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THE SITUATION ROOM

Storm Isaias Nears Florida's East Coast to Bring High Winds and Heavy Rain; Dr. Deborah Birx Warns U.S. is in New Phase of the Pandemic; Coronavirus Pandemic Magnifies Flaws in U.S. Health Care System; Controversial Pentagon Nominee Placed into Senior Role After Nomination Failed; Interview with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) about Coronavirus Cases and School Opening. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired August 2, 2020 - 19:00   ET

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


[19:00:04]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

We begin tonight with a dire new warning from one of the top members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: What we're seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It's into the rural as equal urban areas, and to everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus. And that's why we keep saying no matter where you live in America, you need to wear a mask and socially distance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This warning from Dr. Deborah Birx comes as the nation is seeing a sixth straight day of more than 1,000 American lives being lost to the virus each and every day. Just yesterday alone, 1,133 Americans were lost and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now warning that another 20,000 people in the United States could die in the next three weeks amid this pandemic.

And the one thing we keep hearing from the nation's top health experts is that mask wearing is key, key in stopping the spread of this virus. But the president is contradicting his own top medical experts' suggestions to the American people to start wearing mask and to do so immediately. He himself held a mask-less rally in Florida, one of the hardest-hit states right now, even as top advisers are privately pleading with him to start wearing one in public every single day.

And today, as one of the top doctors on the Coronavirus Task Force went on TV to warn Americans of a new phase in the pandemic, the president spent his second weekend in a row golfing. Again, even as more than 1,000 American lives have been lost each day for the past six days.

While we continue to track those devastating coronavirus numbers, another threat is emerging. We're talking about Tropical Storm Isaias tracking near Florida's east coast, bringing with it strong winds and heavy rain. The tropical storm is putting even more strain on a state which is nearing 500,000 cases and has become the new epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States.

Our meteorologist Tom Sater is over at the CNN Weather Center for us.

Tom, it seems Florida is getting a break right now, but where is the storm heading next because it's continuing to move?

TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, in the last advisory, Wolf, the winds have increased from 65 to 70 miles per hour. So it's trying to gain a little bit more intensity. Well, if you notice how white the cloud cover is, the high canopy of clouds, it's all been offshore. Right ow the center is about 50 miles from Cape Canaveral. Does not look like it's going to make a landfall in Florida, keeping the adverse weather offshore.

Drier air has been trying to infiltrate this since yesterday and has been doing a good job at keeping all the adverse conditions offshore. That's the heavy rain, that's the damaging winds, the lightning and so forth. So even though we've got squalls of showers moving in, it really looks like this is going to run parallel to Florida and really give them a big break.

Authorities in Florida and North Carolina are sharing information about those getting to the evacuation centers, best how to go about doing their business, the protocols. And for good reason. We've got evacuation orders up all the way into North Carolina. But all of this rain will stay off. The dry air is going to keep it that way. But it's got a good 25, 26 hours, Wolf, to really feed off extremely warm waters of the gulf stream.

So it's possible we could get back to hurricane status and what time does that happen late tomorrow? We're looking at a landfall pretty close just east of Charleston right at the time of our full moon and high tide. Charleston sees flooding even with high tides. You toss in a good four-foot storm surge, there's going to be a problem here. If we get a hurricane by then, the damaging winds will affect the regions where we have those concave curve lines in the coastline.

But then the rains are going to be unleashed. We could see a half a foot to a foot of rainfall through interior sections of both South and North Carolina. Up into Delmarva where you are. We've got watches already in the Chesapeake, the Tidal Basin, all the way up to Delaware Bay to coastal Rhode Island.

So, again, as you can see, we're going to look pretty good for the next 24 hours. We're going to watch this for the overnight period. The next advisory is 8:00 p.m. But notice here in pink, that's now a hurricane watch. That's from Santi River, South Carolina, up to Surf City, so therefore we could really see the hurricanelike affects moving in with the stronger winds. Already, of course first responders are maxed to the limit with

everything they've been doing and you toss in some water rescues, some more evacuations, and they're going to be strapped. So again, as we look at the rainfall, it picks up in South and North Carolina, all the way through areas of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Yes, Wolf?

BLITZER: I know we're getting ready for a lot of rain here in the D.C. area itself. We'll check back with you, Tom, in an hour with the latest forecast.

