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At This Hour

Chicago Teachers Vote to Go Virtual, Schools Cancel Classes; National Guard Assists Ohio Hospitals with Staffing; White House Pandemic Response Team Briefing; CDC Director Says Omicron Represents 95 Percent of U.S. Cases. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 05, 2022 - 11:00   ET




BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga in for Kate Bolduan. Here is what we're watching at this hour.

Schools scramble: facing the surge, Chicago suddenly canceling school as teachers rebel against in-person learning. We'll hear from the White House COVID response team in minutes.

And a city-wide tragedy: a deadly fire in Philadelphia leaves a staggering death toll, 13 dead. The mayor saying seven children are among the victims.

And Mike Pence in the spotlight: the House committee investigating the insurrection now says it wants to interview the former vice president about the January 6th insurrection.

We begin with this story in Chicago, where the nation's third largest school district canceled classes today after the teachers' union voted to refuse in-person work. Late last night they voted to switch to remote learning due to a surge in COVID cases, the move leaving tens of thousands of students caught in the middle between the union and district leaders, who insist that conditions in classrooms are safe.

It comes as the rapid spread of Omicron shows no sign of slowing down. The United States now averaging more than 550,000 cases per day. That's an increase of 358 percent since last month. About 113,000 Americans -- and it's important to stress that nearly all unvaccinated -- are currently hospitalized with COVID, up 90 percent over the last month.

We expect to hear from the White House pandemic response team in just moments. Let's start with CNN's Omar Jimenez, live in Chicago for the latest on the showdown between the teachers' union and the district.

We're hearing teachers are now being locked out of the online platform?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Bianna. The Chicago Teachers Union is reporting that teachers tried to log in to their remote teaching platforms and have been locked out. We asked the school district about it. They didn't explicitly confirm that's what was happening but did reiterate they considered this vote a work stoppage.

And in the communication they sent out to families in the aftermath of this vote, they called it "an unfortunate decision" and said they now worry about the well-being of students, as they also said teachers will not be paid for this.

Part of the concern from the Chicago Teachers' Union is they don't think the current measures in place for returning to school in person are safe enough for staff and students. And what they want is more access to testing and specifically for people to test negative within 48 hours of returning to a classroom, ready access to masks.

They want agreed-upon thresholds for a move to remote learning, which the school district has said isn't practical from a district-wide level.

But at the end of the day, leadership within the Chicago Teachers Union says that, on top of increased vaccinations, is what it's going to take to get them back in the classroom. Take a listen to Chicago Teachers Union leader Jesse Sharkey.


JESSE SHARKEY, PRESIDENT, CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION: We've been failed by the mayor, we've been failed by the public health office. And teachers and school staff have decided we have to -- the only thing that we can control is whether we go into the buildings.


JIMENEZ: Over the last year, the school district has received over $1 billion in federal funding to address COVID safety issues in the classroom just like this. But the district maintains that going to class in person is safe because of mitigation measures they have and because they say there are no signs of widespread transmission in classrooms.

GOLODRYGA: And $1 billion later, many vaccines later, one could argue a big disservice for students and their families as well. Omar Jimenez, thank you so much.

All across the country, overwhelmed hospitals are looking for outside help, as the ongoing surge leads to full ICUs and staffing shortages. In states such as Ohio, the governor has called in the National Guard to provide much-needed assistance. CNN's Gary Tuchman reports from a Cleveland hospital, getting help from the National Guard.


National Guard members are now working at hospitals in many states, including here in Ohio. We're invited to spend overnight hours at one of the largest hospitals in Cleveland, the Metro Health Systems main campus. The Metro Health Systems has about 5,500 employees and hundreds of

them are not able to work because they've tested positive for COVID- 19. In addition, the hospitals are full; the ICUs are full, so they're very grateful for the help from the National Guard.


TUCHMAN: This hospital has 28 Army and Air National Guard members working there. Some have medical training, so they're helping the doctors and nurses with patients. Others don't have medical training and are doing things like deliveries and cleaning.

