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At This Hour

Top U.S. Health Officials Testify on Capitol Hill; U.S. Shatters All-Time Record for COVID-19 Hospitalizations. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired January 11, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. here's what we're watching at this hour.

The president's top COVID advisers in the hot seat: tough questions on Capitol Hill about the COVID surge, as hospitalizations hit a record high.

Boycotting Biden: the president takes his campaign for voting rights protections to Georgia. But some activists there say the time for speeches is over and they're not showing up.

And will he or won't he play?

That's still a question for Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open, why his travel documents are now taking Centre Court.

Thanks for being here, everyone. Let's begin this hour with the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. Anthony Fauci facing Congress. The top Republican on the committee set the tone early, when Senator Burr said today is going to be a tough hearing.

The Senate committee has just started grilling officials about the federal response to the resurgent pandemic and the confusing messaging coming from the CDC on things like testing, face masks and isolation guidelines.

This also comes as the United States shattered another pandemic record. More than 145,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

The previous high was set one year, a year ago and this number more than doubling since Christmas. We're also following another aspect of this pandemic and the fallout from it. Big news in Chicago.

The teachers union and the school district there reaching a tentative deal to get kids back into the class after a fight over COVID safety protocols left students and families stranded. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen is standing by for us, watching the Senate hearing with the nation's top health officials. Let's start there.

Elizabeth, what have you heard so far?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, they've just had the opening statements; they're now beginning the questioning. And what we heard was the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, doubling down on the CDC's advice that, if you have COVID and you're feeling better or you're asymptomatic, that, after five days, you can get out of isolation, even if you don't test.

Dr. Walensky says, look, a part of our point of public health here is to get essential workers, including hospital and health care workers, back to work. So she doubled down on that.

We also heard Dr. Fauci talk about the need for a universal coronavirus vaccine. That's so important, because we can't keep, you know, sort of dealing with variant after variant after variant. A universal vaccine would work on all of them. They've been trying to do that for flu for many, many years and that hasn't happened.

Hopefully it could happen with coronavirus. And also, Kate, what we're expecting now is for the senators to grill HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the FDA, about why we are experiencing a shortage of home tests two years into the pandemic -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Elizabeth, thanks so much. We will be sticking close to this and bring you all of the big moments as there are some tough questions coming at these officials. Appreciate it, Elizabeth.

Let's focus in right now, though, on Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of students are expected to return to class tomorrow. The school district and teachers union reaching a tentative deal overnight on these safety protocols that had been keeping everyone out of class to this point.

CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is live in Chicago with more on this.

What are the details here?

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you, Kate, the union's rank and file members will begin voting on this proposed agreement later this afternoon. The mayor and the union representative expect this deal to pass.

And let's take a look at some of the key points. First and foremost, there will be an upgrade to testing at schools across the district. We're talking about weekly testing.

There will be more KN95 masks, a paid contact tracing team and, perhaps the most significant, when you ask members of the union, there will be a threshold that triggers schools to switch to remote learning.

We're talking about individual schools, if they are experiencing a surge in COVID cases. And when we talk about a surge, they're talking about high transmission rates outlined by the CDC. The mayor said her focus now is moving forward. Listen in.



MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT (D-IL), CHICAGO: We've been through a hell of a lot in almost two years of COVID-19: an economic meltdown, civil unrest, increased violence. This has been a really hard, stressful and traumatic time on all of us.

And it falls heavily on our children and vulnerable families. The thing we need to do is unite, to support them, because they need us.


BROADDUS: And before getting to this point, Governor JB Pritzker said his office helped retain and supply at least 350,000 rapid tests. And when we heard from members of the union last night, they said that's something they were pleased with, also pleased parents --


BOLDUAN: Adrienne, we are going to jump in and head over to Capitol Hill; senator Rand Paul now questioning.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): There is simply one physician in Peoria, then the mistakes would only affect that physician's patients, the people who chose that physician.

But when the planner is a government official, like yourself, who rules by mandate, the errors are compounded and become much more harmful. A planner who believes he is the science, leads to an arrogance that justifies in his mind using government resources to smear and to destroy the reputations of other scientists who disagree with him.

In an email exchange with Dr. Collins, you conspire and I quote here directly from the email, to create a quick and devastating published takedown of three prominent epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. Apparently there is a lot of fringe epidemiologists at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.

