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At This Hour

New COVID Cases & Hospitalizations Soar as Vaccination Rate Stalls; Smoke to Western Wildfires Bring Haze to East Coast; President Biden to Take Part in CNN Town Hall Tonight at 8PM ET. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired July 21, 2021 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

Here is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR:

Summer surge. Cases and hospitalizations rising every day as vaccination rates stall in the United States. How can America turn it around?

Presidential town hall. President Biden talks to CNN tonight about his agenda and the challenges ahead, six months after being sworn in.

And rude awakening in Tokyo. The Summer Games begin among growing pandemic fears and a big upset for Team USA right out of the gate.

Thank you for being here.

We begin at this hour with the devastating toll that the pandemic is having on America. The CDC is now reporting that life expectancy in the U.S. fell by a year and a half in 2020, the largest decline since World War II. The decrease is much worse for black and Hispanic Americans.

The CDC says the big drop is due mainly to the coronavirus and there are more signs that things are heading in the wrong direction. New cases are surging due to the delta variant now averaging around 35,000 new infections reported each day. That is more than triple the case count that we were seeing around Fourth of July.

Hospitalizations are also rising significantly again, up more than 50 percent in the past two weeks.

Let's begin with CNN's Elizabeth Cohen for perspective on this dramatic drop in life expectancy that's being reported.

Elizabeth, what more did the CDC find?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, you really don't think of just one disease, one outbreak as affecting life expectancy. That's exactly what happened with COVID. Let's take a look at the numbers from the CDC. What the numbers show is the drop from 2019 to 2020 was not evenly distributed across the United States.

For Hispanic Americans, that drop was three years. Hispanic Americans lost three years of life expectancy from 2019 to 2020. Black Americans about the same, 2.9.

White Americans, 1.2 years. All of this is bad, but you can see how disproportionately affected people of color were.

Now, what's interesting is we might think this is inevitable, the entire world suffered in this way. No. The United States suffered more than other industrialized high-income countries.

If you take a look at these lines, the top line is countries like U.K. and France. They did not have the same kind of drop we did. For the lower line, the white one, that's the United States. That drop is so dramatic and, again, did not happen around the world.

So, for example in Europe, life expectancy is like 81-ish, in the United States, it's like 77. That is a huge difference. And again, COVID is a main reason.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. Elizabeth, thank you for that reporting.

COHEN: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: So, more than 91 million Americans now live in counties in the United States with high coronavirus infections. That's more than a quarter of the U.S. population. The CDC now says that the delta variant makes up the overwhelming majority of new cases, and one out of every five cases coming in right now is coming out of Florida.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is live in Miami with more on this.

Leyla, you've been talking to doctors at the biggest hospital there. And what are they telling you?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, they're really hoping that what they're seeing now is not a repeat of what we saw last year. In fact, here at the Jackson Health system they've updated their COVID-19 threat level to high.

So, let's look at the numbers. I know you already went over a few. But let's look at the state of Florida in general. It is leading the nation in the number of new cases, nearly 85,000 just this month alone. And then let's take a look at the deaths.

Florida is also leading the nation where you have about -- just above 600. So you see my point here.

When it comes to the state of Florida, those graphics that we're showing you, you're seeing the same thing, seeing that line continue to go up in just the last few weeks. Here at Jackson health system, they tell me that of those patients that they're treating, 90 percent of them are unvaccinated. When you go to the ICU, 95 percent of the patients are unvaccinated. But those are the numbers.

If that doesn't make the point to you, talk to the people. I spoke to one epidemiologist in Jacksonville where the cases are seeing quite a bit of a rise. He said he wanted lawmakers to know they need to start doubling down on vaccinations.


Quit with the disinformation on social media because he believes the health system here in Florida is starting to see a breaking point. When you talk to the governor this week, he said vaccines are the way to go. His office is encouraging.

But here is how he explains the rise in cases. Listen.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: These things have a pattern. We saw the pattern last summer. It's similar. I think it started a little later, so people should just be prepared for that.

SANTIAGO: What do you say to someone who makes the argument that these fluctuations are exactly what we saw last year?

