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L.A. County Recommends Masks Indoors to Fight Delta Varian, Regardless of Vaccination Status; CNN Obtains Letter Detailing Decay at Condo on April 2021; Officials Update Search for Survivors in Condo Collapse. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired June 29, 2021 - 11:30   ET




FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in New York. We'll get back to Wolf Blitzer in Surfside, Florida, for the latest on the condo building collapse in a moment.

But, first, an update on a House select committee that would investigate the Capitol insurrection, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she could veto any Republican picks to the committee. She'll appoint eight members while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be allowed five members. Lawmakers are expected to vote on this select committee tomorrow. Last month, a bipartisan measure to create a commission failed in the U.S. Senate.

And there is also now growing concerns about the pandemic. America's most populous county wants everyone to wear a mask indoors, even if they have been vaccinated. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is recommending that all residents wear a mask in indoor public spaces, like grocery stores, theaters and workplaces. Health experts hope it will stop the spread of the delta variant, which now accounts for nearly half of all cases in L.A. County and about one in five cases nationwide.

Joining me right now is Dr. Ashish Jha, he is the dean of Brown University School of Public Health. Always good to see you, Dr. Jha.

So, the CDC, it is not recommending people return to masking in public places if vaccinated but L.A. County is. So what is going on here?

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes. Fred, so, first of all, thanks for having me back.

Basically, what is going on, and WHO came out with recommendations of mask wearing as well, what is happening is we have a very, very contagious variant, the delta variant, the most contagious variant we have seen so far in the pandemic. And in L.A. County, for instance, about half of the population has been fully vaccinated and about half hasn't. And so a broader recommendation for indoor masking makes some sense. I mean, I think the bottom line is if you're fully vaccinated and you're surrounded by people who are largely fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. But with so many unvaccinated people still out there, this recommendation is really about being prudent.

WHITFIELD: So this is back to the whole mixed messaging that many people have said has promote confusion over the past few months, and now, here we go again. And so if you are vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. Many businesses and public spaces across the country have taken away elevator markers, about distancing or signs about mask wearing and now this virulent variant is challenging whether that was premature. Was that premature, to kind of let down our guard to an extent?

JHA: Well, I actually think one of the problems in the pandemic is you do have to be able to shift as new things come online. A couple of months ago when the CDC made its recommendations, we didn't have the delta variant or exists, I guess, in India. But it wasn't here, we didn't know that it was going to be so much more contagious.

So, we were acting on a different set of facts. And the facts have changed. The delta variant is here. It is going to be the dominant variant across America in the next few weeks, it makes sense to be a bit more prudent.

WHITFIELD: Okay. So, one in five cases are delta, and it is quite been the acceleration because just last month or earlier in this month, it was one in ten cases, and then last month, it was one in 100 cases. And you tweeted out, let's get 60 percent of Americans get vaccinated and get this under control. So, help people understand how getting vaccinated will help slow down or end the kind of mutations of this virus that turns into, say, something very virulent like the delta.

JHA: Right. So, basically, we need a high degree of population immunity. We need a large portion of Americans with immunity against this variant for it to stop spreading. That, in my calculation, is that we need about 60 percent of people vaccinated. We know a lot of unvaccinated people have also had the infection, they are going to be partly immune. If we to get to high levels of vaccination, we really can bring this delta variant under control. And, obviously, if we can do that globally, we can end this pandemic.

Vaccines are a way out and I just am continue to be concerned at how many people are holding off on getting vaccinated when it is so much safer to be vaccinated right now than not.

WHITFIELD: How concerned should we be about what's going on in Australia? Four capital cities are on lockdown again, and that breaks down to 20 million Australians, 80 percent of the population are living under restrictions. I mean, this is the highest number since a national lockdown at the start of the pandemic there in Australia.


So this delta variant, it is largely to blame. Do you worry because this is a global pandemic that the U.S. might find itself in the same kind of predicament?

JHA: So, I think what's going on in -- is the Australian government being very aggressive and against the pandemic or against, variant which makes a lot of sense. The huge difference between us and them is they have not vaccinated very many people yet. We have fully vaccinated almost half of our population. Most of our older Americans are vaccinated.

So I don't see any reasons we're going to end up back in a lockdown but I do think that we have to be prudent. We have to look at countries like Australia and what they're going through, we've got to kick up our vaccination numbers even further.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dr. Ashish Jha, always good to see you. Thank you so much.

