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At This Hour

Omicron Fuels COVID Surge As Americans Gather For Holiday; Jayapal Urges Biden To Exec Action On Build Back Better. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 27, 2021 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone, I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan. Here's what we are watching AT THIS HOUR. COVID surge, the Omicron variant fueling a spike in cases and hospitalizations as people gather for the holidays. Dr. Fauci weighs in on how bad he thinks this will get.

Holiday headache, airlines canceling thousands of flights today, how the COVID surge is causing trouble for air travelers.

Crime and punishment, calls for leniency are growing after a truck driver is sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for a deadly crash.

We begin with the Omicron variant surging across the U.S. the seven day average of new coronavirus cases is near 200,000 a day. That is up 166 percent in the last month, nearing the record numbers from last January.

The most important metric, hospitalizations are steadily rising with more than 71,000 Americans sick enough to need hospital care right now. Tragically, more than 1,400 Americans are dying each day from COVID. And with people gathering for holiday celebrations, this surge is expected to worsen. Listen to what Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN this morning.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: So we're certainly going to continue to see a surge for a while, Kaitlan. I fully expect that it will turn around I hope it turns around as sharply as what we've seen in South Africa.

Now testing centers across America are seeing very long lines with some people waiting for hours and at home tests remain very hard to find. And in a scene eerily reminiscent of the beginning of this pandemic cruises are seeing COVID outbreaks with multiple ships being affected. CNN's Leyla Santiago live in Miami with the latest developments on our story. Leyla? LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Amara just behind me, you will see the line of cars going to get -- go through that white tent where they'll do the testing. This is one of the busiest sites in South Florida. We just checked in with someone who completed the entire thing.

They said they waited in line for more than two hours. The group that runs this site will tell you that they expected to see an increase in demand for testing after the holidays. But what they are seeing is unprecedented. So much so that they have had to increase the amount of workers at this site by 50 percent.

Miami-Dade County also trying to get those at home kits out to folks that need them. They are going to be at all the public or 27 of the public libraries to distribute those for free to families here. But they are quick to tell you it is while supplies last. The other big concern here is, yes, just yesterday Sunday morning, they had that Carnival cruise ship that docked and they had COVID cases.

Now according to the spokesperson, it was a small number that they had to isolate. Everyone was vaccinated and tested before the voyage took off. But listen to how one passenger described it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I couldn't even go in a pool the whole time. We didn't touch one pool on that ship because everybody's in there all over each other. Nobody's wearing masks. It was disgusting. Nobody cared.


SANTIAGO: So listen, there is a lot of frustration. A lot of patience required to get through some of these lines. And this is as Florida is seeing record breaking numbers when it comes to COVID-19 cases right now. Amara?

WALKER: Leyla, yes, frustrating to say the least. Thank you so much for that. So as you can see the Omicron surge is impacting holiday travel. More than 2,400 flights have been canceled today around the globe with nearly 900 of those here in the United States. CNN Nadia Romero live at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. You've been there all weekend. And it seems like every day or every day there's been more and more flight cancellations.

NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: yes, it just gets worse and worse. I mean, if you think of it, we started with more than 600 at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time today. So we have still plenty more hours left in this day for those numbers of cancellations and delays to climb. Yesterday we were about 1,500 at the end of the day, Sunday night. And today we could definitely see that number for already at more than 900, halfway through the day.


So when we talk to those travelers about what it's like traveling during the pandemic traveling on a busy day when they know their people are trying to get back to go to work or they're trying to get back to their normal life, they all say that they knew some of this was going to happen, that it was going to be inconvenient that they would have to arrive early.

But they did not anticipate the sheer number of thousands of cancellations over the last couple of days and that domino effect that's been rippling all across the globe. We spoke with one woman who said she's on her way to Hawaii. She is going to get there. And even if it meant changing her flight to a nonstop, take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We actually changed our flight to a nonstop flight just to, in hopes of hopefully not having any cancellations. We're just going to practice social distancing. We're not doing anything that's going to be too crazy, you know, just trying to do more outdoorsy things if people are there. We just plan on going back to our hotel room.


