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At This Hour

Holiday Travel; Big Decision by CDC for COVID; NASA Preparing for launch. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 24, 2021 - 11:00   ET



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

Here is what we're watching at this hour on this Christmas Eve holiday. A holiday surge, travelers hitting the road, but major travel disruptions to come because of COVID.

Big decision by the CDC, changing how long healthcare workers need to isolate after testing positive for COVID, and now airlines want the same.

Going where no telescope has gone before, NASA preparing for a huge launch tomorrow that could answer some of our most burning questions about the origins of the universe.

Thank you for being here everyone. We begin with the Omicron surge impacting everyone's holiday. It's partly responsible for airlines cancelling hundreds of flights this Christmas Eve, both United and Delta Airlines point to employee shortages due to the fast spreading variant.

Also this morning, the White House announcing that President Biden is reversing course - will be lifting COVID travel restrictions on Southern African countries. Controversial restrictions put in place to prevent Omicron spread, and the number of cases now is just staggering in some places here in the United States.

Infections from the new strain have quickly surpassed last summer's Delta surge. The daily average of new cases is now surging over 182,000. Health officials, honestly unclear on where the peak is going to be.

Let's start with CNN's Pete Muntean live at Regan National Airport for us. Pete, what is happening with these flights?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, 500 flight cancellations in the United States alone, and airlines say that as these Omicron cases started to surge their staffing levels went down which led to them cancelling these flights.

These are the latest numbers from FlightAware, about 170 cancellations at United Airlines alone, 140 at Delta Airlines. Last night we obtained a memo from United Airlines to its staff saying that this issue is impacting flight crews and also those responsible for the operation of the airline.

In a statement, United Airlines says, "we've unfortunately had to cancel some flights, and are already notifying customers in advance of coming to the airport." It also says they're sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible to get them on their way for the holidays. You know, this comes as we have seen long lines at airports across the country, Kate.

Just yesterday the TSA screened 2.19 million people at airports nationwide. That is the highest number we have seen during this holiday travel period, a week long streak of numbers at or near 2 million people each day. And we have not seen the end of it just yet. The TSA says it will screen another 20 million people between now and January 3 when everybody comes home all at once.

And by the way, Kate, airlines are pushing the CDC to reduce the isolation period for its workers who experience a breakthrough coronavirus case. Right now the isolation period is set at 10 days, airlines want it to be down to five days to keep more workers on the job. They say that'll avoid more issues like the one that we have seen just now, and also issues like we saw during the fall when airlines had to cancel thousands of flights, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, you definitely see those issues snowballing as this variant continues to spread.

It's great to see you, Pete. Thank you so much.

Also at this hour, the White House reversing course. President Biden says he now plans to lift COVID travel restrictions imposed on African nations. Let's get over to the White House. CNN's Joe Johns is standing by. It's good to see you, Joe. What's the White House saying about this today?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kate. Well, the White House always said this was a temporary measure, and now they say the CDC has made progress in understanding the Omicron variant. Also they say there's more confidence that vaccines do work, especially when people go ahead and get the booster shot.

So, given all of that, the White House has a bit more confidence to say they're going to lift these travel restrictions that went into affect in late November on eight African countries, including Batswana and South Africa. That's going to go into effect in - on December 31 at just about midnight - just about midnight of December 31.

The other thing I think is important to say as well is these restrictions were controversial and did create just a bit of international upset. As you know, Kate, there were concerns about the fact that the African countries had been very transparent about their problems with this latest variant and they felt as though they were being penalized for it.

Back to you.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Joe, thank you for that. Joining me now for more on this is CNN Medical Analyst, Dr. Leana Wen.

Dr. Wen, thank you for coming in today. What's your reaction to President Biden lifting travel restrictions, as Joe was just laying out?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I'm really glad that President Biden has lifted these travel restrictions. I was one of the people actually in support of these restrictions in -


- the first place because they were always meant to be temporary, really short period of time so that it buys the U.S. time to find out more about Omicron, and so that we're able to do - implement measures like encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted.

But now, Omicron is in all 50 states, and D.C., and Puerto Rico. It is the dominant strain in the U.S. Frankly we have more Omicron in the U.S. than these eight African countries do, and so it only makes sense for these restrictions to be lifted now.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. The CDC's big announcement about cutting quarantine time for healthcare workers who test positive from 10 to seven days. We know that airlines, as Pete Muntean was laying out, is all - are also asking for that same change, even down to five days for their employees. What do you think of that?

