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Crowds Raise Fears of Virus Spikes; Navajo Nation Ends Lockdown; Meat Prices Skyrocket Due to Coronavirus. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 25, 2020 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:30:11]

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A strong warning from the FDA commissioner, this virus is not yet contained. But if you've seen the crowds of people in public spaces over the weekend, you may think it is.

Let's bring in now CNN medical analyst Dr. Jennifer Lee. She's a clinical associate professor for emergency medicine at George Washington University.

Dr. Lee, good to have you with us.

As we see these pictures from over the weekend, lots of different areas around the country, it's not just limited to one area, I'm just curious, what do you see in those pictures? Do you have specific concerns about a second wave as we were warned about in Arkansas over the weekend?

DR. JENNIFER LEE, ER PHYSICIAN: Absolutely, Erica. You know, it's understandable, this is the Memorial Day holiday weekend and people had been home for a long time, so it's understandable that people want to get out and start to enjoy the start of the summer season.

But, you know, this virus doesn't take a holiday. And even in places where the virus has had relatively low transmission, or where they have good testing and contact tracing, people do travel. And so people can come in and have the infection and it's just so easy, it just takes one event, one exposure for this virus to be able to spread.

So what that means is that people have to continue to be vigilant. You know, to have backup plans when they go out. You know, it's not going to be summer season as usual. You have to do your social distancing. You have to bring a mask with you whenever you're going out. You have to bring your hand sanitizer. And if you see a place that's too -- that's crowded, like the pictures that we're seeing, you know, just maybe go for a backup plan, come back at a different time or go to a different place. For most people, it's just not worth the risk.

HILL: Dr. Birx over the weekend was saying it's difficult to tell if there could be another shutdown needed in the near future. The president, we know, has made very clear where he stands on that. In fact, we have him weighing in. Let's take a listen.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So I was hearing millions of people, and it would have been millions of people if we didn't shut down. Now, would I shut it down again? No, because I -- you know, we understand it now much better. We didn't know anything about it.

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HILL: Important to point out, of course the president is not the one who shut down the country. As we know, that was left up to the governors. But the president, even just this morning, making it very clear he wants North Carolina, he wants Charlotte to be open in August for the Republican National Convention. Tough to guarantee what will happen in August.

So as we look at this, are you concerned that some states may need to go back to some of the restrictions that they had in place?

LEE: It's very possible, Erica. And I think it's really important to separate public health from politics here. I mean we have to prioritize the health of our population and preventing death. And what we've seen in other countries is that as they've reopened and had outbreaks, that they have had to reimpose some restrictions. Maybe it won't be full restrictions, but, you know, each region as it sees and monitors what's happening with this virus, it's very possible.

And it's -- and it's wise in many cases because, you know, as we saw the epidemic in New York, you know, New York has quite a bit of hospital capacity, ICU capacity, but what about the regions in the country that don't? You know, it would be very easy for them to get overwhelmed. And that is a situation we don't want. And so, in that case, to prevent that kind of surge, you may need to reimpose some restrictions. And people need to continue to be careful.

HILL: And we're seeing some areas outside of New York obviously overwhelmed.

LEE: That's right.

HILL: We talk so much about Montgomery, Alabama, in just the last couple of days.

There's also a large focus, as we know, on a vaccine. And there's a lot of stock and a lot of hope being put in what a vaccine could mean in terms of moving forward and returning to some sort of, you know, pre-Covid-19 normalcy.

Dr. Birx weighing in actually about the timeline and how it could be shortened. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE TASK FORCE COORDINATOR: I think what would make it potentially possible is what we're -- what the president has asked everyone to do in this public/private partnership with funding directly to make vaccine at risk. And what do I mean by that? That means making vaccine before we know its full safety and its full effect and what we call its efficacy profile.

We're not short-cutting the efficacy and safety testing. What we are short-cutting is the normal development time of manufacturing.

That's how you can potentially shorten this by four, six or even eight months.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: So just clarify for us there, too, what Dr. Birx is saying is, she's talking about this making at risk, which we've heard a lot about. That's more the financial risk in a lot of ways they're talking about, not the safety risk, correct?

LEE: I believe so. I certainly hope so. I mean we cannot cut corners when it comes to safety on the vaccine.

[09:35:03]

What I think she's referring to the announcement that the White House made not long ago about trying to do some of these things in parallel. You know typically with the development of a virus, you would do all of the science first and then you would get to the point when you have an effective vaccine to think about how you're going to manufacture it in mass quantities. So thinking ahead, and beginning to do some of that now, even before you know that you have an effective vaccine, would shorten the timeline. But, of course, we cannot cut corners when it comes to the safety -- safetiness of this thing.