JHA: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right. We're going to go back to South Florida now, Wolf Blitzer in Surfside.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Fred, thanks very much.

We're only a few moments away, we're told, from the top officials here updating us on the desperate search and rescue efforts underway at the condo collapse site. We're going to bring that to you live as soon as it begins. Much more of our special coverage from here in Surfside, Florida, when we come back.



BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Surfside, Florida. We're live here at site of the deadly condo building collapse.

Rescuers are now on day six of their desperate, desperate search and rescue mission. We're learning that there were, there were several warning signs before this tragedy. CNN has now obtained a letter from the president of the condo board written back in April just a couple of months or so ago that warned the building's condition had deteriorated significantly in the three years since an engineer's report highlighted major structural damage.

There are now growing concerns about the conditions of other old buildings here in South Florida. The city of Miami Beach, by the way, is sending structural engineers to inspect over 500 buildings that are undergoing the 40-year recertification process.

CNN's Brian Todd has more.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Municipalities on Florida Coast are scrambling to make sure the kind of collapse that happened in Surfside doesn't happen to them. CNN got exclusive access to the re-inspection and repairs going on at the Winston Towers Complex in Sunny Isles Beach just a few miles north of Surfside. We saw worried residents complain about the red tape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't get marching (ph) orders for 40-year examination.

TODD: There are seven buildings in this complex, each other the same age or older than the condo that collapsed in Surfside, each more than 20 storeys tall with at least 250 units in every building. Inspectors show us the damage inside of the parking garage right under the pool deck, a layout similar to the Champlain Towers Complex.


TODD: The pool water drained for this repair. There are columns and concrete floors cracking, rusted rebar and cables that support the concrete. Inspector Robert Conde looks at a support column that needs repair.

When you look at this now given what happened at Champlain, how big of a concern is this?


TODD: Why?

ROBERT CONDE, INSPECTOR: Because it could fail and people could die.

TODD: These inspectors emphasis this is normal wear and tear for buildings like this and it doesn't mean the building is in imminent danger of collapse. Still, the work will have to be done to prevent a repeat of the Surfside collapse. A contractor points to something that he is concerned about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chlorine from the pool has deteriorated the reinforcing and the post-tension cable in these areas. So that is why we have a massive repair underneath this pool.

TODD: And Sunny Isles' Beach Vice Mayor Larisa Svechen points out, it is the owners of each unit who have to pay for the repairs.

VICE MAYOR LARISA SVECHIN, SUNNY ISLES BEACH, FLORIDA: These buildings are up against a huge assessment potentially up to $25,000 a piece. This is where our families live, our middle class and the working class, the that are people working in the restaurants, all of the kids that go to the school, all the kids that would normally use this pool. These people are not in a situation where they are able to afford that kind of money.

TODD: Brian Todd, CNN, Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.


BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Rick De La Guardia, he's an engineer who specializes in forensic inspection, also Tom Von Essen, he was the FDNY commissioner during the 9/11 attacks.

Rick, we're starting to see these photos which are so, so disturbing. How important potentially are these photos, these images in determining what exactly happened here?

RICK DE LA GUARDIA, STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Well, a lot has been distinguished between the 2018 photos and the report the engineer originally did and the photos that were exposed a little bit later that were more recent. In the 2018 report, what I see is pretty standard damage for a building that has been placed for 40 years within the proper maintenance, in my opinion. The latest photos show a significant area of concern where a beam is considerably falling. If the photos are correct, are true, that shows me incredible acceleration of the process.

BLITZER: So, if those photos are correct, what is your suspicion, and it is just a suspicion, it's going to take a lot more work to determine, what is your suspicion about what caused the building to collapse?


DE LA GUARDIA: Well, my opinion is that the pictures that I saw in 2018 didn't give me that much concern. And even the engineer's statement that there was major structural damage, it was to a slab. Now major structural damage to a beam for a column, that then escalates to concern. So these pictures showing a rather increased falling on a beam that causes more concern.

BLITZER: Let me get Tom to weigh in on this. The search and rescue effort, Tom, now in its sixth day and these men and women involved, they are heroes, from my perspective. They're risking their lives to get the job done, find survivors. What challenges does a prolong search like this present to rescuers? And you have the 9/11 experience, which went on and on and was a much bigger rubble than here.