WEN: I think it's really important for us to do this, because at this point we're facing a potential collapse of our essential infrastructure. This is the reason why, for healthcare workers, it's so important that we preserve the ability of our hospitals to function, but also transit, and grocery stores coming into this holiday season. And so many other essential workplaces may actually have a critical shortage of workers.

And so I do think that a test to return policy is what should be implemented at this point. Even after five days if you test negative, why not be able to come back to work? And by the way, we also should distinguish between isolation and quarantine. So, isolation -


WEN: - is if you test positive, you should be isolated. But right now, if you're vaccinated and you're exposed to somebody with COVID, you actually do not need to quarantine. You can still be going to work, and work places that have not changed their policies to reflect the CDC guidance, should do so. So if you're vaccinated, you're exposed, but you don't yet have COVID, you can still be going to work as long as you're wearing a mask.

BOLDUAN: And I think I probably misspoke, because I often mix up and interchange isolation and quarantine. But as we're learning with COVID, they denote two different things.

On the Israeli plan to give a fourth vaccine dose to certain groups, I was interested to hear what Dr. Anthony Fauci had to say about that in a radio interview. Let me play this for you.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR OF NIAID: If the protection is much more durable than the two-dose, non-boosted group, and we may go a significant period of time without requiring a fourth dose. So I do think it's premature, at least on the part of the United States to be talking about a fourth dose.

BOLDUAN: You know, Moderna's chief medical officer was on with Wolf yesterday, and he seemed to agree with what Fauci's saying. What do you think of a fourth dose?

WEN: Yeah, I agree with Dr. Fauci that it's premature at this time, for us in the U.S., especially because we have such a substantial proportion of the population that still haven't received their third dose of the booster, which really is essential at this time.

I mean, we have many nursing home residents, for example - people who are extremely medically vulnerable, who still have not gotten their third booster dose. This may very well turn out to be a three dose vaccine, we just don't know yet.

I know that Israel is already considering getting this fourth dose, as you mentioned Kate, and we'll actually have more information. Because if Israel goes ahead with this, they'll have data that we can then learn from.

BOLDUAN: You know, and a lot of people see, good news, I guess we can call it in what we have heard coming from South Africa and the U.K. in these two studies. Finding that a rise in Omicron cases has not been followed by a spike in severe illness. But, I want to play for you what Dr. Peter Hotez has told me about that, because he has a different take on this. Let me play it.


DR. PETER HOTEZ, DEAN, NATL. SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: A lot of the Omicron cases both in South Africa and the U.K. were actually Omicron re-infections following a Delta infection.

We have a different - which may have had some mitigating affect and give the appearance that their epidemic was associated with milder disease. We're in a different situation in the U.S. in that our Delta wave was relatively confined geographically to most of the southern United States, and over a defined period of time over the summer and into the early fall -


BOLDUAN: You know, Africa's CDC chief essentially said the same, cautioning everyone against extrapolating from South Africa's experience even to - extending that to the continent and everywhere else with Omicron. What do you think of that? Because - do you think people are - I don't know, getting ahead of themselves? Maybe hopefully getting ahead of themselves, right? WEN: Right now the issue that we're facing is that Omicron is

everywhere. I mean, if you're getting on a plane, you will be exposed to Omicron because Omicron is going to be on that plane. But that doesn't mean that you should travel, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't gather with our friends. It means that we are probably all going to be exposed to Omicron, just because of how contagious it is.


But I think on the bright side, it does look like not only from South Africa, but also from U.K., from Denmark, from Norway that they have had a huge spike in cases but they have not had that spike in deaths.

Now, the U.S. may be different from all these places, for a number of reasons - our vaccination rates are not as high, for example, as the U.K. South Africa's population is much younger than ours, the median age is 10 years younger than ours here in the U.S. So there are a number of factors that may be confounding (ph).

But I also think at this point that there's no way for us to reign in the number of new infections due to Omicron. The best thing that we can do is to protect the most vulnerable, who are most likely to get ill.

And also the unvaccinated, I do really worry about. But I think that whatever mitigation measures we apply at this point it's going to be really, really difficult to reign in the very large spike in cases that we're seeing of Omicron, because it's all over the United States.