HILL: Dr. Jennifer Lee, we are out of time. I do know that you did want to emphasize though as we think about all this loss on this Memorial Day, we've talked so much about long-term care facilities, about nursing homes and specifically veterans homes. We know there have been issues in Massachusetts and New Jersey and to not forget as we are caring for our veterans dealing about this pandemic as well.

Dr. Lee, thank you.

LEE: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: We've heard so much about how the coronavirus impacted New York and New Jersey. The population, though, with the highest per capita infection rate in the country is the Navajo Nation. And just ahead I'll speak with the nation's president as the community there ends a very strict lockdown.

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[09:40:41] HILL: New this morning, the Navajo Nation, one of the communities hit hardest by the pandemic in the U.S., has just wrapped up a strict 57- hour lockdown. And during that lockdown, only essential workers, like first responders, were allowed to remain on the job. All businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, were shut down. And this comes as the Native American tribe report the highest per capita rate of infection in the country.

Jonathan Nez is president of the Navajo Nation and joins me now live.

Sir, good to have you with us this morning.

So just give us a sense, as we mentioned, this lockdown ending. Was it successful? Why did you need it?

JONATHAN NEZ, PRESIDENT, NAVAJO NATION: Good morning, Erica. And I'm hoping everyone is having a good Memorial Day weekend with their families. You know, we honor our fallen warriors during this time.

And, you know, it's the end of our 57-hour curfew, and this is the seventh weekend to lock down the Navajo Nation. And I did receive some data, Erica, from the Navajo area IHS (ph) in terms of hospital visits and emergency care. I know that the positive cases are still going up, but in terms of healthcare facility visits, it is going down.

So the projection that we received had us peak out in emergency visits in mid-April. So they were saying that the peak would be in mid-May. So I think a lot of the work that our first responders, our front line warriors are doing in terms of getting the message out to stay home, and these lockdowns, are working here on the Navajo Nation. And we appreciate everyone that has --

HILL: So they're working.

NEZ: Yes, and they're -- they're doing great -- great work here.

HILL: Yes. Well, good to know that you're seeing them work and that -- and that people are following those lockdown instructions.

You mentioned about your -- your numbers. And -- and we talked so much about this per capita rate that the Navajo Nation has.

NEZ: (INAUDIBLE).

HILL: I know part of that you attribute to the testing. You've had pretty aggressive testing.

NEZ: Absolutely.

HILL: But there is still also a spread. So as you're looking at those two things, can you give us a sense of what the impact of the virus is on the Navajo Nation?

NEZ: Well, to get some -- give some hope to our people that are viewing, you know, as well as those that are on the Navajo Nation, we have begun to track the recovery rate. So 1,400 people have recovered from Covid-19.

And so in terms of the testing, we have testing happening a lot more here on the Navajo Nation. It -- we have now 14.59 percent of our total population that have been tested here on the Navajo Nation, more than any other state in the United States. So if we're talking about per capita, let --

HILL: How were you able to make that happen? That is -- that is such a high number, to your point.

NEZ: Well, I mean -- I mean we -- at the beginning, Erica, you know, we asked for test kits. And so now people have donated and -- many test kits to the Navajo Nation. And so there are testing blips happening into three states, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. And tests are still, test kits are still coming in to the Navajo Nation. And so, you know, as they say, you know, be careful of what you ask for. We have received many tests, and that's because, you know, the friends of the Navajo Nation have, you know, looked at Navajo in a -- in a positive light and we appreciate that. And so that helps us look at hot spots throughout the Navajo Nation.

And since we're talking about per capita and today is Memorial Day, Erica, I just want to say, thank you to our fallen warriors as families, our veterans. Native people have the highest per capita involvement of any population to serve in the U.S. military. So tribal members throughout the country have served greatly and contributed greatly to the freedoms of the United States' citizens.

HILL: How is this Memorial Day different, to follow on what you just said, with so many members of the Navajo Nation who have served and who have given their lives?

[09:45:06]

What's different this year?

NEZ: Well, this -- this year we're not able to have our Memorial Day event here at the nation's capital like we used to with many of our families coming together and being recognized for their fallen warriors and what they have contributed to the Navajo Nation and the United States government.

And let's also remember our Navajo Nation code talkers who have contributed, utilizing our Navajo language (speaking in foreign language), you know, and utilizing our language brings pride to the Navajo citizens here. So with this pandemic that has come into our Navajo Nation, we are resilient people. And I know that we will overcome this pandemic by working together and we will flatten this curve here on Navajo.

HILL: Before we let you go, what do you still need as of this morning? What are the greatest needs?

NEZ: Well, I think the greatest need is not just here on Navajo, but clear across the country are cleaning products. You know, Clorox, hand wipes and also we do have an official website, an official donation site that people are contributing to so that we can get food and supplies, because a lot of the 57-hour lockdown, we try to get food and supplies before the lockdown so that they can have the food and the necessities to, you know, be home for 57 hours. And so we are grateful for the many contributions, including our own Navajo people.