Either way, it's all very helpful. It comes with a risk, being a National Guard member working in the hospitals obviously because of COVID. And since Friday, since they came, already four of those National Guard members have tested positive for COVID and they're not able to work.

We talked with three of the National Guard members. They're clearly kind and noble people.


TUCHMAN: You decided to join the National Guard after seeing what happened on 9/11 when you were in kindergarten.

JUSTIN LIGHNER, OHIO ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: Yes. I just wanted to help my community.

TUCHMAN: Are patients surprised when you tell them you're in the military and you're taking care of them?


They're like, oh, really?

Yes. They think it's cool. And I think it's nice that they feel that way.

BRANDON BROWN, OHIO ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: There's a sense of pride that swells up in you when you know you're helping your community. It's a beautiful feeling, honestly.


TUCHMAN: Now at this hospital, the National Guard members are scheduled to work only for about two weeks. But that two weeks can be extended if there is a need. And it seems fairly clear there will be a need -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Our hats off to them for extending their help. We appreciate you joining us.

Joining me now to discuss, Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and associate dean of public health at Brown University, and Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer from eMed, a health care company that provides at-home COVID testing.

Welcome, both of you.

Dr. Ranney, let's begin with Chicago public schools canceling classes today after teachers voted to go virtual. More districts across the country are going remote or at least delaying the return to class, due to these ongoing surges.

Earlier this morning, Dr. Leana Wen said, if teachers are vaccinated and boosted and if they're wearing a high quality mask, their chances of contracting COVID-19 are very low and that the cost of closing schools altogether for students is just too high.

Do you agree with her?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: So I think our priority needs to be keeping in kids in school. We're in a very different situation now than we were a year ago, much less two years ago. Vaccinations, masks, ventilation and, of course, testing are all critical parts of keeping schools open, keeping kids and teachers safe.

But it's also about keeping down community spread. The reality is, when COVID is out of control in a community, we're going to have too many teachers and support staff, who are sick to be able to keep schools open safely.

So it's a combination of both making sure that our schools are equipped to be safe. And I will say, Bianna, I have chosen to send both of my children to my public school system because I do trust the measures that we've put in place.

There's certainly a chance of exposure for them and for their teachers but the chance of them getting seriously ill is low with that combination of vaccinations and masks. But we also need to prioritize the kids and the teachers by doing things in the larger community to keep cases down.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, listen, it's all about the risks, right?

There's always a risk in sending kids to school. Now I got my kids in a N95 mask. They were wearing cloth masks before but now we see the Omicron spread, it's much more transmissible so they're wearing new masks.

Dr. Mina, what role should testing play in keeping children in class right now?

In some cities like New York, it's not mandatory. In Los Angeles, they are requiring students get tested before they come back to class.

What role do you think that should play?

DR. MICHAEL MINA, CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER, EMED: So whether we close down schools is ultimately going to be, in some ways -- it's going to be driven societally, about what risks society is willing to take at the moment. But in general, closing down schools, just like the rest of this

pandemic, is an information problem. And that information problem is that we don't know who is positive when.

And so we end up closing things down or we quarantine people because we don't know if they're infected. But rapid tests are a good solution to this problem because we can know with very high accuracy if somebody that is walking into school is positive and infectious before they do so.

So that's the whole idea of test-to-stay programs. We don't have to close things down. I personally don't feel we should be closing schools again. We do have the tools, whether it's through masks.

Of course, the vaccines are helping and, of course, if we have testing before school for kids, who are at high risk or just more generally for students before they enter school, especially at the beginning of the year, we can keep outbreaks to a minimum in these environments.

GOLODRYGA: Let me ask you about that. As you know, there's a lot of confusion about what we're hearing out of the CDC; the CDC just updating its isolation guidance. It does not include a testing requirement.

But it does say that people can test after five days if they would like.

Dr. Mina, as you just said, you're a proponent of rapid tests.


GOLODRYGA: How big of a difference do you think it would make for the trajectory of the surge if the CDC would just require a rapid test to get out of isolation after those five days?

MINA: If we look at all sectors of society, there's one population which is clearly the highest risk for spreading the virus. And those are people who are known to be infected. And so a large fraction of them are still infectious at five days after their symptom onset, especially with this variant.

