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THE SITUATION ROOM

Global COVID-19 Cases Top 16 Million, U.S. Cases Over Four Million; Republicans, White House Finalize Coronavirus Stimulus Package; COVID-19 Cases Surge Amid Concern Over ICU Capacity; Hundreds Demand School District In Georgia Allow In-Person Classes. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired July 26, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

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.

And we begin tonight with the coronavirus pandemic as the number of cases worldwide has now surpassed the once unthinkable number, 16 million. The United States is home to more than a quarter of those confirmed cases, and Florida remains the epicenter in many ways of this crisis. That state today reported more than 9,000 new cases in just a single day.

Those numbers provoked some second guessing about the reopening, pushed by the governor, Ron DeSantis, and yet states top business regulators say he will be meeting with bar owners in the coming days to see how they can actually safely reopen in the state.

While cases are rising across the country, millions of Americans are also hurting economically. This week, a $600 weekly unemployment benefit, one that some 20-plus million Americans are depending on, is set to expire. The White House and Senate Republicans say a new stimulus bill is being finalized, will be delivered to Congress tomorrow. But the majority leader, Mitch McConnell says it could be weeks before it's ready for the president's signature, going to pass the Senate and House as we know, differences between Democrats and Republicans continue.

Let's go straight to Florida to begin our coverage this hour. A police there have been cracking down on people not wearing masks in public as cases are continuing to rise dramatically. Randi Kaye is in Palm Beach County for us.

So, Randi, set the scene for us. What's the latest where you are?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we now know that there is another 9,259 new cases here in the state, another 77 deaths and now more than 5,800 Floridians are dead. But if you take look at the scene here behind me, you could probably see there is plenty of people out and about sitting outside at this very crowded area here.

And you'd think that there wasn't even a pandemic under way when you look at the scene. There's live music, competing bands, in fact. But we do know these are the facts, the hospitalizations, about 9,000 people hospitalized here in the State of Florida, less than 18 percent of adult ICU beds are left here in the state.

And also in Miami-Dade, Wolf, as you know, that is the hardest hit county in the State of Florida. Their ICU bed capacity is at 146 percent, which means they are out of beds and they are now converting regular hospital beds to ICU beds.

But, Wolf, at this hour, we are very concerned about a situation in Ocoee, Florida. We know that long-term health facilities are certainly a danger. Nearly half the deaths in Florida are attributed to those facilities. Meanwhile, we're now getting word that there are nearly 100 cases at the Ocoee healthcare center that is in Orange County. That's near Orlando.

And we know from the Orange County Department of Health that nearly half of the residents there have tested positive. 66 residents tested positive. 22 of them are hospitalized, plus another 30 staff members have tested positive, so, altogether, 96 people at this long-term care facility. So we are watching that. Members of the health department are on the scene there doing a hands-on assessment of how to get this under control.

But meanwhile, even with all of this under way, you still have people, Wolf, who are just not paying attention to the mandates. South of here in the Miami-Dade County, there's a mask mandate, indoors and outdoors. We know from talking to the Miami-Dade Police Department just today that they've issued 150 citations for businesses and 174 citations for individuals. That's $100 fine for individuals and a $500 fine for businesses for not paying attention to these safety guidelines, Wolf, even as we see the numbers spiking.

BLITZER: Yes, Florida, let's not forget, one of the most populace states in the United States. About 22 million people live in Florida right now. Randi Kaye reporting, thank you.

Let's go to the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, who is joining us live. Mayor Suarez, thank you so much for joining us.

Your county, Miami-Dade County, reporting a daily positivity rate of about 18 percent today, the two-week average is about 19.5 percent. We just checked before we started this program. Do you need to do more to bring that number down? It's clearly way, way too high.

MAYOR FRANCIS SUAREZ (R), MIAMI, FL: Yes, it is way too high and, thankfully, improving. It was over 20 percent and it's gotten under 20 percent now and we're starting to see improvement on what is growth rate, the rate at which our cases grow. We're still way, way too high in terms of our baseline. Yesterday, we had 2,900 cases, and the two prior days, we had over 3,000 cases. So, our baseline is way too high.

