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At This Hour

Fauci: A "Less Severe" Omicron Would Still Mean Very Sick People; CDC: Omicron Variant Now Dominant In U.S., Causing 73 Percent Of New Cases; U.S. Struggles With Testing Shortage As COVID-19 Cases Surge; White House Plans To Make 500M At-Home Tests Available; Surgeon General Warns Unvaccinated: "I'm Worried About You"; Progressives Furious With Manchin After He Tanks Biden's Spending Plan; 23 House Democrats Announce They Won't Run For Re-Election; Tonight: Dems To Hold Special Meeting On Agenda. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 21, 2021 - 12:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: It's the top of the hour. Hello, everyone. I am Kate Bolduan. We begin this hour with the president's fight against the pandemic. A short time from now, he will speak to the nation and lay out his plan for fighting the new winter surge.

So far, we know that plan will include expanding access to testing, making some 500 million at-home test kits available to Americans as soon as next month. Increased support for hospitals, asking the Pentagon to deploy troops to some of the hardest hit areas and stepping up vaccine capacity, including new pop-up sites for people to get shots.

According to the White House, the president will also lay out two messages for two groups of Americans for the vaccinated and boosted, no need to cancel holiday plans. And for those who are not, they are putting their lives at even greater risk right now.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: From what we're seeing in South Africa, it might turn out to be overall Omicron being somewhat less severe. But you know, everything is relative, when you say less severe that you're still going to get a lot of people who are going to get sick and be in the hospital. There may be less relatively speaking, than with other variants, but that doesn't mean that you're completely exempt from getting serious illness. So, it is ill advised to be cavalier about it and say, well, who cares if I get infected.


BOLDUAN: We're also learning more about the Omicron variant and how quickly it is spreading. It was just a fraction of cases in America at the beginning of the month, and now it makes up 73 percent of all cases. Let's start this hour with CNN's Elizabeth Cohen, who's tracking all of this. Elizabeth, what does the rapid spread of Omicron mean? What should people take from this? ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: What people should take from this is, is very similar to what Dr. Fauci just said, this is spreading very quickly. And even if the disease is milder, it's going to reach more people. It's going to reach more elderly people, more immune compromised people, and we really need to do our best to protect them, as well as to protect ourselves.

It is stunning how quickly this is moved. It is not even a month has passed since we first heard about Omicron. Look at what's happened in the U.S. just in the past two weeks. If you look at the week ending December 4, less than one percent of new cases were Omicron, week ending December 11, that jumped to 12.6, and now 73.2 percent. So, in just two weeks, it went from almost nothing to being almost three quarters of the new cases in the United States.

Now, let's take a look at where it's even higher than 73 percent. There are pockets in the Southeast, as well as in the Northwest, where it's actually Omicron is 95 percent of new cases. So, as I said, just stunning how quickly this variant has spread, Kate?

BOLDUAN: Elizabeth, thank you for that. And we know that a key element of the president's announcement today, it centers on testing. As the new Omicron variant washes over the country. The lack of tests and delay and test results is becoming even more apparent. Nearly two years into the pandemic, you may be wondering, why is this still a problem? CNN's Gabe Cohen has been looking at that. He's joining me right now. Gabe, what have you found?

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, right now the situation is not good. Many people either can't find tests or they're waiting in line for hours to get swabbed ahead of the holidays. But now the Biden administration is making a massive investment in testing. They're buying a half billion at-home rapid test that they're going to start delivering to people for free starting next month. And then, they're also opening new test sites, the first in the next couple of days.


COHEN (voice over): With Christmas days away, Americans are scrambling to get COVID tests, waiting in line in some cases for hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is kind of like trying to play safe for the family.

COHEN (voice over): Health experts are urging people even those without symptoms to get tested before gathering with loved ones.

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, PROF OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE. VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: They could add another layer of protection or security if they all got a rapid test that morning.

