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Studies Suggest Omicron Milder than Delta; FDA Approves Merck Antiviral Pill; House January 6 Committee Seeks Interview with Jim Jordan; Calls for Reduced Sentence for Colorado Truck Driver. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 11:00   ET




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

Signs of hope: new evidence Omicron poses a lower risk of serious illness and the FDA authorizes a second pill to treat the virus just as cases are surging, nearing the highest levels we've ever seen.

Open or shut: schools wrestling with whether to stay open or keep students home again, while restaurants are dealing with a surge that could force them to close their doors forever.

And from Christmas cheer to New Year's worry, a new look at what ending the enhanced child tax credit could mean for millions of families.

We begin with the stunningly transmissible Omicron variant, now in all 50 states and accounting for 90 percent of the cases in many parts of the country. The U.S. is averaging over 146,000 new cases each day. That's 36 percent higher than a week ago and just 4 percent below the peak of Delta, of the Delta surge in mid-September.

While cases are surging, hospitalizations are not, leaving a lot of people to wonder what this means. Two new studies out of the U.K. and South Africa suggest Omicron may be less likely to cause severe disease compared to the Delta variant. We'll have more on that in just a second.

Also this: President Biden is again defending his administration's response to the now dominant Omicron variant.


QUESTION: How did you get it wrong?


Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world saw it coming.

QUESTION: How could the administration not expect there could be moments like this one, where you have a highly transmissible variant around the corner?

BIDEN: Sure, it was possible. It was possible there could be other variants coming along. You plan for what you think is available as the most likely threat to exist at the time. And you respond to it. And I think that's exactly what we've done.


BOLDUAN: Let's start with CNN's Elizabeth Cohen with details on the new Omicron studies that are getting a lot of attention.

What are the big take-aways?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: The take-aways are that Omicron does not seem to be as virulent. It doesn't put as many people in the hospital or as high a percentage of people in the hospital or send them to the morgue as Delta.

But before I read you these studies, I want to say, as we can see, Omicron spreads so quickly, so many people are going to get it, that a small percentage of a big number can still be a very big number. Let's look at what these studies found.

A study in South Africa looked at cases in October and November and they found with Omicron, 2.5 percent of people were admitted to hospital, whereas with Delta, 12.8 percent of the people they looked at were admitted to the hospital. That is obviously a huge difference, Delta being more dangerous in that way.

Now if we look at a study in Scotland, very similar, a two-thirds reduction in hospitalization risk and they found that a booster was linked to a 57 percent reduction in the risk of symptomatic infections.

So Kate, the bottom line here is vaccination makes a big difference with Omicron. Get vaccinated. If you're more than six months past your second shot, get a booster. Don't be lulled into thinking, oh, this isn't all that dangerous, people are just getting the sniffles.

Who cares how widespread it is?

It's not true. People are ending up in the hospital and dying from Omicron. It's a smaller percentage but still, again, a small percentage of a large number can still be a large number.

Remember, we also want to protect the elderly as well as people with compromised immune systems who are more vulnerable to this variant and really to any variant for COVID-19. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Elizabeth, also new this morning, the FDA has authorized a second antiviral pill to treat COVID.

What can you tell us about this one?

COHEN: Yes. This pill in many ways is similar to the Pfizer one that got an emergency use authorization yesterday. Both antivirals you can take in early stages of COVID-19, so important. This is the first time there are pills your doctor can call in a prescription.

Let's take a look at what the Merck clinical trials found. They took hundreds of people, divided them in half. The ones that received a placebo, 68 of those people, because they had COVID-19, were hospitalized and nine of them died.

Of the ones who received the Merck antiviral, 48 were hospitalized and one died. That is obviously a big difference. Now the Merck -- there's more safety concerns with the Merck drug. There are concerns, especially for pregnant women and it will be interesting to see how that plays out as things go along. Kate?


BOLDUAN: Elizabeth, thank you so much.

