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Heavy Rains, Flash Floods Cause Thousands to Evacuate After Two Dams Fail in Michigan; CDC Sources: White House Decisions Driven By Politics and Not Science; Governors of All 50 States in the U.S. Weigh Reopening with Health and Safety of Residents. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 20, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


Driven by politics, not science? Current employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they have been, quote, "muzzled" by some at the White House and the administration's delayed act on the agency's recommendations weeks ago cost lives and money.

Tension between the CDC and the White House has been growing for weeks. We're also getting new details today on just how big and significant that disconnect is.

SCIUTTO: Also out today, from the CDC guidelines on how states can reopen safely, something the White House had been holding back for weeks, comes as today all 50 states have reopened already in some way or another. It is a milestone in the president's push to reopen the nation at the same time, he is defending his use of the unproven malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

This despite multiple studies warning not just that it doesn't work but it has dangers as well, diving into his playbook to discredit a VA study calling it phony and a Trump enemy statement. Reminder the VA is the Veterans Affairs Department.

A lot to get to, but first let's get to CNN's Nick Valencia for more on these new CDC guidelines. We've been waiting for them. There have been some delays. What do they tell states even as they're already kind of ahead of the game here, right, reopening already.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Good morning, Jim. We'll get to that in just a second. We can't emphasize enough just how big of a deal this is that the CDC was allowed to post these guidelines. But they weren't presented that way to the public. In fact, there was no announcement, very little fanfare. And this comes just a week after the White House shelved the 68-page draft recommendation from the CDC for being overly specific.

What I'm having trouble understanding, though, is, you know, why they were allowed to post these guidelines because, you know, I mentioned they're very descriptive themselves. They're 60 pages, not 68 pages, they have buses for school buses leaving an empty row, every other row empty, bars, adding sneeze guards, child care facilities limiting art supplies, sharing art supplies.

The bottom line, though, Jim and Poppy, is that according to the CDC recommendations, if you're taking them as, you know, the gold standard, which American public should, states are opening basically too early. None of the states so far meet the threshold that the CDC is asking for 14 days of a downward trend of influenza-like illnesses or coronavirus or COVID-like illnesses. They want to see that downward trend.

You know, I mentioned that these draft documents are -- I'm sorry, these CDC recommendations that were posted on the Web site are eight pages shorter. Part of that has to do with not -- no reference. There's no longer a reference to faith-based institutions. And we know from our previous reporting that the Office of Civil Rights at HHS made the CDC take those recommendations out.

They felt that faith-based institutions, churches, were being unfairly targeted, An administration official telling our Kristen Holmes that it goes against really the agenda of the president. So they felt at the office of HHS that people were targeting these churches unfairly.

The bottom line, though, is that these recommendations are not being followed and, you know, this is putting thousands if not tens of thousands of lives at risk -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Nick Valencia, thank you very much.

VALENCIA: You bet.

HARLOW: You're right, a big deal that they're out there, but no one highlighted that fact.

Let's go to our John Harwood at the White House.

Completely not based in fact, John, is the president's attack on this study. One of a number studies, by the way, that shows that hydroxychloroquine does not work when used prophylactically as the president is using it. Set the record straight for us.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, what the president is trying to do, Poppy, is to construct for himself and for his supporters an alternate reality in which he did not mismanage the coronavirus crisis, in which he's not reopening too hastily and unsafely, and in which he was not foolish in promoting this unproven drug.

The president needs to do that psychologically because he feels that he needs to be vindicated and proven right and doing the right thing. He needs it politically because the American people have judged his response wanting, he's trailing in the polls. And so what he's doing is attacking this VA study. It is a preposterous attack because what he's attacking is scientific

results. Every study is subject to the limitations of its design. And the authors of the study acknowledge the limitations of their design. They called for more study. That's what scientific research is about. But the president is trying to get around that, and persuade his supporters that he was doing the right thing.


SCIUTTO: So other news, Trump's reelection campaign is now recruiting doctors? Friendly doctors to serve as supporters to help Trump in that message? What are you learning? Is he getting pickup for this? Are doctors willing to step forward to support his message here?

