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New York City Positivity Rate Nearly Doubles In Three Days; Expert Warns Of "Viral Blizzard" As Omicron Spreads Across U.S.; White House Unveils "Test-To-Stay" Policy To Keep Kids In Schools. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 17, 2021 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We begin with new warnings about the looming crisis in the United States right now. As one expert is putting it, the country is facing a viral blizzard. Michael Osterholm predicting millions of Americans will be infected with coronavirus in the coming weeks as the new Omicron variant washes across the United States.

President Biden is now warning of a quote winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated. And the G7 is now calling the Omicron variant the biggest current threat to global public health. All of this happening at the worst possible time, the holidays millions of Americans set to travel and now reassessing and we are seeing images like these we will show you of people lining up at COVID testing sites, scenes reminiscent of last year. The U.S. is averaging nearly 122,000 cases per day, a level last seen in September. And look at this more than 68,000 Americans are hospitalized with coronavirus, which is an increase of more than 40 percent from a month ago, and nearly 1,300 Americans are dying each day from the virus.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Shimon Prokupecz. He's live in New York City where the positivity rate Shimon has doubled in just days a tough new reality setting in Shimon.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, tough new reality, and certainly causing a lot of anxiety and concern here by city officials because of the growing number of cases. When you think of a, when you look at the numbers, the seven-day average, everything seems to be going up. You have a seven-day average going up. And then as you said, the doubling of the number of cases in just a few days, though, that the number of cases went from 3.9 percent to 7.3 percent has city officials very concerned, one of them saying that they've never seen anything like this before.

And then of course, the concern over the unvaccinated where they're seeing a rise in cases of those who are unvaccinated, and then always the big marker is the hospitalizations and where that's going because that is what decides what the government here does, what city and state officials do. And right now they've seen it -- they're seeing it seeing an uptick in that as well. Some of the hospitals have already -- made some changes to try and alleviate some of the pressure. And that seems to be working. But as you said the lines all across this city at testing centers like the one behind me here on West 57th Street at the CityMD, people have been lining up here since 5 o'clock in the morning.

This opened at 7:00. And people have been standing on this line for two hours, Kate. So certainly, a lot of concern, a lot of anxiety, a lot of the people on this line saying that they were exposed at work and so out of that concern, they want to get tested, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And now we see how little testing has improved when the system is tested once again. Thanks Shimon really appreciate it. So there is growing fear this morning that America's health care system could buckle under a new wave. Some hospitals are already at crisis levels. CNN's Jason Carroll is live in Dearborn, Michigan, where a federal strike team is stationed to help with the influx of patients. Jason, how bad is it there right now?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, I think you said it best, Kate. I mean, when you use the word crisis, I mean, that's what they're experiencing here. When you look at Beaumont Hospital where we are, we've talked to the doctors and their nurses here. I mean, there's no question. They're overworked. And they're understaffed. And the number of COVID patients just keep coming.

I mean, when you look at this date of August, they've seen a steady increase in the number of hospitalizations here in Michigan since August. The governor has reached out and said, look, we need help and the federal government has answered sending that special task force from the Department of Defense, members of the army coming here to help out, to plug in where help is needed. They've not only been here but they've been to 13 states across the country. This team is made up of critical care nurses, respiratory therapists, the help is here and it's needed now.


LISSA MADDOX, NURSE, BEAUMONT HOSPITAL: When you're giving your all that you can and all that you are to your patients to help them survive. It's hard to go home and be a wife and be a mom or, you know, or be an aunt or whoever. You're constantly thinking about is my patient OK, like I left and they weren't doing so great or tutoring, are they OK?


CARROLL: Kate, the task force is here for a month maybe longer if the help is needed for longer than that, and it should be noted, I know we've said this before, but it's worth stating again the overwhelming amount of people here requiring hospitalizations are the unvaccinated. The majority of those in ICU, the majority of those on respirators are all unvaccinated, Kate?


BOLDUAN: And it impacts everybody when the entire health care system is stressed because of it. Thank you, Jason.

