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Timothy Killeen, University Of Illinois System President, Discusses Colleges And Universities Becoming COVID-19 Epicenters; Rescues, Evacuations Underway As At Least 22 Fires Burn Across California; Trump Heads To North Carolina Today. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired September 8, 2020 - 11:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Colleges and universities that got off to a pretty good start now dealing with coronavirus headaches.

The University of Illinois, for example, began the school year with an innovative testing program and remarkably low positivity rate.

But it urged students to stay on campus this holiday weekend and is asking them to stay away from large gatherings because of a spike in cases it attributes to irresponsible student behavior.

This is a national dilemma. Outbreaks at colleges and universities now in all 50 states with as many as 33,000 students infected that. Number growing every day.

Timothy Killeen is the president of the University of Illinois system, which includes nearly 90,000 students.

President Killeen, thanks for coming back to join us again.

When we had the conversation a little bit back, you were off to a strong start and your positivity rates were low.

The one thing I will credit your school for -- I read the e-mails, the transparency of the communications is very important at a time like this.

But now you have a problem. And this email says 95 percent of all new cases are among undergraduate students. How many? And what happened?

TIMOTHY KILLEEN, PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS: Well, we have about -- probably 31,400 students who tested positive.

But what I want to remind you all is we're testing everybody twice a week so we're not interested at parts at iceberg. We're looking at the whole iceberg.

The positivity is about 1.2, still very low, like a South Korea number. And our testing approach is doing what we hoped it would do, identifying early trends that could be disturbing, allowing us to take rapid action.

KING: Listen here to one of your faculty members, Dr. Martin Burke. And I read one of the e-mails that suggests at least for some people, instead of being tested twice a week, maybe we'll go to once a week. But let's listen to Dr. Burke here.


DR. MARTIN BURKE, PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF CHEMISTRY, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, URBANA-CHAMPAIGN: As of today, we'll pivot our testing strategy a bit to focus even more on testing our undergraduates faster and potentially more frequently in some cases to follow the data and follow science and help make sure the program can be as effective as possible.


KING: At the top, you said you think you're doing well and even people doing well can learn lessons. What is that? What changes are we talking about?


KILLEEN: We're talking about really focusing on undergraduates unsafe socializing and identifying the who and the where and taking action as appropriate to -- to minimize that.

I have to say our students are behaving magnificently. Our faculty are brilliant faculty.

Everything is really working well because we know what's happening and that's the key. We're not guessing. We're not extrapolating or estimating. We're actually observing the total system at the University of Illinois so we can act on those data, as Marty said.

And what we're doing is we're increasing the cadence with which we test undergraduates.

We've set up a new team that we call Shield 30, which allows, every time there's a positive confirmed positive case, in an undergraduate student, we go into immediate actions to isolate.

And minutes are important here to assess where there's a virus- carrying individual and make sure they go into a comfortable isolation.

So we're addressing the real problem and that allows us to relax on other areas where we know there's no transmission, for example, our classrooms and dining halls. Our dorms are pretty well safe where you've not seen much happen there.

And we're minimizing the outbreak wherever it occurs very rapidly. And that I think is the strength.

With 243,000 tests having been conducted in the last couple of weeks, I think we're on this and we're provide no place to hide for this virus.

KING: Different systems have to decide, individual schools or large systems like yourself, what do you do when you do have issues and you're following the rules.

Northeastern University put out a statement, in Boston, my hometown, Northeastern has dismissed 11 first-year students after being discovered together at the Westin Hotel on Wednesday night. Before departing, they were required to undergo testing.

And let get to the point of dismissed. Is that your plan? What is your discipline plan if you find students, one strike, two strikes, three strikes, what happens?

KILLEEN: We have disciplinary activities up to and including expulsion. We start typically with an interim suspension. There's an investigation.

But I have to say, by far, a minority of students are willfully non- complaint. Those students had better find somewhere else to study.

Most of our students are performing really well, as I said. Those who make mistakes, genuine mistakes, as young people can, have to learn the assets and attributes of safe socialization on our campuses. And they are stepping up magnificently, I think in many ways to do that.

But since we know where the virus is, we can catch it quickly and be in direct contact with those individuals and facilities, private homes, for example, where issues are occurring and act rapidly. That's the key for us. Time is of the essence.

KING: Timothy Killeen is the president of the University of Illinois System.

President Killeen, thanks again. I'm grateful for your time and your insights and your willingness to come on and be quite transparent about this. Good luck.

KILLEEN: Thank you.

KING: Coming up for us, we'll be live in California where crews just rescued dozens of campers after a fast-moving wildfire blocked their escape route.



KING: Let's get you the latest on the dozens of fast-moving wildfires ravaging the west. In California, at least 22 wildfires scorching more than two million acres across the state.

The Creek Fire has forced an entire town to evacuate. Officials calling it an unprecedented disaster with zero containment.

Let's bring in CNN's Ryan Young, in San Bernardino County, and CNN's Chad Myers, tracking the wildfires.

Ryan, to you first.

It's absolutely stunning when you look at all these pictures.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. When you look behind us, it looks like a moonscape. We're 45 minutes outside of L.A. You see this fire or what's left over.

This is the El Dorado Fire, and this was started because of some pyrotechnics. People showed up to do a gender reveal party, and this started a fire.

Look from above. You can see the scorched earth, 10,000 acres involved in this fire alone, 16 percent containment. Firefighters are really working overtime.

But then when you talk about the other fire, the Creek Fire. When you have over 100,000 acres that are currently in flames and also the fact that there's zero percent containment.

And then the idea that firefighters have had to think very quickly to save people in trouble using helicopters. Had four different locations that they had to get the hikers out of.

All of this going on right now as temperatures have been very hot, and the wind has been very strong.

In fact, take a listen to some of the rescue efforts.


