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Biden Confronts Allegations As He Prepares For Unprecedented Campaign Against Trump; The Future Of Education Is Uncertain Amid Pandemic. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired May 3, 2020 - 19:00   ET

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


[19:00:23]

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 in Washington. This is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, we're following the efforts underway around the country to reopen businesses and gradually try to return to some sense of normalcy. In just a few hours dozens of states will complete their first weekend of loosened coronavirus restrictions. And on Monday the national experiment will expand. Governors in more than 30 states will either further ease their stay-at-home regulations or let them lapse completely in the coming weeks.

But as states start phased reopenings, coronavirus cases nationwide right now top more than 1.1 million and the country's death toll passes 67,000. And one of the top members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Deborah Birx, is warning it could still get a whole lot worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Our projections have always been between 100,000 to 240,000 American lives lost. And that's with full mitigation and us learning from each other on how to social distance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Really scary words from her. As the death toll steadily rises, states are moving forward with their reopening plans hoping for an economic boost. In New Jersey, for example, which has the second highest coronavirus totals in the country, golf courses opened this weekend. This as the governor there announced another 3100 cases today.

And tomorrow you'll be able to eat inside a restaurant in much of Florida, go to a gym in Arkansas, shop at a mall in Indiana. The question now is whether shoppers and patrons will feel safe enough to show up as these restrictions ease up.

Let's start in California this hour where the push to reopen is starting to clash with safety and social distancing. Governor Gavin Newsom says he's days not weeks necessarily away from beginning to lift some of California's stay-at-home restrictions, but that didn't stop him from closing beaches in Orange County to try to stop the spread of the virus. And that closure sparked a small protest yesterday.

CNN's Paul Vercammen is joining us now from Huntington Beach.

And Paul, this beach ban is really hitting a nerve out there. What more can you tell us?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you right now if this shutdown continues, they are livid here in Huntington Beach. This of course one of the cities where they are suing, trying to get the beaches back open.

What we've seen here today as you look at the shocking scene, Huntington Beach closed. We saw that authorities let people go out early in the morning and surf, then they got on bullhorns, told people to exit the water, and they did peacefully.

Now all this is occurring at the same time where the cases in Orange County jumped by 100 to 2,743. But that's in a county with a population of three million. When surfers came out of the water, we talked to them again. They're suggesting they understand the need to social distance, but they think that the measure is drastic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our governor is wasting all these resources on putting cones up, putting caution tape up, and driving down the coast and seeing a cop at every light is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's ridiculous to me. Like, there's other things that you could be doing in terms of, like, having people say, hey, you got to keep moving on the beach but don't stop people from enjoying this out here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERCAMMEN: Now Governor Newsom has said that this week, we're going to be able to make announcements that will give people some more confidence and the ability for California to get back on its economic feet. That will come as welcome news here and in northern California, counties, rural counties where they had zero COVID-19 cases. We'll just have to see how all this plays out, Wolf. It's important to note that the state assembly reconvenes in Sacramento tomorrow.

Back to you now, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Paul, thank you. Paul Vercammen out in California.

The New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today that he's banding together with the governors of six other states in the northeast to purchase medical supplies without having to rely on the federal government. Cuomo called the mad dash that has occurred over the past few months for protective gear, in his word, absurd.

Polo Sandoval is joining us from New York City right now.

Polo, the governor also announced PPE requirements for hospitals in his state. What are they? What's the latest?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, today marking essentially the 64th day since New York basically closed down here and Governor Andrew Cuomo saying that at this point it is everybody's social responsibility to continue following the social -- those guidelines that have been laid out by health officials including social distancing, wearing masks like this one that's going right back on my face as soon as we wrap up our conversation.

[19:05:07]

As we heard from Governor Cuomo today, say that using those masks not only the responsible thing to do, but a respectful thing to do as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: You wear the mask not for yourself, you wear the mask for me. It's a sign of respect to other people. And you make me sick, that's disrespectful. I have to go into the hospital. I have to call an ambulance, that's an ambulance driver, I have to go into an emergency room, that's a nurse, that's a doctor who has to put on PPE that somebody has to buy and pay for.