So with uncertainty coming with the Omicron variant and the surge in cases, millions of Americans are still planning to travel over the next two weeks. AAA estimates holiday travel is going to approach pre pandemic levels. CNN's Pete Muntean is live at Reagan National Airport outside of Washington with more. It's understandable, Pete, because this was supposed to be the holiday is getting back to normal and now everything is so quickly confusing. How are airlines preparing for this?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, no huge difference at the airline level, Kate, as things get busier and busier by the moment. You know, United Airlines says it's busy period really begins today and stretches until next Thursday. And anticipates passenger loads about 20 percent higher than what we saw over the Thanksgiving travel period where air travel set pandemic era records. The TSA is anticipating 20 to 21 million people will pass through America's airports between December 23rd and January 3rd, just look at yesterday when 2.06 million people flew, that's the highest number we have seen since December 5th, really a sign that this rush is already beginning.

Now the question is as these infections go up, will these numbers actually begin to taper off a little bit. Airlines say they've seen booking slump off a little bit as the Omicron variant rises. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says, yes, cancellations are up because of the Omicron variant but not as much as when we saw the Delta variant surge earlier in the summer. Here's what he said.


SCOTT KIRBY, CEO, UNITED AIRLINES: 2022 is still going to be a recovery year for the industry. Because, you know, we're not past, COVID isn't over yet. COVID is never going to be over but it's still in the probably pandemic phase instead of the endemic phase.


MUNTEAN: You know, it's so interesting here Kate is at the CDC is now giving out at home coronavirus test kits to international travellers as they arrive in the United States. The CDC says it's imperative for them to get tested three to five days after arriving in the U.S. just a trial for now at a few different airports, Miami, Minneapolis, Dallas, Fort Worth, Chicago, and the CDC says that could be expanded soon, we'll see as the pandemic continues to unfold, Kate.

BOLDUAN: It's interesting Pete, thank you very much. Joining me now for more on this is CNN medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen and Dr. Marc Gorelick, he's the president and CEO of Children's Minnesota. Thank you both for being here. Dr. Wen, you've got all of these data points, you've got huge increases in cases, but not clear how severe the disease is going to be when we're talking about Omicron. At the same time, this is not march 2020, because many of us are vaccinated and boosted. But we still don't know what this virus is going to do. So what do we do?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: We have to put it all into perspective and each live with our own realities of where we are. And what I mean is, when we look nationally, we definitely have a major problem. We already had the rise of the Delta variant that was causing major strains in our hospital system, and now we're having Omicron. And even if Omicron doesn't cause more severe disease, but a lot more people are getting ill, that could really tax our already overwhelmed healthcare system and our health care workers as well.

But then at the same time, as you mentioned, we have a lot more tools. And what I am advocating for is that people use the two out of every three rule meaning that we have three major tools at our disposal, vaccination, testing, and masking. With this amount of virus around us, we should have two out of every three things. And so, if you're not vaccinated, you should be masking and if you're gathering with people, testing.

If you are vaccinated, also get that booster too. But if you want to get together with people indoors without masks, then make sure that people are tested that same day. If you're unable to get that test, people should still be wearing masks indoors. I think we can take these common sense precautions and still gathered together with our loved ones coming this holiday too.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Gorelick, like we heard from Jason Carroll in Dearborn, Michigan, talking about the hospital system there, being stressed. You're in the middle of what's already a winter wave and what could be in really kind of a sign of what could be coming to the rest of the country. Hospitalizations in Minnesota, I think they've tripled since the summer. Can you describe what you're seeing?

DR. MARC GORELICK, PRESIDENT & CEO, CHILDREN'S MINNESOTA: Yes, we certainly our hospital along with the other hospitals in Minnesota are seeing huge numbers of patients with COVID on top of huge numbers of patients with other problems. So let's remember that, you know, people come to the hospital for a lot of reasons. And COVID when you're on top of a surge where you're already at 90, 95 percent capacity, those extra COVID patients that are coming in, those preventable COVID patients that are coming in are the thing that pushes the system to the brink and that's what we're seeing here in Minnesota.


BOLDUAN: It's really noteworthy you took out a full page ad and one of your state's leading papers along with other doctors really making a plea to the public. I mean, you wrote, you know, we're heartbroken, we were overwhelmed. Why did you need to do that?

GORELICK: I think there were several things. You know, as the kid experts, we at Children's Minnesota have seen firsthand the impact of this pandemic on kids. And we with the other systems know that we, there are actions we can take. Dr. Wen pointed out. We know what the tools are to prevent this. And we felt like we needed to make the public aware of three things. First is that our staff are overwhelmed and they are heartbroken. For the last 20 plus months, our frontline staff have been working tirelessly, and they are exhausted.