Right now, hospitals in New Mexico at risk of being overwhelmed by the Omicron surge. Their ICUs are at 115 percent capacity and they're facing massive staffing shortages. Sara Sidner has more.

What are you hearing from doctors and nurses?

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, they're exhausted and beyond exhausted. Some of them are simply despondent. What has happened in the main hospital here in Santa Fe is that they've had to create basically two hospitals, one for COVID patients and an ICU for those patients and another for the other ones.

Unlike at the beginning of 2020, they are now getting a surge of people in both ICUs. They're over capacity. What this has done to the staff is nothing short of disturbing. Everyone on the staff has reported being exhausted, has reported being sometimes just unable to continue this work they're doing.

And the reason for that is because they are now seeing, again, another surge. They're seeing daily deaths. And they're dealing with the sickest of sick patients.

We were able to talk to an incredible respiratory therapist, the manager there at CHRISTUS St. Vincent's Medical Center here in Santa Fe. He talked about how hard this has been on his staff and how hard it has been on him, watching the light go out of his staff's eyes.


SCOTTY SILVA, RESPIRATORY THERAPIST, CHRISTUS ST. VINCENT'S MEDICAL CENTER, SANTA FE: They come to me and they say, I do need a break, help me.

SIDNER: When we talk about things like pulling them out and people breaking down, it sounds like a war zone. That's the same language that soldiers sometimes use.


SIDNER: Is that what it feels like? SILVA: Yes, to the point of it being almost unbearable.

To see that...

These are very good people, good respiratory therapists, good clinicians, who want to do the best possible job, right?

And they just can't. They can't do it.


SIDNER: You heard that. It's almost unbearable. This is a man, who's been doing this for 29 years. And he has never seen anything like this. And he is going through this with all of his staff.

And what he does for them is, when they get to that point where they literally tell him, I need help, I can't keep doing this, he will move them to another part of the hospital so that they get a bit of a break because, in the COVID unit, it is exhausting just to try not only to save the patients but to keep the staff safe.

Just being there for an hour or so, it's exhausting to try to constantly remind yourself how virulent this is and how quickly that you can become infected, too. On top of that, they have many, many people on ventilators. Only about 25 percent of those folks that go on ventilation end up leaving that hospital alive -- guys.

BOLDUAN: Sara, thank you so much for that. It is crushing to hear that from a hospital, now two years into this pandemic, just how exhausted and emotional and just broken down they are at this point. Thank you, Sara, for spotlighting that.

Let's move the New York. Let's get another view for another hotspot in this wave from Dr. Jay Varma. He's an epidemiologist and the director of Weill Cornell Medical Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response in New York City.

Thanks for being here.

What are the stories you're hearing from staff at this point in the pandemic?

New York saw the worst of it. And New York is seeing the worst of cases right now.

But the exhaustion, just what are you hearing from staff now?

DR. JAY VARMA, DIRECTOR, WEILL CORNELL MEDICAL CENTER FOR PANDEMIC PREVENTION AND RESPONSE: Yes. Thank you very much for having me on. I think the story that you just heard is the type of story that we're seeing in every hospital here in New York as well as around the city and the state.

It's really -- we've had crisis upon crisis in our health care system. We are seeing, you know, less bad news, which is that the percentage of people hospitalized with this infection appears to be far lower than previous waves.

A lot of that is due to the impact of vaccinations. Some is due to prior infection. But you can't underestimate the toll that our health care workers have been under.

BOLDUAN: Talking about the less bad news, I was curious about your take about the new studies in South Africa and Scotland, showing there's a lower risk of hospitalization with Omicron than other variants.

Is that good news?


BOLDUAN: How do you read it?

VARMA: I do see it as good news because, you know, as we mentioned just now, our health care workers are under severe strain and crisis.

Of course your correspondent before said the exact problem that we face, which is that a small percentage of a very large number is still a large number. So we can't underestimate the fact that we are going to continue to have our hospitals have to take care of these very sick and ill patients for a long time.