[19:05:05]

Right now let's go to the global coronavirus pandemic. New cases surging in the United States. And over the past week, several states reporting record high numbers of people dying from the virus. California is now the only state with more than half a million people known to be infected but other states are simply closing in on that number. The White House's Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx was on CNN with our own Dana Bash earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: We are in a new phase and that's why I really wanted to make it clear to the American people, it's why we started putting out governor reports, directly to the health officials and the governors in every single state because we could see that each thing had to be tailored. This epidemic right now is different and it's wide -- it's more widespread and it's both rural and urban.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Jeremy Diamond is over at the White House for us.

Jeremy, Dr. Birx striking a more serious tone than the president about the uphill battle against this coronavirus. Update our viewers.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. In recent days we have continued to see the president do what he has done best during this pandemic and that is downplay the severity of the surge in cases, falsely claiming time and again that it is due -- that the surge in cases is tied to an increase in testing in the United States.

But Dr. Birx couldn't have been more unambiguous when she said that it is extraordinarily widespread in talking about this epidemic that is happening in the United States as it relates to coronavirus. Dr. Birx making clear that this is happening both in urban areas as well as in rural areas.

But despite that, Wolf, Dr. Birx still has come under fire in recent days from the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Reportedly she said that she believes that Dr. Birx has been spreading disinformation about the pandemic during a closed-door meeting with White House officials a few days ago. Speaker Pelosi was asked about those comments today and Dr. Birx also responded. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I think the president is spreading disinformation about the virus, and she is his appointee. So I don't have confidence there, no.

BIRX: I have tremendous respect for the speaker. And I have tremendous respect for her long dedication to the American people. I have never been called Pollyannaish or nonscientific, or nondata-driven and I will stake my 40-year career on those fundamental principles of utilizing data to really implement better programs to save more lives.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAMOND: Now, Wolf, while Dr. Birx has certainly been far more reticent to directly contradict President Trump, or stray from the White House's messaging line, that was evidenced even today when she was asked repeatedly by Dana, you know, what the government did wrong, how the United States currently finds itself in this position.

But despite that, Wolf, there is no evidence that Dr. Birx has been spreading disinformation about the pandemic as Speaker Pelosi reportedly told White House officials. And you saw Speaker Pelosi kind of pair that back a little bit saying that it's the president that's spreading disinformation and that Dr. Birx is part of that administration.

Nonetheless we should also note that Dr. Birx, even though she said that the "New York Times" report described her as Pollyannaish, the report actually did not do that. It did, however, say that Dr. Birx -- her overly optimistic projections that didn't enough take into account the White House's push for reopening, the extent to which that led to the surge that we are seeing today. But it did not call her Pollyannaish as Dr. Birx claimed.

BLITZER: You know, Jeremy, last night you and our own Ryan Nobles were reporting that Republican officials were saying flatly that the press would be barred from attending, from covering the Republican convention in Charlotte later this month and that was -- that's unprecedented. It's unacceptable. But now you're getting new information suggesting they're beginning to walk away from that.

DIAMOND: That's right, Wolf. Last night we reported on this program that a convention spokesperson was saying that the RNC convention in Charlotte would be, quote, "closed press." That was a direct quote from the GOP convention spokesperson and a Republican official familiar with the planning was also telling me that while press were not expected to be on site, that the proceedings in particular the vote to officially nominate President Trump as the 2020 Republican nominee would be livestreamed.

Now there was a backlash, as you noted, Wolf, in the wake of that report and since then the RNC's communications director Michael Ahrens, he reached out to me this morning and said that no final decision has been made as of yet as it relates to the logistics of press coverage around this event. Nonetheless, Wolf, RNC officials are very squarely blaming the North

Carolina government saying that the Democratic governor there, Roy Cooper, is restricting the number of people who can attend this event and because of those coronavirus-related capacity restrictions, the RNC determined that it would rather have delegates attending this event rather than members of the press.

[19:10:08]

But again they are now saying that no final decision has been made, and Wolf, I think we have seen this convention take on one iteration after the next in particular because President Trump had repeatedly pushed for this convention to be happening in person, even forcing RNC officials to look at a different city to host this convention.

Of course now we know, Wolf, the RNC convention in Jacksonville has been canceled and there will be this scaled-down convention mainly focused on formally nominating Trump as the 2020 Republican nominee happening in Charlotte. The question, though, Wolf, now is whether or not reporters will be allowed on site. As of now, that is not the case. But it seems that the RNC is suggesting that that could change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly will change. I have no doubt about it. And the spokesman says no final decision has been made, as you say. We are still working through logistics and press coverage options. It would be unprecedented and totally unacceptable to bar the news media from actually covering a very historic Republican National Convention in Charlotte where they nominate the presidential nominee, the current president, of course, will be nominated.

