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At This Hour

Fauci "Absolutely Certain" Omicron Will Be Dominant Variant in U.S. Soon; Colleges Shift Classes and Exams amid COVID-19 Surge; Haitian Gang Releases All Remaining Kidnapped Missionaries; Interview with Rep. James Comer on Biden's Pledge to Cover 100 Percent of Kentucky's Storm-Related Costs. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 16, 2021 - 11:00   ET




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

Growing concern: Dr. Anthony Fauci warning it's only a matter of time before the Omicron variant is the dominant strain in the United States, as the variant rages across the world.

Historic severe weather: President Biden vows to help Kentucky in a very big way as the Midwest is reeling from hurricane-force winds battering the region.

And taking the stand: Kim Potter is set to testify in her own defense, on trial, facing questions about how she drew a gun instead of a Taser when she killed Daunte Wright.


BOLDUAN: We begin with major developments with the pandemic this hour. New COVID infections are rising sharply, driven in part by the Omicron variant. Dr. Anthony Fauci clearly raising the level of concern this morning.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: Certainly, what it is showing us in other countries -- and I believe soon in our own country, George -- is it has an extraordinary ability to transmit efficiently and spread.

It has what we call a doubling time of about three days. And if you do the math on that, if you have just a couple of percentages of the isolates being Omicron, very soon, it's going to be the dominant variant.


BOLDUAN: But what that dominant variant is going to do is still unclear. Here is where we are right now. New cases in the U.S. are up nearly 40 percent over the last month.

The more important metric that we always watch is hospitalizations. They're up more than 40 percent in the last month as well.

And part of the concern now is a one-two punch of COVID and flu season at the same time.

This wave is leading to a slew of cancellations. Colleges, including NYU, Princeton and Cornell, moving the last few days of the full semester online. Sports leagues postponing games, as more players and staff test positive for COVID.

And Broadway shows forced to cancel performances, too, just three months after reopening.

It's not just here, of course. France just announced it is banning all nonessential travel from the U.K., as Britain is seeing a new daily record for infections. Let's begin with CNN's Elizabeth Cohen, on the growing concern we're hearing from top health officials right now.

Elizabeth, something has shifted.

What are these officials saying this morning?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think what's shifted here is that they're seeing just how fast this is growing. I want you to take a look at some CDC data, Kate.

What this shows is that the Omicron was only 0.4 percent of all of the circulating virus for the week ending December 4th but, by the week ending December 11th, it was up to 2.9 percent.

Of course both numbers are tiny. And Delta is still by far the predominant variant but still that's going up more than seven times in one week. So they are concerned about it growing.

You might say why are they concerned?

Omicron is supposed to spread milder disease, even though it spreads so fast. Here are a couple of reasons.

One, we don't really know what it's going to do until it gets here. We need to see it in this country and see what happens.

But also there are a lot of immune compromised people who are not protected by the vaccines. The vaccines did not work terribly well for them.

And this is spreading so quickly that, while they might have managed to avoid Delta, are they going to be able to avoid this?

If a healthy person gets Omicron, maybe they'll be OK. But of course we have many more concerns about people who are immune compromised.

Another concern is, even if disease is mild, people are going to want to get checked for COVID. They'll want to get tested, see their doctor, go to urgent care centers. That's putting a strain on all those resources. And as we know, those resources are already so strained. Kate?

BOLDUAN: And exhausted. Thank you so much, Elizabeth. Appreciate it.

Let's go to the new wave of disruptions to daily life coming with this new wave of COVID. CNN's Polo Sandoval is live at NYU, which is among the universities facing an outbreak and making tough choices because of it.

What are you hearing?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, school officials here detected what they're describing as a considerable acceleration in the number of COVID positive cases here, not obviously in terms of severity of the illness but seeing more cases.

Because of that, they're telling students and staff, there's no reason to be alarmed but simply a time to be cautious and to act. That is why NYU, among a growing list of universities, at least half a dozen you might see on the screen there, basically shifting to a remote approach in terms of finals.

Students -- typically the last day of classes was already on Tuesday, so these days are usually dedicated for final prep.


SANDOVAL: And they're usually at home anyway. But at this point, school officials are leaning in that direction in terms of making sure they can try to slow the spread, especially of this new variant.