They have to risk being exposed to the virus because you wouldn't wear a mask? Because you wouldn't wear a mask? You put so many people at risk because you didn't want to wear a mask.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANDOVAL: In the following breath, Governor Cuomo also announcing this new seven-state coalition, if you will, of these seven states who will be jointly obtaining very crucial, medical equipment and supplies, Wolf. Governor Cuomo also announcing that he will be asking the New York State Health Department to require that all hospitals across the state have at least 90 days' worth of that personal protection equipment.

And it's really more looking ahead here, Wolf. That concern that I know you've heard from health officials that we could potentially see another round of these cases come the fall but one positive note that we also heard from officials here in New York, the number of intubations, also the number of hospitalizations, that has dropped.

BLITZER: Polo Sandoval, in New York City for us with the latest there, thank you very much.

In Oklahoma, the Governor Kevin Stitt is allowing businesses to reopen with strict sanitation protocols in place. Friday morning, though, people were called into a Walmart in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where, and I'm quoting now, "several customers were belligerent about being asked to wear a mask in the store."

The Stillwater City manager later released the statement relaxing the rules, stating this, "In the short time beginning on May 1st, 2020 that face covering have been required for entry into stores, restaurants, store employees have been threatened with physical violence and showered with verbal abuse. In addition there has been one threat of violence using a firearm. This has occurred in three short hours and in the face of clear medical evidence that face covering helps contain the spread of COVID-19."

Joining us now the Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.

Governor, thank you so much for joining us. So tells us what happened? What's your reaction to what happened in Stillwater City?

GOV. KEVIN STITT (R-OK): Well, first off, we don't condone violence of any kind, and I've set guidance for the whole state. But I've always given flexibility to our local mayors to set their standards in their cities. They're a little closer to the people and so, you know, Oklahomans for the most part have done a really, really good job of flattening the curve in our state and our data is showing that.

BLITZER: We did see, and I'm sure you saw as well, Governor, some protesters armed swarmed the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, AR-15s, all sorts of weapons. Are you worried about that type of backlash?

STITT: You know I'm really not. I mean, I've signed 15 executive orders since day back to March 15th, and Oklahomans have done a really good job. They've made sacrifices, and we think it's time for a measured reopening, our data shows that. But Oklahomans are -- you know, the Oklahoma standard is neighbor helping neighbor. So we're not really concerned about those kind of things in our state.

BLITZER: Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, she had a strong reaction to those images we saw from Michigan. I want you to listen and watch what she said earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: It's devastatingly worrisome for me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a co-morbid condition or they have a serious or a very -- or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives. So we need to protect each other at the same time we're voicing our discontent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: She also said today, and we played the clip at the top of the hour, that, and I'm quoting her now, "Our projections have always been between 100,000 to 240,000 American lives lost." Right now more than 67,000 American lives lost.

When you hear those numbers, how chilling is it the decisions you have to make in Oklahoma about life and death? STITT: Well, I mean, these are very, very difficult decisions and --

so it's really easy to nationalize these. I'm really just focused on the data in Oklahoma, making decisions, data-driven decisions based on our state, now what we're seeing on television. For example, in our state, 5.9 percent of all of our tests -- we test about a thousand a day -- come back positive.

[19:10:02]

If you compare that to New York's data, about 34 percent of their tests are coming back positive. So we have different issues in different states. And that's why I'm focused on the data in our state and we've also extended our safer at home for our most vulnerable population because 80 percent of our deaths have all been over the age of 65. And so I've actually extended that safer at home for that population to make sure that they're safe because it is really about the data in each individual state.

BLITZER: But you know, Governor, that these numbers can explode within a matter of a few weeks or a couple of months. I did some checking. On February 13th, not that long ago, there were only 14 confirmed coronavirus cases in all of the United States. Right now more than 1.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.

So even if you only have a few right now confirmed in Oklahoma, if you are not careful, that number can explode rapidly, right?

STITT: Well, that's absolutely true. But -- and I've told Oklahomans, you know, coronavirus is still in the United States, it's still in Oklahoma, even though we're doing a measured reopening, we have to continue social distancing, we've got to continue to allow people to work from home when possible. But we only have 236 people across the state of Oklahoma in the hospital right now.

