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20 States Report Decline in New Cases; Dr. Howard Koh Discusses Vaccine Research & New Infections; Trump Suggests Democrats Will Cheat in Election; Alabama Secretary of State, John Merrill, (R), Discusses Mail-in Ballots, Trump Warning Democrats Will Cheat; Biden Uses Caution, Uses Masks as Trump Pushes for Old-Time Campaign Rallies; Fauci Wants to See Universal Mask Wearing. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 9, 2020 - 11:00   ET



ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We learned the state's attorney general will empanel a grand jury to take up this case -- Poppy, Jim?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Alexandra Field, thank you for that reporting and the update.

Thank you all for joining us. We'll see you tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.


"NEWSROOM" with our colleague, John King, starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Early voting starts today in Alabama. This as the president recklessly suggests states run by Democrats are looking to cheat him out of four more years.

Joe Biden is off to battleground Michigan, specifically to blue collar Macomb County. It's a giant test of whether he can break through on jobs and whether flip states that decided the 2016 race back to blue.

Issue number one, of course, in the country and in this campaign is the coronavirus pandemic. And a big question in that fight is being aired out on Capitol Hill right now.

The surgeon general of the director of the national institutes of health are updating Senators on the race for a coronavirus vaccine and the steps the government is taking to make sure one won't be rushed to meet the president's before Election Day wish.


DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: We've eliminated down time by moving into new phases before data from the previous phase is completely analyzed.

We have, as the chairman said, started to manufacture doses of all these vaccines before we know if they work, understanding that we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a vaccine doses that we may have to throw away if they don't work.

But please hear me now. The rigor of the scientific evaluation of safety and efficacy will not be compromised.


KING: Overnight, we learned one vaccine study now on hold. That pause put in place so the drug maker can investigate an unexplained illness in a testing group.

We are in a hold-your-breath moment in the overall coronavirus trajectory. The big numbers, like new infections and new deaths, are, in most places, holding steady and even improving.

But there are some new hot spots, some significant outbreaks on college campuses. And the big question of whether the just passed Labor Day weekend might bring a spike just like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Let's walk through the numbers where we are right now. If you look at the 50-state map, nine states, meaning nine of the 50 -- that's better than we've seen. Nine states reporting more coronavirus and new infections now than a week ago.

And 21 states holding steady and that's the beige. And 20 states trending down, including this in Florida, Texas and California. Three of the big drivers of the summer surge now in the right direction in terms of the new coronavirus infections.

If you look at the death trend map, it's a smaller number. Eight states reporting more deaths this week compared to last week. Only eight states reporting that. And 14 holding steady, And 28 states, look across the south across California, 28 deaths. Let's hope that trend continues.

Remember, you go back all of the way to June here, pre-Memorial Day, up the summer surge, and we are coming down and we are coming down, not as fast as you would like. And it's a slow drop.

But you see it here, 26,000 cases yesterday. Below 30,000 cases a couple of days in a row and the question is does that stick. Sometimes coming out of the weekend, they jump back up.

But the Tuesday number suggests that perhaps we're pushing the baseline. And it had been steady new infections. Perhaps pushing it down below 30,000.

Let's track that as we get through the rest of the week. One of the questions here is testing. Some people are alarmed and they're looking at the new case count and they're worried maybe it's because there are fewer tests. You do see of a drop in testing, 700,000 tests on average right now in

the United States. down from a high here about 800,000. And a lot of experts say even that 800,000 was not enough.

If you look at right now what's happening in the states, 10 states reporting more tests this week than last week. And 22 states holding steady and 18 states reporting fewer tests this week compared to last week.

And most public health experts say, yes, there will be a glitch from week to week. And you want more testing as people are back on campus and children are back to school and people are going back to work.

One study out today suggests we need 200 million tests per month. And you can just see the United States, 22 million tests in the month of August, nowhere near that. So the debate about testing continues.

And so does the debate about vaccines. And one of the drug makers putting it on pause. Unexplained illness. They need to figure out, is that because of the vaccine? Is it just a random illness?

One of the president's top advisers says that's a good thing.


DR. SCOTT ATLAS, MEMBER, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS TASK FORCE: This is an indication that the trials are being done safely, things happen during trials. That's part of the reason why we can't totally predict exactly when things will be available.