And so we have to be cognizant of saying, if we know people are already infectious, have, at the very least, try to do everything we can to stop those individuals, who are extremely high risk of spreading to others, from doing so.

And so I think we should have testing as a part of that. Unfortunately, the CDC is painted a bit into a corner, because they have trouble creating guidance around tools that, unfortunately, the U.S. has had trouble actually making accessible to our country.

GOLODRYGA: Well, that's just it. Not everyone has access to these rapid tests.

Dr. Ranney, you say that's part of the problem in this guidance just being confusing. We're actually going to -- I'm going to stop you right there because

we're going to go to the briefing right now. Let's take a listen and we'll come back to you if we can.

JEFFREY ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: The coming weeks are going to be challenging. We're going to see cases continue to rise because Omicron is a very transmissible variant.

But it's important to stay focused on three things. First, we have the tools to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe. And importantly, we have the tools we need to keep our schools open.

The Biden administration has provided $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to schools, to implement proven prevention measures, including ventilation and social distancing, and an additional $10 billion to support testing in schools.

Last March, we put teachers and school staff at the front of the line to get vaccinated before most adults. Most teachers are vaccinated and now eligible for boosters. And all kids ages 5 and older are eligible for vaccinations.

So we have the tools. We know how to keep our kids safe in school. About 96 percent of schools are open. Parents want schools open. Experts are clear that in-person learning is best for kids' physical and mental health and for their education. And the president couldn't be clearer: schools in this country should remain open.

Second, the impact of rising cases depends on a person's vaccination status. While we are seeing COVID cases among the vaccinated, if you're fully vaccinated and especially if you've gotten a booster shot, if you're eligible for a booster shot, you're highly protected. And it's very unlikely that you'll get seriously ill.

But if you're unvaccinated, you have a good reason to be concerned. If you get COVID-19, you are at a high risk of getting severely ill, being hospitalized and even dying. So please get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated. And if you're eligible for the booster, get a booster shot.

And third, the Biden administration is deploying every available measure to help states, communities and hospitals confront this Omicron challenge. Military doctors, nurses and EMTs are now in place, assisting local hospital staff in states across the country, with additional teams ready to deploy as needed.

We've shipped 2.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment, PPE, in the last two weeks alone to help keep health care workers safe. We've established free testing locations across the nation, with additional new sites opening soon in Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Delaware, Texas and Washington State.

We've worked aggressively to stock our nation's medicine cabinet with a diverse portfolio of COVID-19 treatments. It's important to remember that we have more effective treatments available now than at any point during the pandemic. And yesterday, the president announced he's instructed the team to

double the U.S. government's purchase of the Pfizer antiviral pill, from 10 million treatment courses to 20 million.

In addition, we're working with Pfizer to accelerate the delivery of these pills and will now have the first 10 million treatment cycles -- courses -- by the end of June instead of the end of September.

These pills can dramatically decrease hospitalizations and deaths and are a game-changer, with the potential to alter the impact of COVID on people and on our nation.


ZIENTS: Bottom line, we have the tools we need to manage the surge in Omicron cases. With that, I'll turn it over to Dr. Walensky.


And good morning, everyone. I'd like to start by walking you through today's data. The current seven-day daily average of cases is about 491,700 cases per day, an increase of about 98 percent from the previous week.

The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 14,800 per day, an increase of about 63 percent over the previous week.

And the seven-day average of daily deaths are about 1,200 per day, which is an increase of about 5 percent over the prior week.

Over the last several weeks and over the holidays, we have seen a significant and rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. This increase reflects both cases caused by the Delta variant and, more importantly now, cases surging from the Omicron variant.

Over the past month, we have seen the percentage of Omicron cases increase and the percentage of Delta cases decrease. Based on CDC genomic sequencing, we now estimate that Omicron represents about 95 percent of the cases in the country and Delta represents the remaining 5 percent.

The sharp rise in cases and the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant emphasizes the importance of vaccinations and boosters. This week, the FDA made several vaccine authorizations.