ROMERO: I think you can really wrap up what a lot of travelers tell me they're feeling by saying, Amara, that it's pent up demand. They couldn't travel last year. They didn't feel comfortable. So they were planning on doing so this year, Amara?

WALKER: Yes, I think we've been hearing from a lot of people who say that they're traveling for the first time or seeing family for the first time since 2019. Thanks so much Nadia Romero.

Joining me now to discuss all this Dr. Carlos del Rio, the Executive Associate Dean of Emory University School of Medicine at the Grady health system, Dr. del Rio, let's start big picture here and the overall state of the pandemic. Over the last month, new cases up 166 percent, hospitalizations up 34 percent.

As you know, millions of people are traveling holiday, people holding family gatherings getting ready to, you know, celebrate New Year's as well. What is your sense in terms of the direction of this pandemic over the next few weeks and when we might see the peak or get over the peak of this pandemic?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, EXEC. ASSOC. DEAN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT GRADY: Well, Amara good morning, I think there is, you know, clearly cases are going up significantly. And as you know, some of those cases are being diagnosed at home. So they're not being reported. So the case numbers are actually much higher than what you're actually seeing in the official reports because if I test positive with a home test, I'm not going to be reported in those public health records, right?

So cases are probably much, much higher. All modeling I've seen predict the peak of cases somewhere around the second to third week of January in our country, and then starting to come down, like we see in South Africa and other places, probably by mid-February to late February, we will be down in a more, you know, normal stage. But right now we can see we can see cases go up probably getting close to over 500,000 new infections per day.

WALKER: But even if the surge, as you say may go down, let's say in February, is this going to be an up and down thing for us cyclical? Will we're going to see another surge, depending on the next new variant to impact our lives?

DEL RIO: Well, you know, it's going to depend on the variant. If the variant is a variant that is highly transmissible like Omicron, it's a variant is one that bases immune system like Omicron, no vaccines are not as effective against them.

Yes, we'll probably see another surge, but again, that really emphasizes the importance of global vaccination. These variants are surging in places where we don't have enough people vaccinated. And it really emphasizes that controlling this pandemic requires us to get vaccinated -- vaccination to everywhere in the world.

WALKER: You know, one thing, doctor that kind of raised alarm bells for me as a mother is this surge, a huge increase in kids being hospitalized with coronavirus, the New York Health Department reported that there's been a four-fold increase in COVID hospital admissions among children in New York City.

And I think South Africa reported a similar spike in that same age group, and that for the most part, our children seemed shielded from the virus. But is it different this time around? How worried should we be?

DEL RIO: Well, I think it's different this time around because as far as is so much more contagious, and yes, the hospitalizations in children we saw this in South Africa and we're seeing in our country are higher than expected. About, you know, about a quarter of children getting infected are getting sick enough that some of them may need medical attention.

And we're seeing hospitalizations and children going up the miss -- the most important thing that we can do as adults if we are around children who are not vaccinated is to have all adults vaccinated and to really be careful bringing the infection into your household.

WALKER: So you know that the CDC as you are aware now says health care workers who are asymptomatic that they can return to work after seven days with a negative test. And New York State says fully vaccinated asymptomatic essential workers, they can return to work five days after testing positive. During an interview with CNN this morning Dr. Fauci was asked whether the isolation period should be shortened and here's what he said.


FAUCI: Certainly, we're considering it going beyond just healthcare workers because, you know, there are a lot of people in society that are essential for the smooth running of the infrastructure of our society. So the idea about cutting down the period of quarantine for people who've been exposed, and perhaps the period of isolation for people who have been infected as something that is under I would say, serious consideration.



WALKER: It's under serious consideration. What's your reaction to that? Should public health officials be moving faster on updating these kinds of things?