I mean, you know, this is not anything really unexpected. As they said, it's routine and these are investigated. But you know, that's exactly why we're doing the trials. So people should be assured by this.


KING: Let's discuss this now with Dr. Howard Koh. He's a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He was also the assistant secretary of health in the Obama administration.


Dr. Koh, thank you for being with us.

A follow-up on what we heard from Dr. Atlas there. He said you have a big trial, someone gets sick, you hit the pause button and you try to figure out, and that's good, smart science. And people should be assured this is being done right.

You share that view?

DR. HOWARD KOH, PROFESSOR, HARVARD T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH & FORMER HHS ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF HEALTH: John, we are in a very important phase of this pandemic response as we enter the fall, through vaccination and possible COVID vaccination coming after that. These trials are really important. And earlier, AstraZeneca reported

that in phase one and phase two studies, a fair number of people got mild side effects, fever and pain in the injection site.

This report is obviously much more serious, but we don't have much detail. We need to know much more about what the adverse event is. We need to know if the person who is ill right now it was in the vaccine arm or the placebo control arm.

So pausing the vaccine right now is absolutely appropriate. And it is important to bring in the outside experts from the data and safety monitoring boards to analyze where we are and where we need to go.

The overall theme here is we have to keep a science and the standards and where they're absolutely high to ensure the public that any vaccine in the future will be safe and effective.

KING: And part of that challenge -- and kudos to AstraZeneca for doing the right thing and taking a pause. And they'll scrub this and see whether they'll need to stop altogether and whether they can go forward again.

As you know, we're in this strange environment where, on a daily basis, the president says we're very close, very close, could even be before Election Day that we could have a vaccine.

Most experts say that's not a fair way to look at where the trial stands. You have Dr. Fauci trying to nudge the president a little bit rhetorically saying it's unfortunate that as we try to get to a vaccine and try to convince people when we get one that it's safe, all of the politics. Listen.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASES: It's no secret to anyone that we're dealing in a very intense political atmosphere.

But I think the issue that came out the other day, I believe, it was yesterday or the day before, when the companies made the agreement that they would not proceed to try and get, for example, an emergency use authorization unless they were convinced that the vaccine was safe and effective. I think that's a good thing.


KING: You've been inside the government during sensitive vaccine development like this. Have you ever seen anything like this, number one, all of the politics?

And, number two, nine companies, biopharmaceutical companies that are rivals coming together to say, look, we'll take it careful here. We will not ask for permission to distribute a vaccine until we are absolutely certain it is safe and effective.

KOH: John, this is a sensitive time because everyone wants a vaccine as soon as possible. So everyone is tracking this day by day. We need to listen to the experts like Dr. Fauci.

We had the pleasure of working closely with him when I was assistant secretary of health and he's been through this process many, many times. And his projection is that we won't see it, in the beginning of this year or early next year at the earliest.

There are outside analysis by experts and the data with the safety monitoring boards. And we have to assure the American people that whatever vaccine comes down the pike and is approved by the FDA is safe and effective and will be widely received if we'll ever get past the pandemic.

KING: The vaccine would be a great gateway to do that.

In the meantime, Dr. Fauci coming into the Labor Day weekend about how important it was to shove the baseline down. We were averaging 40,000 new infects a day. It does appear that it stays that way, down below 30,000 new infections a day.

Walk through how critical is it to get from 40,000 to 30,000 and to push it back just before Memorial Day when we were under 20,000 new infections a day. Why is it so important to shove that baseline down?

KOH: John, you review the trends very nicely. And it's true that the overall cases in the country are going down. We are heartened by the fact that hospitalizations are going down and deaths have gone down, as well.

But the case numbers, for example, are still twice what we're seeing right after Memorial Day. As a country, we're still trying to run down a rising escalator of disease.

The fact that we've made progress so far is a credit to the millions of Americans that have sacrificed. And it shows that prevention and public health works.

But we have to get the numbers as close zero as possible because we have flu season coming up, which could complicate things.

And we need to have the nation prepared for the COVID vaccine that could come after the flu vaccination efforts and have those efforts coordinate as much as possible to show the people that there's a system in place working to protect them against all threats.


KING: It's a giant challenge.

Dr. Howard Koh, grateful for your time and insights today. We come back again and discuss.