The growth rate has shown flattening since we implemented a mask in public rule and we're following the advice of our healthcare professionals and our hospital administrators that are telling us what we have to do now is focus on enforcement, which is why both the Miami-Dade Police Department and the City of Miami have been out there issues tickets all week.

[18:05:12]

We created at special task force just for that, and we've been issuing hundreds of tickets over the portion of the week.

BLITZER: I spoke the other day with Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of public schools in Miami-Dade County. He said, in order for schools to reopen with in-class learning, it's got to get done under 5 percent in the next few weeks. Do you think that's realistic?

SUAREZ: I'm not sure how realistic it is in the next few weeks. The rate at which we were decreasing late last week was 3/10 of a percent. That slowed to about 1/10 of a percent. At that rate, it would take almost three months to get down to that level. So I don't know how realistic it is, unless things get better a lot faster.

We're getting to the point where we've implemented a mask in public rule, we've implemented a curfew and we're in the stage of trying to analyze how deep, you know, the improvements are going to be with those remediation measures.

BLITZER: So I take it, the schools are not going to fully reopen in the next few weeks. They're supposed to open in August in Miami-Dade County. That's clearly not going to happen, right?

SUAREZ: I don't see it happening, not for in-class learning, not our August 24th, when they're slated to open. I just don't see it happening that day. They may open. They may move back to the beginning of the school year or they may start in-class learning at some later point. But I just don't see us being at 5 percent in the next three weeks.

BLITZER: Yes, you've got err on the side of caution.

A lot of hospitals in Florida, including Southern Miami-Dade County where you are have reported their ICUs are right now at full capacity. How is the city, your city, managing with crisis?

SUAREZ: The entire hospital system has been for about a week now, as was mentioned, they're converting non-ICU beds into ICU beds and they are basically discontinuing elective surgery. So, essentially, what they're doing is discharging patients that do not have COVID and in taking patients that do have COVID.

The census over the last few days has actually improved, which is something, somewhat unexpected because we expected based on the new cases to be peaking in mid-August. Obviously, some of these numbers are just too preliminary to make any sort of real long-term determination. But the news has been somewhat good in terms of the census numbers decreasing over the last seven days.

BLITZER: It's hard to believe despite being one of the nation's hotspots, Florida is now actually discussing how to fully reopen or at least partially reopen bars. Nearly 6,000 Floridians, as you know, have already died. Could you, in good conscience, Mayor, reopen bars in Miami knowing it potentially could lead to transmission that could be deadly for a lot of people, including a lot of elderly people who live in Miami?

SUAREZ: No, I could not, in good conscious, to that. We never open bars throughout this entire period. And I know it's difficult for bar owners. I get it. They're business owners, they're small business owners. But the truth of the matter is we cannot open things where there are large congregations of people. And there is no way that you can open a bar without people congregating and being a potential place where people can get infected.

That's one of the main concerns also with schools. I mean, schools, you're talking about Miami-Dade County, which has an enormously large school system. We're talking about 400,000 people.

So I canceled very early on two music festivals. One of them was a 250,000-person music festival. The other one was a 150,000, 400,000 people combined. You just cannot pack that many people into a place and expect that the virus will not spread.

BLITZER: I want you to take a look at this graphic, if you can. If not, I'll just describe it. It shows Florida versus the previous hotspot, that would be New York State. How would you rate how your governor, Ron DeSantis, has handled this crisis right now? Because you can see the green, that line for Florida is going up, up, up, and up, New York State fortunately, they were very, very high in March and April, but since then they've gone down and stayed down.

SUAREZ: Yes. You know, I think -- the New York governor has done a wonderful job, and, obviously, New Yorkers were probably -- they were terrified by what happened during the initial spike when you had almost 8 percent mortality rate, you had people that were dying in hallways and had to bring up hearse trucks.