DEL RIO: Yes, I think so. I mean, the reality is, we don't want the surge to impact our economy. And as you saw already from flight cancellations, flights are being canceled because crews are being infected, and are calling in sick. And we have to get our economy, you know, the supply chain will be impacted.

Again, we have to make sure that our economy keeps on going. My advice is, if you get infected, you know, five to seven days after you've been infected, you can go out and, you know, like five days if your test negative wear mask, wear a good quality mask, so you don't infect others. But you can certainly go on with your life.

I think you need to -- we need to start thinking about how are we going to live with COVID over the next several, you know, months, if not years, rather than going into this, you know, complete lockdown like the Europe is doing which absolutely make no sense.

WALKER: Yes. COVID not going away anytime soon, Dr. Carlos Del Rio, appreciate the conversation. Thank you so much.

A powerful winter storm dumping a whole lot of snow in parts of California closing key highways and making getting around difficult, CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray is tracking all this for us. Jen?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Amara. Snow is measured in feet right now across the Sierra as well as the Cascades. The current snow depth very impressive, for the mountain ranges we have had a lot of in the last couple of weeks and more storm systems are coming in to the west.

You can see from the radar, snow coming down across the Sierra. We have rain coming down across the Bay Area. This is making travel very dangerous especially across the mountain passes where the snow is now falling at lower elevations.

So we have our first system rolling through today. A little bit of a break. We have our next system rolling through tomorrow and they are just coming one after another across the west and all of these storms are going to impact the midsection of the country and then eventually the East as well, Amara. And so the rain and snow forecast looking at several inches possibly feet of additional snow for the Sierra. Amara?

WALKER: You got to be careful out there. Jennifer Gray, thank you so much. And coming up, Democrats helping to figure out a path forward for President Biden's Build Back Better plan, what a top progressive now says Biden should do to make it happen. That's next.



WALKER: Democrats are facing a big challenge on how to get President Biden's Build Back Better plan passed after Senator Joe Manchin delivered a blow in opposing it. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Progressive Caucus wants Biden to take executive action to deliver help to Americans. Suzanne Malveaux live on Capitol Hill with more. Hi there, Suzanne. So what is the congresswoman proposing and how's it being received?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning. I mean, certainly they feel like this is not a zero sum game. They want to make sure that at least something gets done and that that would be really advantageous next year for the midterm elections to prove that the Democrats can get something done.

And so she is asking the President calling on him to use his very unique powers here, those executive actions, perhaps easy things that he could potentially do, instead of legislation. Here's what she said in her op-ed. She said that taking executive action will also make clear to those who hinder Build Back Better that the White House and Democrats will deliver for Americans.

Now one of the drawbacks, of course, is the fact that it's not permanent, that this is not carry the weight of law, and can be repealed by the next president. And so some of the drawbacks there, Senator Cardin of Maryland says that look, what he thinks should happen is break up this huge piece of legislation, put it in piecemeal bits, and allow Democrats to vote on their own for these very significant policy issues. Take a listen.


SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): Right now, we don't have any Republican support. We have to recognize that we have to do this with Democratic votes alone. I think our best strategy is to find a common spot where all Democrats can agree and move that legislation. That's what we're trying to do now.

That's what the negotiations are about between the President and Joe Manchin and the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate. We're also committed as all Democrats to make sure this is fully paid for.


MALVEAUX: And Amara, he thinks that this is something that they can work with Senator Joe Manchin on to find those elements that are really establish some common ground, whether it's childcare, education, or tax reform, that there are things that they can come together on to get something done for the New Year.

WALKER: All right, Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so much live for us there on Capitol Hill. Joining me now is former Democratic Congresswoman from Florida, Donna Shalala. She also served as the health secretary in the Clinton administration. And thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Secretary I just want to first get your reaction to Pramila Jayapal's call on President Biden to take executive action. Should he do that? I mean, this is a President who has touted his ability to be a deal maker and to work with people.