CHAD NELSEN, DIRECTOR OF INFECTION PREVENTION AT UF HEALTH JACKSONVILLE: Yeah, I'd say that's not based on the evidence. Right now, we know the fluctuation we're seeing right now is based on this delta variant which didn't exist previously.


SANTIAGO: That delta variant, Kate, a very big talking point for health care workers right now, talking about how highly contagious it is. I can't stop thinking about a woman I spoke to in the hospital, from the hospital bed with regret as a COVID-19 patient, encouraging everyone saying you don't want this, get vaccinated, she told us.

BOLDUAN: Leyla, thank you so much for staying on top of it. Really appreciate your reporting.

Joining me is Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo. She's professor and director of the division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Doctor, thank you for being here.

As my colleague Leyla just laid out how bad it is in Florida right now, it's bad where you are, too. I mean, if you take a look at Alabama's numbers -- Alabama's weekly positivity has nearly tripled in the past month and hospitalizations have doubled in that same time and Alabama still has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people in the country.

From your perspective, what is it going to take to turn this around where you are? DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF

ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: You summarized it really well. In fact, just today we became the state with the largest percentage increase in cases of all 50 states and the lowest percentage of vaccinations. So, our daily case number right now just hit over a thousand. That's an increase over the last 14 days of over 730 percent. Our vaccination rate in the population as a whole is only 34 percent.

So we are literally at the beginning of a wildfire. We are not seeing exactly what Florida is seeing on this day, but I guarantee you that, if we talk again on Thursday or Friday or Saturday or Monday of next week, we are almost certainly going to be in the same situation. And it's a really, really difficult challenge.

How do we change it? We have to get on the same page scientifically. And in terms of recognizing that, if we don't get young people vaccinated, we're all going to be at risk for a really awful fall ahead. We don't want to repeat what we did last year.

BOLDUAN: I think describing as a wildfire is the perfect way to describe it because it can be controlled. The control is vaccines. The controls in some regard can be masks, but if not controlled, it will burn out of control and get worse and worse and just spread devastation, Doctor.

I mean, more than 99 percent of all deaths from COVID right now are among the unvaccinated. For me, I keep saying, that's the only number that I think people need to hear that I would think people would need to hear to scare them straight. Why isn't that enough?

MARRAZZO: I agree with you, and I think -- one thing I want to emphasize is that this is a very dynamic situation. I mean, look, we were not in this place two weeks ago, right? We were not in a place where we were talking about --


BOLDUAN: But it's changing really fast, right.

MARRAZZO: It's changing really fast. So do we follow how many of those deaths are in unvaccinated people who are 45, who are 50, who are 25, who are 30?

We don't have a good handle on that yet. We do know in our ICUs we're seeing younger people intubated who are very sick or who are on the floors and are very sick. That should be a gigantic wake-up call. I think as we get those stories and those data out there, I'm desperately hoping that people, especially kids, people younger people will say, I've got to do my part, not only to protect myself, but protect everybody else with this wildfire raging out of control.

And that's -- those are the stories I think we really need to get out there.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, because -- I mean, what do we need to start preparing for? If this is just the way it's going to be, people not listening, people don't get the shot and more than half the country remains unvaccinated?

MARRAZZO: Yeah. I would say a couple of things really need to happen. First of all, there are some people who are still hesitant because the FDA has not fully licensed the vaccines.

Many of us are frustrated with that. We don't understand what's going on.


I'm sure they have a good reason. They're very careful. But I think that would tip some people over the edge.

It would also make it easier for employers, especially health care employers to say, you know, you really can't take care of patients unless you get this vaccine because we care about patients and we care about our staff. So, I think that's very important.

The other thing is, remember, even if you don't get really sick with this virus, many people suffer long-term consequences. I've talked to a number of athletes who continue to have dysfunction in their performance characteristics. They don't have the energy. They also can have trouble with smell and taste, right? And you really don't want that when you're 35. You don't want it at any time, but especially not a young person trying to perform at peak capacity and enjoy your life.