We've had over double in recovered than are actually active cases in our state. So we believe it's time for a measured reopening and we're going to do this in phases. We've met all the White House guidelines. And we think it's time and I'll continue to watch that data in our state and we can extend the phases if we see any kind of tick up in the data in our state.

BLITZER: So tell us what's going to be open tomorrow in Oklahoma, Monday morning? What kind of shops, athletic activities? Are schools opened?

STITT: No. Schools are closed for the rest of this year. On May 1st, actually on Friday, we opened up restaurants, we opened up gyms based on some social distancing, some sanitation, the condiments, the throwaway menus, that kind of stuff. Churches were open except for nurseries. But every other queues. So we gave a list of guidance and then we'll watch the data. 14 days later as long as everything can remain flat then we'll go to a phase two starting on May 15th.

BLITZER: So you're going to try to as much as you can follow the White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines if possible, although I take it you haven't seen 14-day reduction in the numbers so far, have you? STITT: We have. If you go back to the week of April 10th, we had 806

positive cases that week. We actually tested more last week and we only had 627 positive cases. So we're going down a number of cases even though we're testing more. And the percentage of positive test cases are actually going down as well. We used to have test over 10 percent positive, now we're down to 5.9 percent in Oklahoma.

Oklahomans are made for social distancing. We already lived really spread out. And -- but Oklahomans are taking this very seriously and they're doing a great job.

BLITZER: You have a great state over there in Oklahoma, Governor. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck. I hope you guys are right, we don't want to see those numbers go up. We don't want to see you have to reimpose a lot of those restrictions in the weeks ahead. Thanks so much for joining us.

STITT: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. So up until a few days ago when Remdesivir was probably a drug you've never heard of. Now it's seen by many as a possible lifeline for people severely infected with coronavirus. The former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, he's standing by live. We'll discuss that and more when we come back.

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BLITZER: A little bit of optimism coming from a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force earlier today. Watch what Dr. Deborah Birx had to say about the experimental drug Remdesivir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: So it's a first step forward. In parallel, we have a whole series of therapeutics including plasma and also monoclonal antibodies being worked through. We are concentrating on vaccines as well as therapeutic bridges to ensure that the American people can do well with this virus eventually. We really want to ensure there's those therapeutics available and vaccines available rapidly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Dr. Birx added that a COVID-19 vaccine becoming available in January is not necessarily out of the realm of possibility. In her words at least on paper.

With us now is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He's the former U.S. surgeon general during the Obama administration. He's also the author of the new book entitled "Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World."

Dr. Murthy, thanks so much for joining us. How much of a difference will this drug Remdesivir really make in the overall fight against this virus? DR. VIVEK MURTHY, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: I think it's important

to put Remdesivir in context. The news coming out of the clinical trial showing that it did show some moderate improvement in people who are severely ill. That's definitely a step in the right direction. But we've got to remember that this is an intravenous medicine that was given for a period of several days to people who are severely ill.

This is not the kind of medicine that you would get if you were an outpatient and you went to a clinic and you were diagnosed with COVID- 19. All I have to say that we have a positive step here but we have a lot more to do if we are looking for a blockbuster drug or a silver bullet. And so the good news about Remdesivir should be taken in context and not used as a reason to pull back on any of the precautions that we're taking in terms of social distancing. We still got to keep those measures in order if we want to get a handle on this virus.

BLITZER: And let's not forget, Remdesivir is a potential treatment for the severely ill with coronavirus. It's not a vaccine.

[19:20:04]

When it comes to a vaccine, Dr. Murthy, one of the major hurdles right now when you heard Dr. Birx say maybe on paper there could be some sort of vaccine by January?

MURTHY: Well, look, if you went back, you know, 10, 15 years ago, and looked at vaccine development, it would take far, far longer than the timetables we're talking about today. And that's a credit to science, to amazing scientists and to global collaboration.

The numbers that we've been hearing which is when we can expect a vaccine are 12 to 18 months. What Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci and other government scientists have said and worked really hard on is id we can move that timeline up in any way and they are hopeful that if everything goes right that maybe by the beginning of next year we might have something.