Second, the fact that we have so many COVID patients coming into our hospitals, is inhibiting our ability to take care of patients with all the other things that might land you in the hospital, and the public needs to know that. And the third thing is they need to hear again, there are ways to prevent this. Get vaccinated, wear your masks, practice social distancing, get tested. If you do those things, you can preserve the capacity of our systems to take care of you when you need us.

BOLDUAN: Yes. There is only so much capacity, that is one thing that is what you're up against in what you're talking about Dr. Gorelick. You know, some of what is behind this, Dr. Wen, I love if you could help explain is the fact that we are learning, we hear that the oma -- the number of Omicron cases appears to double every two days. I think that's what we've been hearing.

You know, for doctors and scientists, I've noticed that that seems to be setting off a five-alarm fire. But for everyone else, how do you explain why that is such a big deal? Why that is not just something to say I'm vaccinated, and so I don't need to pay attention?

WEN: Well, what I would say a couple things. First, is that because of how quickly Omicron is doubling, it is very clear that this is by far the most contagious variant that we have seen to date. This is an extremely contagious virus to the point that if you are in the way of Omicron, you are going to get it. And so individuals who are unvaccinated, they are really at the highest risk now, because they're not protected at all.

We're also seeing out of South Africa that people who've been infected by other variants, including Delta, they don't seem to be protected against Omicron. And so that's another call for people who may think, oh, I'm protected because I was previous exposed. Well, they really need to get vaccinated now, and people who are vaccinated should get boosted in order to provide optimal protection.

I mean the other point is that, even if you may not get very ill, and I'm very glad that people who are vaccinated and boosted don't seem to be getting very ill from Omicron. Two problems still, one is, we don't know what happens when Omicron goes through really vulnerable populations, including nursing homes and other individuals with chronic medical problems. We don't know what happens, and how many of those individuals are still going to get sick.

And then we have to remember that there are still people who are unvaccinated, but not by choice. I have two little kids as an example. I have a one-year-old and a four-year-old. They're not vaccinated. And it's not fair to those individuals who are immunocompromised or remain unprotected, but not by choice to be exposed to this extremely contagious variant now.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and as Dr. Gorelick is pointing out, even if it's not COVID, when a small percentage of a very large number is still a lot of patients, and that impacts the entire system throughout. Thank you both very much. I really appreciate it.

We also have this developing right now we need to get to the House Oversight Committee releasing a new report concluding the Trump administration officials made quote and this is how they describe it in the report, deliberate efforts to undermine the nation's coronavirus response for political purposes. And here's how laid out in the report, by blocking officials from speaking publicly, watering down testing guidance and attempting to interfere with other public health guidance.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty has the report. She's live on Capitol Hill with more on this. Sunlen, what else are you learning in this report?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, this is a very lengthy and very damning report of how the Trump administration operated in the early days of the pandemic and how they formed their COVID response. Now, this is a new report from the House Oversight Committee which of course is led by Democrats, and they conducted many, many months long interviews with former Trump administration officials about the early days of the pandemic.

And they conclude according to the Committee's report released today, quote, Trump administration officials engaged in a staggering pattern of political interference and a pandemic response and failed to heed early warnings about the looming crisis. These decisions place countless American lives at risk, undermine the nation's public health institutions and contributed to one of the worst failures of leadership in American history.

And the report cites many, many anecdotes from former Trump administration officials feeling frustrated and concerned what they were hearing and asked to do frankly within the administration. The Committee says that at one point Trump was so angered by a briefing that he blocked CDC from having any public health briefings on COVID for a period of three months.


Another official told the Committee that they wanted to hold a briefing to the public about potentially wearing masks. And again in the early days of the pandemic, and that was blatantly blocked by President Trump. So a lot here, Kate, certainly a damning picture of the early days of the pandemic.

BOLDUAN: Sunlen thank you very much. Let's go from Capitol Hill. But let's head over to the White House right now, because this hearing at the White House COVID Response Team, beginning to brief reporters, let's listen in.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: We have plenty of vaccines and booster shots available at convenient locations and for no cost. There is clear guidance on masking to help slow the spread. And we have emergency medical teams to respond to surges as necessary.

So, this is not a moment to panic because we know how to protect people and we have the tools to do it. But we need the American people to do their part to protect themselves, their children, and their communities. The more people get vaccinated, the less severe this Omicron outbreak will be. One hundred sixty thousand unvaccinated people have already needlessly lost their lives just since June, and this number will continue to go up until the unvaccinated take action.