COHEN (voice over): Dr. William Schaffner is part of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

DR. SCHAFFNER: I'm certainly disappointed and concerned, the testing is not more widely available. COHEN (voice over): In many parts of the country, finding a test is extremely difficult. Appointments are tough to get and over the counter rapid tests are selling out online and at pharmacies. Dr. Brook Watts works with MetroHealth in Ohio.

DR. BROOK WATTS, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER FOR COMMUNITY HEALTH, THE METROHEALTH SYSTEM: There isn't the rapid test to be found. And the PCR tests that are offered generally at testing sites, the wait period is approximately seven days.

COHEN (voice over): Dr. Michael Mina has been sounding the alarm on testing troubles since early in the pandemic.

DR. MICHAEL MINA, CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER. EMED: I think that our testing failures is perhaps the greatest failure of this pandemic.

COHEN (voice over): In recent months, the Biden administration has pledged to spend close to $3 billion to ramp up testing. They've also used the Defense Production Act several times to make millions more tests available. Last week the White House Coronavirus response coordinator said, they had enough supply.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: There's plenty of free testing across the country.

COHEN (voice over): But days later, COVID is surging, and the testing supply hasn't kept up.


DR. FAUCI: We really need to flood the system with testing. We need to have tests available for anyone who wants them.

COHEN (voice over): Senior administration officials tell CNN that President Biden is set to announce new testing measures today. They'll purchase a half billion at-home rapid tests to be delivered to Americans for free starting in January. And they'll set up more federal testing sites, including one in New York City that will open before Christmas.

DR. MINA: This far into the pandemic, the U.S. is, you know, five (Ph) years behind our peer nations in terms of making these tests readily available.

COHEN (voice over): Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky suggested increased testing will help keep schools open.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, DIRECTOR. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: These studies demonstrate the test to stay works to keep unvaccinated children in school safely.

COHEN (voice over): Another sign that those swabs could play a massive role in our return to normalcy.

COHEN: How far away are we from a time where we'll have enough tests to accomplish that? DR. SCHAFFNER: We can all hope that the testing bottlenecks are resolved quickly. But I'm rather convinced that this will take some time.


COHEN: Now a lot of the criticism here is not just about the quantity of testing, but it's about developing a more aggressive strategy. Now, for example, pills that treat COVID. They may be available in the near future, but they need to be taken within a few days of showing symptoms.

So, Dr. Mina is advising the government to get tests strategically placed in the homes of vulnerable people to catch those cases to get the medicine and to possibly save lives. And Kate, this new announcement from the Biden administration, it could be one big step toward getting to that point.

BOLDUAN: Gabe, thanks so much for taking the deep dive into that. Really appreciate it. For more on this and what we will be hearing on the new moves from the administration. Joining me now is CNN medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen. It's good to see you, Dr. Wen.

So, as Gabe's laying out, the problem with testing in the country, which has been all along the pandemic. We also know that the making a big push on testing is a central part of what the president announcing today. Half a billion tests to be made available to ship to people's homes. It is a very big number. But is it enough?

DR. LEANA WEN, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN: It's not nearly enough, it's actually too little too late. Although, I do commend the Biden administration for finally recognizing that home testing and mailing test to Americans is what we really need. If we think about this 500 million number, let's say that there are 330 million Americans.

Let's say half of Americans want tests. 500 million is enough to get all those people who want test only three tests. That's not nearly enough. We need to be getting to the point that every family is able to test at least twice a week before kids go to school, before people go to work. Also, before friends and family are gathering for dinner, for casual events, for birthday parties.

Testing should not be the limiting factor. We shouldn't be having to ration tests and think, well, this event is pretty important. We should test for that. Testing needs to become a ubiquitous part of our lives as we figure out how to move on and live with COVID-19.

BOLDUAN: And Dr. Wen, when you laid out that way, it kind of sounds like there's no way that they're going to - it's going to be a long way off, at least before testing availability is ramped up enough at this point, to really make a difference. Is that what you think?