DONNA SHALALA (D-FL), FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: First of all, thank you for having me on. She's right the President ought to use whatever executive actions he has but he has limited ability and breaking up the bill, as Senator Cardin suggested, is another strategy. And I think the Democrats are probably going to go that way they have enough money enough savings that they've identified to pay for whatever they decide to do.


First of all, they ought to do a voting rights bill. The fact is, we're going to struggle during the midterms, not simply because the opposite party struggles. But because Americans have to be able to vote, and to have access to voting, because we're still going to be in COVID, for almost all of next year.

So the Voting Rights bill would be not -- my number one priority. And then breaking up, Build Back Better, this President has a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, he can sustain that. And even do better if he takes the parts of the bill that are related to the economy, childcare, parents are still struggling with child care. And certainly universal pre K are two things directly related to keeping people in the workforce successfully.

So the other thing about those two bills is we have existing platforms, the childcare money goes to the state block grants, the early childhood money goes for the most part to the public school system, so that we can implement them immediately. And they can have an immediate effect on the economy. So this is doable for Democrats. But a voting rights bill is the key the underlying piece that will make it possible for us not only to sell the rest of the bills we want to do.

WALKER: Yes, let me ask you more about this voting rights bill, because the window is closing, right. I mean, there's less than a year for Biden to get his agenda through. Do you think that the Democrats and the Biden administration are making a mistake and should be prioritizing the voting bill over Build Back Better, since there are tangible ramifications to that when it comes to 2022?

SHALALA: I think the politics are somewhat different, but they have time to do both. And they certainly could do both simultaneously. And I know that they're negotiating on both trying to figure out what they can do. But the Voting Rights bill is directly related to the ability of the

Democrats to continue to improve both the economy as well as to lift millions of people out of poverty, particularly our children. And that's going to be key. It's the key to preserving our democracy. If you want to counter January 6th, you get a voting rights bill through.

WALKER: I do want to ask you this, as you served as the, you know, health and human service secretary under President Bill Clinton, so you were in charge of safeguarding public health, right, when you're watching what's happening now with these extremely long testing lies, and of course, President Biden even admitting he wishes that he would have sent these tests, you know, several months before we're in year three, we're coming into year three of the pandemic.

Did the Biden administration drop the ball on this, at least when it comes to testing?

SHALALA: Well, you know, they were focusing on vaccines, they -- we clearly put millions of dollars into testing supplies and capacity. And yes, we need to do more on testing. Frankly, Speaker Pelosi was running around a year ago saying testing, testing, testing, we always knew that these all were related. And I think the Biden administration is doing what it needs to do.

And that is to get testing kits out to individuals around the country, and to make them accessible and affordable. Three weeks ago, I could buy all the testing kits I wanted three weeks ago, when I went to visit the Miami testing sites, they were empty, and they had lots of capacity.

Now, because of because of the new COVID strains, we have long lines. And we also have to anticipate and know what the schedule is for vacations and everything else. So you could fault the Biden administration, I would not do that. I would simply say we know what to do and we need to get it done.

WALKER: Well 500 million tests are on the way but not until January and we need those tests now because like you I've been driving around trying to find tests and it's you've got to drive to at least three or four pharmacies at least in my experience, to find one. Donna Shalala really appreciate your time and the conversation, thanks so much.

SHALALA: Thank you.


WALKER: Coming up, prosecutors in Colorado are asking a judge to reduce a prison sentence against a truck driver for his role in a deadly crash. We're going to have details in a live report next.


WALKER: Developing at this hour a Colorado judge will soon hear arguments on whether the court has the jurisdiction or authority to reduce the 110-year prison sentence against Rogel Aguilera-Mederos. He was convicted for his role and killing four people two years ago after he says the brakes on a semi-truck failed causing a fiery 28 car pileup. CNN's Lucy Kafanov live in Denver with more what can we expect. Lucy?


LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Amara, this is a status hearing. So we aren't necessarily expecting a ruling.