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Flooding in Florida and Alabama; Maine Wedding Linked to Coronavirus; Oregon Officials Fight Fires and Conspiracy Theories; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is Interviewed about Wildfires, Stimulus, and Charging Protesters with Sedition. Aired 9:30-10a

Aired September 17, 2020 - 09:30   ET



ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Basically shutting the island down for -- to tourists for about 10 days at least to get all of this clean-up under control and to restore all of the services and water and electricity and all of that stuff. It is going to take some time.

This is an area that took it extremely hard from Hurricane Sally as it came ashore, 24 hours ago. It was extensive damage that we have seen all throughout southeast Alabama and around the Pensacola area. This was a storm that repeatedly, as we've talked to residents who rode out the storm here in this corner of the Gulf Coast, say that they were surprised by just how powerful this particular storm ended up being.

Jim and Poppy.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's amazing the view you get from those drones, right, a bird's-eye view that shows the real extent.


SCIUTTO: Ed Lavandera, thanks for being on the ground there for us.

Well, a wedding in Maine has become a super spreader event. So far, listen to this, seven deaths now linked to that single event. But not one of the people who died even attended the wedding. The state's CDC director will explain how things ripple out from these gatherings, and the director joins me next.



SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

This morning, an alarming reminder about just how easily this virus can spread under certain conditions, particularly indoors. A wedding in Maine early last month is now a super spreader event. What does that mean? According to "The Washington Post," 65 people attended the ceremony at the Big Moose Inn on August 7th. Since then, three times as many people nearly, at least 176 infections traced to that event, and at least seven deaths. Get this, remarkably, none of those people who died actually attended the wedding. They got it from someone else who attended.

Joining me now is Dr. Nirav Shah, he's the director of the Maine CDC.

Dr. Shah, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

I'm wondering, can you explain to us what in particular about this event, this wedding, led it to be such a super spreader event.

DR. NIRAV SHAH, DIRECTOR, MAINE CDC: Well, Jim, thank you so much for having me on. This has been a challenging situation.

One of the things that led to such a high number of cases, as well as subsequent outbreaks, were the things that we've heard about for many months now. The attendees of the initial event on August 7th weren't wearing masks. Much of the celebration that they were a part of was indoors.

But, on top of that, the individuals who worked -- or who attended that event subsequently had contact with others who themselves worked at places where there were built in structural vulnerabilities. One person had contact with another person who worked at a nursing home, which generated its own outbreak. Another person who attended the event worked at a county jail. All of those locations have structural vulnerabilities where the residents -- the attendees, those who live in those places, themselves are at heightened vulnerability for Covid- 19.

SCIUTTO: Listen, I mean it's just such a reminder that wearing the mask, it's not just about yourself or even primarily about your own health, it's about doing your part for everybody else.

One reason you were able to track this so definitively in Maine is that you have robust contact tracing. Explain how you did that and why that's important to helping control the outbreak more broadly.

SHAH: This -- this outbreak of now over 177 people, as you mentioned, is illustrative of the importance of contact tracing. I'm really proud of the team that we have here at the Maine CDC. We have over a hundred people that are doing case investigation and contact tracing.

Were it not for that strong team of folks who are working on these situations, what would have previously been three seemingly dispirit outbreaks unconnected to one another, we have now, because of careful contact tracing, pieced together the linkages of who attended which event and at what time period. So we now have a more sharp focus and recognize that what was three seemingly previously dispirit events are actually just one large interconnected event.

Query for everybody watching, how much more frequent events like this, these large super spreader events are actually occurring but because we don't have a great national infrastructure around contact tracing we're just not able to see the pieces of the puzzle. SCIUTTO: Well, in addition to that, the sad fact is, not only do we

not have a national plan or resources for contact tracing, we have deliberately contradictory messaging. I mean the president himself continues to question the value of masks and to question the lack of safety of big indoor events.

I wonder, in Maine, has that made it harder for you to encourage residents there to do the right thing, to protect themselves, but protect their families, their communities, their co-workers?

SHAH: I have to say, Jim, I think one of the keys of Maine's relative success with keeping a lid on Covid-19 is that people in Maine abide by best public health recommendations and we believe in science. I think what's notable for me is that notwithstanding this large outbreak connected with the wedding, that outbreak did not derail Maine's progress against Covid-19.

Our positivity rate still is amongst the lowest in the nation at about 0.6 percent. Our number of new cases, even with this outbreak, is still among the lowest in the nation. And I think that is evidence and proof positive of the role of, first of all, abiding by good scientific principles and then, of course, putting them into action, with which people in Maine by and large have done in spades.

SCIUTTO: One issue, before I let you go, Dr. Shah, that some communities have had with contact tracing is people don't want to cooperate, right?


They get a call saying, OK, you've been infected, who have you been with? They're like, I don't want to tell you that. I mean have you run into that in Maine? And, if so, how have you gotten over it?