KOH: Thank you.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Up next for us, President Trump urges his supporters to vote twice. Yet, then he suggests there are Democrats out there looking to cheat him in the election.


KING: Alabama begins voting today in the 2020 election. And there's bipartisan support in the state for new policy allowing absentee voting for those worried about COVID risks at polling places.

One way is to request a mail-in absentee ballot, which then has to arrive back to election officials on or before Election Day, or you can apply for in-person absentee voting.

Alabama's process probably won't get the president's attention because the state has a Republican governor and a Republican secretary of state.

The president routinely rails against expanded mail-in voting. And he upped the ante last night in North Carolina suggesting states run by Democrats are looking to cheat him.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Watch those ballots. I don't like it. You know, you have a Democrat governor and you have all these Democrats watching that stuff. I don't like it.

I look at these crowds. And if they're going to cheat, crowds are meaningless. Really, if they're going to cheat these big, beautiful crowds, you could have 15,000, you could have 50,000, these crowds are meaningless.

Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all of the thieving and stealing and robbing they do because this is important.


KING: Joining me to continue this conversation, Alabama secretary of state, John Merrill.

Secretary Merrill, thanks for being with us.

We're both smiling when you hear the president say things like that to a degree and then you stop and think, wait a minute, this is our most sacred institution. This is democracy. This is voting.

The secretaries of state, you all compare notes in the best way especially in this pandemic to pull off this expanded voting by absentee or mail-in, whatever you want to define it as.

Do the Democrats -- do your Democrat colleagues, do they cheat? Are they looking to cheat the president out of four more years?

JOHN MERRILL, (R), ALABAMA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, John, I can't speak for what they're doing in their states. I can only speak for Alabama and we are committed to have a safe and secure election. We want everyone to vote, but just one time. We will continue to make

it easy to vote and hard to cheat in Alabama.

KING: You say vote one time, you'll make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. Do you find yourself saying it more this year? I know you don't want to get into a fight with the president.

But do you have to say it more because our systems are under constant attack, including from the president of the United States?

MERRILL: Well, there are mixed messages coming out of Washington and other places.

I think one of the things that's happened, when the president has talked about voting by mail, there's been some concern about the difference between universal vote by mail and absentee voting by mail.

In Alabama, we've had absentee voting by mail for years and years and years. Universal vote by mail has only been adopted by five states in the union where it's done successfully for several years.

It's disappointing that some states have initiated the process to start a universal vote by mail effort. When experts tell you, you have 60 percent of your ballots returned by mail before you initiate that process.

And you need five years of full implementation before you start it. Not five months, but five years.

KING: Not five months, but five years.

Tell me about your absentee process in Alabama because every state is doing a little differently. And when you hear people, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, people at home, make a plan. If you want to vote early, make a plan. Every state is different, sometimes within states there could be wrinkles.

Walk through your process. My understanding is you check a box that says you're too ill to vote on Election Day. You've expanded the definition, meaning if I just fear. I'm worried about getting in a long line during election, and I'm worried to get COVID. That's good enough, right/

MERRILL: John, we are an absentee excuse state. You have to assign a reason that you want to vote absentee.

And what we've done, since we're in a state of declared emergency, as assigned by our governor, Kay Ivy, we felt it was incumbent on us to invoke a rule that we have available to us.

Title 17-11-3 gives me, as secretary of state, the authority to be able to assign a reason for people to vote absentee. And we are in a declared state of emergency.

That reason is number two on our list of 10 that says I'm ill and informed and I am unable to appear on my polling site on Election Day. And that is a universal excuse that all people can use if they choose to vote absentee this time.

Now we have 55 days before our election, 50 days to apply for the absentee ballot. The ballots have to be returned no later than the 2nd of November.

John, the time to be concerned about whether or not you have enough time to have your ballot returned is not October the 25th, the 28th or November 2nd. It's September the 9th, September 10th or September 11th when you have time to do something about it.

So we want people to go to the absentee election office now or contact the absentee election office or download a PDF at so they can go ahead, get their application, get their ballot, and have their voice heard and their vote counted.

KING: One of the refreshing things, sir, you're a Republican secretary of state. You're making that case and the Democratic Party state chairman making the same case, start today, make a plan. If you're going to vote, start today.