In Florida, our mortality rate has remained low. But nevertheless, the fact that we lead the nation now in cases, we're number two in the nation, I think, in cases after California, that is not good.

And I think you know, a lot of the governors having questioned whether he opened up too soon and if they actually go and open up bars now, that would be a horrible decision, opening of schools prematurely. And then also, you know, the issue of whether the decisions are data- driven or political.

And I think that's something that, you know, every decision that we make as elected officials in a pandemic, in a health crisis harks to be based on our healthcare experts and pandemic experts, not on any sort of political considerations.

BLITZER: Mayor Suarez, these are tough life and death decisions that you have to make. Thank you so much for spending a few moments with us. Good luck.

SUAREZ: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: With added benefits for unemployment in America is set to run out in the coming the days, the fight over a new relief plan is heating up dramatically here in Washington. Republicans are proposing a new round of stimulus checks. The Senate minority whip, the Democrat, Dick Durbin, he's got lots to say on this issue. He's standing by live. We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:15:00]

BLITZER: We're continuing our special coronavirus coverage. As millions of Americans are still struggling with the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the White House and Senate Republicans, they're trying to finalize a new stimulus bill.

The Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, says it will be introduced tomorrow.

The White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, says the package includes among other things $1,200 checks to Americans, re-employment bonuses, retention bonuses and tax credits for small businesses and restaurants, as well as an extension to the federal eviction moratorium.

The White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, says the package will not include the extra flat rate of $600 weekly unemployment benefits that -- those benefits are set to expire this week.

Joining us now, the Senate minority whip, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Senator, thank you so much for joining us.

As you probably heard the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said this morning, the unemployment enhancement should about flat rate, not a portion of their wages, as Republicans seem to propose right now.

Will Democrats relent on their demands simply in order to get economic relief as quickly as possible to Americans who are in desperate need?

SEN. DICK DURBING (D-IL): Wolf, we knew from the start that this unemployment benefit was going to expire July 31st, just this coming week. And for nine weeks now, Nancy Pelosi passed her proposal to replace it and Mitch McConnell, President Trump and the Senate Republicans did nothing, nothing. And now, they've come in with a new formula on unemployment.

Well, I might remind you the reason we picked $600 a week was on the advice of the Trump administration. They told us, Secretary Scalia, the Department of Labor said, be careful. 50 states have 50 different computer systems. And if you start putting in complicated, complex formulas on unemployment insurance, it's going to blow up in your face, make it a flat amount, and we did it, $600. Now, they're coming up with these formulas.

I don't believe the states across America, in the midst of this pandemic, have been changing their computer systems for unemployment. Why are they waiting for the last minute with something so complicated? The unemployed people of this country are going to lose their benefits starting July 31st. It's time for the Republicans to agree among themselves and will sit down the table and do something bipartisan.

BLITZER: So, as far as you're concerned, Senator, is this an absolute necessity, $600 weekly checks going to, what, 20 or 25 million Americans who have come to rely on them?

DURBIN: I can tell you this. If you're an unemployed family, $600 a week is not the line for (INAUDIBLE). It's not a heavenly existence. Many people are struggling to make their payments. They've lost their job. They still have got to pay utility bills, mortgage payments, rental payments, health insurance, clothing, food, you name it.

And the Republican are arguing that this $600 a week is making everybody who is unemployed lazy for life. I don't believe that for a minute. The first thing we need to do is to renew the unemployment benefits stand by the families that are working the hardest to keep their families together during this difficult time.

BLITZER: The Senate is supposed to go into recess in August, as you know, through Labor Day. That's about a month that you guys won't be in Washington working. Are you ready to change that? Are you ready to change that? Are you read to stay in town and do whatever is needed? This is a coronavirus. Hundreds of Americans are dying, Senator, every single day.

DURBIN: There's no way we can go home in August until we get our job done. Job one is help these unemployed Americans get through the toughest periods of their lives. These people are showing up in tears at food banks, food banks they used to contribute to, they're now taking all the help they can get to make sure there's a food on the table. We couldn't possibly go in for an August break until we deal with that.

