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At This Hour

U.S. Shatters COVID-19 Record, Averaging 300,000 Cases per Day; New York City EMS Workers, Firefighters Out Sick; Biden-Putin Phone Call Today; Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2021 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Amara Walker, in for Kate Bolduan.

At this hour, unprecedented surge: the number of COVID cases hits a level we've never seen before, as cities struggle to keep critical services operating.

High-stakes call: President Biden will speak with Russia's president in just hours, as Putin continues his aggression at the border with Ukraine.

And justice for survivors: a jury convicts Ghislaine Maxwell of sex trafficking. Reaction from several women, who survived Jeffrey Epstein's sexual abuse.


WALKER: We begin with a surge "unlike anything we've ever seen," that is how one medical expert describes the alarming rise in cases, as the Omicron variant spreads like wildfire all across the country. The U.S. now averaging more than 300,000 cases a day. Hospitalizations are also climbing to more than 84,000, up 70 percent from last month.

At least 10 states are reporting their highest hospitalization numbers of the pandemic. More than 1,500 Americans are dying each day from the virus, an increase of 72 percent in the last month.

And the CDC now predicting tens of thousands more could die from COVID in the next four weeks.

But there is some positive news and that is new research from South Africa finds that a Johnson & Johnson booster shot provides strong protection against Omicron. Let's start with Elizabeth Cohen on these numbers.

We've been talking a lot about numbers. But there really is a big concern about how this is going to impact our daily lives.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, because, you know, we've heard so much, Amara, about how Omicron is so transmissible. But it tends to cause mild illness. Overall, that's true.

But the problem is the cases are getting so huge that even a small percentage of a huge number can still be a big number. And that's what we're seeing with hospitalizations, a relatively small percentage in the hospital. But a small percentage of a big number is a big number.

The CDC does its regular forecast. Let's take a look at their latest one.

If we look right now, we're averaging about 9,400 new hospitalizations per day. The CDC's forecast, 17,400 new hospitalizations per day by mid-January.

If we look at deaths in the last four weeks, 39,000 deaths have happened in the past four weeks in the United States. The CDC forecasting that, in the next four weeks, there will be an estimated 45,000-plus deaths.

Again, yes, Omicron milder but it's so transmissible. Now as you said, there is a bit of good news here. Let's take a look at a press release from Johnson & Johnson. This has not been peer reviewed but this is what the company has put out.

They say if you get the Johnson & Johnson shot and then a booster six months or more later, when they looked at a population in South Africa, they saw it was 85 percent effective against hospitalization, compared to those unvaccinated.

Also antibodies, other parts of the immune system were increased, so that's good. But --a big but -- the CDC is still recommending that people get Pfizer or Moderna both for their original vaccinations and for a booster. Amara?

WALKER: Elizabeth, thank you for that.

So New York is the epicenter of this huge surge. The state just shattered its record for daily cases, reporting more than 67,000 cases yesterday. The fast spread of the virus putting a tremendous strain on hospitals and causing major staff shortages among first responders in New York City. CNN's Polo Sandoval has more.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The numbers are staggering alone, with New York state experiencing about a 67 percent increase -- rather, a 65 percent increase -- in the new number of COVID cases, that's 67,000, the total number of New Yorkers testing positive just yesterday.

So that is certainly significant here. It's a new high. Many of those that have recently tested positive are some of New York City's first responders. And that's when you begin to worry about potential staff shortages.

Look at these numbers coming from FDNY, showing 37 percent of EMS workers on medical leave, 17 percent of firefighters. These are double the numbers from last week. We've heard from authorities who are assuring the public they do have the manpower, they do have the ability to reshuffle some of their manpower to make sure that no calls go unanswered.

But it speaks to where we are right now amid this winter surge here. We did hear a few moments ago from Eric Adams, incoming mayor, laying out his plan for taking New York City through these unprecedented infection numbers.


SANDOVAL: They include keeping that very bold vaccination mandate in place, that's specific when it comes to the private sector. Then he also laid out that he at this point has no plans to shut the city down again.