BOLDUAN: And also, that kind of leads me to this which is, some of what is confusing about where we're at in the pandemic is this different application of responses. Like, the different application of rules and mitigation efforts when it comes to - like the safety of life events.

Like, for example I was just seeing that the Sundance Film Festival announced that it's still on, they are though going to be requiring booster shots to attend. But the band Phish just cancelled and postponed their big New Years Eve shows in New York, even though vaccines are required to attend. What should be the deciding factors for whether or not we can have big events like this now in this pandemic? What do you think?

WEN: Yeah, it's a really difficult question. I think looking at infection numbers alone is not going to cut it. Because with Omicron we're seeing so many people get infected, and life has to move on. Our economy has to keep on going.

I think looking at hospitalizations would be a good way to go, because we definitely don't want our healthcare system to be overwhelmed, but I also believe overall that it's time for us to live with COVID.

And part of living with COVID is recognizing that all of us at some point may get it, but there are ways for us to reduce the likelihood of severe illness, and we can protect the most vulnerable including with things like testing. And so I think we are all living in this reality now where restricting the vaccinated is just not going to do that much.

As in, even if we put a lot more restrictions on, I think the amount of gain (ph) you get in terms of reducing infections isn't that great because of how contagious Omicron is. So if that's the case, let's move on. Let the vaccinated go about their lives, make decisions that are appropriate for their individual circumstances, while at the same time trying to reduce the burden and the strain on our healthcare systems.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you Dr. Wen, thank you.

WEN: Thank you, Kate, Happy Christmas.

BOLDUAN: You too, thank you.

Coming up for us, the COVID surge in New York City forcing changes to the big Times Square New Year's Eve celebration for the second year in a row. So, what is it going to look like? That's next.



We're going to take you live now to Washington, D.C. where the first lady is continuing with her tradition of celebrating the holidays at Children's National Hospital there. And a surprise guest, as you can see right there, joining the first lady this time around. President Biden joining, and meeting - I want to listen in just a second, if we can hear them, guys. Let me hear this.


JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY: Pink, who could have guess that, right?


Oh, they're beautiful. So what are you going to fill those bags with, do you know?

BOLDUAN: So sweet. The kids meeting with the president and first lady spending - they're celebrating the holiday with them. As the first lady does on most holidays, to go visit the children, and the staff, and the leadership, and all of the hardworking healthcare workers at Children's National there in D.C.

And as, of course, these children too ill to go home and spend holidays with their families at home, but it is a beautiful tradition to see the president and the first lady there at Children's National.

We'll see if the president makes any formal remarks, and we will turn those around for you. But just, another part of the holiday season to remember those that we should remember most.

I'm going to turn now though, to this.

The Omicron surge is forcing some changes to New York City's famous New Year's Eve celebration. For the second year in a row the party in Times Square will have limited capacity, instead of the anticipated 58,000 revelers, only 15,000 will be allowed to watch the ball drop in person. Everyone attending will also have to show proof of vaccination and wear masks as they ring in 2022.

Joining me now for more on this is Tom Harris, the Head of the Times Square Alliance, which helps organize and promote this annual tradition. Thank you, Tom, for being here, I appreciate it.

TOM HARRIS, PRESIDENT, TIMES SQUARE ALLIANCE: Thank you very much for having me. And we're so excited to welcome revelers back to Times Square this year. For us, it wasn't if we did this, it was how we did it safely. It's so important to show the world that New York City has found ways to forge ahead in a safe, responsible manner, and welcoming revelers -

BOLDUAN: So Tom, what's it going to look like?

HARRIS: So, it's going to look - to those watching from - from home, if they're going to watch Anderson and Andy on CNN or one of the other networks, or on our - our free app, it's going to look very much like prior years.

The crowds just, will be less dense. They will be fully vaccinated, we're mandating that they wear masks. And we're going to welcome revelers into the viewing pens later in the day to reduce the time that they're in the pens.


But that's not Times Square - Times Square is going to be open throughout the day. Just the revelers who are in the viewing pens will be allowed in after 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

BOLDUAN: This isn't an easy decision for any mayor, or any city to make. What all went into the decision? There was a big question, everyone - at least publically wondering if it was going to have to be cancelled altogether because of the fear of Omicron. What went into this decision?