HARWOOD: They will be, Jim. This is part of the same effort. It's a big country. Lots of doctors out there. You can find doctors who will support things that the president is saying about hydroxychloroquine or many other things, just as you can find scientists to say the global warming doesn't exist or you can find economists to say that trade protectionism is good for the economy, or you can find election analysts to say that voting fraud is massive and therefore we need to restrict access to the ballot.

Remember, the president today is tweeting about Michigan mailing out absentee ballot applications. These are -- again, these are all efforts to present a coherent story for his supporters, but this is also why that the Republican Party and Trump himself have been hemorrhaging support among college educated voters, because most of these assertions that I just went through are not true.

SCIUTTO: John Harwood, thank you for calling it out.

Well, this is happening regardless of the public conversation.


SCIUTTO: All 50 states have at least partially reopened as of today. But there are now questions about the data coming out of two of those states, Florida and Georgia.

CNN's Rosa Flores joins us now from Miami.

Rosa, are there questions about the accuracy of the data?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, there is a lot to unpack here, Jim. Let me start with Georgia. Because there was a bar chart on the Georgia Public Department of Health Web site that showed a downward trajectory and some of the most impacted counties, but it was missing dates, it was very confusing. That was brought down by that department.

Then on that same Web site, there were -- the number of cases exceeding the number of tests. That of course was very confusing. That was fixed. CNN has reached out to the Georgia Department of Public Health and we have not heard back. Here in Florida, Rebecca Jones, the scientist behind the Dashboard,

this is the data portal in the state of Florida that records COVID-19 cases, she was removed from her post on May 5th. And according to Florida today, a news site, she questioned the state's commitment to accessibility and transparency. Well, since then, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health have issued a statement contesting her account saying that she was insubordinate and the governor going as far as reading a statement that apparently she wrote to her supervisor during a press conference.

The governor saying that she was, quote, "misrepresented," and now the Florida Department of Health has said that she has until Thursday to resign or she will be terminated.

Look, all this as the United States enters a new era now that all 50 states have loosened restrictions including here in the state of Florida, where I am in Miami Beach, and the city of Miami. They are entering phase one for the very first time. This as we are seeing video and pictures from across the country of people venturing out, looking very much like pre-pandemic times. People at bars and restaurants and at beaches.

But if you look at the data, it is very clear that at least 18 states still show upward trajectories. And now these are average daily cases compared to the week before, so, Jim and Poppy, this, of course, raises a lot of concerns and questions because we won't know immediately the impact of loosening these restrictions, but one thing we do know for sure, there are more than 1.5 million cases in the United States and more than 91,000 deaths -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Rosa, thank you for your reporting on both of those states.

Let's talk about all of the developments with Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency room physician and former Baltimore City health commissioner.

Good morning, Doctor. Let's just take a moment to listen to one thing that the president said yesterday defending his use of hydroxychloroquine.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm just talking about as a line of defense. I'm dealing with a lot of people. Look at all the people in the room. You know, I'm the president and I'm dealing with a lot of people.


HARLOW: OK. As a line of defense. Wouldn't a proven line of defense be to wear a mask, say, to a lunch with your fellow senators yesterday?

DR. LEANA WEN, EMERGENCY ROOM PHYSICIAN: Yes. That is an evidence- based and proven public health method, which is what we really should be talking about. I mean, there are actually evidence-based methods to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, wearing a mask protects others from you, if you are an asymptomatic carrier. It also reduces the transmission in the community if most people or everyone is wearing a mask.

Good hand hygiene, trying to maintain that physical distancing and also if you are exposed to somebody who has COVID-19, you should be quarantining yourself. I'm not sure if the president has met that criteria of exposure to his aides, but if you did, those are the types of methods that -- or measures that he should be following, not taking unproven treatments that really could cause harm.


SCIUTTO: Dr. Wen, I just want to draw on your expertise. You're a doctor after all. There have to be Americans who are confused by the president pitching hydroxychloroquine. He took aim at a VA study that found not only that it doesn't help, but also that it might hurt many patients here, said it was a Trump enemy statement. In fact there were other studies, I don't have to tell you this, but New York Presbyterian Hospital, for instance, also found no benefit from this.

You're a doctor. Folks at home have heard conflicting messages here. How should they view hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for -- preventative treatment even for COVID?