When it comes to looking ahead in terms of after the holidays, there are well over a dozen universities across the country that have told their students to be prepared to make sure they have proof of a booster vaccination dose, including at NYU'S campus.

In terms of something positive to share, many universities -- Princeton, for example -- they have an extremely high vaccination rate among students, like 98 percent. So that's why some of these breakthrough cases are not severe.

In terms of a wider impact, even Broadway, folks coming in this week to catch a show disappointed, because there was a handful of shows that did have a few sporadic cancellations because of some breakthrough cases within the company.

And that includes "Hamilton," of course, "Doubtfire," "Ain't Too Proud" and the list goes on.

It's important to remember this was only a couple months after they began to open up the theaters again, after the pandemic forced a closure of about 18 months. So really what we're seeing here, Kate, is the sort of larger effort, taking out some of these older tactics to try to slow this spread. And they're dusting a lot of these off and reapplying them, not only for universities but also obviously for even the theater industry as well, as they try to stay a step ahead of this winter surge that all experts seem to agree, Kate, is already here.

BOLDUAN: Polo, thank you very much.

Joining me is Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, professor of infectious disease at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Thanks for being here, Doctor. Our correspondents laid out kind of perfectly of how it has shifted. I'm curious how you describe what's happening right now in so many places in the country.

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA/BIRMINGHAM: I think, Kate, that there is sort of a feeling of dread, at worst; anticipation, at the mildest. I think there is no question, based on what the United Kingdom is seeing, that we are almost certainly going to be in for what we're seeing already, which is an early surge -- or I should say an early stage of the surge -- that is probably going to be informed by Omicron.

I think your correspondent Elizabeth Cohen pointed out something very important. It is reassuring that these infections seem to be less severe. But that's really only true probably if you're a healthy person, who's been immunized -- and ideally immunized with three shots.

If we have enough of these infections, which it looks like we're going to, our health care system has, again, the potential to be really overwhelmed. And honestly, I'm really concerned that, physically and emotionally, our health care workers and our infrastructure just can't take it.

BOLDUAN: You're getting at something I wanted to ask you about. It's a little bit of a tug and pull. You have this and that. Cornell shutting down all in-person activities, for example, reporting over 900 cases. But they're saying they still haven't seen any severe illness.

So I wanted to ask you how concerned we all should be, if people are getting infected at an alarming rate, real outbreaks, but you're not right now seeing that serious illness we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. Speak to me more about this.

MARRAZZO: Exactly. It's a really delicate balance. In a perfect scenario -- I mean, it's not perfect, you don't want people to get sick -- but ultimately, we would like to see a variant of this virus that causes us all to get something like a cold, right?

We would get it periodically; natural infection would boost our immunity; maybe on top of that we would have an annual vaccine. And that would be a really tolerable situation, right. We could prepare for it, we could model it.

What we don't know yet is what the degree of severe illness will be with this variant. And we still have so many places that don't even have primary vaccination coverage above 50 percent, let alone booster coverage or third-shot coverage above 50 percent. So that puts us in a very vulnerable position.

The other thing is that this virus mutates incredibly well and incredibly fast. So I would like to say it's going to mutate toward this less severe variant. But I really don't think anybody's comfortable predicting that yet.

So we are in a very tenuous place, where we're still waiting for a lot of data to come in. But we've got to prepare to the extent we can for what might be another really bad wave.

BOLDUAN: And this comes down to protocols and guidelines, so in kind of this difficult spot. So you're shutting down classrooms. You're shutting down Broadway shows over a positive case or multiple positive cases.


BOLDUAN: As you mentioned, a majority of those people in those settings involved are vaccinated.

So do you think in this moment the rules and protocols that we have in place fit this new reality of the virus?

Or is it not matching up anymore?

MARRAZZO: It's a fantastic question, right. And if you notice, right, the CDC has not gone ahead and said, cancel in-person gatherings, don't get together in places, don't go home for the holidays with your family.

And I think the reason for that is, number one, we're all exhausted. I've talked to many people, who are going home to see their family. They haven't seen their parents in two years. This is the first holiday.

So to tell those people, oh, now we have Omicron, don't do it, is kind of really unacceptable.