Jeremy, good reporting as usual. Thank you very much.

Right now I want to bring in the former health policy adviser during the Obama administration, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, who is joining us. He's got a brand-new, very timely new book entitled "Which Country Has the World's Best Health Care." There you see the cover.

So, Zeke, what's the answer? Which country has the world's best health care?

DR. ZEKE EMANUEL, FORMER OBAMA HEALTH POLICY ADVISER: Well, Wolf, it really depends upon what you care about. Do you care about choice, do you care about cost, do you care about long-term care? Comprehensive benefits? But if you pair it back, there are really four countries at the top, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Taiwan.

BLITZER: Not the United States?

EMANUEL: We're not in the top 10. I would say we're not the last. China is the last. They're way too hospital-focused. Everything is about the hospital there. You don't really have physician office and that's a big difference.

BLITZER: How is the global pandemic response impacted the ranking right now of the world's best -- the countries with the best health care systems?

EMANUEL: Well, if you take Norway and Germany, they've done remarkably well, actually. Both countries have done well. They had a number of cases early on but responded very vigorously nationally and they have very few cases per hundred thousand and very few deaths. So I think that's pretty good and if you had to have a standout country, it would be Taiwan. They've had I think fewer than 500 cases last I looked and about seven deaths. And they're less than 100 miles off China and have an extensive contact with China. So I would say that the top countries get the top rates in COVID, too.

BLITZER: The United States is obviously struggling right now with the pandemic. What, 154,000, almost 155,000 Americans have died over these past five months or so. You're right that the U.S. health care system is not the best in the world. You suggest by far. So what flaws have been exposed, what changes do you believe, Zeke, need to be made?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, we don't have universal coverage. We have -- 10 percent of the population doesn't have coverage and that's a huge problem. We also have a very complex system. Getting insurance, we have, you know, private employer sponsored insurance. We have Medicare and different flavors of Medicare. You have Medicaid, you have the exchanges.

It's way too complicated and we need to simplify the system and have what's called auto enrollment. Every American needs to be enrolled in whatever the base plan is that we decide. Every other country does that and it's much better. In addition, we've created a situation that's unaffordable. A lot of Americans are afraid to go to the doctor because of their high deductibles and high co-pays.

In most other countries, they've brought those down to zero, at least for primary care and generic drugs. It seems to me we ought to have co-pays at zero dollars and zero deductible so people can go to their primary care doctor and get generic drugs, and not fear for that.

BLITZER: How has President Trump's handling of the pandemic over these months caused more challenges to the U.S. health care system?

EMANUEL: Well, I mean, he's not been a role model. I mean, that's simple enough. He hasn't worn a mask. He has contradicted advice by his CDC and his public health advisers like Dr. Tony Fauci. And we know that to really get the public behind you, you have to have a consistent message, you have to repeat it and everyone who's involved has to follow the same playbook.

These contradictions that one day he says don't wear a mask, the next day says do wear a mask, then he doesn't wear a mask, those create a problem. If you try to convince the public to do something, something that is difficult like wearing masks, keeping distant, staying at home, those are very hard things to get them to do and you need a consistent message, and he has not provided leadership on that at all.

[19:15:09]

And you can see the confusion. I mean, look at Italy. They were, you know, in terrible shape early on in March. They followed a consistent message and within eight weeks brought the number of cases down. By the end of May, they were very low and they've continued to have very low cases and that allows you to open up the economy faster.

You want to get the economy working, Mr. President, the best thing to do is to actually nationwide put into force all the public health measures including wearing face masks. And you have to stick to it for about eight or nine weeks.

BLITZER: And look at South Korea, Zeke. In early March the U.S. and South Korea had roughly the same number of deaths, maybe a dozen or so. South Korea, a country of 55 million people. We now have almost 155,000 deaths in the United States. They have about 300 deaths in South Korea. What did they do right? What did we do wrong?

EMANUEL: Well, they did -- had, first of all, a national consistent policy. They also created testing so everyone could get tested who was suspected. They had serious lockdown and isolation of people who were positive. We didn't do any of that and we didn't do it nationwide. I mean, look at Florida. Florida kept denying that it was going to have cases. They kept partying on the beaches.