So, I'll say it once more, get vaccinated. With that, I'll turn it over to Dr. Walensky.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Thank you, Jeff. And good morning, everyone. I'd like to start by walking you through today's data.

The current seven-day daily average of cases is at about 119,500 per day. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is at about 7,800 per day, an increase of about 4 percent over the previous week. And the seven-day average of daily deaths is at about 1,200 per day, which is an increase of over 8 percent from the prior week.

Now let me bring you up to date on what we know about Omicron. At least 39 states and over 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the Omicron variant. And although Delta continues to circulate widely in the United States, Omicron is increasing rapidly and we expect it to become the dominant strain in the United States, as it has in other countries, in the coming weeks.

We've seen cases of Omicron among those who are both vaccinated and boosted, and we believe these cases are milder or asymptomatic because of vaccine protection. What we do know is we have the tools to protect ourselves against COVID-19.

We have vaccines, we have boosters, and we know multi-layer prevention strategies, masks in public indoor settings, practicing physical distancing, frequent handwashing, improving ventilation, and testing to slow transmission are vitally important, especially as we prepare for more Omicron and even if you are vaccinated and boosted.

This morning, I want to talk with you now about how we can use these tools to help keep our children in school. Over the past few months, CDC has collaborated with school districts across the country to evaluate a new strategy known as test to stay.

Today, we're releasing CDC science on test to stay that allows unvaccinated children to stay in school even if they have been exposed to the virus so that they don't have to miss school while they're quarantining at home.

In the test to stay protocol, there is increased testing of close contacts after a COVID-19 exposure, and that testing needs to be at least twice during the seven-day period after exposure. If exposed children meet a certain criteria and continue to test negative, they can stay in school instead of quarantining at home.

CDC is also releasing two MMWR reports with evidence supporting the use of test to stay and how well it worked in two communities, Lake County, Illinois, and Los Angeles County. These studies demonstrate that test to stay works to keep unvaccinated children in school safely.

In order for test to stay to be implemented safely and correctly, some key prevention measures need to be included. In both studies, masks were worn consistently and correctly, close contacts of a positive case were monitored for symptoms and stayed home if they became ill, and those who did not develop symptoms had regular testing.

Test to stay is an encouraging public health practice to help keep our children in school. And CDC is updating our materials to help schools and parents know how to best implement this promising and now proven practice, along with our multi-layer prevention strategies that will help keep our children in the classroom safely.


Importantly, vaccination is another critical piece in our multi-layer prevention strategies to protect our children from COVID-19. I'd like to take another moment to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated.

Just yesterday, CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met to discuss new safety data following six weeks of COVID-19 vaccinations in children between the ages of 5 to 11. We now have experience vaccinating over 20 million children under the age of 17, and over 5 million of whom are under the age of 11.

Looking specifically at vaccine safety data from over 50,000 children 5 to 11 year olds, we found no evidence of serious safety concerns. The most common reported side effect including -- included pain at the injection site, fever, tiredness, and headaches, muscle aches, which we know are normal and are all signs of the body, that the body is building immunity to the virus.

This further adds to the strong evidence of the safety of these vaccines for children and should be an encouraging reason for those who are waiting for more data to now feel confident in making the decision to get your child vaccinated.

In addition to reviewing safety data yesterday, CDC's Advisory Committee on vaccine experts met to evaluate recommendations surrounding the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, evaluating the benefits of vaccination, the safety data and rare adverse events, and the COVID-19 vaccine supply.

Following their discussion, ACIP made a recommendation to preferentially use mRNA vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And I endorsed their recommendation and agreed with the Advisory Committee's emphasis, importantly, that given the current state of the pandemic both here and around the world, any vaccination is better than no vaccination. Individuals who are unable or unwilling to receive an mRNA vaccine will continue to have access to Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.

And, finally, as we head into the holiday season, when many will be gathering with their loved ones, I want to again encourage everyone to utilize the proven prevention strategies that keep everyone safe, get vaccinated and get boosted, mask in public indoor settings, physical distancing, handwashing, improve ventilation, and testing to slow transmission. We know that these strategies work and will help to keep you and your loved ones safe and healthy this holiday season.

Thank you. I'll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I'd like to spend the next couple of minutes talking about the importance of COVID-19 booster shots, both in the current Delta surge and in the evitable upcoming Omicron surge.

So, if I could have the next slide.