DR. WEN: Yes. But what I would love to hear from the Biden administration is a commitment to get to that goal. They did a phenomenal job with something a lot more complex, which is vaccination. We need to produce vaccines that are really finicky, that require specific storage and distribution. They were able to figure this out to the point that, within a matter of months, a few months, everybody who wanted a vaccine was able to get one.

Well, we now need to do the same thing for testing. The U.K. So many other countries have figured out how to do this. America can do this too. It requires political will. It requires testing becoming the number one priority going forward as much as vaccines because I think the Biden administration has put all their eggs in the vaccine basket and really forgot that testing is this other super important component along by the way with masking, it's vaccines, testing and masking that are going to get us through this.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Fauci said today on CNN that an important consideration that's being discussed right now is actually cutting the time period that vaccinated people need to isolate after they test positive. We haven't given any of these breakthrough cases that we've been calling it. We know that right now, it's 10 days kind of isolation, recommended or across the board. What do you think of this idea of cutting that time period down?

DR. WEN: We should have as short of a time period needed for isolation as possible for a number of reasons. One, is for healthcare workers who test positive. You don't want those individuals to have to be out of the workforce and then we have a serious shortage.


The second reason is, we want to actually incentivize people to find out that, they're positive. But if you know that you have to be out and not see your family, what if you care for young kids or what if you don't want to miss days from work. You might end up just not testing because you don't want to find out that you're positive.

And so, if cutting 10 days to, let's say five days, even if we end up missing some percentage of people who may still be infectious, you may actually get higher compliance if you get to a lower number of days needed for isolation. And so, I think the lower we can get that number, the better, even if there is a slight trade-off for missing some individuals who may still be infectious after that period.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Paul off and I had an interesting conversation in the last hour about the messaging, waiting to hear from the president on messaging. Because the White House is going to have two messages, one for the vaccinated and one a message for the unvaccinated, into the vaccinated and boosted it's, you don't need to cancel your holiday plans.

But to the unvaccinated is basically, that you are stressing that they are at higher risk for hospitalization and death, a higher risk than ever, and Dr. Offit says, that this type of messaging well, maybe good from the president, it is not effective anymore. This has to - all of this vaccine hesitancy must be addressed in a new and urgent way on the local level. How is that possible now two years in?

DR. WEN: There are a lot of people who are still choosing to remain unvaccinated. And I don't think that telling them you have to stay home is going to work. I mean, that would be ideal. But I think these are the same individuals who are going out unmasked without caring about whether they're infecting others. And so, I think at this point, we know that requirements work. I would love to see the Biden administration really incentivize vaccination by requiring vaccines for domestic travel.

And looking at the examples of New York and Seattle and Boston and Los Angeles, and many others now that are requiring vaccination for optional but highly sought- after social activities like restaurants, bars, concerts, requiring vaccination is what's going to move these individuals at this point.

However, I do agree with President Biden that the message to the vaccinated should be then you shouldn't have to cancel your holidays. The vaccinated have paid a high enough price already. So, many people have done exactly what's been asked of them. They shouldn't have to keep paying the price for the unvaccinated.

There are ways to gather safely over the holidays. We should definitely make sure that people around you are vaccinated and boosted, getting tested right before gathering can also help to reduce risk and also cutting risk in other ways.

When you're going to the grocery store. When you're going to other settings. Make sure that you're wearing a high quality and 95k and 85 masks. All these things help to reduce risk, while still allowing the vaccinated to go about living their lives.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Wen, thank you. Coming up for us. Tonight, Democrats hold a special meeting to try to find a way forward on President Biden's agenda. And today though there is plenty of anger to go around directed at one democratic particular West Virginia, Joe Manchin.




BOLDUAN: At this hour, a recipe for absolute destruction. That is how one Democrat in Congress is describing the road ahead for his party. If they can't get past their differences and can't get beyond their anger at each other over the collapse of the build back better bill. Democrats are fuming privately and publicly over the mess that's become the negotiations between Joe Manchin and the White House.