And let's hope we do something about testing too. I wish this president would acknowledge the obvious. We're not going to open up the economy, schools or any part of America until we have a dramatic increase in testing. There should be a federal commitment to this and we ought to see something out of this White House that's encouraging along those lines.

BLITZER: While I have you, Senator, let me ask you about the president. He is pledging to send federal law enforcement officers into Chicago among several other cities. The Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot did accept some federal resources. But here is what she told my colleague, Jake Tapper, earlier this morning on State of the Union. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT (D). CHICAGO, IL: I have drawn a very hard line. We'll not allow federal troops in our city. We will not tolerate unnamed agents taking people off the street, violating their rights and holding them in custody. That's not happening here in Chicago. So I've drawn a very, very bright line. I've made that very clear to every federal authority that I have spoken with, and they understand that if they cross that line, we will not hesitate to use every tool at our disposal to stop troops and unwanted agents in our city.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, Senator, do you agree with your mayor in Chicago? Where do you draw the line on federal help? Because, clearly, you guys in Chicago specifically need help. A lot of people are getting shot and killed almost every weekend.

DURBIN: I stand with Mayor Lightfoot. And I have since there was a first suggestion by the president that he was going to send in federal troops or federal law enforcement.

Let me tell you, we could use help in dealing with gun violence. We could use some new legislation, wouldn't that be great, on gun safety, that the president might support? I don't know anything he supports, but there are other things he can do to help us with community policing and resources we need in the hardest hit communities when it comes to violence in Chicago.

But if you ever considered this, isn't it interesting, Wolf, we have a national pandemic that this president is running away from like a scalded cat and saying it's up to the governors and mayors to come up solutions. But when it comes to local law enforcement, he wants to send in the federal troops to take over this local responsibility. Mr. President, take care of the pandemic. That's on your watch. That's what you should be doing as president.

BLITZER: But I want to put up those numbers up on the screen once again. I suspect you can't see them. But let me put those numbers back up on the screen, as you can see a 48 percent increase in homicides in the City of Chicago, a 46 percent increase in shootings in the City of Chicago compared to last year, exactly at the same period. What's needs to be done to address this situation, which is so awful, as you probably know better than anyone?

DURBIN: It is awful. I believe the mayor and everyone else would agree. But let me you one of the basics. The City of Chicago is awash in guns, awash in guns. If you ask a young person in Chicago, can you get a gun? Give me $15 in 15 minutes and I'll get you a gun. How did we get so many guns in Chicago? Well, they weren't provided locally. Some were, for sure. But many of them came in from gun shows in Northwest Indiana, where there's no background check. Many of them are the results of straw purchases.

Other two pieces of legislation, Mr. President, do something about these guns and you're coming in with no background checks. We have convicted felons and mentally unstable people buying guns without the necessary checks. That is inexcusable and will not help us bring peace to Chicago.

BLITZER: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip, thank you so much for joining us. I know these are tough days for everyone. I appreciate it very much.

DURBIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: As the United States continues to see a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases, many hospitals across the country are already working at capacity. But how much longer can they continue this way?

Two emergency room physicians, they are standing by to update our viewers on what's going on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:25:00]

BLITZER: As coronavirus cases are soaring here in the United States, does the burden of this pandemic put enormous new pressure on hospitals across the United States?

Joining us now, two emergency physicians, Dr. Esther Choo in Portland, Oregon, and Dr. Megan Ranney in Providence, Rhode Island. Both of you Doctors, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to quickly start by asking both of you something that struck all of us today. Here was a tweet from the president on July 20th. The president saying, there you see it, many people say that it is patriot to wear a face mask when you can't socially distance. There is nobody more patriotic than me, your favorite president.

But look at this. This weekend, while he was in his country club in New Jersey, we saw the president with the NFL hall of famer, Brett Favre, there, he was playing golf, no mask. And here he was today. He stopped, met with a little crowd, tossing hats, MAGA hats, to the crowd, once again, no mask.