SHAH: We have run into it in Maine. And I'm away, from my colleagues, that others have run into it across the country.

Jim, this really illustrates and underscores the importance of trust in the entire system. One of the ways that we have gone about talking about contact tracing in Maine is talking about it -- about -- around what it really is, which is just talking with folks.

We have ensured everybody in Maine that if a contact tracer from the Maine CDC calls you, they are not there to talk to you about anything other than those you might have exposed so that they can be kept safe. We keep the focus on safety as a way to build that public trust. It really is about getting a community of people together.

In public health, one of the things that we know is that what is predictable is preventable. And so if we can predict where public health will be involved in contact tracing, we can use that to prevent future outbreaks.

SCIUTTO: We wish you luck. You know, you're setting a good example there. We hope more people learn from it.

Dr. Nirav Shah, thanks very much.

SHAH: Thank you for having me, Jim.

HARLOW: So, so important to hear from him. Thank you.

Also, firefighters that are continuing to battle these out of control wildfires in Oregon, well, one sheriff there says he is also having to fight conspiracy theories about the fires.



SCIUTTO: In Oregon, at least 12 people are missing, eight have been confirmed dead as fires rip across that state. Just look at the scene there. That was someone's home. Officials there not only battling flames, but, sadly, conspiracy theories spread on social media as well.

CNN's Martin Savidge is in Lyons, Oregon, with the latest.

Martin, I mean, it's crazy stuff, but the trouble is it has an effect on the emergency response, does it not?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, it does. No, it ties up the law enforcement especially because they have to track down every lead and every call that they get that's coming. And, of course, they're getting a lot of these calls of people that are just spouting what are not true conspiracy theories.

Let me just tell you a bit about where we are.

Lyons is a community located about an hour and a half maybe south of Portland, Oregon. This is the Beachie Creek fire. This fire still continues to burn. It's only about 20 percent contained. Contained, by the way, does not mean extinguished.

And 470 homes in this area destroyed. Another 800 buildings that were destroyed. This is, of course, one of those homes, four people have died also in this fire. And there are 26 fires like this that continue to burn in Oregon. They don't burn as fiercely, but they are still burning.

So let's talk about the conspiracy theories. The sheriff of Clackamas County, that's Craig Roberts, he was again having to talk about this yesterday to try to put out the fire of these rumors.



SHERIFF CRAIG ROBERTS, CLACKAMAS COUNTY, OREGON: Our office has no intelligence or information about any group committing any crimes. No arrests have been made in that -- and associated with any group.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAVIDGE: So they're bombarded with these reports from people saying this is Antifa that (ph) are going out there and starting these fires. You just heard him say there have been no organized groups that have been brought in or that have been a part of any arsonist attacks here.

However, there is still arrests that have been made. Fifteen people for various causes. And I should also point out that there is -- Jim Perkins is a man who came up to us while we were here. Turns out he's with sort of an armed neighborhood watch. Here's a little of our conversation.


JIM PERKINS, RESIDENT: Yes, we're armed. But we weren't trying -- we weren't vigilantes. We were -- just had a deterrent. You know, so if somebody come and they say that we had a gun, just a deterrent.

SAVIDGE: What would you say to people who you knew were not from here?

PERKINS: That they should just turn around. Make it real simple. Just turn around. You have no business here.


SAVIDGE: This is -- this is another thing that law enforcement says they do not want to have happen. They have beefed up patrols in the fire areas. They don't need the public going out there armed and acting as some sort of inquisitor of people who are there.


SAVIDGE: So the fire problems here are magnified by the human problems.

Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Listen, people appointing themselves as law enforcement. We've see it in protests. We're seeing it now in the fires.

Martin Savidge, stay safe out there and thanks very much.

HARLOW: Well, as Martin just reported, these fires are raging and they're dealing with all of that at the same time. A stimulus fight continues on Capitol Hill with Americans in dire need.

Here to discuss both, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.

Welcome, Senator. Good morning.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

HARLOW: You are living what is hell in your state, these fires. And as I understand it, you drove 600 miles through them without getting out of your car. What did you see?

MERKLEY: Well, I -- Poppy, I did get out of my car. I was visiting different refugee centers and fire control centers and two towns that had been just incinerated to the ground. And it was a fact that from that 600 miles I never got out of the smoke.


I remember fires of the past where I was driving and be in the smoke for 20 or 30 minutes. That's a big fire. This is apocalyptic. To see, as your viewers have, these towns burnt to the ground. It looks like a World War II town hit -- hit by fire bombing.

And thousands of homes destroyed, residences destroyed. A lot of them are apartment buildings and mobile home parks, manufactured housing parks. So a lot of the families who had very modest housing, the most affordable housing, the housing is gone. We have commercial districts burnt to the ground. It's overwhelming.

