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Wildfire Forces Tens of Thousands to Evacuate Lake Tahoe; Afghans Wait Anxiously to Cross into Pakistan after U.S. Withdrawal; CDC Panel Recommends Pfizer Vaccine for People 16 and Older. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 11:30   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thousands of people in California are fleeing the Lake Tahoe area because of a rapidly spreading wildfire. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for the popular tourist destination of Lake Tahoe. And it is leading to gridlock on some roads as firefighters are battling yet another raging wildfire out there. Officials say that the two week-long blaze has burned more than 191,000 acres.

CNN's Dan Simon is live in South Lake Tahoe, California, with more on this. Dan, I can see the smoke all around. What else are you seeing?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are definitely seeing and experiencing the smoke. You can just see the thick haze. But, unfortunately, Kate, we are looking at potentially a worst case scenario with the flames inching toward the Lake Tahoe area.

As you said, this is a popular tourist area, popular in the winter with skiers, and in the summer, lots of boating, and now it is virtually a ghost town, which is very striking to see, even in the early morning hours. But you should have seen what things look like yesterday. We saw traffic really coming to a grinding halt on the main thoroughfare, Highway 50, as you saw tens of thousands of motorists leaving town, people headed towards safety. I spoke to one resident as she was packing up her belongings and hitting the road. Take a look.


STEPHANIE BUSBY, FIRE EVACUEE: We're all packed up ready to go to Reno. We have friends in Reno, so figure it out.

SIMON: What is going through your mind?

BUSBY: Everything we're leaving, our whole town, our jobs, everything.


SIMON: Well, authorities have been warning us, Kate, this was going to be a very active and challenging fire season and it has been that and more. This Caldor fire has been extremely stubborn. It keeps spreading in all different directions with these flying embers. It's now at more than 191,000 acres, just 16 percent contained. Of course, this is all driven by this historic drought that we're seeing in California, as well as climate change. Of course, experts say these two things are interrelated. And now the race is on to save these communities in and around Lake Tahoe. Kate?

BOLDUAN: What it has already done and it's only 16 percent contained, it is just horrible. Dan, thank you very much. We'll be checking back in with you.

Still ahead for us, the forever war is over. So what does the future look like in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and what does it mean for the United States now? That is next.



BOLDUAN: The biggest unanswered question about Afghanistan right now is what happens next. For the first time in 20 years, there are no U.S. troops on ground but there are still Americans and Afghans trying to get out.

CNN's Clarissa Ward has more from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're here at the border crossing that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. And you can see behind me a lot of Taliban fighters, they're standing here under the white Taliban flag. That is the official flag at this border crossing.

Now, what you're not seeing a lot of, if you come over here with me, are people getting into Pakistan. This is the line of Afghans who are waiting to get into Pakistan. But only people who have Pakistani documents or residency are being allowed in at this stage. And that has been a rule that has been in place for a few months now partly because of COVID regulations, partly because Pakistan says it can't cope with the flow of refugees.

Now, if you look over here, just behind me, you can see this grouping here of people who are very sick. I want to draw your attention to a particularly serious looking woman with a young boy. He has some kind of bandages with blood on them on his lap. And these people are basically appealing to Pakistan for immediate medical attention. Some people have been allowed through to go to hospitals.

But, basically, what Pakistan is saying now is we have more than 1 million Afghan refugees and we simply can't cope with any more.

Clarissa Ward, CNN, at the Torkham Border Crossing.

BOLDUAN: Clarissa, thank you so much for that.


Joining me now, for more is Jane Ferguson. She's a Special Correspondent for PBS NewsHour. She was on the ground in Kabul as the evacuation unfolded. Thanks, again, Jane, for coming on.

I mean, Clarissa lays it out really well. Since there is no way out by air right now, the only option is land, and she's reporting on kind of this crush of humanity trying to get through that main border crossing with Pakistan. I mean, what are you hearing about how hard it is going to be now that the United States is gone?

JANE FERGUSON, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: Getting people out now, Kate, is going to be very, very different. It is going to be the opposite most likely of what we've seen in those scenes at the airport where it was a huge public crush, where people who are fleeing the Taliban had to brave the Taliban to get there. So, they were almost leaving very publicly.