If we're going to change public behavior and it's patriotic to wear a mask, Dr. Ranney, let me start with you, why aren't we seeing the president doing that to set an example and to convince the American public it's critically important, very simple, just put on mask?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN, LIFESPAN/BROWN UNIVERSITY: You know, Wolf, I wish I had an answer to that. It would certainly make our work an awful lot easier if President Trump would consistently wear a mask. He sets an example for a large portion of our population, and we need all of our public leaders, whether they are politicians, celebrities, teachers, business people, to be wearing masks out in public, to tell the rest of us that it's not just okay to wear a mask but also that it's normal and expected.

I wish he would do it. He's putting his followers at risk by not wearing a mask and he's honestly putting his friends at risk, because if he doesn't wear one around them, they're not going to wear ones around each other. He may be getting tested but the rest of us can't get tested with the frequency he is. I wish that he would wear a mask more regularly.

BLITZER: Yes, and a lot of people do. What do you think, Dr. Choo? DR. ESTHER CHOO, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN, OREGON HEALTH AND SCIENCE UNIVERSITY: Yes. I, of course, agree with Dr. Ranney. I mean, fortunately, there have been a number of polls showing that the majority of Americans say that they mostly or all the time wear a mask outside the house. So I think there's decent public penetrant to the message that wearing a simple mask is one of the few things that we can do to upstream try to intervene on what's happening downstream with this virus.

But every bit matters at this point, especially when we're so short on other resources that are much higher to get our hands on. So if our president, fortunately, he has put out that message, at least once or twice that mask wearing is good. I hope he continues to do that, and I hope we see everybody else who has a public profile make up for any lack from the White House by showing how it's done.

[18:30:03]

BLITZER: Dr. Ranney, you're in ICUs, you're an emergency room physician, all the time. A lot of hospitals, several of them major hotspots, whether Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, they're reaching capacity at some of the hospitals there. From your experience in emergency rooms, how long can hospitals and staff for that matter continue to run with these types of very awful surges?

RANNEY: You know it is exhausting for health care workers to be in those sorts of scenarios. When the ICUs get full then the emergency department backs up. There's no space to see new patients. We're holding patients for hours or even days, and we can't provide them with good, intensive care-level care in the emergency department.

It's physically exhausting, mentally and emotionally exhausting for us. It puts us as higher risk of getting sick and it puts our patients at higher risk of having poor outcomes. And what we're seeing now in many of these states is that there's nowhere to even transfer patients to. So one hospital is full, the next is full, the next is full. It means that hospitals are being forced to make difficult decisions about who to save and who to let die because there simply is not enough space or not enough supplies to take care of the sickest patients.

BLITZER: We heard stories in Texas the other day. Some hospitals actually sending people home to die because they were running out of space, which is so awful when you think about that.

Dr. Choo, testing of course continues to an enormously critical issue in this country. Watch what one member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force told Jake Tapper earlier today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADM. BRETT GIROIR MD, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH, HHS: We are never going to be happy with testing until we get turnaround times within 24 hours and I would be happy with point of care testing everywhere. We are not there yet. We are doing everything we can to do that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're hearing reports, Dr. Choo, that, you know, some people have to wait a week, 10 days, maybe even longer to get their results. How do these delays impact the spread of this deadly virus?

CHOO: Yes. That's exactly it. I mean, if we're not getting testing results within a day, maybe two, then why test at all? I mean, the test is supposed to inform your behavior and clinical care. And so, you know, there was an article written today by Dr. Elizabeth Rosenthal that said if we're not getting test results in a rapid manner, we're waiting seven to nine days, testing is performative. It's just an act that we do that doesn't actually inform us in a way that allows us to stop the spread of disease.

So meaningful testing means that we get same-day results. So I do agree with that statement. We need point of care testing. We need rapid turnaround testing so that it can form everything that we do, help us triage patients in the hospital, and help people know how they should behave with regards to family members, friends and workplaces.

