems for your grocery run.



KEILAR: As local officials look to reopen the economy, health experts say that testing will be crucial to lift restrictions.


DR. STEPHEN HAHN, COMMISSIONER, FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION: Further ramping up testing, both diagnostic, as well as the antibody tests, will really be necessary as we move beyond May and into the summer months and then into the fall.


KEILAR: Now, still, the president says that testing everyone is not necessary and claims that it's up to him whether or not states can open nationwide, even though he never issued a national shutdown.

Let's bring in CNN's Drew Griffin live from Atlanta for us.

And, Drew, tell us, what's the latest on nationwide testing?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I will tell you the testing is getting better. The big labs, their backlogs are going down, LabCorp, Quest turning around tests in two to four days, which is a huge improvement.

And the supplies for testing is catching up with the demand, but it's still not enough testing is going on, experts tell me, to get ahead of this, which is to be able to kind of isolate, track who has this virus, who doesn't.

And certainly we're nowhere near where we need to be with serology testing, with the blood test, the antibody test, which haven't even rolled out yet, which would determine, Brianna, just how many of us have had this disease and how many have not.

Without those two tests involved, it's going to be very difficult to scientifically have the evidence to open up any part of the country.

KEILAR: At the end of march, Drew, as you're aware, President Trump announced a rollout of a test from Abbott Labs called rapid I.D.

What happened there?

GRIFFIN: Yes, I mean, this was one of those announcements that everybody thought, oh, boy, this is great. We're all going to get this rapid test. Five minutes is all it takes to get the results back.

I think there was miscommunication between the aspirational view of the White House, what the feds were saying and what the states were getting. The states got 15 -- basically, 15 of these machines each, but without any tests, or just a very few tests.

That turned out to be just a supply issue with Abbott Labs. Abbott insists they have sent out 30,000 tests now to supply those state machines. But Abbott says, lookit, these machines are out there already. There's 350 sites that do this testing, regardless of what the states are doing now.


And they say they have 566,000 of these rapid I.D. tests shipped as of last Saturday. They're making 50,000 a day. And, as I said, 350 sites across the country are using these.

These are really critical point-of-care tests, mainly for those online providers to know instantly if somebody has coronavirus or not and whether they can get back to work or not.

KEILAR: No, it's so important.

Drew, thank you for that report from Atlanta.

And back with me now is Dr. Anand Parekh. He's the former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.

All right, we're going to give this another try and I'm feeling good about this time, Dr. Parekh.

Talk to us about this new model that just announced in the last hour, and it shows that 95 percent of Los Angeles County's residents are actually going to contract the virus if stay-at-home orders are lifted right now. That's pretty stunning.

PAREKH: Well, it is pretty stunning.

And I think the key here is what social distancing is doing, Brianna, is reducing the contact rate. Reducing the contact rate reduces infections, reduces deaths. That's why social distancing is so important.

And even the best models out of the University of Washington demonstrate that to minimize loss of death in the United States through the first wave of pandemic, you really need to continue social distancing through the end of May.

That's why experts talk about doubling down. It's great that we're making progress. We want to do even better, and the only way we can do that is to stay the course and double down on social distancing.

KEILAR: You heard Dr. Fauci say yesterday that, had the Trump administration taken earlier action, certainly, more lives would have been sitting.

I wonder, though, what goes into these decisions to issue social distancing requirements, because it's so complicated. And you work for the Department of Health and Homeland -- or for the Department of Health and Human Services. Do you agree with his assessment?


I think we can all agree Dr. Fauci has been a shining star during this response, both as a scientist, as well as a public servant. And I think perhaps what he was saying, or at least I can put into my words, in February, when we knew that the testing infrastructure wasn't up to par, the decision should have been made earlier, rather than later, that we need to switch from containment to mitigation.

I think many experts would agree that, had we done that in early March, vs. later in March, in terms of implementing social distancing interventions, that many, many Americans' lives would have been saved.

And so I think it's that transition from containment to mitigation, knowing that our testing infrastructure wasn't up to par, that should have rang the bell that we really needed to implement very quickly our social distancing interventions.

You see states like California, you see regions like the Bay Area. How have they been able to continue on their pandemic curve with minimal loss of life? And it's really because they were ahead of the curve in implementing a lot of these social distancing interventions.

So, even a week or two or two weeks earlier clearly would have saved American lives.

KEILAR: You have heard about the issues with Dr. Fauci that the president has, reporting from "The New York Times," and also the president retweeting a call for Dr. Fauci to be fired. What are your concerns if Dr. Fauci were to be fired? What would that mean for the country?

PAREKH: I mean, I can't even imagine that, because I think what the country wants and needs right now are the scientists and the experts telling them exactly how we're doing and where we might need to go in terms of mitigating this pandemic.