And CDC followed these authorizations by making additional vaccine recommendations. First, CDC authorized -- FDA authorized and CDC recommended shortening the window in which people who receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine can get a booster dose, from six months to five months.

Second, FDA authorized and CDC recommended that children, ages 5-11, who are moderately or severely immunocompromised, should get an additional primary shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine 28 days after their second shot, to provide them additional protection. And today, CDC's advisory committee on immunization practices is

meeting to discuss boosters for those 12 to 15 years old after FDA's authorization on Monday. I look forward to listening to the committee's discussion that will take place this afternoon.

Current data demonstrate that receiving a booster dose is critical to provide protection against COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. CDC surveillance data and other studies from around the world have demonstrated the benefit of a booster dose after receiving only a primary series, including decreased risk of infection, severe disease and death caused by COVID-19.

In large national studies from Israel, comparing those who are boosted with those who are fully vaccinated, a booster dose decreased infection by 10 times in all age groups.

Similarly, in those studies, boosters resulted in a decrease in severe disease in individuals over 60 years old by 18 times and decreased severe disease in people age 40 to 59 years old by 22 times.

And people who received a booster shot had 90 percent lower mortality due to COVID-19 than those who did not receive a booster shot.

While these studies were done when Delta was the dominant variant in Israel, we expect to see a similar trend of increased protection over those who are boosted with Omicron.

Vaccines and boosters are protecting people from the severe and tragic outcomes that can occur from COVID-19 infection. We're asking everyone to follow these four steps: get vaccinated and get boosted if you're eligible; wear a mask; stay home when you're sick and take a test if you have symptoms or are looking for greater, extra reassurance before you gather with others.

With that, thank you. I will now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.


What I'd like to do over the next couple minutes is talk about the Omicron variant and some concerns, particularly in the area of severity of disease, if I can have the first slide.

I'm going to focus predominantly on severity. But let me just make a few comments to underscore many of the things that Dr. Walensky said.

First of all, without a doubt, unequivocally, we are dealing with a highly, highly transmissible variant that spreads rapidly. The data are overwhelming in that regard.

Number two, immune evasion: Omicron evades immune vaccine protection against symptomatic disease and, to some extent, to severe disease.


FAUCI: However, as underscored by Dr. Walensky again, laboratory and clinical data indicate that booster shots reconstitute vaccine protection even against Omicron.

Let's spend a moment now on severity of disease, which is less likely that Omicron will cause severe disease. I'm going to give you data from four separate sources just to underscore that but then to end with a caveat.

Next slide. These are data from South Africa. If you look at the three variants in blue, red and yellow, with Omicron being yellow, and take a look at admissions, oxygen necessity, severe disease and death, in each case, the yellow bar is significantly less than the red and the blue bars, which represent Beta and Delta.

Next slide. If you look at data from the United Kingdom from three separate sources, the U.K. Health Security Agency, the University of Edinburgh at Scotland and Imperial College, each of these show that, in various parameters of disease severity, Omicron appears to be less than Delta.

Next slide. Although this data is a bit more preliminary but, nonetheless, indications from Houston, Texas, indicate that we're seeing similar situations here in the United States.

Next slide. This slide is from Canada, again showing that the risk of hospitalizations or death were 65 percent lower among Omicron compared to Delta and the risk of intensive care was 83 percent.

Next slide. If you go now to in vitro animal studies, these are interesting. But remember, there's always a caveat associated with animal studies.

In a number of studies, ones that have done individually and pooled in mice and hamster models, it was shown that the virus of Omicron proliferates very well in the upper airway and bronchi but actually very poorly in the lungs, which actually goes along with -- doesn't prove -- but goes along with the concept that you have a very transmissible virus with upper airway secretion but a virus that has less pathogenicity in the lung.

Next slide. So let's look at the bottom line of what I said and I'll get to the caveat in a moment. Multiple sources of now preliminary data indicate a decreased severity with Omicron.

However, we really do need more definitive assessment of severity with longer-term followup here and in different countries. But the big caveat is we should not be complacent.