BLITZER: Doctor Ranney, do you worry we are going to see the same issues with the shortages of PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, that we saw some other parts of country in March and April, if the country continues on this awful trend? These hotspots in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California? And that's about almost 30 percent of the country right there. Almost 100 million Americans live in those four states alone.

RANNEY: Yes. As the number of cases goes up, the use of PPE also goes up. And I will tell you that I'm not just worried about seeing shortages of PPE. We are actually seeing it. We're getting reports from our colleagues in Texas and Florida that they are literally running out of PPE. The number of pieces of protective equipment that were seen asked for as donations at GetUsPPE, the nonprofit that I helped create, along with Dr. Choo, the number of requests that we've gotten has gone up by more than 250 percent.

This is coming from health care providers who cannot afford it and who cannot get it. And we're also hearing reports of a supply chain shutting down again, of it becoming more difficult to get gloves out of Vietnam. Of 3M masks being hoarded by folks that are hoping to make a killing come fall. No pun intended. The shortages are real and they already here and we're worried that they're going to get much worse as the fall comes and these numbers continue to increase.

BLITZER: Yes. This is a terrible, terrible situation unfolding in our country right now.

Doctor Ranney, thank you so much. Dr. Choo, thanks to you as well. And thanks to what both of you are doing in those emergency rooms.

Even as we see spikes of new cases across the country, President Trump is pushing for schools to reopen in some areas in just a matter of a couple of three weeks. But just how safe will it be for children, for teachers, to return to the classroom? We're about to take a much closer look.

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[18:38:58]

BLITZER: Families all across the United States right now, they're grappling with how to go back to school safely amid this pandemic. Some school officials, they're actually deciding to begin the fall term entirely online as COVID cases are surging across the south and some of the western states, including in Georgia's largest school district where hundreds are pushing for teachers and kids to actually return to in-class instruction this fall.

I want to bring in CNN's Natasha Chen who's joining us from Atlanta.

Natasha, so how are the Atlanta schools handling back-to-school decisions for the fall? When I say the fall, schools are supposed to begin sometime in early August, mid-August or late August.

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a lot of them have actually pushed that date back, so they're delaying the start of school. And looking at the very dramatic rise in numbers across the state of Georgia. Some of them have made the call to go all virtual, even if they had intended to offer both in-person and virtual initially. So parents are responding to that. Teachers are responding as well.

[18:40:02]

I talked to one teacher in Gwinnett County who said her colleagues are relieved at this decision to go all virtual. And she does feel more confident about the structure of online learning this fall after what they learned in the spring. Still, that puts some parents in a bind.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHEN (voice-over): During a typical summer break children aren't usually running towards a school building demanding to go to class, but in the midst of a pandemic, these students and parents in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta are protesting the state's largest school district's change of heart on reopening going all virtual instead of offering some in-class options.

KELLY WILLYARD, MOTHER OF TWO FIFTH GRADERS: All of sudden, two weeks before school, you know, the rug has been pulled from underneath us all and we're scrambling.

CHEN: Kelly Willyard told CNN's Chris Cuomo she understands the health risks and respects parents who wish to keep their kids at home, but she and her husband also need to leave home for work during the day creating a potential childcare problem.

WILLYARD: Dollywood is open. The grocery stores are open. The airlines are open. Corporate America is opening up. Gas stations, what have you. And then we as parents feel like we just got left in the dust and you all just figure it out.

RUTH HARTMAN, FULTON COUNTY, GEORGIA PARENT: Look, they can protest, and that's their right. However, there's no science behind it. So even if they decide to keep their kids, you know, make them go face-to- face, that's on them. I can't back that at all.

CHEN: Ruth Hartman runs an unofficial parent Facebook group for Fulton County schools. She said the argument over in-class versus virtual and whether masks should be required has gotten political when it should just be about the science.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: What I can't tell you for sure despite the South Korean study is whether children under 10 in the United States don't spread the virus as the same as children over 10. I think that is still an open question that needs to be studied in the United States. We certainly know from other studies that children under 10 do get infected. It's just unclear how rapidly they spread the virus.