But that's an optimal scenario. It will require not only everything going right, but it will come at tremendous expense because unlike the usual vaccine development process when you take step after step in sequential form, here there are things we're going to have to do in parallel. For example, we will have to mass produce the vaccine candidates even before we know for sure whether they work, which will come at tremendous cost but it'll ensure that if it does work that we've got the doses ready to be able to deploy.

So this is a scenario that we should hope for but we should not plan on in the sense that we should not assume that by January everything is going to be fine. We've got to ensure that we are hoping for the best and planning for the worse. And that means assuming that it could still be a full 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is here.

BLITZER: Yes. Lots to watch. As you know, many states, Dr. Murthy, are moving to reopen. But Dr. Birx also said today that the White House still expects the death toll to be, in her words, between 100,000 to 240,000. She said our projections have always been between 100,000 to 240,000 American lives lost. And that's with full mitigation and us learning from each other on how to social distance.

You hear those numbers, 67,000 Americans have already died from coronavirus. Tens of thousands more, or maybe a hundred thousand more, is that what we're really facing right now that this crisis may only be, what, half over or so?

MURTHY: Yes. You know, if we were thinking about this being a f ball game, we are still in the early innings. And it's really important to recognize that because we've got to be prepared for the long haul. Even after we get over the first spike of COVID-19, there will likely be a second spike in the fall. We've seen this with other pandemics and we've got to be prepared for that.

Also, the numbers also may remind us that we have to be very cautious when we look at the models. There are all kinds of models out there making all kinds of predictions. And the ones that we have gotten the most airtime and the most focused from the White House during their briefings have been the most optimistic models.

And I think in some cases they may have misled people into -- and lull them into a false sense of security. But the reality is that if you are on the front lines in hospitals and in clinics around this country, you are still seeing COVID-19 taking an enormous toll on communities. And so it's really incumbent on us to recognize that we are not over this yet. That the worse may not be behind us. In fact we've got a lot more to come.

So that means we got to be cautious. We've got to be prepared and it makes the case also for us really leaning into testing because that's how we see what's really happening in our communities.

BLITZER: Yes. That's really so important. The testing. We did see the large crowds flock to the National Mall yesterday here in Washington, D.C. to view the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds flyover. Meanwhile, experts are warning that this virus could spread for the next two years. Do you worry, though, that people are now beginning to let their guard down too soon?

MURTHY: I do worry that we are relaxing these restrictions too soon. And I worry about this in particular because I think people are getting mixed messages from their political leaders. You know, there are times when we are 50 states and we each do our own thing, and pursue the path that we think is best. But there are times that we need to stand together as one nation and recognize that if we have an outbreak in one state because we were laxed in taking the steps that we needed to take, that will affect all 50 states.

And we've got to lead with science here. We've got to be cautious. We've got to ensure that cases are dramatically reducing and that we have the testing and tracing capacity in place before we start to open up. To do otherwise is to really put people's lives at risk and that's what I worry about.

BLITZER: Dr. Vivek Murthy, always important to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us. Thank you so much for joining us. We'll continue our conversations down the road.

MURTHY: Thanks so much, Wolf. Take care.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have a lot more with the coronavirus pandemic, all the late breaking developments. That's coming up. We're also following some other news including vice president -- former vice president Joe Biden's response to an accusation of sexual assault as he gears up for his campaign against President Trump. That and a lot more when we come back.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll have much more of our coronavirus pandemic coverage in just a few minutes. But first, to some other news we're covering including the race for president of the United States. The election is just six months away and not only is former vice president Joe Biden facing an unprecedent challenge in campaigning during a pandemic, he's also facing an allegation of sexual assault by a former Senate staffer 27 years ago.

Biden has categorically denied the charge but he's also said his accuser has a right to be heard and he's asked the secretary of the Senate to locate and publicly release any documents related to the allegation.

BLITZER: The woman accusing Biden, Tara Reade says that she filed the complaint at the time, but doesn't have a copy. Reade also says the complaint was related to uncomfortable interactions in the office and not -- repeat -- not sexual assault.

Our political correspondent, Arlette Saenz has been following the Biden campaign for us. Arlette, first of all, how concerned is the Biden campaign about the impact all of this could have on the election? Do they have a specific plan in place?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, Joe Biden's campaign certainly does not want this to hang over the next six months of the campaign. You saw Joe Biden himself issue a very forceful denial of these allegations on Friday.