So, there are just many reasons to get this virus. And I just beg people to really consider the safety record of the vaccines, which are great, honestly, and the immense benefit you would do to society, yourself, your family and your community.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, even if it is selfish, this is an immense benefit to you. Even if you don't care about anybody else, I keep saying.

Doctor, thank you for coming on.

MARRAZZO: My pleasure, thanks.

BOLDUAN: Another big story, as the doctor was laying out the wildfire of the coronavirus, there's also the actual burning wildfires right now that is the another big story we're following, burning out of control in the western United States. The fires fueled by the extreme heat and extreme drought out West have burned more than a million acres. Thousands of people have had to evacuate.

The smoke and haze from the fires has reached all the way to New York City which you can see in this video. Believe me, you can feel it when you're outside.

CNN's Dan Simon is live in Nevada with much more on this.

Dan, what are you seeing there today?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can definitely feel the smoke here, Kate. This fire, the Tamarac Fire has been a stubborn one. This actually broke out on the Fourth of July burning near the California/Nevada border.

It was sparked by lightning and it remained relatively small until this past weekend when it exploded. It went from 500 acres to 40,000 acres. And it is still zero percent contained. We saw helicopters making water drops and they were barely making a dent.

Now, fortunately the property loss has been fairly limited, but you have a number of communities forced to evacuate.

We caught up with a few residents yesterday as they were allowed to go visit their homes with an escort to grab some essentials. Take a look.


JUANITA HATFIELD, WILDFIRE EVACUEE: Just hoping to see our house still standing. I know they say it's okay, but I want to see it for myself. It's scary.

DAVID DAVIS, WILDFIRE EVACUEE: The deputy just told us our house is still standing. We just want to check it all out.


SIMON: We got about 83 fires burning across the country, mostly in the Western United States, raging across 13 states. The biggest is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon. It's now burned the size of Los Angeles -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Unbelievable. Dan, thank you very much for your reporting.

Coming up still for us, the Olympic Games are under way. Team USA suffering a stunning defeat. The latest on the live report, ahead.

And President Biden talks to CNN about his agenda and accomplishments in a town hall tonight. He's also going to face tough questions for sure about the challenges ahead and how he's doing six months into his presidency. We'll discuss.



BOLDUAN: We're just hours away from President Biden taking part in a CNN town hall. The president hitting a critical point in his term, just six months in, a pandemic surging, his domestic agenda up against the ropes. The country no more united than the day he took office.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joining me now live in Cincinnati, Ohio, the site of tonight's town hall.

Jeff, what are people telling you ahead of the president's visit?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, there's no question that supporters of President Biden are happy with the beginning of his presidency. They're watching with anticipation of what his government has delivered so far, but also wondering if that will continue.

One key example we hear again and again is infrastructure. Not coincidentally that key vote is happening on Capitol Hill as President Biden will be flying here to Cincinnati. Will that bipartisan deal happen or delayed even more?

But the voters we spoke to are willing to give the president some time and still optimistic about what he can accomplish.


ALICIA REECE, VICE PRESIDENT, HAMILTON COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS: I think they heard from the election that, hey, we don't have time to play around. We've got to move and the people want action.

ZELENY (voice-over): Alicia Reece is sizing up President Biden's first six months in office.

REECE: I'm not saying the administration is perfect. We have other things to work on. Certainly, voting rights has got to get done, criminal justice, the George Floyd bill has got to get moving.

ZELENY: Here in Cincinnati, early promises from the Biden administration like economic relief from the pandemic have been delivered and other pledges like improving infrastructure are teetering.

REECE: If we keep the them of delivering for the American people, I think we'll be okay. But if we get to the old days of Washington bickering back and forth while the American people watch it and say, hey, they're totally disconnected from us, then we'll be going back worse.

ZELENY: That sentiment from Reece, vice president of the county board of commissioners sums up the challenges facing Biden, as he tries advancing a bipartisan infrastructure, testing whether Washington can still work.


One face of America's failing infrastructure has long been right here, the Brent Spence Bridge which crosses the Ohio River on one of the busiest trucking routes in the country.

If the infrastructure bill does not go through, how much of a disappointment will that be?