They kept -- when they opened everything up, they allowed indoor bars, tattoo parlors, beauty salons, gyms, those are all, you know, not what you'd do if you want to be successful here. And as Dr. Birx said, you got to do it nationwide. This virus is everywhere in the country. You can't say, well, there are some pockets that aren't having it. No. You have to have a nationwide strategy and we have to have some stick to it-ness and do it for the eight to nine weeks that are necessary to bring it very low and then we can begin slowly opening up things.

It's not open or close. It's phases. Only particular things should open up, most outdoor events, schools, those kind of essential services.

BLITZER: You were very involved during the Obama administration with the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. I want to play something for you, Zeke, that the president recently said about replacing Obamacare.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're signing a health care plan within two weeks. A full and complete health care plan that the Supreme Court decision on DACA gave me the right to do. So we're going to solve -- we're going to sign an immigration plan, a health care plan and various other plans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So it's been two weeks since that interview aired, exactly two weeks. Still no plan on a new health care system. You're one of the architects, as I said, of the Obama framework he's hoping to replace. Have you heard anything at all about the promised Trump health care plan?

EMANUEL: Absolutely nothing and let me just say, it has been a decade for the Republicans promising we're going to have comprehensive reform, we're going to repeal and replace. And guess what, we've never seen a replacement package that's comprehensive and can actually get the two goals we want. We want an affordable health care system and we want it to cover everyone and protect people with pre-existing conditions.

They never have been able to put together two pages that describes how they're going to do it. The only viable framework is to build on the Affordable Care Act and to simplify the system and expand it to get the last 10 percent of Americans fully covered. I think the coronavirus case has made it clear to Americans that everyone deserves health care and everyone deserves affordable health care.

And I think that's what the president cannot deliver on in a Republican form. You really need government guarantees and you need a government fixing up and shoring up of the system.

BLITZER: We'll of course have full coverage of the president's new health care plan if in fact he releases it any time in the next few days or weeks, months, for that matter.

Dr. Zeke Emanuel --

(CROSSTALK)

EMANUEL: Don't hold your breath, Wolf.

BLITZER: Dr. Zeke Emanuel --

EMANUEL: Don't hold your breath.

BLITZER: Well, we'll see what he does. Thanks very much for joining us. Once again, the new book, Zeke's new book is entitled "Which Country Has the World's Best Health Care." There you see the cover of the book.

Zeke, thanks very much for joining us.

EMANUEL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll have more on the breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. A controversial Trump administration pick has just been placed into a senior role days after his formal Senate nomination hearing was canceled amid deep bipartisan opposition to his nomination. Our Pentagon correspondent Ryan Browne is standing by. He'll be live in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll update you on this development when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:23:55]

BLITZER: We'll have much more on the coronavirus pandemic in just a moment. But we're getting some breaking news into THE SITUATION ROOM right now from the United States Military. It's about a retired one- star U.S. Army general who was under consideration for a top Pentagon post.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon reporter, Ryan Browne. Ryan, what are you learning?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Wolf, in a kind of interesting turn of events, the nominee that you mentioned, retired Brigadier General Anthony Tata who had had his nomination hearing canceled last week because there were bipartisan questions about his record including controversial tweets where he accused a former CIA director of potentially plotting to assassinate the president. His nomination was canceled due to that opposition and lingering question.

But despite that, the Trump administration is moving ahead in putting him into a top Pentagon position, the deputy -- the policy shop at the Pentagon, a very senior role overseeing everything from Afghanistan to Russia to all sorts of policy issues, putting him into that role in a -- performing the duties that's basically an acting capacity so he will not have to face that Senate confirmation hearing that there was that opposition.

[19:25:07]

So they're kind of skirting that process to do this. Now a source familiar with the situation tells our Kaitlan Collins that this was part of President Trump's plan, that given the opposition on the Senate, he was going to ensure that Tata got a position, a top Pentagon position without having to go through that confirmation process.

Now the move has already drawn fierce opposition on Capitol Hill. The chairman -- the Democrat chairman of the House Armed Services Committee issuing a statement condemning the move saying if they can't get through the Senate, they shouldn't try the backdoor to get him in the top post -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And his confirmation hearing was basically scrubbed because the K-File from CNN here was reporting all sorts of rather ugly things he had said in the past. He was among other things a frequent commentator on FOX News. Is that right?