CNN's Manu Raju has new reporting on this from Capitol Hill. He's joining us right now. My trust over there among Democrats is in short supply, once again, it seems. What are you hearing about how they move forward and if they can with this bill?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Trust deficit between the moderates and the progressives, really between the progressives and Joe Manchin, as well as between Manchin and the White House. Manchin, I'm told was furious at the White House from last Thursday, a statement that came out from the White House that essentially blame Manchin in part for not being able to get a pre- Christmas deal on the larger plan.

Manchin belief here that the agreement essentially of sorts that they would continue to talk into the New Year, and he didn't think that he would be explicitly called out by the president. So, he went out and he criticized White House staff. One reason why, he is in a mood that is of the belief that this is essentially over. It isn't the good faith that talks can occur going forward.

And progressives meanwhile, say they cannot trust Joe Manchin. In a tense phone call yesterday, Manchin spoke with Pramila Jayapal, the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair who essentially told her that she can't trust his word and need to find other ways to move forward.


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): The only thing we have to trust wolf around here is our word. And it's unfortunate that it seems we can't trust Senator Manchin's word. I said that to him. And look, he has a different characterization of things. But we have spent months, months waiting, negotiating, getting to an agreement, what we thought was an agreement.


RAJU: So, now the question is, can they get an agreement on a scaled back plan. But Jayapal suggested perhaps instead, go the administrative route, have executive actions going forward. Now some other members of the Democratic caucus say instead, they should we calibrate their strategy, tried to come to an agreement on some targeted measures that could get Manchin and the progressives on board.

One of those Congressman Dean Phillips, who told me yesterday, if we continue to point fingers at one another and not recalibrate, that's a recipe for absolute destruction, referring to the 2022 midterms in which the prospects are already bleak.


And tonight, Kate, Senate Democrats are going to actually have a special virtual caucus meeting to discuss all these different frustrations and concerns and potentially the path ahead, but one person who's unclear will actually tend is Joe Manchin. Kate.

BOLDUAN: A great airing of grievances. It's great to see you, Manu. Thank you very much. All right. So, the race towards the exits is gaining more steam today. Now, 23 House Democrats have announced that they will not run again in 2022. Three members making that decision official in just the past week. CNN's Dan Merica is joining me now. He's been looking in to all of this. What does this say? What is the message? And what are these members telling you, Dan?

DAN MERICA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean, alarm bells are going off for Democrats, especially those who are just rank and file members in the House, who see their colleagues to party. It is a complicated issue. But it gets at what Manu was just speaking about, which is there are a lot of Democrats who think they may be in the minority come 2022 and 2023, starting in 2023. And they don't want to hang around for that. There are a number of ranking of chairs of committees who have announced their retirements. They're choosing to leave instead of possibly becoming ranking members in Congress.

You also have the redistricting issue, which has become incredibly potent, and you have members like Stephanie Murphy, who announced this week, she would not be seeking re-election. The Republicans in Florida wanted to take a look at her district and possibly draw her into a much more difficult contest. There are some members who don't want to face that kind of difficult re-election fight.

And then I think the third and most pressing issue for Democrats and Republicans for that matter, it's just low morale in the House. It's a difficult place to be for folks who want to get things done right now. The feeling is that there is no respect from Republicans or Democrats.

I talked to the party and a member of Cheri Bustos from Illinois. She told me kind of point blank. When she was younger, she looked up to members of the House. But now she said is not - not only does not look up to people that she serves with but does not even respect them. That kind of feeling makes a lot of members question, why they would come back for another term. Kate.

BOLDUAN: That's a pretty blunt assessment. It's good to see you, Dan. Thanks for that reporting. Joining me now for more on this is, Margaret Talev, CNN political analyst, managing editor at Axios. Margaret, let's start with build back better and where it stands. What do you think the consideration is now for President Biden? Like, what are the options?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Kate. I do think that Biden and the majority of Democrats in the House, in the Senate are trying to figure out now, pragmatically speaking, what can be salvaged? What is it that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would agree to vote to? And can they get it done this spring, sometime with the spring of 2022.