Let's take a look at some of the data that fortifies what I just said. This is a recently published study in the New England Journal looking at individuals 50 years of age or older who received the booster about five months after a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech. There was a 90 percent lower mortality due to COVID-19 than participants who did not receive a boost.

Now, albeit, the mortality is low in people who are vaccinated anyway. However, it goes down to practically negligible values, if you look at the blue line, compared to the pink line.

Next slide.

Now let's take a look at Omicron-specific situations. In this study, one looked at three separate vaccines, the mRNA of Moderna, the Pfizer, and then the Ad26 J&J followed by an mRNA boost. Again, if you look at the times two, which means a standard vaccination, and then take a look at the pseudovirus neutralization following the boost, the increment of that is really rather profound, 19 times for the one on the left, 27 times for the one in the middle, and 4 times for the one on the right.

Next slide.

Now, also, if you look at the neutralization of multiple different variants by pseudovirus analysis and take a look again at two separate studies, one from the Vaccine Research Center at NIH and one from Duke University. Note, on the left panels, four weeks following the second dose. Look specifically at the pink bar. There you see a rather low level of neutralization with Omicron.


However, if you look at two weeks post the third, or booster dose, note how much it goes up. For example, if you look at the Omicron comparing in the Duke line: You see it is about 2002, whereas after a second dose it's only 62, a dramatic increase.

Next slide.

Another example: if you look at the sensitivity of variants to neutralization by people who are vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. If you look again, five months after the second dose, and look under the Omicron, the red circles, nominal, in other words, virtually no degree of neutralization protection. Again, one month after the third dose, it goes well within the protective range.

Next slide.

If you look at now convalescent serum, and take a look at each of the panels, on the left, you have a convalescent serum six months after infection. Again, the level of protection that would be projected from the antibody levels is very low as you see with Omicron, pretty low level with these circles that are red. Twelve months later, it even gets worse.

But take a look at what happens if you take a person who's convalescent but you boost that person now with a dose of Pfizer and wait one month. The red circles go way up into the protective range.

Next slide.

And then if you look at actual clinical issues, take a look in a U.K. study about individuals who had a -- who had symptomatic infection. Look at Delta in the blue boxes. As you go -- the time since the vaccine and look at the weeks, which are showed on the bottom line, you get a diminution against Delta but a very profound diminution below 40 percent effectiveness with Delta. When you boost, not only do you bring it up to Delta, in the blue, but also to Omicron.

What does all of this tell us? Last slide.

We are in the -- in a situation where we are now facing a very important Delta surge and we are looking over our shoulder at an oncoming Omicron surge. Clearly, unvaccinated individuals, as Jeff said in the beginning, are really at a high risk of serious involvement, including hospitalization. The fully vaccinated are doing much better off. But as I've shown you in the previous five or six slides, the optimum protection is fully vaccinated plus a boost.

So the bottom line of what we've been telling you all along, it is critical to get vaccinated. If you are vaccinated, it is critical for optimal protection to get boosted.

Back to you, Jeff.

ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Doctors.

With that, let's open it up for some questions. Over to you, Kevin.


BOLDUAN: All right, we've been listening in to the White House COVID response team briefing with some important updates as we look at Omicron kind of washing over the country. Let me bring in CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. She's back with me and been listening in on this important notes on Omicron. It's going to become the dominant variant they expect to do not -- this is not a moment to panic, though, Jeff Zients says. And Dr. Fauci, Dr. Wen, as you've been laying out why it is important now more than ever to get vaccinated because of Omicron.

WEN: That's right, and now more than ever to get boosted. We already know that with the Delta variants that there is waning immunity. And so even without Omicron people should have gotten boosted anyway. But also now we know that we don't need an Omicron specific booster, that having the boosters that we already have, actually they provide excellent protection, especially against severe disease, but even against symptomatic disease. So get that booster now. And it's really actually a major problem that only I think about a third of all eligible Americans have gotten the boosters thus far.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. There's another thing that the CDC Director announced the findings of studies that have been ongoing in two counties with regard to this, they call it test to stay. It's kind of like testing out this theory that kids can stay in school even after exposure if and there are some, you know, if regular testing and they've been wearing masks, and they say it works is what they found in this study. They say that kids can safely stay in school after an exposure if regularly tested. What did you think of that announcement?


WEN: I'm so excited about this. My son is in preschool. Already he's been out multiple weeks because of various exposures in the classroom and it causes a significant disruption in learning also in childcare for parents and caregivers.