You have a hotly contested Senate race. And I don't think the presidential race will be all that close in Alabama. But we'll watch as we go.

Secretary Merrill, I very much appreciate your time today and best of luck in the days ahead.



MERRILL: Yes, sir.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Coming up for us, President Trump pushes ahead with his view the coronavirus pandemic is essentially behind us. But you know this from the case count and the death count, the reality is somewhat different.



KING: In most campaigns, we compare what the candidates say and what they promise. In this campaign, we are compelled to compare where and how they say it.

The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is staging smaller, events, socially distanced and masks required. President Trump craves the old normal, bigger crowds packed together and a who-cares approach to masks.

Even when, as in North Carolina yesterday, state regulations require them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: We're not shutting it down again. We don't have to.

We are rounding the turn. I will tell you, we are rounding the turn. How we're doing with China. We just have the plague. We've had other plagues sent by them. I wonder if they did it on purpose. What do you think, huh?

The Biden/Harris effort to spread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories only because they know we are close to putting it out, getting it out, and we're going to get it out fast. The vaccine will be safe.

This was an unforeseen event, a terrible, vent and a horrible event and so many people died.


KING: The country's leading infectious disease expert -- that would be Dr. Anthony Fauci -- well, he is not a fan of the maskless rally.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: When you see that, what do you think? Is it frustrating to you as an expert on this?

FAUCI: Well, yes, it is, and I've said that often.


FAUCI: That situation is we want to set an example. So I certainly would like to see a universal wearing of masks.


KING: With me to discuss, Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for "The Washington Post," and Laura Barron-Lopez, the national reporter for "Politico."

Dr. Fauci saying we would like to set the example. He excludes the president, Seung Min, from that.

In the sense, this has become a test of the campaign. The president wants the old normal as much as he can get it, airport hangar rallies, crowds with no masks, even though North Carolina regulations require them and the president's who-cares approach to that.

One of the issues, he talks about taxes and spending and what will they do in the military and what will they do about jobs and now it's a coronavirus responsibility test.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly. What the president and his team would like to do more than anything is to turn the table and turn away from the pandemic while we know that the pandemic is still very much ravaging the United States.

Because this is the thing that is singularly hurting him, if you look at polling. And if you look at state by state polling and national polling, you know that the president is not looked upon favorably for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

And that is what the Biden team has hammered him on over and over. That's why you see the president trying to change the subject and trying to talk more about the economy and reviving these airport hangar rallies because that's where he gets his energy and that's where his voters get excited.

And then you see Joe Biden, who is not doing those things, who wants to set an example by practicing social distancing and having small events and by encouraging, trying to mandate mask use.

It's a tale of two very different approaches. And we'll see what's effective later this year.

KING: We'll see if anything changes, Laura Barron-Lopez, as we go forward.

Remember, in the last campaign, is was Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, she needs to go to Michigan more and needs to be seen. Joe Biden at the moment -- and I will underline at the moment -- appears to be benefiting from being less active that the president of the U.S.

New Pennsylvania numbers out today, an NBC/Marist poll, Joe Biden 53 percent and Donald Trump 44 percent in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That's one of the states he flipped, President Trump flipped from blue to red.

Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin being the cracks in the blue wall.

If you look deeper in the poll, Biden plus-10 on the economy. Biden plus-15 on the coronavirus. Biden plus-21 on race relations. And the two candidates splitting even on crime.

At the moment, Joe Biden is not paying a price from his approach and he appears to be benefiting from it.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's exactly right, John. Even though Biden has started to travel a little bit more, he's certainly by no means holding the rally-style events that Trump's trying to hold. The fact that coronavirus has not passed.

But in the poll today, as well as polls we've seen in the last week, COVID is still top of mind for voters. And that's why you see that double-digit, sometimes as much as 20-point gap, in terms of voters saying that they think Biden would handle coronavirus better than President Trump.

You're also seeing it on race relations. And what's driving that is that Biden is doing very well with college-educated voters. It's a trend that we've seen across the polls.

He is doing well in the Pennsylvania suburbs, according to the latest poll out today. And college-educated voters are a big driver of that. That's a shift from 2016 when Trump won Pennsylvania suburbs by eight points. [11:30:08]

So, yes, his approach so far appears to be benefiting him despite the fact that Trump is trying to play a margin game.