And you quote, in the email, that they were from Dr. Collins and you agree, that they are fringe. Immediately there is this takedown effort. A published takedown doesn't exactly conjure the image of a dispassionate scientist.

Instead of engaging them on the merits, you and Dr. Collins thought to smear them as fringe and take them down. And not in journals, in lay press. This is not only antithetical to the scientific method it is cheap politics and it's reprehensible, Dr. Fauci.

Do you really think it is appropriate to use your $420,000 salary to attack scientists that disagree with you?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: The email you're referring to was an email of Dr. Collins to me. If you look at the email -- (CROSSTALK)

PAUL: That you responded to and hurries up and said I can do it, I can do it, we got something in the wire --

FAUCI: Oh, no, I think, in usual fashion, senator, you are distorting everything about me.

PAUL: Did you ever object to Dr. Collins' characterization of them as fringe?

Did you write back to Dr. Collins saying, no, they're not fringe, they're esteemed scientists and it would be beneath me to do that.

FAUCI: I did not --

PAUL: You responded to them you would do it and you immediately got an article on the wire and said, hey, look, I've got them, I nailed them and wired it in all publications.

FAUCI: That's not what went on. There you go again. Just do the same thing every hearing.

PAUL: That was your response.


PAUL: This wasn't the only time. So your desire to take down people --

FAUCI: -- incorrect as usual, senator, you are incorrect almost everything you've said.

PAUL: No you deny, you deny that the emails tell the truth of this.


PAUL: This wasn't the only time. Your desire to take down those who disagree with you, didn't stop with Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, you conspired with Peter Daszak, who you communicated with privately, and other members of the scientific community that wrote opinion pieces for nature, five of them signed an opinion piece for nature, 17 signed a paper that called it theory, the idea that the virus could have originated in the lab.

Do you think words like experience theory should be in a scientific paper?

FAUCI: Senator, I never used that word, when I was referring to it, you're distorting virtually everything --


PAUL: Did you communicate with the five scientists who wrote the opinion piece in nature, where they were describing oh, there is no way that this could happen from a lab. FAUCI: That was not me.

PAUL: Did you talk with any of them privately?

FAUCI: You keep --

PAUL: Did you?

Did you talk to any of the scientists privately --


PAUL: You, who wrote the opinion.

You did. What were they telling you privately?

FAUCI: Well, let me explain, you know you're going back to that original discussion, when I brought together a group of people to look at every possibility with an open mind. So not only are you distorting it, you're completely turning it around, as you usually do.


PAUL: Did they come to you privately, did they come to you privately and say no way this came from a lab?

Or was their initial impression, Dr. Gary and others involved, was it initial impression that it looked very suspicious that the virus came from a lab?

FAUCI: No, senator, we are here at a committee to look at a virus now that has killed almost 900,000 people. And the purpose of the committee was to try and get things out, how we can help to get the American public.


FAUCI: And you keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.

PAUL: You think anybody has had more influence --

FAUCI: Let me finish.


PAUL: Do you think it's a great success what's happened so far?


PAUL: Do you think we slowed down the death rate?

More people have died now under President Biden than did under president Trump. You are the one responsible. You are the architect. You are the lead architect for the response from the government. And now, 800,000 people have died. Do you think it's a winning success what you've advocated for


FAUCI: Senator, first of all, if you look at everything that I said, you accuse me of in a monolithic way telling people what they need to do. Everything that I've said has been in support of the CDC guidelines, wear a mask, get boosted --

PAUL: And you've added --


PAUL: Everything to be done by mandate. You've advocated that your infallible opinion be dictated by law.

FAUCI: Right, so again, Madam Chair I would like a couple of minutes because this happens all the time. You personally attack me and with absolutely not a shred of evidence of anything you say.

So I would like to make something clear to the committee. He's doing this for political reasons. What you need to do is, he said in front of this committee --

PAUL: You think your takedown of prominent epidemiologists was not political?


FAUCI: Let me finish my question. You know what I'm going to say.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, we will --

PAUL: Taking down three prominent epidemiologists.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Paul, if you would please, I'm going to allow this -- Dr. Fauci to respond. We have a number of senators who would like to ask questions and I would like him to be able to respond, please.

FAUCI: So the last time we had a committee or the time before, he was accusing me of being responsible for the death of 4 million to 5 million people, which is really irresponsible.

And I say why is he doing that?