WEN: We should be absolutely clear, Jim, that there is no evidence to support the use of hydroxychloroquine as treatment if somebody has COVID-19 or as prophylaxis to prevent somebody from getting COVID-19. This is something that's undergoing investigation right now along with many other medications. And this is the reason why we have scientific protocols.

Look, everybody wants there to be treatment. We all want there to be a vaccine. But hope cannot be our strategy here. There has to be a method for undergoing these rigorous clinical trials and to weigh the risks and benefits of all these interventions. So I really want the American people to hear the advice from scientists, doctors, some public health experts who are really unequivocal in saying please do not take hydroxychloroquine, except if you are in a clinical trial that is designed to study this medication, because there are harms.

I mean, the president has many doctors around him who can monitor his heart rhythm, who can monitor his other metabolic functions, and other -- do physical exams on him all the time. That's not something that the rest of the American people have and so we should really take an abundance of caution, and again not use unproven treatments.

HARLOW: What are your thoughts on these CDC guidelines now being finally posted online, ones that were requested by the White House weeks ago then they didn't post them, then there were, like, much smaller sort of trees if you will of CDC says you need X, Y and Z to open a school or X, Y, and Z to open a salon? Now much more broad guidelines, detailed guidelines, I should say, are out there.

What is your takeaway from them? What do people need to be looking at and for and where? WEN: Yes, the CDC guidelines are terrific, actually. They are very

specific. They offer that type of direct guidance that people need. It's based on science and evidence and it also illustrates exactly what should be done. What should schools be doing, what should businesses be doing. It's not just theoretical, it's actually practical of how far should desks be, what should it look like to get on buses even at schools, what should workplaces be doing to ensure safety.

The problem is they're late. I mean, states have already reopened. Businesses have already made these decisions. And so far there is a lot of conflicting information. Counties may differ, they are next to each other, and frankly I wish that the CDC is holding press conferences so that people can ask questions and they can really direct the American people about how to be safe.

SCIUTTO: Yes, well, many of the voices have been silenced, right? From the experts.

Dr. Leana Wen, great to have you on.

And folks, listen to the doctors, that's all we could say.

Right now Midland County, Michigan, is under a state of emergency. This after two dams failed following heavy rains and flash floods across the state. The National Guard has been deployed to help thousands of people there evacuate. Look at those photos from the air, just remarkable.

HARLOW: Yes, they are. Governor Gretchen Whitmer said downtown Midland could be, quote, "under nine feet of water by today."

Let's go to Miguel Marquez, our correspondent. He is there following the developments -- Miguel.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, the good news is, is the rain has stopped and it's a sunny day here. They don't expect rain for another couple of days. The bad news is the river is still rising. This is the Tittabawassee River here in Midland. This is downtown Midland. That green roof, that is a roof off in the distance there you see. That's the farmers market for the town.

They expect this to get higher. We're at about 34, a little over 34 feet right now. They expect it in the next 12 hours or so to crest at 38 feet. If it hits 38 feet, that will be a 500-year event for this area. The last time they had anything close to this was 1986, and that was just under 34 feet. So they haven't seen anything like this for some time.

We know it's still rising because when we got here several hours ago, we could walk all the way into this garage. Now it's all the way up to here, you can't get in. This is a disaster within a disaster because they still have the pandemic that they're dealing with here. Thousands of people have been evacuated. We drove down through this area today and we were -- we saw just the number of homes where the river was creeping up to it, many of them with lights on, many of them cars still there, waiting for that moment to evacuate.


There are five shelters that were set up, hundreds of people in those shelters. As they go in, they check temperatures, they hand out masks, they're very big areas so people can stay away and stay socially distanced from each other.

Until all of this water makes its way down through Michigan. And there are several other towns farther down. We understand a third dam may have failed as well. So this is just one of those slow-moving disasters that's just going to continue --


MARQUEZ: For quite some time. Back to you guys.

SCIUTTO: It's amazing how many times we've seen and witnessed, you know, these 100-year floods, 500-year --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Floods that seem to happen every couple of years now. Miguel Marquez in Michigan, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: Still to come at this hour, more on the growing tensions between the CDC and the White House. CNN spoke to several people inside the Centers for Disease Control, how they say they've been sidelined by the politics here. And as of today, all 50 states have reopened at least partially. But many are still facing significant death tolls. The governor of Kentucky will join us to discuss how his state is managing all this.