And he is the leading voice among scientists and public servants. And so I think we all look for him when he's at the podium, and we know -- we want to know what he has to say. So I think it would be devastating. And I hope that it doesn't happen.

KEILAR: Dr. Parekh, thank you so much. We appreciate your insights.

And right now, across the country, the Texas governor is laying out plans to reopen businesses in his state. Some local officials there are warning their communities are not ready.

Plus, officials in Louisiana say there are some signs they are starting to flatten the curve. We have our team of reporters covering all of those angles and more.

Let's start with CNN's Barbara Starr and a tragic development in the Navy's fight against the coronavirus.



A U.S. Navy sailor has died from complications of the coronavirus, who was serving aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier docked in Guam.


Now nearly 600 members of that crew have tested positive for the virus. Four additional sailors are also in the hospital. They are not in intensive care, not on ventilators, we are told.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper here at the Pentagon issuing a statement of condolences to the family of the sailor who died.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Polo Sandoval in McAllen, Texas, one of many communities across the Lone Star State that could begin to see small businesses reopen, part of Governor Greg Abbott's small business initiative that was introduced here today.

The goal here is to allow some of these hard-hit establishments to slowly begin to return to normal here. But the big question that will remain, how will the governor's office be able to strike that balance between protecting the livelihoods and the lives of Texans?

You see, Texas is one of many states that has yet to see a peak, which suggests that the spread is still happening, and, of course, the governor here under tremendous pressure to act to try to allow Texas to get back on its economic footing as soon as possible.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ed Lavandera in New Orleans.

Violent severe weather rolled through Louisiana on Easter Sunday, as people here continue to deal with being one of the coronavirus hot spots in the United States.

The latest statistics show once again a mixed bag. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to go up. But over the last few days, we have seen kind of a mixed bag on the number of people requiring hospital beds and ventilator use.

So that is one of the signs that health officials here say suggests that they're beginning to see the flattening of the curve here in Louisiana.


KEILAR: Coming up, new concern about the nation's food supply after one facility closes because of a coronavirus outbreak. We will talk to a former governor and agricultural secretary about what it means for your ability to get what you need at the grocery store.



KEILAR: One of the country's largest pork processing facilities is shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Smithfield Foods, which produces about 5 percent of the nation's pork, announcing the closure after employees started to contract this virus. And, according to officials, Smithfield employees make up more than half of the active coronavirus cases in South Dakota, where this company is based.

I want to bring in CNN's Dianne Gallagher to talk about this.

I mean, this is a move, Dianne, that's coming as more and more meat companies are shutting down. So this is actually a much bigger problem.


And this particular plant in South Dakota kind of crystallizes the problem they're dealing with here; 130 million servings of pork come from that plant every single week, and they are shut down indefinitely.

They don't know when they will be able to open back up. We have seen closures in Iowa. Pennsylvania, four plants have closed just in that state alone. And in Colorado, there's a plant in Greeley that shut down for cleaning purposes after an outbreak there is being blamed for the death of two employees, Brianna.

They say at least 50 of the employees there have the virus. But the governor said, likely, if they get to be able to test them all, it's going to be somewhere between 200 and 400 of those employees.

And, again, the CEO of Smithfield kind of sent out this statement that really gave you an idea of the situation we're looking at here. He called the fact that all of them are shutting down pushing the country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.

He points out that you can't keep the grocery store shelves stocked if you can't get the meat out to them. And if they can't take it from the farmers, the farmers have nowhere to send their livestock.

So it's this food chain issue that they're kind of in the middle of, and they don't know what to do.

KEILAR: Yes, it's -- thank you so much for outlining that, Dianne Gallagher, for us.

And joining me now is the former Agriculture Secretary under President Obama Tom Vilsack.

Secretary and Governor, thank you so much for joining us.


KEILAR: You know very well this isn't just in South Dakota. You have got plants across the country, Iowa, Pennsylvania, for instance, that are shutting down because of these health concerns.

How serious of a problem is this?

VILSACK: Well, it's a cascading series of events here that's really disrupting the entire food chain.

Basically, you start ending school lunch programs, universities shut down, food service shuts down, tourism, hotels have low occupancy, at the end of the day, you basically have a tremendous amount of the overall supply of food having to be redirected.

At a time when people are feeling a little bit of a pinch in terms of the economy, many unemployed people can't access the grocery store, go to the food bank. They have a supply issue.

And now you have the cascading event of these facilities not having enough workers or having sick workers and having to shut down plants.

So, it's obviously a very difficult circumstance and situation. That's why it's going to be important for the USDA to do what it's going to do, which is to begin the process of buying commodities, buying and supplying them to food banks, so that at least a number of folks can get access to food.