There are two reasons why that's really bad. The first is, it distracts from what we're all trying to do here today, is get our arms around the epidemic and the pandemic that we're dealing with, not something imaginary.

Number two, what happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue, is that, all of a sudden, that kindles the crazies out there and I have life -- threats upon my life, harassments of my family and my children, with obscene phone calls, because people are lying about me. Now I guess you could say, well, that's the way it goes, I can take

the hit. Well, it makes a difference, because, as some of you may know, just about three or four weeks ago, on December 21st, a person was arrested, who was on their way from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., at a speed stop in Iowa.

And they asked -- the police asked him where he was going and he was going to Washington, D.C., to kill Dr. Fauci. And they found in his car an AR-15 and multiple magazines of ammunition because he thinks that maybe I'm killing people.

So I ask myself, why would the senator want to do this?

So go to Rand Paul website and you see, fire Dr. Fauci, with a little box that says, contribute here. You can do $5, $10, $20, $100. So you are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain. So the only --


PAUL: -- politically attacked your colleagues and in a politically reprehensible way to tarnish their reputation. You won't defend it. You won't argument it. You have turned around the attack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to continue this year. We have a number of questions from others.

FAUCI: Just one more minute, please, if I --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dr. Fauci, I really appreciate your response but we do have a number of questions from senators and do we have a second round and I'm being asked to make sure that everybody has their time. So thank you.

FAUCI: Thank you very much for allowing me, Madam Chair.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will move to Senator Murphy.


Dr. Fauci, thank you. Thank you, first of all, for what you do. You shouldn't have to put your life at risk. You shouldn't have to put your family's life at risk to simply stand up and do your job, to try to protect my constituents from a pandemic disease.

And thank you for calling out this agenda for what it is, an attempt to score political points, to build a political power base around the denial of science and around personal attacks on you and your family.

On social media, I follow many of president Trump's advisers and family members.


MURPHY: And they make a sport out of attacking you personally in some of the most vicious, hateful, ugly ways that are possible. And they do it because it gets clicks. They don't do it because they're legitimately engaged in an honest debate about the science surrounding COVID.

Those people attack you because it gains them political followers. And so I appreciate the fact that you're willing to stand up for yourself and for your colleagues, who have been dragged into the political muck, not because those that follow president Trump are interested in an honest, science-based debate about how to attack COVID but because they see political opportunity.

So thank you, Dr. Fauci, for your work, for the panel's work and for sticking up for yourself, which is not always easy.

Dr. Walensky, I want to take my time to do just a little bit of an update on best practices for schools. I know we talk about this a lot here. But you know, part of what I think is frustrating for a lot of parents is that the guidance they're getting from their schools changes -- and I get it, educators are sort of adjusting as the variant changes, as technology changes.

But what has changed since the last time?

Has anything changed since the last time you were here, about what you are recommending for schools to stay open?

I appreciate what you said during the last hearing, is schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close. As the parent of two public school kids, I couldn't agree more.

The trauma on these kids during this pandemic has been significant. And the data tells us that, especially for poorer kids and kids of color, distance learning just doesn't work. So I'm grateful that I've got a governor that has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the federal dollars are used to keep schools open.

But anything new that you can share with us about what you're recommending for schools to stay open for the rest of the year.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Thank you, Senator Murphy, and, in fact that you took the words right out of my mouth, schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close.

We had a Delta surge in the fall and 99 percent of our schools were safely open. And one of the things that's majorly different between September of 2021 and today is we have pediatric vaccinations. We have vaccines that are available for every child over the age of 5.

And the children who are in the hospital now are largely those who are unvaccinated. So first and foremost, one of the most important things that has changed is we should be getting our children and our teenagers vaccinated.

And if our teenagers are eligible, we have boosters available for our teenagers as well. So we saw, through the Delta surge, that we were able to keep our children safely in school before we had vaccines. So now, today, what do we have for our children?

We have vaccines, of course, that we can use and we have school testing programs, we have new science that demonstrates tests to stay. And this is where a child might be exposed in the classroom. But if they're exposed, they don't have to stay home in quarantine.

They can test every other day or twice a week and stay in the classrooms safely and what that has demonstrated is hundreds of thousands of person days, of children in school rather than at home.

We have new science that has demonstrated the value of masking; 3.5 times increased risk of school outbreaks if you're unmasked in schools versus if you're masking in schools.