REECE: I think it will be a big disappointment because we heard over and over that infrastructure is important and the Brent Spence Bridge is so important.

ZELENY: Six months after taking office, Biden has entered the long, hard days of summer.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's much more to be done and so much more to do. ZELENY: A critical stretch on which the success of his presidency

will rise or fall, amid a COVID resurgence, inflation worries and complex foreign policy challenges.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County are beginning to spin therapies of the American Rescue Plan that Biden signed into law in March. The city is receiving $280 million and the county, $159 million aimed at road construction, affordable housing and shoring up businesses.

ALLEN FLEURY, OHIO RESIDENT: It's good to see business is picking up.

ZELENY: Allen Fleury voted for Biden is so far is generally pleased with his new president.

FLEURY: A president that is working with others, consulting with others. I feel like he has more strategic direction, less shooting from the hip.

ZELENY: Biden admirers point to his character and kindness as a welcome respite.

KIM GREEN, OHIO RESIDENT: I think he advocates justice and equality for all people. So far, he's doing really good.

ZELENY: But in a country deeply divided, other Biden supporters want him to use the power of the Oval Office while he has it.

JOE MALLORY, PRESIDENT, CINCINNATI NAACP: I'm not running out of patience. It's a tough job. I know he's got a tough job. I think there are things he can do to be more forceful.

ZELENY: Joe Mallory is president of the Cincinnati NAACP. He's waiting for Biden to speak more forcefully on voting rights by eliminating the filibuster and police reform.

MALLORY: He has a lot of room for improvement. This is just the beginning part of his term, but we're still going to be pressing for more.


ZELENY (on camera): So with all of these challenges mounting, the West Wing clearly knows that time is of the essence. There's a sense of urgency running through the West Wing.

Kate, even though only six months are gone of the president's first term, they know the clock is running. New presidents have to do the bulk of what they intend to do during the first year. There is still a sense among Democrats, they want to see the president act even bolder. Of course, he has much on his plate, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, Jeff, the folks you talked to, they seem to be a pretty healthy level of patience and are being pretty patient. Any sense from them how long that patience lasts before Biden starts facing more public push more, I don't know, trouble? ZELENY: That is the big question here. You can tell by talking to

these Democratic voters, we should point out, that there is a sense that they want the president to do more on voting rights, on police reform, on other matters like that, not just work on a bipartisan infrastructure plan or a Democrats-only plan. So, that is the challenge here.

So far the White House has been successful keeping Democrats unified. That's going to be put to the test in the next coming weeks on the American jobs plan and the American families plan. So, that is -- you know, the question, how patient will these Democrats be? So far they are, but that will expire at some point.

BOLDUAN: At some point. And, you know, one thing people wanted from Joe Biden coming in to office was to bring the country together, to find some bipartisanship. That's what a large proportion of the electorate wanted in electing Joe Biden.

Six months in, do you sense from these Democratic voters, Democratic supporters, do you sense they're still looking for that? If you look at his agenda, it's stalling.

ZELENY: Right. I mean , they know it's a tall order. I asked virtually everyone we talked to about the idea of unifying the country. They don't put the onus on President Biden for that. Really to a person, the president said he's doing what he can do.

But things have changed dramatically. No one inside the White House would have expected that former President Donald Trump would have loomed as large as he has over the last several months and the big lie would have exploded like it did.

So, the whole idea of unifying the country is, you know, perhaps an unachievable task. But it is one of the reasons that President Biden wants to come here to Cincinnati. Of course, he wants Hamilton County, he lost Ohio. But his travels, if you look at them, he wants to travel to red parts of America to try and show the public he's still in more of a middle lane here, trying to work with everyone.

Of course, we'll get a sense of how possible that is with the infrastructure bill this afternoon. For now at least, six months in, they're trying to keep the image of bipartisanship, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Jeff, thank you so much.


And be sure to watch the live presidential town hall with President Biden tonight 8:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN.

Coming up still for us, Senate Democrats have set up for a vote today that is turning into something of a showdown, something they all actually agree on which Jeff and I are just talking about.

The latest mess on Capitol Hill is next.