THOM PORTER, DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIA FORESTRY & FIRE PROTECTION: This is a fire that's burning in a pretty remote area. A lot of camping and recreational cabins over the holiday weekend. A lot of people were there for vacation time.

We have been doing sheltering operations, meaning people are staying in place until the fire passes areas and then shuttle operations to try and get them out by road.



YOUNG: John, look, it's still very early in the morning so we've seen firefighters who are driving around. These guys have been battling non-stop to put out these fires. Some of them working more than 20 hours at a time. You have to think about the work that they are putting in.

Now, when you think about the conditions here and the fact that over two million acres have already burned, and it's not fire season yet, you understand why people who live in this state are very worried.

Of course, when you look behind me and see the scorched earth, you know fire and this dry ground just don't mix.

KING: They just don't mix.

Ryan, thanks for pointing out the fantastic work of these first responders who work around the clock and are all exhausted making their best effort.

Ryan, appreciate that.

Chad, to Ryan's point, it's not each fire season yet. Is the prognosis better when you look at other factors or getting worse?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Certainly not better for the next 48 hours, John. We really have a problem in California where winds will be gusting to 20 to 30 miles per hour on top of the fires that aren't contained.

We talked about this yesterday where Salt Lake City could have gusted to about 79 this morning. They were over 70. But the peaks and the valleys to the north and to the east of Salt Lake City, 99 miles per hour for the wind gusts.

I know we talk about the 25 in California, but there are many other fires here affected by this wind, affected by what we've seen, where temperatures in Denver went from 94 to 37. This is a cold front of big wintertime proportions.

Each right now in Salt Lake City gusting to 67 miles per hour. Vegas to 43. Dust is in the Arabs, And we look out here towards Redding, that's the area that we saw the lightning complex, the northern lightning complex so badly close to Vacaville.

This is going to fire up again today, I'm afraid, and maybe not much help for tomorrow, 15 to 20. That doesn't seem like a lot when you're hoping for a 15-mile-per-hour gust to cool you off. But when you have fire and embers and ash going in the direction of that wind, it is a problem.

Now farther to the east and Colorado, snow. Even Wyoming and parts of Utah, some spots could pick up 24 inches of snow with this system. That's how vigorous and big this storm is. Snow on one side and 100- mile-per-hour winds on the other side and thunderstorms down across parts of Texas.

This really is almost a winter type storm coming when we still have tropical storms in the Atlantic -- John?

KING: Talk about extreme weather. That's bizarre, just bizarre.

Chad Myers, grateful for the update and the latest there. We'll stay in touch in the days ahead.

Still ahead for us, eight weeks to Election Day, and Team Trump taking a very particular interest in North Carolina.


KING: Eight weeks from tonight, we will be counting votes. Election 2020 plays out. Early voting beginning in some states.

For the president to win he has a lot of work to do, traveling today to change this map.

You look at the path to 270 right now, we have Joe Biden solidly or leaning in state that is carry 268 electoral votes and needs two more. If nothing else changed on this map, Biden needs two more electoral votes and he is president of the United States.

President Trump on the road today to Florida and then North Carolina. They're yellow. They're toss-up states, battlegrounds states. The president has to win them all and take some of the blue away.

As the president goes first to Florida and then North Carolina, two states he carried pretty comfortably, Florida close, North Carolina, but more Republican leaning states.

Just look at what's happening. In the final weeks of the campaign, the ad dollars will pour into the battleground states in the yellow.

Number one for both campaigns, Florida. Joe Biden trying to keep the lead in Pennsylvania, Michigan. Sway North Carolina, sway Arizona, traditionally, more red states.

You see the president, number one, Florida, number two, North Carolina. North Carolina here, North Carolina there. Donald Trump absolutely needs it. If Joe Biden can win it, he thinks there's no way the president can get to 270.

So if you live in North Carolina, there's a lot of this.


AD NARRATOR: We need to get control over the virus. Donald Trump failed. Joe Biden will get it done.

We need to help working families. Joe Biden's plan rewards work and makes the wealthy and corporations pay the fair share.

AD NARRATOR: Why would we let Biden kill countless American businesses, jobs, and the economic future when President Trump's great American comeback is now under way?


KING: CNN's Jeff Zeleny, on the ground in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Of all the battlegrounds, North Carolina being hard fought right now.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: John, there's no question about it. That is just a small sampling of a deluge of advertisements.

Just being on the ground here for a day or so I can tell you there's barely an advertisement on television not a political one. Largely led by the Joe Biden campaign. Donald Trump, as well.

There's also a competitive Senate race, which will help determine who controls the U.S. Senate. Also an important governor's race. That all comes together here.

But there's a reason that President Trump is coming back to North Carolina for the third time in three weeks. He'll be here in Winston- Salem this evening for an airport rally. And that is Democratic city but a Republican area.

In the Piedmont, in the northern part of North Carolina, it is essential for the Trump campaign. They know it. These 15 electoral votes are critical.

John, a lot changed since President Trump carried this state four years ago, who won by just about four percentage points over Hillary Clinton.

And 1.3 million new registered voters in the last 4 years. That's what is different about North Carolina. This is a growing, changing, dynamic state. And what is so important here, those changing votes.


We can say voting is technically Election Day but it is already under way here. Ballots went out last Friday, absentee ballots. You can drop them off any time as soon as you get them.

So we should say election season is well under way here. You can vote today if you wanted to -- John?

KING: Well under way. We should note, you can only vote once, despite what the president urged his supporters to do.

ZELENY: Only once.

KING: Only vote once in North Carolina.

Jeff Zeleny, on the ground for us in the important battleground state. Appreciate that.

When we come back, it's not only weight weeks to Election Day. Today is back-to-school day for millions of young Americans in the middle of a pandemic.