HARRIS: So I want to actually thank CNN, and your Medical Expert Dr. Leana Wen who sort of said that it's an outdoor event, we're requiring proof of vaccinations, and we have to find ways to do things that are fun in a safe and responsible manner. And I think she said, you can't cancel everything. So like I said, for us it was how we do it safely - not if we did it. And we're encouraged that we're going to have 100 times more people in Times Square this year than we did last year.

BOLDUAN: You'll take progress where you can get it, that's for sure.


BOLDUAN: And I also agree with you, Dr. Wen is fantastic, so I appreciate that you're listening to that. Before the decision was announced, I spoke with New York City Council - New York City City Councilman Mark Levine, and he raised some concerns about the event. I want to play this for you.


MARK LEVINE, CHAIRMAN, NYC COUNCIL HEALTH COMMITTEE: Yes, it's outside for the event itself. But you have three parties, and after parties, and all the socializing that happens around Times Square. I don't think this is a safe time to do it, as sad as that is, because I know we desperately want opportunity to celebrate.


BOLDUAN: For sure, I mean, he does raise a good point. It's not just about the ball drop, of course, right? It is about all of the partying around it. How do you factor that in?

HARRIS: So I certainly respect his opinion, and just know that even if we didn't do the event those parties would likely happen throughout the city. Each day we welcome 275,000 people to Times Square. We don't know if they're vaccinated, they're not mandated to wear a mask.

So us doing this event and controlling access to those viewing areas, actually, I believe, creates a safer environment for people in Times Square. And once we get to capacity, we'll just encourage them to watch the event from the safety and comfort of their home - either watch Anderson and Andy or our free webcast at

BOLDUAN: If people are planning to come down to see the ball drop, what do they need to know? What do they need to plan for?

HARRIS: So they should certainly have a mask, they should have proof of vaccination, and photo ID readily available. They will go to one of the entry points to Times Square on either 6th or 8th Avenue. They will first - they will have a vaccination check, and then they will be screened by the police department, and then welcomed into the viewing area to watch the greatest show in the world in Times Square as we welcome in 2022.

BOLDUAN: And wish for a sweeter 2022, for sure.

Thank you so much for coming on.

HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much.

All right, so for much of the country, this Christmas Eve is bringing in some surprising winter weather. All along the west coast, rain and snow are impacting holiday travel - flashflood threats in California, and historic snowfall in Nevada. Meanwhile in the southeast, several states are looking at potentially record-breaking heat waves.

CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking all of this for us. I don't know how you keep track of it all, actually, Chad, because we - look, we're all looking for a white Christmas somewhere but there is some serious weather out there. What's going on? CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right. There really is, Kate. As

desperate as California, Oregon, parts of Washington are for rainfall and snowfall, it really doesn't need to come tonight and tomorrow, but it is. It's on its way and there will be places in the Sierra-Nevada, as you said - there will be 10 feet of new snow on the ground by the time tomorrow night's snowfall finally, finally ends - so that's going to make travel difficult for sure.

We're seeing there rain and snow, even snow into Seattle. Maybe not all the way down to the strait, but we will certainly see snow to maybe 300 feet above sea level, that could be an inch or two. Technically you have to have an inch on the ground to be a white Christmas. I think if you see snowflakes in the air as a kid, it's magical, it doesn't matter if it's on the ground or not - you get that on Christmas day, you'll take it.

And all the way down to the south we're seeing rain into Phoenix, all the way down to Baja, California rain into very dry San Diego area, so take the rainfall there.

So we are going to see winter storm watches, obviously in the elevations above about 2,000 or 3,000, an awful lot of snow coming down. This is called an atmospheric river. We also - we used to call it, kind in - just in jest the pineapple express. Well, now we don't have -


- to get this pineapple express from Hawaii, we know that they can come from other places. It is a stream of moisture in the jet stream that's putting down all of this rainfall, up to seven inches of rainfall in some of these areas. We're worried about those burn scar areas, really.

And here comes the rain into New York City for tomorrow, a little bit of light ice and snow into parts of New England, but really this is going to be a warm weather event - even Cleveland's going to be like, 54. I mean, growing up in Buffalo, New York we were never in the 50s on Christmas Day.


BOLDUAN: No kidding. Me as well, Indiana, I mean lake effect snow is like everything we would see in Christmas.

MYERS: Right.

BOLDUAN: Good to see you, Chad. Thank you.

Coming up for us, Donald Trump asks the Supreme Court to step in. Up next, the former President's final chance to keep his records secret from the January 6 Committee.