ERIC ADAMS, MAYOR-ELECT, NEW YORK CITY: Today I'm rolling out my administration plan to keep New Yorkers safe from the virus and keep our city open. That's the goal. We can't shut down our city again. We can't allow the city to go further into economic despair.


SANDOVAL: Adams also saying one of the items he specifically wants to look at is the number of New Yorkers who have not completed their vaccination series, basically got that first shot and never came back for their second or a booster, either.

That's one of the areas he wants to look at; again, making that promise he does not want to close that city again and wants to explore other options, including boosting testing. Amara?

WALKER: I'm sure that's reassuring to a lot of people.

Joining me now is Dr. Mary Bassett, the acting health commissioner for the State of New York.

Thanks for joining me. Let's start with these staggering numbers that Polo ran through. Case numbers at an all-time high, hospitalizations surging and, of course, more essential workers calling out sick because they have the virus.

What are you most concerned about when you look at these numbers?

DR. MARY BASSETT, ACTING HEALTH COMMISSIONER, STATE OF NEW YORK: You're right, the number of new cases continues to go up. Our most recent number today is that we have 74,000 people who tested positive. And our hospitalizations are going up as well.

I think in the midst of all the sea of numbers that we all hear swirling around us, we have to keep focused on a key message, which is that people who aren't vaccinated, now is a really good time to reconsider your decision not to get vaccinated.

For people who are fully vaccinated -- and that's 70 percent of all New Yorkers statewide, actually 71 percent now -- we need you to get boosted. And for people who've gotten one dose, which is at a real high for adults, 95 percent, we need you to go back and get that second boost, get that second dose, get boosted.

So let's keep our eye on the tools that we have. And remember masking. Masking is an important additional layer of protection.

WALKER: Those updated numbers, you know, continue to be staggering. Now you're up to 74,000 new cases.

BASSETT: They are.

WALKER: What does this mean on the ground, then, especially when it comes to the health care system and people calling out sick?

Are there enough workers?

Will you have to rely on the National Guard?

BASSETT: Well, we are, you know, tracking these very closely and communicating with the city about them. At the moment, we certainly have enough hospital beds. But we're seeing more hospitalization.

As you know, we sounded an alarm last Friday on December 24th about the disproportionate rise in hospitalizations for young children, for children. So at the moment, we are OK with hospitalizations and bed availability. We're putting in place measures to make sure that we continue to be able to respond to hospitalizations.

Whoever pointed out, that a small fraction of a big number is still a big number, got it exactly right. That's been our concern. Our tools remain the same, though. Let's keep focused on getting people vaccinated.

Let's remember to wear masks, avoid crowds when we can, be careful during the upcoming holiday season about how we plan our time and plan for the most vulnerable person in our group, make sure that these gatherings remain safe for them.

WALKER: Right now, Dr. Bassett, you're saying things look OK when it comes to the hospitals in New York. And, you know, on that note, you know, New York shortened the isolation period for fully vaccinated health care workers and other essential workers from 10 to five days. This happened before the CDC issued its new guidance.

BASSETT: That's right.

WALKER: Do you think that is making an impact?

Are you seeing the guidelines, I guess, alleviate the worker shortage, at least in the health care industry?

BASSETT: Well, let me just explain the guidelines briefly. We apply these guidelines to people who are fully vaccinated, not just health workers, a whole range of workers, who have either asymptomatic infection, the people who went out to get tested before the holidays and found out they were COVID positive feeling fine, and people who were mildly symptomatic and whose symptoms were improving.

We had a whole host of boxes for people to check: no fever this 72 hours, no runny nose.


BASSETT: And for those individuals five days of isolation is enough. We were not telling people to go to work sick. This is for people with asymptomatic or mild infection. And the best data that we have suggests that this infection comes very quickly, has a very short -- what we call incubation period.