But at the same time, we also need to keep in perspective the fact that these large numbers of infections may not create the same level of crisis that we had even during our Delta strain.

BOLDUAN: And where do you think New York specifically is in terms of the -- we know hospitalizations generally, obviously, lag after infection.

Do you think -- do you have any confidence that the level of hospitalizations we're seeing now, which are up but not surging, that that is going to sustain?

Or are you still afraid of what could be coming?

VARMA: This virus always surprises us. The one thing I've learned in two years of managing this in the city and now in an academic role is we can't ever think we're ahead of it right now.

I am heartened by the fact that our hospitalizations have not been surging beyond what we might have expected at this time. But we also have to be realistic that the virus has a way of surprising us. So we want to continue to plan for the worst but I would say hope for best.

BOLDUAN: Yes. One of the real glimmers of hope right now is the FDA now authorizing now two antiviral treatments for COVID, one from Pfizer and then this morning one from Merck.

How much of a difference maker do you think these are going to be?

VARMA: You know, in the short term, not very much because, again, we need to have the supply available and we need to have the systems to get them to people.

Over the long term, we have to accept the fact that this virus is now going to be with us forever. And so when you look at it from that timeline, it's going to be a real game changer over the future.

The single biggest bottleneck right now is going to be -- we can't give these medications to everybody. We want to give them to people who test positive. As you know, there is a real testing bottleneck, so we need to solve that problem first and also at the same time build the system to get people these treatments, which may have a very big impact over the long term.

BOLDUAN: Your focus on pandemic prevention and response, I wanted to ask you about President Biden's interview last night, his remarks about the administration's response. He says -- he at one point said nobody could have seen this coming. Let me play how he put it to ABC News.


QUESTION: The vice president said in recent days that you didn't see Delta coming, you didn't see Omicron coming.

How did you get it wrong?

BIDEN: How did we get it wrong?

Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world saw it coming.


BOLDUAN: I know you each said this virus continues to surprise.

But as a public health official, is that true that nobody saw this coming?

VARMA: Well, unfortunately, it's not true. The reality is that, even if we didn't know that a variant like Omicron itself would emerge, we knew that Delta was going to continue to cause a severe winter surge.

This virus behaves just like the flu and causes seasonal surges. Even without Omicron, we would be in a difficult position. The reality is, all of the things we can do to stop Omicron are things we would have needed to stop Delta.

And it's unfortunate we are again caught behind when we really should have learned two years from now we need to always stay ahead.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Varma, thanks for your time.

VARMA: Thanks very much.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, the House panel investigating January 6th wants to speak to a key Republican lawmaker, now the second silting member of Congress they are focused in on. What they want to know from Jim Jordan. And a community is rallying around a truck driver sentenced to 110

years in prison. Now the district attorney is also stepping in. A live report next.





BOLDUAN: New today, the House Select Committee investigating January 6th requests a second sitting member of Congress come speak with them. This time, it's Republican congressman Jim Jordan.

Jordan says he's reviewing the letter but nothing beyond that yet. And this is the same Jim Jordan, who Kevin McCarthy wanted to assign to sit on that committee. And he's now a central figure in what the committee is investigating.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz is joining me now with more.

The odds are that Jordan refuses to speak to him voluntarily.

How likely will they subpoena a sitting member of Congress?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That could be on the table because that would be an escalation of the House's pursuit. But even with this, just asking Jordan to talk, that's already an escalation of what the House is trying to get at.

And the reason we know the House right now, the colleagues of Jim Jordan and also of Republican Scott Perry from Pennsylvania, those are the two people the House wants to talk to, the House Select Committee is gathering information and wanting to gather information from them because Jordan was a person, who they know now was in touch with Trump on January 6th.

And also that he sent a text message on January 5th to the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, when he was trying to share a legal theory that the White House was looking at about whether Mike Pence, the vice president at the time, could stop the certification of the Electoral College vote in Congress.