BROWNE: That's correct. Our K-File team uncovering quite a number of tweets and mentioned one where he accused the former CIA director John Brennan of trying to assassinate President Trump, others where he accused President Barack Obama of being a Muslim terrorist leader. Now he tried to delete a lot of those tweets. He issued some apologies, met with members on 00 in the Senate in an effort to explain the situation, but I didn't look like that was enough to get him through a Senate confirmation process.

The Trump administration choosing this route to get him in a senior post. Now Tata has been at the Pentagon since April working as a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Well, we asked last week what exactly he was advising on, the Pentagon declined to comment.

BLITZER: You'll stay on top of the story, for sure. Ryan Browne, thank you very much.

Let's get back to the coronavirus right now. In Texas, the number of new coronavirus cases may be trending down a bit. But in Houston, the numbers are still very high. The Harris County Public Health Department reports more than 76,000 confirmed cases and 760 confirmed deaths. The Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is joining us right now.

Mayor, thank you so much for joining us. Four consecutive days, I understand, of increased new cases in your city. City officials are begging people to get tested. They say the testing rates now have fallen off. Do you have any idea why that's the case?

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER (D), HOUSTON: I think we've been at this since March and I think in some cases people have simply gotten tired and we are constantly having to remind people that they may be tired of the virus but the virus is certainly not tired of us. So we are now engaged in an active campaign to encourage people to continue to come and be tested. That's important. And then we're going -- we are even going door to door, Wolf, to explain to people about the importance of putting on a mask, being tested, the social distancing and exercising proper hygiene.

BLITZER: One of the nation's top coronavirus experts, Dr. Deborah Birx, was on CNN earlier today. She warned that the U.S. was now in a new phase of the pandemic with more widespread cases in rural areas as well, of course, as urban areas. What's your reaction, Mayor, to that?

TURNER: Well, I can attest to that. Look, July for us, Wolf, was not a good month. We had more people who tested positive and died of this virus than March, April, May, June combined. So July was not a very good month. Even though the numbers in our hospitals are trending in a favorable direction, the amount of community spread is very, very -- is widespread. And so the positivity rate in the community is still too high. It's still about 1 in 5, about 20 percent and we need to bring that down.

So I am concerned. I do understand what's happening in rural America. In Texas, the virus is still very much widespread. So we have a lot of work to do if we're going to significantly bring these numbers down in the month of August.

BLITZER: Your school system, the Houston schools are set to open now, on September 8th. Basically a month from now. Beginning the year with online learning until at least mid-October. Tell us why you made that decision.

TURNER: Well, when you look at -- when you look at where we started in March, and where we were in July, it was a significant increase in the number of cases. As I've said before, more positive cases and more deaths in July than the previous months combined. It is important, August is going to be a very critical month. If we have the same sort of numbers in August that we had in July, it will be very difficult, for example, to even talk about going back to school in September.

So we made the decision to remain virtual. Remote learning in the month of August because quite frankly it's just not safe for students, for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors to be returning to school in the month of -- in the month of August. Now, we'll say to you, there's been a wrinkle thrown into the equation because the state attorney general just ruled that the local health authorities do not have the authority, so to speak, to prevent schools from opening up that. That's a local school district decision or the state's decision.

It was his opinion, I disagree with that. But nonetheless, most of the school districts in the Houston area are electing to remain virtual until at least September the 8th.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: These are life and death decisions, as I often say. Mayor Turner, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck.

TURNER: Thanks. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: So whether you live in a small town or a big city, the coronavirus is now a widespread threat here in the United States.

We will speak to a former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy about Dr. Birx's warning today that the United States has reached a new phase in this deadly pandemic.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:35:21]

BLITZER: The coronavirus pandemic has exploded into a new phase -- that according to Dr. Deborah Birx. She says the deadly virus is more widespread now than when it first took hold in the United States earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, President Trump continues to champion hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, even though his own medical experts repeatedly are saying there's solid evidence it simply doesn't work. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: The overwhelming cumulative evidence of properly conducted randomized controlled trials indicate no therapeutic efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.

ADMIRAL BRETT GIROIR, H.H.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY: At first, hydroxychloroquine looked very promising. There were not the definitive studies. At this point in time, there's been five randomized control placebo controlled trials that do not show any benefit to hydroxychloroquine.