And people remain infectious for shorter periods of time. So this is a safe period of isolation, especially for people who are vaccinated, asymptomatic or mildly ill. And that's the recommendation in New York State.

WALKER: In New York State, the isolation guidelines specifies it's for the fully vaccinated in these industries. The CDC guidelines that were just recently updated, it doesn't differentiate between the vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Do you agree with the guidelines in general?

Do you think that the vaccinated should be singled out, as New York did?

BASSETT: Well, you know, we're aware of the CDC guidelines. We have it by a press release and media conversations. We're hopeful that they'll give us a bit more. And we expect to update our guidelines and align with them. We always seek to align with the CDC.

But at the moment, we are -- we remain with the guidelines that we have for New York state, which are focused on the vaccinated worker. We know vaccinated individuals shed less virus than people who are unvaccinated. There are a whole host of reasons to get vaccinated.

But probably the most important is people who are vaccinated are less sick. And this applies also to children. Among the children we've seen hospitalized, the majority of them are unvaccinated. And that youngest age group, 5 to 11, who have been eligible for a vaccination for about a month now, we still are seeing too few children vaccinated, something like 30 percent getting their first jab.

That's a number that we really need to see go up.

WALKER: Dr. Bassett, you were saying that the vaccinated shed less virus, right?

Does it make you scratch your head that the CDC didn't differentiate when it comes to the isolation guidelines, that the vaccinated should be able to come out five days with masking versus the unvaccinated, perhaps, staying in isolation longer?

BASSETT: You know, I've listened to Dr. Walensky, for whom I have great respect. And she's indicated that their evidence is that people simply are infectious in the days leading to the onset of symptoms and just for a few days afterwards. And that they're confident that these guidelines will ensure that

people are not infectious when they go back to work. And for those who are, of course, both of our guidelines ask that people wear a mask, a good mask, you know, a well-fitting surgical-type mask or, for health care workers, higher-level masks.

The CDC has requested they wear those for five days. So you know, we all want to focus on the same thing, that the original quarantine and isolation periods were very long. You'll remember when we started, they were at 14 days, went down to 10 days.

This virus moves quickly and makes people sick quickly and people also seem to recover quickly.

WALKER: Clearly the economy is part of the equation now when it comes to public health.


WALKER: Dr. Bassett, thanks so much for your time. Best of luck to you as you navigate the tough days ahead. Appreciate it.

BASSETT: Thank you. Thank you, Amara. Thanks for having me.

WALKER: Coming up, we are just hours away from President Biden and Vladimir Putin meeting again.

Will it de-escalate tensions over Ukraine?

We will discuss next.





WALKER: Developing this morning, President Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak on the phone in just hours from now. The call comes at the request of the Russian leader and that fears that Russia could invade Ukraine. This will be the second meeting between both leaders this month. CNN's Nic Robertson live in Moscow with more.

Nic, what can we expect?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, that earlier call in December, that was a video call. We're told that this time it will just be a straightforward phone call, so don't expect a lot of visuals.

Last time, remember, the Kremlin really wanted to push -- were happy to say they were the first ones to get the video and the pictures out of that actual meeting. So this will be at a lower turn. They're also saying they want this meeting because the issues are

extremely complicated. The last time that President Biden and President Putin talked in that December video call, President Putin promised to give President Biden a list of Russia's -- what Russia wanted.

The list is pretty straightforward but very unlikely to be met in full. He wants cast-iron legal guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine to become a member. And he wants NATO to roll back, as he sees it, its eastern expansion.

On the U.S. side, the United States is looking for a de-escalation of tensions along the border with Iran and the potential for Russia to kind of work more closely with the United States in the ongoing discussions with Iran in Vienna at the moment, the Iran nuclear deal.

That could help and could be beneficial to both. That's the view of the White House. That's all on the table, going into this phone call.


ROBERTSON: But the reality is the tough negotiation doesn't really begin until 10th of January in Geneva.

WALKER: Nic Robertson, thank you.