THOMAS VON ESSEN, FDNY COMMISSIONER DURING 9/11 ATTACKS: Well, it's just that you start to lose hope. I think that the rescuers and all of the folks involved, the engineers, the doctors, everybody that has been working so diligently in the last five, six days, it is hard to realize that hope is dwindling as the time goes by.

There is a small possibility -- (INAUDIBLE) sorry. You have a small possibility of rescuing people in the beginning. And you hope beyond hope that you can, --you know, that it is going to be possible. But then it just dwindles as days go by and because you've been through so many parts of this building. I mean, that trench was 40 feet deep, 125 feet long, 20 wide. So they have an opportunity to get into many voids and areas throughout that collapse. They haven't even found remains, so much less a survivor.

BLITZER: You know, Rick, from what you've seen and heard so far, we're getting closer to this news conference that is about to begin, do you think this could have been prevented? And if so, what should have been done?

DE LA GUARDIA: Well, absent a sudden soil failure or a like a sinkhole or something that is unexpected, yes, I think it is entirely preventable. And the way we prevent it is to do normal maintenance. You don't wait until the 40 years. You don't let a building get into this level of disrepair for 40 years. And I think the association president mentioned that we should have done something earlier and we could have been doing this all along.

BLITZER: We're looking at these live pictures coming in right on the street over here from where I am. We see the mayor. There she is, Daniella Levine Cava. She's about to make an opening statement and others, Governor DeSantis, and others are there as well. Let's wait for it to begin.

And as we wait for it to begin, we want to hear if there are still hope out there, obviously, that there are survivors and they'll update us on the search and rescue operation, and it is still a search and rescue operation as opposed to what eventually will happen, a search and recovery operation. That is where they basically give up hope of finding survivors.

Let's listen in.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Good afternoon. I have been able to meet with a lot of our first responders, was able to go over with the fire chief and look at some of the work that has been done, as we've done in many days. And I know a lot of people are looking at that with baited breath, as we all have been for many days, and people ask, what -- is there hope or what is going to happen? And the way I look at it, as an old Navy guy, as when somebody is missing in action in the military, you're missing until you're found. And we don't stop the search.

And so I think that is what is happening. Those first responders are breaking their back trying to find anybody they can and they are going to continue to do that. And they've been very selfless. They put themselves at risk to do it.

And I thought about that and then having met this morning with many of the many families who have -- this has turned upside down the worlds of a lot of really great people, not only in this state but beyond. And to hear the stories of the folks who are in the towers, who either passed away or are missing, the amount of, I think, sympathy that has been pouring in is emblematic of some of the lives that many of the people have had been leading. They have touched people all across this world, not just here in Southern Florida and not just throughout the whole state of Florida.

It's been very heartbreaking and very touching because there's a lot of folks who have been experiencing some unbelievable pain.


And the folks that have either passed away or who are missing are almost invariably incredibly special people who have made a huge impact on not only this community but communities all across the country and all across the world.

And so those guys are out there breaking their back on that pile, when they're digging tunnels and putting themselves in harm's way to try to find a void, to try to find an area where they could potentially rescue people, they have that mission, and they're doing it and they're not shirking from it, because they understand in every one of those condominium buildings were people whose different family's world revolved around them, grandmothers, grandkids, brothers and sisters. And I just thank them for their efforts and I thank them for leaving no stone unturned.

And the families, we're going to be there for the long haul on this. And we're just not going to look back and we're going to be there with any support that we can provide. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Governor. We're going to have Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez to speak in Spanish.

LT. GOV. JEANETTE NUNEZ (R-FL): Good afternoon. I will reiterate what the governor has said in Spanish.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back to the news conference momentarily. A quick thought from Rick De La Guardia. And, understandably so, you heard the governor praising the men and women who are involved in the search and rescue operation. They are risking their lives to try to save lives.

DE LA GUARDIA: Yes, it's admirable and I've always made it a point to offer my condolences to those affected and my appreciation for the first responders. The work they're doing is incredible.

BLITZER: Yes. And, Tom Von Essen, you know the risks these men and women are undertaking as they go into that rubble. It's a very unstable situation. They are risking their lives.

VON ESSEN: Yes, every moment. But, I mean, they feel it's worth it. That's their job. That's their responsibility. They don't have to deal with the criticism of buildings not being inspected, of the condo board of the politicians or all the other criticism. They're just on a mission to try to help people. And that's what first responders do.