We know the contours of what that perhaps looks like. It's a pared back version, that would probably include some kind of universal pre- K, childcare, some of the senior care, some environmental or climate provisions, and a big question mark around that child tax credit extension.

But there's two questions and one is like, actually how do you do it? Do you try to do it in one package? Do you have to rename it? Is build back better a poisoned name? Or is it still a good name? And also, how do you do it? How do you work it out with the progressives and all of those moving parts?

I think the thing that makes it hardest to get done, those midterms is also the thing that could perhaps be the only glue that could get it done. Remember, there are lawmakers in swing districts all around the country, whose point of view is somewhere between Pramila Jayapal and Joe Manchin, for many of them closer to Joe Manchin. And so, there is, at some point going to be a desire among some number of Democrats to cool it on the airing of the grievances as you put it earlier and see what can be salvaged. And it's going to be that imperative around those elections, that propels those forward, if there's any way for it to go in the next couple of weeks.

BOLDUAN: And we do know some progressive members are kind of Pramila Jayapal among them, want the president now to push through some of these priorities, go around the legislative process and push it through executive action. Do you think that is going to happen if that's an option? Because it seems an acknowledgment that they don't think any of this is ever going to get voted on?

TALEV: Yes. I think what the president can actually do through executive action, whether it's on any of these individual measures, or look, we hear this again and again on gun regulation, on immigration. A president is actually fairly limited on what they can do with domestic policy without the power of the purse, and in some cases, explicit approval from Congress. So sure, I'm sure, the president and his team are going to look for ways, but if they could do it, they would have already done it, that would have been part of the leverage to begin with.

BOLDUAN: That seems pretty logical when you can put it that way. Stop being so logical, Margaret. I want to ask you about some of Dan's reporting, but he was just reporting out about just all the retirements that have been announced. We've got more Democrats and it's part of its wrapped up and what we're talking about here and build back better and just the mistrust.


So many of us announced that they are not seeking re-election that makes I think it's now '23, I think I said the Democrats, say they're going to - they're heading for the exits. And Dan Merica pointed out one conversation he had with Cheri Bustos. And she's also - she's not seeking re-election. Let me read what she told to Dan.

We've got a problem here. There are way too many people serving as members of Congress right now, who I not only don't look up to, I have zero respect for. And I'm saddened to have to say that. How big is the problem for Democrats, Margaret? And how much does build back - this mess of build back better add to it?

TALEV: Yes. I mean, I do think again, it's a couple of things. One, it's true that it's not just a matter of - there's not a lot of bipartisan cooperation in Congress right now. But even inside the Democratic caucus, if you can pass something in the House, that doesn't mean it's going to go anywhere. In the Senate, the progressives are at war with the moderate to conservatives, politically speaking. So, it's just, you go into battle every day, no matter where you are in Congress right now.

But it's also that there has been a real changing of the guard in the last few years. You see this sort of provocateur caucus rising up inside the Republican caucus, you see, sort of social media and the role that is played in kind of turning backbenchers or first or second term members of Congress into social media stars, and it gives them a tremendous amount of sway and encourages kind of provocative behavior.

You see real challenges around how the two parties can heal when January six and these very fundamental questions like, do accept the results of the last election are still driving so much of the national discourse. And I think like in a real medicines, the whole country are struggling from pandemic related, kind of fatigue about their jobs they're in. Everyone around the country is having these existential moments. Is this really how I want to be spending my time.

I think on some level that's applying to members of Congress too. And if you are a Democrat, looking at very likely flipping of control of the House next year, many are thinking how much longer do I want this to be what my life is? Throw redistricting into the mix, throw a challenging year into the mix, and you've got a recipe for you know, what's now two dozen to defections and more to come.

BOLDUAN: Yes. It's good to see you, Margaret. Thank you. Still ahead for us. Millions of American workers are leaving their jobs in record numbers, not just members of Congress. What does this great resignation mean for next year? The man who coined the term is our guest.