Since the increased transmissibility of Omicron might be overridden by the sheer volume of the number of cases, that may be of reduced severity but could still stress our hospital system because a certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe.

So don't take this as a signal that we can pull back from the recommendations that you just heard from Dr. Walensky about the need for vaccination, for boosting, for wearing masks and all the other CDC recommendations. So let me close with the final slide, just a word about children,

because we're getting asked about that. The Omicron variant so far appears to be less severe than the Delta but remember the caveat.

Rapid community of spread is seeing larger numbers of children being hospitalized, again mostly among the unvaccinated.

And about vaccination, just to refresh your memory, the Pfizer BioNTech is now authorized and recommended for children from 5-17. Children from 12-17 can get a booster. The FDA authorized 12-15. And, as Dr. Walensky said, today the ACIP will meet about that for recommendation.

And finally, a question that many ask and I'm sure many of the reporters who have children are asking this.

What about kids from 6 months to 5 years?

Those studies are ongoing now to get the right dose and regimen, to get to where we want to be and likely the clinical trial are ongoing in individuals less than 5 years. Hopefully in the first half, hopefully toward the earlier part of the first half we may have some information so that we can vaccinate children of that age.

I'll stop there and back to you, Jeff.


GOLODRYGA: And we've just been listening to the White House pandemic response team really taking time to reassure Americans that the government has the tools it needs to fight this Omicron surge.

A bit of detail that we heard today: Omicron now makes up 95 percent of all reported cases in the United States. Only 5 percent of the cases are now attributed to the Delta variant.

So the Omicron continues to surge in the country. Also hearing that the National Guard will be sent out to hospitals if need be and that 96 percent of schools are all open. Jeff Zients reiterating that the schools have the tools, including $130 billion in federal funding, to help mitigate against the spread of COVID in schools across the country right now.

And still more data coming out on studies, on the severity of Omicron compared to Delta. It does appear that Omicron is less severe. And they address how this is impacting children as well.

Back to discuss all this is Dr. Megan Ranney.

What stood out to you?

You heard from the doctors saying this does appear to be less severe in children. That's good news.

RANNEY: It's terrific news. The messaging from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky, I thought, was tremendously clear. The takeaways are Omicron, particularly for those of us who are vaccinated, is not as severe as prior variants of COVID. That's part of what makes right now different from 2020.

But if you're unvaccinated, you're still at risk. No one wants to get COVID. Wear a good mask if you're out and about. I really applaud the administration both on purchasing more of that Paxlovid and on scaling up and National Guard.

As an ER doc, I can tell you how desperately short-staffed hospitals are across the country. I also want to reemphasize Dr. Fauci's point, which is that, although Omicron is more mild, in those of us fully vaccinated, it's not nothing. It still is overwhelming hospital systems.

My plea to those who are out there, who are listening, is, if you are symptomatic, please stay home. Please don't come to an ER for testing unless you're severely short of breath, feeling lightheaded or having chest pain or other emergency symptoms. Use testing centers in your area rather than coming to the hospital for testing.

GOLODRYGA: We also heard how boosters continue to work, right, 90 percent effective in mortality. In addressing children under the age of 5, who don't have the opportunity to get vaccinated, the most important thing is that the adults around them do get vaccinated and boosted.

RANNEY: That's exactly right. I'm getting questions from people about what to do with their under-5-year-old kid. For those who are 5 and up, get your kid vaccinated. There have been huge studies across the United States showing virtually no children who are fully vaccinated get admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, except for those who are immunosuppressed.

Vaccination protects our kids. For those under 5, make sure caregivers are vaccinated. Make sure caregivers are masked. If you can, check with a day care or preschool to see if they can improve ventilation, either by opening windows or having good filters, HEPA filters, in place.

We're not in 2020. We've got to get through this surge and there is hope on the other side.

GOLODRYGA: The government reiterating once again that the country has the tools it needs to keep schools open. Dr. Ranney, thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

Coming up, a city in mourning -- this is a devastating story; 13 people are killed in a fire in Philadelphia. Seven of them are children. We'll have more details for you coming up next.