Joining me is Leon Panetta, the former Defense Secretary and former CIA director during the Obama administration.

Secretary, thank for your time. First off, you know, we were saying this call came at the request of Putin less than two weeks before these security talks.

What's Putin's calculus, do you believe, and why now?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I think it follows a pattern that Putin has used in the past, of ratcheting up pressure when he's trying to get his way. He's gone through an approach that uses military displays. He shot his hypersonic missiles on Christmas Eve. He's been doing troop movements.

The people under him have all been pushing the same message. And now he's trying to go directly to President Biden, to try to get him to, I'm sure, agree to this security deal, which I do not think President Biden can agree to.

WALKER: We're just learning that the U.S. Air Force Secretary flew another spy plane over Eastern Ukraine to gather intelligence about the military situation on the ground.

We know that, a few days ago, Putin had said that they had pulled back about 10,000 troops from the border with Ukraine.

What do you make of this move, gathering intelligence just hours before this phone call? PANETTA: Well, I think intelligence only proves that Putin is maintaining a pretty heavy troop presence along the border, anywhere from 100,000 to 120,000 to 170,000 troops located along the border. So I don't see Putin necessarily backing off at this point.

I think he's in the process of ratcheting up pressure. And what he wants to do is have this phone conversation, to try to see if he can, frankly, test President Biden. I think Putin felt he had his way pretty much with president Trump and he's hoping he can try to push Biden the same way.

They're two very different people. Biden is a lot more experienced in dealing with Putin.

WALKER: Yes, Putin is not naive. He knows that Biden is much more experienced. And, you know, we know that some of the security guarantees that Putin is demanding is a nonstarter for Washington, right, including NATO, you know, stopping its expansion.

How do you expect this call to go, then, in terms of the conversation, what Biden is going to say and what Putin is going to say and finding common ground?

PANETTA: Well, I what think President Biden has to make clear is that NATO is not going to -- neither the United States nor NATO are going to agree to his request that they ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO.

In addition to that, pull back forces from some of the forward-leaning NATO countries, that's a nonstarter. And I think the United States has made that clear.

The problem is that I think the president has to indicate that we're setting up negotiations with the Russians. It will begin on January 10th in Geneva. There's two other negotiations that will occur with NATO and with the European Union, that those are opportunities to try to negotiate these issues out.

And that is in the interest of both Russia and the United States, as well as our allies, to try to negotiate these issues.

WALKER: I want to play for you what President Biden said after his last call with Putin just three weeks ago. Here it is.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a moral obligation and a legal obligation to our NATO allies, if they were to attack, under Article 5. It's a sacred obligation. That obligation does not extend to NATO -- I mean to Ukraine.

But it would depend upon what the rest of the NATO countries were willing do as well. But the idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia, invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.

WALKER: Secretary, should Biden have taken unilateral force off the table in such a public way?


PANETTA: Well, I think it's very important for the president to make clear that the Russians are going to pay a price if they do, in fact, decide to invade and that that price is going to be economic.

It's going to be with the number of additional sanctions, that it's going to involve some of our -- even our military assistance to the Ukraine, to try to help the Ukraine in that effort.

And I think it is clear that, while we're not going to put our combat forces on the ground in the Ukraine -- and I think the president, frankly, was right in making that clear, because it's obvious that that would not happen -- but at the same time, make very clear that the United States is going to do everything necessary with our allies to try to make sure that the Russians pay a very heavy price if they invade.

The Russians can lose a lot here, too. I mean, having Russian body bags going back to Russia as a result of a war in the Ukraine is not exactly something that Putin would like to see happen as well. So I think there is room here for negotiations between the United States and Russia.

WALKER: Glad to hear your optimism, Secretary. The U.S. in a delicate position, striking a balance between helping Ukraine and not threatening Russia in a way to force them to act. Thank you so much, former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. Appreciate your time.

Coming up, survivors of Jeffrey Epstein's abuse are reacting to the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell. While they say justice is still a long ways off. Hear from them next.