And since then, you've seen some top Democrats coming to his side, to his defense, saying that they believe Joe Biden, including several have been pointing to that 2008 vetting process Biden underwent as he was considered to become President Barack Obama's running mate.

And take a listen to what the head of the D.N.C., Tom Perez had to say about this a little earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM PEREZ, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: They looked at the entire history of Joe Biden, his entire career. And I'll tell you, if Barack Obama had any indication that this -- there was an issue, Barack Obama would not have had him as his Vice President. Barack Obama trusted Joe Biden. I trust Joe Biden. And those

investigations have been done.

Now, let's talk about Delaware for a moment. The University of Delaware and any university that takes somebody's documents, they're taking their policy documents. They're taking their speeches. They're not taking their personnel records and in fact --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But why not just search Tara Reade in those documents?

PEREZ: This is like the Hillary e-mails because there was nothing there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAENZ: Now, some have pushed for Biden to release more from those Senate papers that are housed at the University of Delaware. The Biden campaign has not signaled in any way that they will be doing that. Their plan of action right now has been pushing for the Senate to locate and identify any possible complaint that that former Senate staffer may have filed against him and to release that.

But Wolf, this is all coming as we are now six months out from the election and the Biden campaign is not only grappling with this, but they're also figuring out how to run a campaign and wage a general election fight against President Trump in this now virtual world.

The coronavirus pandemic has completely transformed campaigning as we know it. Biden has been holding virtual events from his home. His field organizers have turned to digital organizing now, replacing door knocking with personal phone calls to people asking how they are doing with the coronavirus pandemic.

So right now, the Biden campaign as they are gearing up for those next six months are building the infrastructure and trying to turn things virtually as the coronavirus has really affected the way this campaign is running.

BLITZER: Yes, it truly is unprecedented what's going on right now, trying to campaign during a pandemic. Arlette Saenz, thanks very much for your reporting.

I want to bring in the former senior adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod. David, as a senior strategist to the campaign later to the President in the White House, you understand the kind of vetting process that Biden had to go through in order to get Barack Obama's confidence that he should be his vice presidential running make.

You say you're confident if there was a claim file, the vetting team -- and it was significant -- would have found it. Reade now says the complaint she filed was about uncomfortable interactions in the office, not sexual assault. Would the vetting team have found that uncomfortable interactions as well?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think so, Wolf. Their job was to come up with every bit of evidence about people's lives. They were to look into their records. They would look into their personal lives, and certainly any sort of formal complaint would have been of interest to them.

And I will tell you, there were, I don't know, close to 30 candidates at the beginning. By the end, when you got down to sort of the final few, that vetting was very intense and there were candidates who were knocked out by things that were discovered by these vetters. They were very thorough. They were very professional.

So, I think it's important to note that that process turned up nothing and not just about this particular incident, but no salacious gossip, no pattern of behavior, none of the things that you would expect to see if someone was capable of this kind of an act.

BLITZER: Do you think the University of Delaware should release a Biden's Senate papers, if you believe possibly that could exonerate him as well?

AXELROD: Well, it's really up to the Vice President as to whether his papers get released. I'm sure and I think the campaign must be wrestling with it because as he said, Friday, they don't want folks rooting around with his personal papers, but on the other hand, there's going to be enormous pressure for them to at least have some discreet look at them to see if there's anything relating to this -- to Miss Reade.

The problem, Wolf, that they have, and I think the problem with the process is, even if they allowed a reporter or some independent person to go in and look at that year when she worked and she only worked for him for seven months, someone would -- it's axiomatic that someone would then say, well, if there's nothing there, maybe someone took them out. Maybe they are somewhere else.

It's hard to get to the bottom of these things, and so it's a thorny issue for them as to just where to draw the line.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point you make. Rhonna McDaniel, the Chair of the Republican National Committee says Democrats are all of a sudden embracing the presumption of innocence when they didn't do the same for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. How do you respond to that?

AXELROD: Well, look, I'm not here as a spokesperson for the Democratic Party. Most of the time, I spend hanging out with you guys these days. But, you know, I think that it is, from a strategic standpoint, you can see what the Republicans are doing.