Now, I think what we're likely to see is those who are most at risk. So, there is a sliding scale. There are people whose lives are going to be incredibly difficult, whose careers will likely collapse as a result of perhaps being a woman and working in certain industries.

But there is going to be people, Kate, who need to leave now, who were involved perhaps in the security forces, special forces, intelligence services. I think what we're likely to see is those people leaving that will be much, much more secretive, it will have to be more covert. It will be to do with connections and trying to get people across the border.

That border crossing that Clarissa is at there, where it is difficult for those who don't have paperwork to get through, that is the official route, but there are also smuggling routes. I suspect that it is an incredibly busy route right now -- border. In the meantime, those who are seriously at risk of being killed or their families as well being killed will likely have to lie low, and whatever help they're going to get, it will be less public than what we've seen -- obviously.

It's also worth pointing out, Kate, that the Pakistani government and the -- have a relationship with the Taliban that they've had for years. They've helped and supported them in certain ways in giving them some refuge in Pakistan. So, if you are someone who feels like they're on the run from the Taliban going through the official channels into Pakistan, it is not entirely risk-free.

BOLDUAN: Great point. We're also hearing reports. We're seeing video of these long lines outside of banks in Kabul, of people trying desperately to get money out at this point. Also, new reports of fears about the health care system in Afghanistan, and what is left and how it could be collapsing soon because it has been for so long so dependent on outside support and foreign aid, just kind of two examples of how life is so uncertain in this next chapter. FERGUSON: It is. And I think, Kate, that is going to be the story going forward, is the humanitarian crisis that is highly likely as a result of the situation that we're seeing right now. People are anxious to get their money out of the bank.

Don't forget that their currency is rapidly reducing in value. People have already been financially squeezed by lockdowns due to COVID that have been going on over the last year-and-a-half. This is a largely -- much of the economy is in formal. People work hand to mouth and day- to-day, so they're looking for work and so they've been hurting very much so because of COVID.

We're hearing increasing reports of money that would have come from the international aid community stopping, essentially, how do you send money to Afghanistan now. Can you? Is it legal? Is the Taliban still a terrorist organization by -- or designated as such internationally? How do you send money to people? Are salaries stopping? That is what we're hearing, is that people's salaries are beginning to be halted if they had worked for the international aid agencies or anything that is funded by international aid agencies, which is a huge part of the Afghan economy.

It is also worth pointing out that we've been covering over the last couple of weeks people fleeing the Taliban because they're afraid of being persecuted. What I think we're likely to see, and most experts will tell you, is in the coming months is that people that want to leave Afghanistan, because of the humanitarian crisis. And that is likely to be people in much bigger numbers.

So the likelihood of a migrant crisis of many, many people spilling across the border into Pakistan, Iran, trying to make it to, Europe, the kind of scenes that we saw five or six years ago in Eastern Europe, are likely somewhere down the line if a humanitarian disaster is not averted because more people will be hurting from that than they will necessarily from fleeing the Taliban because of their previous work.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And key to all of this is what will the Taliban do. How will the Taliban rule? Can they actually govern? These are -- and that is totally -- yes, I mean, that is -- that's it at this moment. It is great to see you again, Jane. Thank you. I'm glad you're back safe.

Coming up for us, the European Union says it has reached 70 percent of adults fully vaccinated against COVID. The United States lagging far behind that right now. But is there new hope? That is next.



BOLDUAN: The latest now on the COVID crisis. The CDC took the latest and very important step in granting full approval to Pfizer's COVID vaccine, the CDC's vaccine advisers voting now to recommend the vaccine for people 16 and up. Yet this comes as hospitals are simply getting crushed under the latest COVID wave.


These four states you see on the screen, more than 90 percent of the ICU beds are taken.

Joining me now, Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University School of Public Health. It's good to see you, Dr. Jha.

So, you have this formal recommendation now from the FDA and the CDC, and just this morning, there is a new Axios/Ipsos poll out finding that vaccine hesitancy seems to be dropping. In March, they found that 34 percent of the people they polled said that they were not likely to get a COVID vaccine. And that number has now dropped to 20 percent. Does -- yes, this is just a poll. This isn't necessarily data of shots in arms, but does that make you hopeful?