BLITZER: You know, Tom, you were the FDNY commissioner. Have you ever seen a building like this, 12-storey condominium building with hundreds of people inside, at 1:30 in the morning, all of a sudden collapse? Have you ever seen anything like that here whether in New York or elsewhere? Not because of a hurricane or a tornado or some sort of terrorist activity, but simply presumably out of negligence?

VON ESSEN: When I saw first saw the video, I thought it looked like a controlled demolition. I think one of the problems that we have in this country is our construction is so good that that's why when you do have something like this, it's so unusual, it is so hard to find --

BLITZER: Hold on, Tom. Hold that thought for a moment. I want to get back to the news conference. Here's the Miami-Dade mayor. MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA (D-MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FL): We are day six and the search and rescue continues. It continued throughout the night, throughout the morning. There are currently 210 people working on the mound. The Urban Search and Rescue Team has been augmented by teams from all over the state and all over the world. They are working throughout inclement weather. They are working as hard as they ever have but they are able to make headway even in the face of all of those obstacles.

So they're continuing with the 12-hour shifts. They take breaks. They're monitored medically. And just to make sure that they can get back safely on the mound, because it is such painstaking, grueling work, I cannot express enough how grateful we are for their service, their sacrifice, their passion. They live to save lives. And that is what we are witnessing, their bravery under extremely difficult circumstances, continuing and continuing.

We are also so very grateful for everyone who has joined us in this effort, global teams, state teams and national teams on standby for us so that we can relieve the wonderful men and women out there. We truly have the best in the world conducting this effort.


The federal teams of the USAR search and rescue personnel are rotating in with our current teams. There are more than sufficient personnel on site. We do not need additional resources. We have the best and we have sufficient what we need to get this job done.

Since our last briefing, no new fatalities have been confirmed, but we have been able to notify each of the 11 families who have lost their loved ones. This is very, very important that the notification has been able to occur. And we're grateful to our Miami-Dade Police Department for their very sensitive handling of this difficult matter. And all the names have been released to the public through our social media platforms.

And today, we were also very grateful to learn that our president, Joe Biden, will be visiting Surfside on Thursday. He's going to spend time with the families who are affected and with our first responders. We've had his support since he called me day one in the morning, and this is so critical that we do have our federal support so we are very grateful for that. And we know that his support will continue throughout.

I also want you to know that I've been in close touch with our state attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, and I am supportive of the grand jury investigation that she has announced. I have pledged my full cooperation as she moves forward. I have worked closely with grand juries in the past. I'm very familiar with the process and I will do and my team will do everything possible to aid them in their efforts to continue that investigation.

As I mentioned yesterday, our building audit also continues. And we're taking swift action to immediately identify and address any outstanding issues with the buildings that have not yet completed their 40-year certification process. That's our priority right now. And just last night, our building officer notified one of those properties, a building in northeast state, that four balconies must be immediately closed to residents due to safety conditions. So we are proceeding at pace with all of the buildings identified and I know within a matter of days or short weeks, we will have addressed all those safety concerns.

And today, I am also making an announcement that I will be meeting with subject area experts from multiple relevant fields, from engineering to legal to construction to development to soil to geology to look closely at every possible angle on this issue related to building safety. So they will advise me on issues related to building construction, chain of custody and requirements for reporting, condominium regulation and more so that my staff and I can develop a set of recommendations for changes that need to be made at all steps in the building process to ensure a tragedy like this will never, ever happen again.

And I will be meeting with these experts in the very near future and I will be planning to look for additional experts who can advise me once further insights are achieved from this investigation. So we'll continue to pull in additional experts as new information becomes available to ensure that we're considering all possible angles, all possible factors and perspectives.

For the families who have been impacted by this tragedy, we are continuing to do all that we can to support them in any way that they need. So our new expanded family assistance center has over 20 agencies now offering support, short and long-term counseling, home assistance, travel assistance, psychological and brief counseling, financial assistance, visa and passport support and much more, in addition to legal support. And we're going to continue to offer our twice daily briefings to the families, and we just completed our morning session before this conference.

These sessions have been vital to assisting families to understand the nature of this search, the nature of the entire enterprise, and this is so, so important as we proceed daily on our search and rescue efforts to have them fully aware of every step of the process. So, please, I know you'll join with me and your prayers, your wishes, your hopes during this incredibly difficult time for our families.