CHEN: The overall data in Georgia shows a staggering rise in COVID-19 cases with the highest number of them in the red zones including Fulton and Gwinnett Counties. In nearby Cobb County the virus is also spreading aggressively.

CHRIS RAGSDALE, SUPERINTENDENT, COBB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: And we are in that hot transmission section right now. And we as an organization cannot add to the transmission rate increasing it.

CHEN: Parent opinions vary by zip code and if they can afford child care or private tutoring. In a June survey, 43 percent of Gwinnett County parents said they want all in-classroom learning while just over half of them said they'd be uncomfortable with that. In the urban core parents in the south and west parts of Atlanta were more likely to strongly prefer virtual learning compared to parents in the north. It's a preference often based on personal experience.

HARTMAN: And I've actually attended two COVID-related funerals recently. I mean, it's happening. Even if it's not happening to you, it's happening. And it's terrifying.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHEN: I talked to a couple more parents. One from Gwinnett County where that protest was happening. There's another protest tomorrow. And she said that those parents don't necessarily represent all of them. They don't represent her views. She's relieved to go all virtual.

Another parent from Cobb County also described her relief to me. She said, because before the district made that decision, she's had too many questions about how the schools would provide the level of precaution to keep kids and staff safe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Natasha, thanks very much. Natasha Chen in Atlanta reporting for us. We certainly all know that opening schools is so important for the

country. If -- if it can be done safely. Up next I'll speak with two former Cabinet secretaries under President Obama to see how they grade the current government in its push to open the schools. That's next.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:39]

BLITZER: Right now as we watch cases and deaths continue to rise in some of the most populous parts of the United States we're also seeing a massive push to get kids back into the classrooms come fall. The CDC is out with some new guidelines that strongly favor reopening schools right away.

Arne Duncan is the former secretary of Education, Kathleen Sebelius is the former secretary of Health and Human Services. They both led in Cabinet departments during the Obama administration.

Secretary Sebelius, from where you're sitting, are the people now holding your respective jobs doing an effective job in working together to get children back to school safely?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, FORMER HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Well, Wolf, I don't think there's any question that parents and kids and grand. Parents and teachers would love to be back in school face-to-face and in a learning environment, but first and foremost is the safety and security of both kids and their parents and their teachers, and the custodians and the work staff, and right now this virus is raging.

Our former colleague, Tom Frieden, who used to run the CDC in the Obama administration just put out information about recommended dashboard that should be kept by the CDC clocking what's going on in every state in the country and collecting similar data.

[18:50:02]

We have scattershot approaches. States are trying to make this up on their own, trying to figure out what's going on. But what we know is 4.1 million people have the virus in the United States, at least. That's been confirmed. We know that death rates are going up. The hospital rates are going up. And the disease is scattered all over the country. So it isn't one epicenter. It's everywhere. And experimenting with the health of our children could not be more dangerous for this country.

BLITZER: I'll take that as -- you don't think they're doing an effective job, at least right now.

Secretary Duncan, what practices do you want to see schools around the country especially in some of the hotspots employ before bringing the kids back into the classroom with the teachers? So what's your advice to schools that might, for example, not have the space or the resources right now to follow the CDC guidance because there's a lot of pressure to delay reopening schools?

ARNE DUNCAN, FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Well, it's such a tough spot now. We have 75 percent of states, the number of cases are going up. The number of cases per week have doubled in the past month from about 31,000 to 66,000. So it's putting superintendents and principals in a really, really tough spot.

What I'm urging them to do is because we don't know when and if cases will actually go down, as hard as it is, I would urge them not to delay the start of school because there's no guarantee that two or three weeks later, things will be better. And our children have missed so much learning time during COVID in March and April, May and June, and now the summer.

We can't keep pushing back if we have to hope in a hybrid manner, if we have to open in a virtual-only manner. We have to get our kids back learning. We have to make sure that social workers and counselors are reaching out to those who are dealing with trauma and all kinds of challenges at home.