So at this point in time, we don't recommend that as a treatment.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: We know in the randomized controlled trials, to date, and there's been several of them that there is not evidence that it improves those patients' outcomes, whether they have mild or moderate disease or whether they're seriously ill in the hospital. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Joining us now, the former U.S. Surgeon General during the Obama administration, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He is now an adviser to the Joe Biden presidential campaign.

Dr. Murthy, thanks for joining us. Why is the President continuing to push hydroxychloroquine even as his own medical experts -- you just heard three of the top experts from his own Coronavirus Taskforce, insist it isn't effective as a treatment.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, Wolf, I think what's really important here is to listen to the science and the scientists, and what they're saying is very clear and they're saying it with a unified voice, which is that we have to look at the data and the data tells us that everything we have to date indicates that hydroxychloroquine is not safe and effective for treating COVID-19.

What we've got to do just more broadly, Wolf is look at where we are in this pandemic, because we're not in a good place. We're in fact, worse off, in many ways, according to the indicators than we were in March when we thought things were already pretty bad.

And so what the government really needs to do is to first decide what its single most important goal is, and that should be dramatically reducing the number of cases in the country and they've got to commit to doing everything necessary to achieve that goal.

That means urging universal mass requirements, closing bars and indoor dining, restricting crowd size, but they've also got to do a second thing, which is to implement a plan to keep those cases down.

That means you've got to expand testing so we can identify early on where the virus is starting to surge again, and then build that contact tracing workforce that can help contain it.

But the third and last thing I'll share, Wolf that they have to do, which they had not done effectively to date, is they've got to communicate clearly, consistently and transparently.

They've got to be honest about where we are and take responsibility and build trust with strong communication and by delivering results. That's how you respond to a pandemic. It's high time we started doing that as a government.

BLITZER: Dr. Deborah Birx says the virus is now extraordinarily widespread, her words, does that mean we've simply lost a handle on dealing with this deadly virus?

MURTHY: Well, she's stating the facts, Wolf, which is that this virus has now spread far beyond where we understood it was in March and April. It's now in many urban communities. It's in many rural communities and we are in danger of losing control of this.

In fact, I'm not sure that we even fact have control over this right now. We have pockets of the country where mayors and governors have taken control to the best of their ability to try to contain the virus. And in many places, they're actually doing a good job.

But what we've seen proven time and time again, is that in the absence of a national plan and national leadership, it's extremely difficult to get this virus under control because the virus doesn't care where the border is between Georgia and Florida. It doesn't care where the border is between Texas and other states.

It is spreading at will and we are not imposing our national will and plans and execution on controlling this virus.

BLITZER: So what do you think, Dr. Murthy, the Federal government needs to do right now to prevent the number of infections from getting even worse?

MURTHY: Well, what they have to do right now is to recognize that there are clear steps that we know work to reduce spread and those are masking. It involves ensuring that we're closing down indoor spaces where spread is easy, like indoor dining spaces and bars.

We know that crowds, especially indoor crowds are a setup for the spread of infection and so we need to restrict crowd sizes.

Sometimes these aren't popular things to do, but they work and they're important to do right now, and if we can't implement these quickly, then what we've got to do is go back, unfortunately, to shutdown measures.

So those are some of the things that we have to do. But we have to also just keep in mind, the bigger picture here, which is that if we're doing that, but we're not putting testing and contact tracing measures in place, then we are going to see a reduction in cases that will once again surge again.

[19:40:37]

MURTHY: You know, Wolf, I just have got to say, you know, I think about all the other challenges that we have faced as a country -- 9/11, World War II, so many in between -- and there were so many factors, Wolf, that were outside our control in those situations, but we fought hard. We stood together as a country and we ultimately prevailed.

But with COVID-19, this is actually a pandemic where there's a lot in our control to stop the spread. And I keep on wondering why can't we respond with the same leadership unity and singularity of purpose that we've displayed in the past? Because right now, if our kids were to ask us, what we're doing to stop this virus? My sons and daughters are asking the question, why did their parents and grandparents have to die in the numbers they died? I don't think we've got a good answer for them, because we're not bringing forth the best of America to take on this virus.

And this is not a failure of science or government infrastructure, it is a failure of leadership and political will and our leaders need to decide if they want to actually lead which means stepping up and taking responsibility and delivering results. BLITZER: Yes. Dr. Murthy, thank you so much for joining us. Always

important to hear what you have to say. I appreciate it very much.