POLANTZ: Obviously, that's what the insurrectionists were also trying to do. Here's what Jordan said when he was asked about this request for him to speak to the House Select Committee yesterday. That is what he said.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We just got the letter today, Brian. We'll review the letter. But I've got to be honest with you, I have real concerns about any committee that will take a document and alter it and present it to the American people completely misleading them, like they did last week.

It turns out it looks like it wasn't just one document they did this with. It was other text messages as well. So I have real concerns with that.


POLANTZ: We don't know why he thinks this is out of context but he has told CNN previously that he has nothing to hide.

BOLDUAN: Katelyn, Thanks so much.

A fourth hour of jury deliberations is underway in the trial of former police officer Kim Potter. The jury has spent over 24 hours considering the case against Potter, who is charged with two counts of manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright.

On Tuesday, the jury raised concerns that they may be headed toward deadlock. Yet all day yesterday, it was silence from the jury room. Adrienne Broaddus is live for us once again from Minneapolis, tracking this.

Adrienne, what's happening so far today?

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, good morning. So far, silence this morning as well. And a lot of folks are wondering, if the jury does not reach a verdict by the end of today, what will happen?

Well, the judge indicated during jury selection that she wants this jury and the attorneys to spend time with their families during the holidays. So if no verdict is reached by the end of today, we've been told the jury will not deliberate Friday, which is Christmas Eve; they will not deliberate Saturday, which is Christmas.

And they will not deliberate on Sunday but deliberations would resume on Monday. So it appears this jury is being thoughtful, going through all of the evidence and the testimony that they heard from eight days.

Keep in mind, they heard from 33 witnesses, eight called by the defense, the remaining called by the prosecution. And there was a question on Tuesday. Members of the jury, as you mentioned, wanted to know what steps they should take if they were unable to reach a consensus.

The judge instructed them to continue to deliberate with the view in mind toward reaching an agreement. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Adrienne, thank you so much. We'll watch this today.

Also developing this morning, a Colorado district attorney is asking a judge to reconsider the sentence of a truck driver involved in a deadly 2019 crash. Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison after causing a fiery 28-car pileup, you see there. This killed four people and injured others. He said the brakes in his semi truck failed while he was traveling on

the interstate. And nearly 5 million people have signed a petition, asking the court to reconsider what they have called an extreme sentence. Lucy Kafanov is joining us now.

This case has grabbed a lot of attention.

What is the DA doing now?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. A lot of attention online and within the state of Colorado. The DA isn't necessarily trying to overturn this conviction but rather to allow the court greater flexibility than that initial sentencing. Here's why.

Colorado has these mandatory minimum sentencing laws that basically require sentences for each count to be served consecutively rather than concurrently. That is how those 27 counts turn into more than a century in prison, a sentence twice as long as some murder convicts.

The judge who sentenced him even said, quote, "If I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence." The attorney representing Aguilera-Mederos says the laws need to change.


ROGEL AGUILERA-MEDEROS, TRUCK DRIVER: I know it has been heartbreaking for everyone involved. (INAUDIBLE).


KAFANOV: So that was Mederos himself, who was emotional at the hearing. His attorney said the laws need to change. Let's see if we have that sound bite.


LEONARD MARTINEZ, AGUILERA-MEDEROS' ATTORNEY: Our system here at this building has created a situation where a judge, at their own discretion, who doesn't want to issue a sentence, has had to issue that sentence.

What we hope to achieve is reforms. That's really what this is all about. We have to reform a system that is creating a situation, where we are creating more victims of our justice system. We have to do that now.


KAFANOV: And a lot of people are calling for those calls for reform. There were small protests in Colorado this week.


KAFANOV: More than 4.7 million signatures asking Colorado's governor to reduce the sentence or at least grant clemency. Kim Kardashian tweeted that Colorado laws need to be changed. The governor's office is telling CNN it is reviewing his clemency request.

BOLDUAN: Lucy, thanks for that. Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, new COVID restrictions are going into effect across the country for indoor public places. Up next, the impact those restrictions and the new Omicron wave could have on already hardhit restaurants.