HARLOW: Yes. I really can't imagine. And these pictures are just -- are bringing it home for everyone. I'm very sorry about what all of your residents are going through there.

It makes also, I would assume, their financial situation more dire for many in the middle of a pandemic. And here we have this week, on the stimulus front, a bipartisan group of lawmakers coming forward with a $2 trillion proposal, right, supported by some Republicans and Democrats that has been now immediately rejected by Democratic leadership in the House.

And it includes a lot. It includes a $1,200, you know, stimulus check, $450 in weekly unemployment benefits increase, it includes $500 billion for state and local aid.

You have said about the people of Oregon, they are struggling to pay their mortgage, they're struggling on housing, they're struggling with access to food. You've said state and local aid is essential. This proposal checks, in one way or another, all of those boxes. So is it a mistake for Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership to reject it outright?

MERKLEY: Well, I can tell you over here in the Senate, I would like to see a bill like that on the floor with the ability to amend but with 50 votes. Let's put the legislative process to work. So, for example, the issue that we need to address on evictions and foreclosures can be debated and considered. The issue over utility cutoffs, which is just extremely important to families getting through this, you know, being able to still stand on their feet. Let's -- let's take and put it before the body and -- and any version of this is a starting point with 50 votes. Let's legislate and consider and --

HARLOW: That's notable. You like -- you like it enough to consider it, and I wonder if you think then it is a mistake for Speaker Pelosi to be rejecting this outright. I ask because, for example, Democrat Max Rose, in the House, whose on this bipartisan commission, said this is all the reasons why people hate politics. And he even said, Senator Merkley, it makes him disappointed to be a Democrat. Does it make you feel the same? MERKLEY: Well, I don't know the dynamics on the House side. Whenever

you ask a senator about what's going on in the House, we're very aware. I -- my impression is that Speaker Pelosi is working at putting together her own package. Maybe it will have some of the additional elements that the House Democrats largely have thought or are important. But the point is, let's get a bill on to the floor of the Senate where we have a chance to amend, to vote on the different provisions we think are important, to be accountable to our voters. If people want to vote for evictions rather than helping people prevent evictions, well, then -- then at least the voters know where they stand.

HARLOW: Right.

MERKLEY: Are they going to help people out or not help people out?

HARLOW: Before we move on to another very important topic, I guess just a yes or no question on this, and I understand you're in the Senate, you're not voting on the House bill, but you seem to like this bill enough. If this bill were brought -- this proposal were brought to the Senate floor, would you be a yes vote on it?

MERKLEY: Well, I haven't -- actually haven't seen the details that bill, Poppy, so I -- I -- it would be always a -- you know, you always like to see exactly what's in it and what the shortcomings are.

HARLOW: All right.

MERKLEY: But the fact that the speaker says it doesn't have a bunch of key elements in it would -- would probably mean it wouldn't pass my test unless we have a chance to amend it.

HARLOW: OK. It is a lot. I went through -- I went through some of it. It also has $400 million for election security, $100 billion for healthcare programs, $5 billion for moratoriums and rental assistance, et cetera.

OK, we'll see what happens there. I just know there are a lot of people suffering right now without any deal and days and day and weeks and weeks with no deal.

Let's talk about the protests in Portland --

MERKLEY: And, Poppy, four months -- four months in which there has not been a bill on the floor of the Senate open to amendments. I called the -- Mitch McConnell's office and said, if you put this bill on the floor, your bill, the one that cut it in half from the previous offer, are you going to allowed amendments? And they basically said no. And so its --

HARLOW: OK. But House leadership -- in -- Democratic House leadership is also outright rejecting the Problem Solvers' proposal. I hear you.

I do want to talk about Attorney General Barr and the protests that continue for way over -- well over 100 nights there. And we have seen violence that has broken out, et cetera. [09:55:02]

The attorney general, Bill Barr, as you know, on this call with prosecutors, brought up the possibility of charging violent protesters with sedition, which is a crime to conspire to overthrow the U.S. government.

What is your reaction to that?

MERKLEY: Well, I'm astounded. If people are engaged in property damage, and I condemn violence on -- on all fronts, they should be charged with property damage.

But what I read into Attorney General Barr's comments is he wants people who are protesting in opposition to the administration to be charged with sedition. I don't know that it's that clearly laid out but that was the impression I took from it.

This is a part of the imperial presidency, an authoritarian approach, where you undermine the legitimacy of the press, you absolutely make disagreeing with the administration a -- a crime, charge them with sedition. It's -- I think the attorney generals or the various prosecutors who weighed in and shared that news, they are professionals who were just astounded that our top law enforcement person would -- would propose really what is politicizing protest.

HARLOW: Senator Merkley, thank you, and we are thinking of everyone in Oregon right now as you battle those fires.

We appreciate your time.

MERKLEY: Thank you so much, Poppy.

HARLOW: We'll be right back.