And just this week, we updated our K-12 guidance so that it is consistent with our isolation and quarantine guidance for the general public so people can come back to school after isolation, after five days.

MURPHY: Thank you, Dr. Walensky, for that and for your commitment to keeping our schools open.

And Ms. O'Connell, Final quick question, for you, talking about in- home tests, obviously a lot of focus on in-home tests today. But these are antigen tests. There are some interesting research going on about the ability to make PCR tests available at home.

And there's companies all over the country, including one in Connecticut, that, you know, believe that, with some additional investment, to bring those tests to scale, we could get PCR tests into families' hands at home, for a cost that is at or below what we're currently charging or companies are currently charging for antigen tests.

Is that a possibility?

DAWN O'CONNELL, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE, DHHS: Senator Murphy, thank you. We share your interest, of course, in seeing as many tests available for the American people as quickly as possible and at BARTA have worked very closely with several manufacturers that you had mentioned for these at home PCR tests.

We've contracted with one of them and have reached 5 million per month manufacturing capacity, in contract with them. And continue to look at the others, in ways that we can support them.

I would also like to say, NIH colleagues, in a program called RADX, the rapid acceleration of diagnostics, are working very closely with many of these companies as well as they go through the development stages.


O'CONNELL: So we remain very committed to the work that these companies are doing and look forward to partnering with them as they begin to bring these products forward.


Senator (INAUDIBLE)?


Ms. O'Connell, over the past two years, Congress has appropriated $82.6 billion specifically for --

BOLDUAN: We're going to pull off from the hearing now and continue listening to the Senate hearing as it plays out. As you can see, some of the helpful information that can come out of the Senate hearings with top officials.

But also some of the unhelpful hysterics and drama that can come from this as well. Joining me for now is Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

I know you were listening to that along with me, Doctor. Your reaction, to this I think kind of round four or five, between Dr. Rand Paul, a medical doctor, also a senator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci and this personal animosity that continues coming from Rand Paul.

Your reaction to it?

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA/BIRMINGHAM: Yes, thanks, Kate. My reaction is really one of being completely dispirited and I think that, you know, the fact that you even have to count the number of rounds but can't remember what round we're on sort of says it all because this is, I think, political theater at its worst, in a time where the fact that we're being distracted from the number of people who are hospitalized and the complete, really limited arsenal we have to treat the people that we have, especially outpatients, you know -- and we can talk about that, if we have time.

The fact that they're wasting time, particularly senator Paul is wasting time, using really very high-caliber accusatory words, sort of says it all to me.

Like why are we even spending our time talking about this, when the urgency to get us out of this really difficult phase of the pandemic could not be more acute right now?

So you know, it's exhausting. And I wish that I could give Dr. Paul a tour of our ICU right now.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Marrazzo, you are saying it best right there. One thing that is very true is that senator Paul fundraises off of his fights with Dr. Fauci almost constantly. You can see those emails.

But let's talk about what you are seeing in your ICU, the urgency of now, in this moment and where this hearing will hopefully likely refocus. Right now, as we just looked this morning, it's 41.2 percent positivity rate in Alabama right now.

What does that reflect?

Talk to me.

MARRAZZO: Exactly. So I would say that the urgency that we're seeing right now, I think of it in terms of three major dimensions. The first dimension is that we, the first dimension is we have a majority of unvaccinated people, right?

We are still not at the 50 percent threshold. We're getting there. We have some indications that people are taking the vaccine a little bit more. But I want to emphasize, we still have an extraordinarily vulnerable population. Remember, not just because of lack of vaccination but because of co-morbidities and lack of access to health care. So that's number one.

The second thing is that, with this deluge of infections, we, like many places, are having compromised staffing issues, right?

So we are really struggling to cover our clinics. We're struggling to cover all of our hospital services, from environmental services to the people who deliver meals to the nurses, because people are infected and they've got to stay home, which is why the CDC's efforts to get people back to work safely really resonate with me very strongly.

And then the third dimension, as I alluded to before, is we really got nothing to treat Omicron, right?

We don't have --


BOLDUAN: And that's despite all the promises. And I think that's --


BOLDUAN: It's not just promises; the approvals. We've got coming these anti-viral pills that everyone seems very excited about; we've got now only one, if you will, monoclonal antibody treatment that seems to be effective when it comes to Omicron.

And you're saying, the reality right now, is you need it now and you've got nothing?