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes. So, first of all, Kate, thanks for having me back. It does make me hopeful. I think more and more Americans are seeing the benefits of vaccine, and what they're seeing is the cost, the horrible cost right now of being unvaccinated, in terms of illness and hospitalizations and deaths.

So, I think people are coming to realize that these vaccines are really quite safe and extremely effective. And I hope that that poll turns into shots in arms, as you said. I think it will, by the way.

BOLDUAN: Yes, I mean, especially when you see the data of the number of children who are now getting sick, more children now showing up in hospitals. That is the horrible cost of what we are seeing play out.

The CDC has added a handful of locations, if you will, to its COVID travel risk list. Many are countries overseas. But also on the list of like higher risk is Puerto Rico. And I saw that this morning. I was thinking of our conversation, I think, at the beginning of the summer.

And we were talking about how we were going to be traveling to family events. You were comfortable. These are -- you're vaccinated, rates were low, you're going to be traveling with your children. But do you think that now needs to dial back, change once again as we're heading into the fall of what we're looking at?

JHA: Yes, so a couple things on this. I mean, first of all, I think the delta variant has turned out to be much worse than any of us expected, and also many more unvaccinated people have really fueled a massive outbreak. So, I think that is part of why the calculus has changed. I do think we have to be careful even if we're fully vaccinated.

I think the CDC's decision to put Puerto Rico on the list was odd to me because Puerto Rico has infections numbers that are dramatically lower than much of the southern United States and vaccination rates that are much, much higher. So, certainly avoiding hot zones is a good idea. I'm not sure I'd put Puerto Rico in that list right now.

BOLDUAN: That's really interesting. The E.U. just hit a marker that the United States has yet to accomplish. 70 percent of the adults in the E.U. fully vaccinated now. The United States, last checked, is at 52 percent fully vaccinated.

First of all, the United States had a head-start here, so this is a real miss. But if this imbalance continues, and, obviously, I'm not even taking into account the vaccination rates over the rest of the countries around the world, what does it mean for the United States?

JHA: Yes. It's going to mean that we're going to become increasingly pariah, that we're going to not be able to travel. We're going to need a document that we are actually safe when we travel. Europe is obviously considering what to do with American travelers, though we're not going to be able to sort of join the kind of family of countries around the world who allow for easy travel between them.

Obviously, that would be horrible for our country and totally unnecessary in sort of a self-inflicted wound. Many, many reasons to get more people vaccinated, and including the fact that we want to put this pandemic behind us and be a good partner for people around the world.

BOLDUAN: Exactly, and putting the pandemic behind us. That actually gets me to on this opinion piece. Two public health experts, Joseph Allen, who has been in the show many times, and Helen Jenkins, they wrote this very interesting op-ed in The Times laying out tough questions, they say, about COVID that need answering.

Specifically, what is the goal in the United States when it comes to COVID? Is it to have zero infections or to treat the virus like the seasonal flu? Because they argue the policy implications are different depending on that end goal. Is it clear to you what the goal is or should be?

JHA: Yes. First of all, I thought it was a fabulous, fabulous op-ed in The Times yesterday and people should read it. They lay out fundamentally a set of questions that we as the American people have to answer. What are we trying to achieve? And I think what we're trying to achieve, I think where most Americans are is we want to get back to our lives and we want to do it in a way that doesn't overwhelm hospitals, that doesn't cause a thousand Americans to die every day. And the good news is we now have all the tools.

Kate, last year, we kept thinking we had to wait until the cavalry arrive, the vaccines arrive. There's no cavalry coming. We've got the vaccines. And we've got to make some tough decisions about how to get our lives back in order and do it in a way that's safe. We can. I thought the op-ed really laid out the issues very carefully.

BOLDUAN: It really did. It's good to see you, Dr. Jha. Thanks for coming in.

JHA: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, President Biden to mark the end of America's longest war, a preview of the highly anticipated address to the nation, next.


BOLDUAN: Top of the hour. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thanks for being with us.

We are just hours away from a critical speech from President Biden. The president is going to be delivering his first public remarks since the end of America's longest war. The last American flights departed Kabul, Afghanistan less than 24 hours ago. The Pentagon tweeting out the photo of the last American soldier to leave the country, Major General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82 Airborne.


The State Department estimates now that between 100 to 200 Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan did not get out.