HARLOW: Also, you want to hear this, a mother battling coronavirus gives birth during a medically-induced coma and finally meets her baby boy for the first time in five weeks. She joins us.



HARLOW: We are learning more about the significant tension between the White House and the CDC. Sources currently working inside the CDC say the White House has muzzled their response to this pandemic.

SCIUTTO: Yes, this is some good reporting here. Members within the agency, speaking out, saying if the administration had acted earlier, not just lives, but also money, the economy could have been saved. CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin joins us now. Drew, what are you hearing?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Jim and Poppy, quite frankly, there is frustration inside the CDC. Frustration and worry that the nation's response to COVID-19 is being directed by politics and not the science and the data that's needed to overcome it.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Multiple sources inside the Centers for Disease Control tell CNN, they are convinced politics, not science, is the driving force behind the White House response to COVID-19 and those decisions have made the effects of the pandemic in the United States worse.

JAMES CURRAN, DEAN OF ROLLINS SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, EMORY UNIVERSITY: Now, there hasn't been as much input from the CDC from my point of view.

GRIFFIN: CNN spoke to six current CDC staff members, and many of them say the White House has stifled the CDC in its coronavirus response, and at times, limited its ability to provide health information to the public. One source telling CNN, we are working under a black cloud of an administration that doesn't have our backs. Another saying we've been muzzled.

Dr. James Curran is dean of Public Health at Emory University and former assistant surgeon general at the CDC.

(on camera): Has the CDC been sidelined here?

CURRAN: I think the perception is that the CDC has been sidelined, and at least, part of the time. Once you feel like the work you're doing is going through a political lens, it gets to be very discouraging.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): On March 2nd, as COVID-19 was racing across the globe, a CDC internal daily report obtained by CNN found evidence of local transmission in 29 other countries. Two days later, that had grown to 85 international locations. The next day, March 5th, three of the top six countries affected by the disease are in Europe.

Internal e-mails reveal a CDC global travel alert is about to be issued, expected to be posted that night. It would have urged precautions for international travel anywhere, almost two months after a travel warning had been issued for China. But it was delayed for unexplained reasons. The travel alert that was supposed to be posted, March 5th does not take place until March 11th, the same day President Trump would announce his restrictions on most flights coming in from Europe.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.

GRIFFIN: Each day of delay bringing exponentially more coronavirus exposure to the East Coast of the United States, according to Dr. Ali Khan; a former CDC official.

ALI KHAN, DEAN OF COLLEGE OF PUBLIC HEALTH, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA MEDICAL CENTER: Those were the days when these cases were essentially being transported via air travel, and we now have really good genetic data that, you know, probably between 2 to 6 weeks before we started to see the peak in New York, cases were already slowly spreading within the New York area.

GRIFFIN: One senior official inside the CDC says they told the White House about the virus' rapid spread across Europe, but that the White House was extremely focused on China and not wanting to anger Europe, even though that's where most of our cases were originally coming from. Khan says the original sin as he calls it, was the botched testing at the CDC that lost time and allowed politics to intervene.

KHAN: And if we had testing in place, people very quickly would have recognized that there were cases in the U.S., probably in early January that were being missed. Similarly, we were identifying people coming in from Europe, if we had widespread testing across the United States. So we missed all of that for the lack of testing.


GRIFFIN: A Trump official -- a Trump administration official I should say, did get back to us late last night, guys, telling us that, look, the CDC is represented at the taskforce meetings, and that information from the CDC is rolled into the daily briefings. Also says that the CDC is just one of many agencies involved in the taskforce. But Jim and Poppy, that's the problem the CDC says.


Their information is being filtered. It's not the daily briefings that the CDC has given in the past, and it separates the public from the direct access to the science. That's where they think the problem is.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, you see that playing out on the airwaves, right? You used to hear regularly from folks like that, you don't anymore. At least for now. Drew Griffin, good reporting, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Tough calls to make for governors across the country as some see spikes in cases and deaths from COVID, but they're looking to minimize the economic damage. The governor of Kentucky joins me next to discuss his reopening plan and the difficult balancing act he faces.


HARLOW: Well, I don't have to tell you this. You know, the restaurant industry has been decimated by this crisis.