The Kavanaugh issue was a very galvanizing issue for their base back in 2018, and they would love to bring it back and making various comparisons. And it's been uncomfortable for those who spoke out on equivocally at the time, relative to Kavanaugh.

I mean, obviously, Christine Blasey Ford appeared before a Senate Committee and submitted herself to very rigorous questioning and people could judge her as whether she seemed credible or not.

We still haven't seen that -- Miss Reade come forward. She was going to do some Sunday shows today. That didn't happen. So, we'll see.

Look, I think anyone who steps forward and makes an allegation like this deserves to be heard and that allegation should be scrutinized, and you know, the fact that it drops in the middle of a presidential race, obviously adds an element here of politics, and you're going to see it.

BLITZER: Yes, that's an important point as well. You know, I want to shift gears and get your reaction to what the President just retweeted. He retweeted a tweet by a conspiracy theorist, whose post claims with absolutely no evidence that it was President Obama who was behind the so called Russian hoax. What do you make of that?

AXELROD: You know, the irony of that, Wolf is that Obama has been criticized by Democrats, because they felt that he wasn't -- that he and the government weren't forthcoming enough about the Russian intervention in our election back in 2016.

And I remember talking to him at the time, and he -- you know, or after the fact about what was going on at that time, and he said he was very concerned about not looking like he was putting his finger on the scale in any way and he didn't want to create questions about the legitimacy of the election.

You know, if there was information that was prejudicial to Donald Trump, and there were people conspiring in the government against him, you would think that information would have appeared before the election.

And so, you know, I mean, I think conspiracy theories are what conspiracy theories are. And President Trump likes to retweet them, but it doesn't make them true.

And generally what happens when you ask him about it is he said, well, I didn't say it. That was someone else who said it. I just retweeted it. And you know, now we'll see if he walks away from this one.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll see what happens next. Our David Axelrod, as usual. Thanks very much for joining us.

AXELROD: Great to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we will return to our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, especially the impact it's had on the nation's education system. What are the lasting impacts of all those close schools? How many children are slipping through the cracks?

The former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, he is standing by live. We will discuss. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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[19:43:08]

BLITZER: Education is a huge concern for the parents of an estimated 55 million American school kids who can't go to school right now and that's not even counting the many thousands and thousands of college students who are also sitting out this pandemic with some medical experts predicting it will be months or maybe even a couple of years before things can go back to some semblance of normal.

It's clear that the education system here in the United States has to adopt, but how? Joining us now is Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education during the Obama administration.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. You say testing and tracing is key to reopening the schools. So what do educators do until that's in place?

ARNE DUNCAN, FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: Well, educators are just doing an extraordinary job. And obviously, this is a horrible, horrible time, but I'm talking to superintendents all the time, from LA to Chicago to Boston to New York across the country, Cleveland and they're doing a couple of things.

The first and most important thing they are doing, Wolf, is they're keeping their staff and their students alive. And no one likes schools being closed, but we have to do that now.

Secondly, schools are social safety nets. And they're doing an unbelievable job in terms of food distribution. Tens of millions of meals every single day to children, their families and the broader community.

Third, they're working on helping students on their social and emotional health, on telehealth, calling home counselors, social workers, psychologists and making sure students have the support they need during this really, really stressful, even traumatic time.

And then finally, they're all trying to get better every single day at this new distance learning world. So, they're working so hard to help students now and also planning as you said, for a very uncertain fall.

BLITZER: So, what are your biggest concerns right now, Mr. Secretary?

DUNCAN: Many, many concerns. I'll just say this, Wolf, that we're not going back to normal and I'll say very honestly, I don't think we should go back to normal. We have to go back to something better. So, schools are going to have to be reimagined. We have to close the digital divide now.

We have to give every child access not just to devices, but to the internet and to the WiFi and we may go back to some students going to school Monday, Wednesday, Friday, maybe others Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, maybe you have a morning shift. Maybe you have an afternoon shift. We have to be thinking about all these different things as we prepare for the fall.

[19:45:23]

BLITZER: The California Governor Gavin Newsom has said that schools should take a closer look at perhaps ending summer early, bringing students back maybe even in July rather than August or September. What do you think of that?