The second thing is that you can reduce your risk. If you have three shots, you've gotten the three-shot series, you wear a mask when you have reason to be concerned, you are maybe even testing yourself before mingling with people, then it probably is a relatively low-risk situation, even with Omicron.

BOLDUAN: So it's what the guidelines are, that are stated, but it's also what is being not said that, I think, is confusing.

Because there's -- the other side of this is, does the definition of "fully vaccinated" need to change in this new reality? Every --


MARRAZZO: Yes. BOLDUAN: -- professional I talk to says, yes, in practice,

absolutely, from what the data we see.

Let me play for you what the CDC director said yesterday.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: In terms of the definition of fully vaccinated, as you know, the definition right now is two doses of an mRNA vaccine or a single dose of the J&J vaccine.

Certainly as Dr. Fauci has demonstrated and even our CDC data have also demonstrated, we are continuing to follow that science. And it is literally evolving daily. And as that science evolves, we will continue to review the data and update our recommendations as necessary.


BOLDUAN: But they haven't changed the recommendation or the definition. And in the same breath, they're saying, but you should get the booster.

Does it make any sense to you why they're not there yet?

MARRAZZO: Yes, great question. And I think to some degree it's a matter of semantics. It's also a matter of the data, literally coming out, as Dr. Walensky said, in the last 48 hours. So just in the last three days, we've had data showing, particularly in the U.K., that three doses of the Pfizer vaccine, in particular, is clearly superior to two doses, right.

So I think what we're evolving toward is a three-dose vaccine series, much like we use for things like hepatitis, where it will be dose zero, dose one and dose three at six months. The CDC is probably going to get there but, as usual, they're being cautious in their interpretation of the data as they're coming out and the implications for policy.

BOLDUAN: Do you agree, though, that the definition and the -- and what the CDC says, it matters?

Because there's been some suggestion of, the definition doesn't matter; you should get it.

But the definition, when it comes from the CDC, it does matter, right?

MARRAZZO: I think it really matters. And I think that the expectation is different, right. A booster sounds like an optional thing. A booster sounds like, yes, let me go and get my antibodies tipped up -- off because I really sort of want to do the right thing.

Completing the series sounds like much more of an obligation and like something that you actually should do. And that may -- it's funny, what holds weight with people and makes them make their decisions. And I think anything we can do to normalize the fact and the concept

that a three-dose series is going to protect us against this oncoming tide is really what we need to convey.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Doctor. Thank you.

MARRAZZO: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, heavy snow and the threat of fires. Meteorologists say that the severe weather that has been pummeling the United States this week is unprecedented. The incredible pictures and the forecast -- next.





BOLDUAN: We do have breaking news just in. Haitian authorities have just confirmed to CNN that all of the remaining missionaries kidnapped by a gang in October have been released. CNN's Matt Rivers is live in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with the breaking details.

Matt, what do you know?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, we're just finding out about this information as we speak. The story continues to develop. Our viewers will remember it was exactly two months ago to the day that 17 missionaries -- 16 of them American, one Canadian -- were kidnapped in a suburb outside of Port-au-Prince.

Two were released back in November, another three just a few weeks ago and, as of this morning, according to a source at Haiti security forces, the remaining 12 were released by the gang called 400 Mawozo, which is the gang, authorities say, was responsible for this.

Our source tells us that the remaining 12 hostages were basically dropped off in a neighborhood south of Port-au-Prince. They were released there, walking around the neighborhood, standing out in that neighborhood, so much so that locals alerted authorities to this group of people that have been dropped off in their neighborhood.

That's how authorities came to find out that these remaining 12 hostages had been released. Kate, we don't know at the moment the circumstances surrounding this release.


RIVERS: Initially, back in October, this gang requested a ransom of $1 million per hostage, for a total of $17 million. But as of now, it's unclear whether any ransoms were paid to secure this release or whether the gang dropped them off and let them be on their way. A source in Haiti tell us the group members are currently undergoing a

medical check, they look very skinny. There were five children that were taken here, some as young as an infant aged 8-9 months old, another that was 3 years old, another 6 years old.

So obviously their health is a big concern at this point but all the remaining hostages are now free -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Matt, thank you so much. We'll continue to follow updates on this breaking news. Really appreciate it.