Half of our population, Erica, live off the Navajo Nation and many of those Navajos have given back to help their people here on our nation.

HILL: Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, good to have you with us this morning. Thank you.

NEZ: (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE), Erica.

HILL: As people adjust to a very different Memorial Day, there will still be backyard barbecues for many, but they will be costing you a whole lot more. Coming up, how the pandemic is now fueling a surge in meat prices.

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[09:51:43]

HILL: A Tyson poultry plant in Virginia just announcing 250 employees have now tested positive for coronavirus. It's just the latest case of plant outbreaks, many of which, of course, have forced plants to close temporarily. All of that has had a major impact on the prices you're seeing at the store and a barbeque restaurants, as CNN's Dianne Gallagher reports.

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DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It's a tradition.

WADE MCSWAIN, OWNER, PIT BOSS BBQ: This pit's been here since 1961.

GALLAGHER: An art form, really.

PATRICK KLAIBER, GENERAL MANAGER, AJ'S PIT BBQ: Texas style pit smoked barbeque.

GALLAGHER: Brisket is king at Pit's from Colorado.

KLAIBER: Just hardwood smoked pit barbeque.

GALLAGHER: To Georgia.

MCSWAIN: We're known for our black angus beef brisket.

GALLAGHER: Where people drive from hours away just to get a taste of what Wade McSwain's been serving up for a dozen years now at Pit Boss just outside of Atlanta.

MCSWAIN: It's tender, juicy, sliced. Got a nice smoke ring on it. It's beautiful.

GALLAGHER (on camera): Whoo, you're making me hungry. MCSWAIN: Yes. Well, that's my job, you know.

GALLAGHER (voice over): But since the coronavirus outbreak began, it hasn't been easy.

MCSWAIN: You're struggling to pay your bills and then -- and then finally, on April 3rd, we shut down for ten days.

GALLAGHER: Around that same time, thousands of meat packing plant employees, who had been working shoulder to shoulder in grueling conditions, started getting sick at alarming rates. At least 30 meat plant workers have died. More than 10,000 have tested positive for or been exposed to Covid-19 according to the country's top union. Dozens of plants shut down, creating a backlog and making certain cuts of meat, like brisket, harder to find everywhere.

DAVID ANDERSON, AGRICULTURE ECONOMIST, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY: There's only two of them per animal. And so when fewer animals are able to get through the packing plant, we get fewer briskets.

GALLAGHER: At higher prices.

MCSWAIN: The price of brisket has now just really skyrocketed. It doubled from last week.

GALLAGHER: According to Department of Agriculture data, the wholesale price of select brisket is up 81 percent from what it was this time last year, with much of that increase coming in just the past few weeks.

KLAIBER: The margins for barbeque restaurants are already very slim with food costs. You know, you get in a brisket that's 12 -- 12 pounds. You end up trimming a pound to two pounds of fat off of that brisket. And then from when the time you start smoking it to the end, you lose another 4 or 5 pounds.

GALLAGHER: AJ's Pit BBQ in Denver never stopped slicing up brisket for takeout.

KLAIBER: Without our briskets and our pastramis, we can't -- can't do it.

GALLAGHER: But as the state thinks about reopening restaurants, the smoky numbers on AJ's menus are changing. The timing couldn't be worse.

KLAIBER: And we were trying to hold off as long as possible for -- for -- to not raise our prices because, I mean that -- it -- it sucks for everyone.

GALLAGHER: Economists warn the higher wholesale prices and tough to find cuts will likely last at least through June.

ANDERSON: There's not much relief there. However, I will say that we are starting to see that log jam at packing plants loosen. We're starting to see some more supplies. I think there is some hope out there.

GALLAGHER: Wade says he's going to keep smoking whatever cut of meat he can afford. He doesn't think his customers, many of whom are struggling themselves now, can handle a price hike in the middle of a global crisis.

MCSWAIN: We want them to know that we're still open, we're still here and we're going to be here.

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[09:55:06]

GALLAGHER: Yes, and Wade, along with the other barbeque pit masters that we've talked to, have said that they recognize that what is most important is that those workers inside those plants are protected, that they are safe, that they stop getting sick. The union officials, Erica, tell me that the only way to make that happen is to make regulations inside those plants mandatory and enforceable.

HILL: Dianne Gallagher, great reporting, as always. Thank you.

Minutes from now, President Trump is set to participate in a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. And we will bring that to you live.

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HILL: Good morning. I'm Erica Hill.

Today the nation pauses to honor the men and women who gave their lives in the ultimate sacrifice.

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This year's tribute, of course, will be unlike any other. Social distancing guidelines now playing a large role.

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