DUNCAN: If it's possible, and if it's safe and Governor Newsom, I think is doing a fantastic job, then I would honestly love to see a massive summer school because we know students are -- some students are falling behind now. Many students may be falling behind. So, we should try and do it if, Wolf, and only if it is safe.

The other thing I think we'd have to be thinking about, one of the best things proven and all the research shows it to help students catch up is tutoring programs, individualized tutoring, small group tutoring and we think about a tough economy. We think about college students graduating without jobs, maybe retirees, could we really increase the number of adults who are helping students academically every single day.

BLITZER: The Internet may be helping, but the F.C.C. says more than 18 million homes lack access to high speed internet. That means millions and millions of kids can't do online classes. How critical is it to make this more accessible to people, especially the low income families in rural America and in the inner cities?

DUNCAN: I can't overstate, Wolf, how important that is. And as we all know, this pandemic is just demonstrating and slapping us in the face, showing the massive inequities in our country.

And the fact that somehow we think about students only learning in school, in a bricks and mortar building, nine o'clock in the morning to three o'clock in the afternoon, not thinking about children learning anything they want, anytime, anywhere. We have to close the digital divide.

Here in Chicago, they've given out a hundred thousand devices. Boston has given out 30,000 devices. They've done it in Miami. You have in places like South Bend Indiana, parking school buses in neighborhoods where they don't have access to WiFi to create those opportunities.

Wolf, we have to come together -- private sector, public sector -- collaborate, close this digital divide once and for all. And there are very, very few silver linings in this horrible time, but if we were to do that, if we were to close the digital divide now that would be amazing.

BLITZER: And as you say, and I'm really worried also, about a lot of these kids, they get their only healthy meal at school, and without going to school, they're going to miss out on those healthy meals. There's a lot going on.

DUNCAN: That part has been fantastic. I have to say schools and those do in the food -- you know, cafeteria workers are doing just an unbelievable job. We're doing weekly conference calls. They're feeding children and their parents and the community one, two, three meals every single day. So, just extraordinary and heroic work.

You're talking about essential workers. Think about teachers, think about principals. Please, also think about those cafeteria workers. I'm in awe of what they're doing. BLITZER: I am, too. Arne Duncan, thanks so much for joining us. I

appreciate it very much.

And a quick programming note to our viewers. Join up CNN's Jake Tapper as he investigates what really happened during the U.S. fight against COVID-19. Our special report, "The Pandemic and the President" airs later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next. He was president during 9/11. Now, George W. Bush has some words of advice and compassion for his fellow Americans during another national crisis. You're going to hear what he has to say, when we come back.

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BLITZER: As Americans continue to confront this pandemic, the former President George W. Bush is calling on all Americans to come together and remember that showing kindness is as important as ever.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice over): Following 9/11, I saw a great nation rise as one to honor the brave, to grieve with the grieving and to embrace unavoidable new duties. And I have no doubt, none at all, that the spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America.

Second, let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery.

Even at inappropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety and share their burdens.

Third, let's remember that the suffering we experience as a nation does not fall evenly. In the days to come, it will be especially important to care in practical ways for the elderly, the ill, and the unemployed.

Finally, let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat. In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants, we are human beings, equally vulnerable, and equally wonderful in the sight of God.

We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: Before I go, I want to take a moment to mark World Press Freedom Day. Here on the set, social distancing is easy to practice, but for the journalists on the front lines of this crisis, it is so scary and so dangerous.

They are the ones bringing us all of the crucial information about this pandemic, spending days and weeks in the field away from home and their families to report on the virus and it's not an easy job, but it's an important one, so they can bring us the stories of the real heroes of this crisis. The frontline healthcare workers, the doctors, the nurses, the paramedics, the social workers, the first responders, all of those who are saving lives, even while putting their own lives in jeopardy.

[19:55:16]

BLITZER: It's an honor to tell you their stories and we will of course, continue to so.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back in THE SITUATION ROOM, tomorrow, 5:00 p.m. Eastern with more of CNN's extensive live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

"CNN Tonight" with Don Lemon starts right after a quick break.

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