There's no real reason to wait two or three weeks because sadly there's no sense that things would be better. Things could actually be worse at that point. So whenever schools are supposed to start, we need to start learning. We need to keep feeding kids and we make sure we're taking care of their social and emotional health as well.

BLITZER: Well, that's important. And I wonder, Secretary Sebelius, if you agree that start school immediately as scheduled, but if it's not safe, do it virtually or do what they call, hybrid, two, three days a week. Maybe you do it at home, online, but then you come to school two, three days a week and you have much smaller classrooms in the process. Do you agree with Secretary Duncan?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think Arne is definitely the expert on the school protocol, and I would agree that students have missed a lot of learning time. I think what also he said, and what we used to talk about a lot, is all of the other structures that come with school. Feeding kids. There are so many food insecure kids and lunch programs and breakfast programs have virtually disappeared. They have to be started up very quickly. We've got to get food to those students even if they're in only virtual classrooms.

But governors shouldn't be left to figure this out by themselves. We need a national dashboard. We need national data published on a regular basis. And right now we don't have that information. And absent, you know, a national plan, I think we got to listen to the guidance and pay attention to what's going on in states.

But this virus continues to ravage the country and unfortunately even though the administration as recently as this morning gave a very rosy view, when people are dying, hospitals are -- deaths are up close to where they were at the peak in May, hospitalizations are up all over this country.

This is not an insignificant rise in cases due to testing. These are very seriously ill people and we have to pay attention to that. BLITZER: We certainly do.

Secretary Duncan, one of the biggest concerns, of course, for parents is their children falling behind both academically and socially. What steps can the government take right now to make sure this pandemic isn't such a huge step backwards for some of these kids' development?

DUNCAN: Well, first, you have to really try and think through as we open slowly and carefully who we bring back first. And it forces schools to make some really tough but important decisions. I would urge that we try and bring younger children back first. Obviously the Zoom stuff is much harder for our pre-K, a first grader than for a, you know, 10th or 11th grader. Children with special needs should be brought back first. Children with things unstable at home should be brought back first.

But I would love to see a massive tutoring program. And we need an investment of $200 billion from the federal government. We've seen zero money, almost no money coming from the federal government, state's property tax, the sales taxes, local taxes are down. We need to buy PPE. We need to, you know, buy supplies. You know, hire more custodians.

But, Wolf, what if we hired a couple hundred thousand tutors, recent college graduates, retirees to help those children who have fallen not just a couple of months behind but maybe six, eight, 10 months behind.

[18:55:04]

What if we had a massive tutoring program either physically or virtually to help those students catch up who are the furthest behind. That's the kind of federal investment that we need right now.

BLITZER: That's a very important point indeed. A good idea.

Secretary Sebelius, is enough known at this point about the threat this virus actually poses to young kids that would justify keeping the schools closed right now?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think, Wolf, science still is pretty unclear. It doesn't appear that particularly younger children get terribly sick from the disease. That's good news. What we don't know is how much they carry the disease, how fast they can spread it. And certainly as the kids get older, Arne just said bring younger kids back first, that's in part because of the health issues around also those children getting and spreading the disease.

But, you know, over three million over 65-year-olds take care of school-aged children. We know that custodians and teachers are older and often in vulnerable population so this isn't just -- children are not going to be sitting in an isolated building by themselves. It is how they interact with adults and how we keep all of the situations safe and secure. But we don't know enough yet about children.

They are not dying in large numbers, that's very good news. But whether that's due to, you know, keeping them super safe and protected or how often they can carry and spread the disease, we don't know yet.

BLITZER: Secretary Sebelius, thank you. Secretary Duncan, thanks to you as well.

And while we see more and more cases of coronavirus, there's an economic crisis in the U.S. as well. The question now, will Congress be able to come up with a plan to help those Americans who have lost their jobs before time runs out?

That's ahead. We'll be right back.

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