MARRAZZO: We've got nothing. Now the pill, in fairness, remember that clinical trial studying the pill was stopped early because it looked so good. So you could sort of contextualize that and say, OK, maybe they really weren't ready to ramp up and get us the supplies we need. When they get those supplies, I will be incredibly grateful.

I can't wait to be able to have access to that particular pill, Paxlovid. The monoclonal antibody, on the other hand, I think can be pumped out a lot more quickly.


MARRAZZO: It would be very helpful to get allocations of that really geared up. We had 16 doses of that last week. And that was gone very quickly.

BOLDUAN: So nationally, the country, as I said at the top of the show, has topped the all-time pandemic high for COVID hospitalizations. And those who are sick enough with COVID to need hospital care are, by and large, still people who are unvaccinated.

What does it look like, you've talked about the stresses, of course, on the staff and just the exhaustion with being this far into the pandemic and not having treatments.

But is that still part of the big story here, which is, yes, hospitalizations are really high and part of it is people are testing positive when they're in the hospital for other reasons. But those who need treatment for COVID, there's still the unvaccinated.

MARRAZZO: That's absolutely true. I do want to come back to your point about this incidental COVID detection and that's because we're screening everybody who comes into the hospital to protect our staff and to protect the other patients.

And we are finding that about 40 percent of people who test positive are coming to the hospital for another reason. And that just says how extraordinarily common this infection is.

That said, the people who are in the hospital for COVID-related reasons are largely unvaccinated. So those are the people who are still experiencing by far the worst consequences of this process. So it does continue to make it really challenging. And it does make us sort of say, please, if you can do it, get vaccinated and get boosted.

BOLDUAN: Yes, until we're blue in the face, you say that, I'm sure. Dr. Marrazzo, it's great to see you as always. Thank you so much.


BOLDUAN: Also happening right now, we're watching very closely, President Biden is traveling to Atlanta very shortly to give what is being billed as a major speech on voting rights.

But one of the most prominent voting rights advocate in the country, Georgia resident and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and other activists will not be there. The president just spoke before leaving the White House. Let's get over there, John Harwood is standing by at the White House.

What did the president say, John?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, this is a big moment for the president. He is heading down as part of a broad effort by Democrats in the run-up to the Martin Luther King holiday to try to get voting rights legislation passed.

He gave a tough speech on the insurrection last week. He will give a tough speech going after Republicans on voting rights today. He is getting that boycott, as you mentioned, from some of activists who said they have not seen enough of a plan from Joe Biden on how to pass voting rights legislation.

And Stacey Abrams isn't going to be there; the president addressed that to reporters a few minutes ago. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I spoke to Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship. We got our scheduling mixed up. I talked with her at length this morning. We're all on the same page. And everything's fine.

QUESTION: About the other points --

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) for voters rights (INAUDIBLE)?

BIDEN: Say that again, please.

QUESTION: What do you risk politically, sir, when you know that (INAUDIBLE)?

BIDEN: I risk not saying what I believe. That's what I risk. This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are going to be judged where were they before and where were they after the vote. This (INAUDIBLE). It's that consequential. And so the risk is making sure people understand just how important this is, just how important this is.

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you concerned overall about the progress on the pandemic right now?

Do you feel like your administration is not meeting the targets it needs to meet?

BIDEN: Well, I have concerns about the pandemic just because it's worldwide, it's not slowing up very much. And thank God, what we've been able to do, has been able to, we have been able to generate significant federal help in terms of both coming into the hospitals and administering all the help that these states need.

That's what we're doing now. But I'm confident we're on the right track. Thank you, all.


HARWOOD: Now of course, the president's obviously juggling the pandemic as well as this push for voting rights. As for the Stacey Abrams absence, it does not seem plausible that they simply mixed up their schedules on this event. It's too important to Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams for that.

But it also doesn't matter whether she's there. The only possible plan for getting this through the Senate is to get all 50 Democrats to agree to sidestep the filibuster. The frustration of activists is understandable.

But Joe Biden doesn't have the power to force 50 Democrats to do that. Any individual Democrat can hold it up. And so far, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, among others, have been resistant to attempts to change the filibuster. Until that changes, this legislation is not going anywhere.

BOLDUAN: Interesting. Good to see you, John. Thank you very much.

And joining me now for more on this is Patricia Murphy, a political reporter and columnist for the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" and Natasha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. She's one of the voting rights activists skipping Joe Biden's speech.