MURTHY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So honoring first responders out in California by throwing a party, an investigation is now underway after dozens gathered inside a bar without wearing mask or engaging in social distancing. We're going to update you on what happened when we come back.

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[19:46:09]

BLITZER: California reported a record number of coronavirus deaths yesterday and has more cases than any other state in the entire country, but these facts didn't actually stop people from gathering closely for a party that bar owners say was meant to honor first responders.

CNN's Kyung Lah is outside the bar and joins us now. Kyung, so what did you see when you arrived there?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it looked like I was looking at a bar that somehow didn't realize that a pandemic was in existence. Plainly visible from outside this bar was something that CNN had been tipped off to Friday evening.

Someone with direct knowledge that this party would be happening said that they were very concerned that about 100 to 150 members who are connected to law enforcement will be gathering inside this bar.

So we went to check it out, in the heart of Hollywood, Sassafras Saloon, and the music was loud, the drinks were flowing. There was no social distancing, no masks. It is as if they had gathered and the pandemic simply didn't exist.

We should mention that California bars indoors have been ordered to cease operations because of the COVID crisis in this state.

A man who was inside the bar did come outside and speak to CNN and said everyone had been tested inside and that everyone worked together and that there really weren't any concerns.

We did also speak to the spokesperson of the bar, the bar owners, and she says that the bar had been rented to someone in order to honor first responders, but she wouldn't name the agency.

Well concerned about all of this in the video that was floating around in social media, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department did launch an internal investigation this weekend, went through some of the video clips but could not identify any of the people specifically as employees of the Sheriff's Department, but there are other agencies out there who are still looking.

One place that is conducting an investigation right now, Wolf, is the LA County Department of Public Health and we got this statement from Public Health, quote, "We are investigating reports of a private indoor party and remind all businesses that have been ordered to close indoor operations that there are no exceptions. This is exactly the situation that puts our entire community at unnecessary risk."

And Wolf, we should point out that 500,000 cases are now here in California, the highest in the entire country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I don't know what these people are thinking. Kyung Lah out in LA for us. Thank you very much.

There's more coronavirus news we are following. Walled off from the world and the coronavirus, coming up North Korea now claims it is virus free and that they have a vaccine trial going on right now.

Stay with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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[19:53:26]

BLITZER: As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, no country seems to be spared. North Korea is claiming it is COVID free with not a single reported case they say of the coronavirus, all while claiming they're trying to develop a vaccine.

CNN's Will Ripley has details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): COVID-19 has crossed nearly every border, except this one, North Korea says days after announcing its first suspected case. State media claims the country is still virus-free, eight months into a global pandemic that began in neighboring China.

North Korea also claims to have a coronavirus vaccine already in clinical trials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHAD O'CARROLL, CEO, KOREA RISK GROUP: There's a lot of suspicion that North Korea, that COVID has already been present in North Korea for many months now.

RIPLEY (on camera): Why would North Korea say they're developing a COVID-19 vaccine, but also continue to deny any COVID-19 cases?

O'CARROLL: There's a remote possibility they would be able to do it. And if they did, it would be a game-changer, obviously, for their global reputation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIPLEY (voice-over): And a game-changer for North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRUCE BENNETT, DEFENSE RESEARCHER, RAND CORPORATION: This year, he has disappeared for more than three weeks four different times, obviously trying to be away from places where the virus might infect him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIPLEY (voice over): Finding a vaccine may not be Kim's only motivation, experts say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENNETT: They would not just be looking for a cure. They would want that for Kim Jong-un and his concerns. But they might also be looking for weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[19:55:02]

RIPLEY (voice over): Blurring the line between science and the military is nothing new in North Korea. This 2012 satellite launch used technology experts say is similar to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

North Korea has long been suspected of having biological and chemical weapons. In 2017, Kim's half-brother was killed with a Cold War-era nerve agent. Pyongyang denies any involvement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH YUN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: North Korea may have biological and chemical weapons in their stockpile, but we've never really known exactly how much they have. And this is something certainly we would have talked about along with nuclear weapons if the conversation and negotiations got under way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIPLEY (voice over): Diplomacy never fully did get under way. Three presidential meetings, little, if any, progress on key issues.

Analysts say a successful coronavirus vaccine could give Kim new leverage with the U.S. and potentially a new biological weapon.

Will Ripley, CNN, Hong Kong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thank you, Will. Happening right now, Tropical Storm Isaias is skirting the east coast of Florida. Our weather team is standing by with the latest forecast.

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