Also developing this morning, "unprecedented" and "off the charts" is how this week's severe weather is being described. Hurricane-force winds in places that don't get hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and more. The National Weather Service says what's happening across the country has never been seen before in the month of December.


BOLDUAN: Let's focus in on one area, the recovery efforts from Kentucky from the deadly outbreak of tornadoes there. President Biden surveyed the damage and met with survivors in some of the most devastated neighborhood.

The president is also now promising that the federal government will cover the costs of part of the cleanup.

Joining me now for more on this is Republican congressman James Comer of Kentucky, the most devastated areas are in his congressional district. He traveled with the president yesterday.

Thanks for being here. We heard the president announce that the federal government is going to cover 100 percent of the costs of the emergency work in Kentucky for the first three days.

What does that mean for your district?

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): It means a lot. This is rural America. Rural America just doesn't have the tech base that a lot of other parts of more suburban and urban areas have.

So that was the biggest concern among the county executives and mayors, was we've got all this debris to remove, all these roads to open up.

How are we going to pay for it?

That was one of the things that I requested, Governor Beshear requested. President Biden -- and yesterday I was very pleased he announced that the federal government would pick up the cost of the cleanup.

BOLDUAN: Getting power back up and getting housing for so many people, I know have been some of the most immediate and pressing needs we've heard about this week.

Are those needs changing now?

What are you hearing from folks in terms of what they need right now?

COMER: Well, we've got a lot of electricity back. The water lines are coming back online. There are still several areas in West Kentucky that still don't have power or water.

But the utility crews are working day and night. They're coming from all over the United States, coming in. Just does your heart good to see those men and women working so hard, through the cold of the night and through the rain right now.

But they're doing it. The private sector has stepped up, the Red Cross, charitable organizations have come in, supplies are rolling in.


COMER: So in the short term, I think that everything's going according to plan but, as you know, this is going to be a very long- term process to rebuild. And a lot of the homes were underinsured; some had no insurance at all. So we've got a lot of unmet needs that we'll be focusing on in the coming weeks.

BOLDUAN: The voice and megaphone that you have is what people will be leaning on in part to keep the attention on these long-term needs.

Partisanship around the country is at its lowest and worst level these days. There's no secret. It's, unfortunately, tragedies like this that remind folks there are certain things above and beyond politics. You're a conservative Republican. You have a Democratic governor, a Democratic president you were traveling with yesterday.

Talk to me about that.

How has it been working with them?

COMER: It's been great thus far. Democrat president, Democrat governor, very Republican representative and all pretty predominantly Republican local officials.

But everyone has put politics aside, as they should. It's very important that the local, state and federal governments all work together and, for the first five days, we have. And I hope and pray that that will continue over the coming months.

Oftentimes, when you have a tragedy, the federal government rolls in. And as long as CNN and FOX and the news stations are covering it, they're there. But once they move out, a lot of times they forget about these affected areas.

And I'm going to do my best to make sure that everyone remembers that. That was the underlying theme of the message that the residents in West Kentucky gave to President Biden, when he would asked what can we do. And many said, just don't forget about us.

So we're going to do everything on our part. We're working closely with senator McConnell to make sure that the federal government doesn't forget about them. But for the first five days, the response from the state and federal government has been tremendous.

BOLDUAN: Let's make sure that partisanship stays out of it and continues to stay out of it, if we can wish for one of many things for Kentucky. You were the only Republican member of Kentucky's very Republican delegation to travel with the president through -- though the entire delegation was invited.

Why do you think that was?

COMER: Well, the Senate was in session, I know yesterday. And with respect to my colleagues in the House, it was my district that he was in. It wasn't even close to another district. So that's the only answer I can give.

But I can tell you this, everyone in the federal delegation, including a couple that don't normally sign on to very many governmental requests, signed on to the request to be declared a national disaster area. So thus far, the entire federal delegation, including the sole Democrat, everyone has been on board working together.

BOLDUAN: It's really great to hear. Necessary to continue that way. And we'll continue to hold the people of Kentucky, especially in your district, in our hearts. And we won't forget. That's for sure. Thank you, congressman.

COMER: Thank you for covering this.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

For more information about how you can help the tornado victims, go to

Coming up for us, Senate Democrats vowed to get the Build Back Better bill passed by Christmas. But that's hit a major wall. The latest from Capitol Hill next.