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At This Hour

Omicron Cases Peaking In Parts Of U.S., Hospitals Strained; ESPN's Stephen A. Smith Credits Vaccine For Saving His Life; FBI Warns Faith Communities Of More Violence After TX Standoff; Rabbi Describes How He And Other Hostages Got Out Alive; Fmr. Aide Accuses Boris Johnson Of Lying To Parliament About Party; Tonga Govt.: Volcano Eruption Sparks "Unprecedented Disaster". Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired January 18, 2022 - 11:30   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Dr. Hotez, the data is showing that the surge of Omicron may be peaking. You have to kind of couch all of this a little bit in parts of the U.S., especially in the northeast, as you're hearing from the New York Governor. Hospitals still, though, strained. How do you assess this moment? Is this the crest?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, PROF. AND DEAN OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Well, it could be. I mean, it makes sense that the peak would start to go down first where it initially went up, which is in the Northeast, the big northeast cities, New York City, New York State, and then Washington, D.C. So it is starting to go down.

Here's the big question, Kate, does it go down as quickly as it went up, or we've seen other waves in which it starts to go down and then it kind of gets stuck halfway, and continues on for a period of time? So we're not in a position to start high fiving ourselves yet on this and something to watch very carefully.

And remember, there's always a lag in the death. So we're now hitting 2,000 deaths a day. So it's -- so I can't stress enough, we have to stop the happy talk about Omicron. This is still a very serious pathogen, especially in light of the fact that so much of our healthcare workforce is getting knocked out at home with COVID and unable to take care of the sick. And that's another reason why mortality goes up as well.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And with this, there's also kind of the big question of what does it mean that everyone got infected so quickly. With so many people getting infected so quickly, what does it mean for natural immunity and moving this pandemic into maybe an endemic phase? Because Dr. Fauci says that we don't know yet if this is going to happen this year. But when do you think we will know?

HOTEZ: So here's what I think, and for transparency, there's not consensus in the scientific community. And the next person you bring on may say something completely different. But I'm of the opinion that Omicron is not going to produce significant and durable immunity. I say that because it tends to -- I think it'll resemble more some of the upper respiratory coronaviruses which are known to have short lived immunity.

And I think what's going to happen is those individuals who've been infected and recovered and have not gotten vaccinated on top of it are going to be vulnerable to yet another wave. And I think we're going to -- there's a good likelihood we're going to see another serious COVID wave of a new variant, TBD, to be determined, that's going to start in the summer in Texas in the southern United States, just like what happened in 2020 with the original lineage and 2021 with Delta. So the bottom line is until we show that resolve to vaccinate the world, I think we're in for another big peak over the summer.

BOLDUAN: That's interesting. And to that point, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, he was back on air yesterday for the first time since he'd fallen ill with COVID. He is vaccinated, he was vaccinated when he got infected. I want to play for you how he described his ordeal.


STEPHEN A. SMITH, ESPN COMMENTATOR: I had 103 degree fever every night, woke up with chills, and pool of sweat, headaches with massive coughing profusely. And it got to a point that right before New Year's Eve, I was in a hospital New Year's Eve into New Year's Day. That's how I brought in the New Year.

And they told me had I not been vaccinated. I wouldn't be here. That's how bad I was. I wanted to take a moment to say to folks out there that, a, the vaccine, according to them, saved me. You could sit up there and be averse to the vaccine or whatever. And I'm not trying to get into all of that encourage or discourage anybody from anything. I'm just telling you my story.

But the one thing that I did peel from this above all else, is that that mask is pivotal. Because you don't know how you might affect the person sitting next to you. And it's about of the people, not just yourself --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we're all in it together.

SMITH: -- when we're talking about this global pandemic.


BOLDUAN: What do you think a story coming from a major figure like this, a story like that? But not a major figure in medicine, right? A major figure in sports. What do you think it does?

HOTEZ: Listen, there are many, many more people listening to Stephen A. Smith than Peter J. Hotez. So he's one of the best in the business. I listened to him every chance I get. I think he's got a lot of wisdom and it really showed through in his comments and I really do appreciate that Stephen A. Smith made those comments. He's going to save a lot of lives by doing that.

The one thing I will say I did read in some reports that he got two doses and didn't get his booster. And the reason that's -- because there was a lot of confusion about what fully vaccinated mean. So it's not Stephen A. Smith's fault, but we had too much of that messaging that two doses accounts for full immunization. And it's not holding up that well against the Omicron variant in terms of not only symptomatic illness, but also breakthrough hospitalizations.

So, if it turns out if you have seen and can confirm that that he did not get his booster, I think you could -- you might even say get your -- this might be another wake up call to get your booster as well because that can keep you out of the hospital.


BOLDUAN: Yes, I don't have the information at my fingertips right now, but it's good to see you Dr. Hotez as always.

HOTEZ: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Coming up for us, the FBI is warning faith communities about the potential for more violence, after the hostage standoff at a Texas synagogue. You're going to want to hear how the rabbi talks of their escape, saying training is what saved their lives.



BOLDUAN: Developing at this hour, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are warning faith communities of more violence after the hostage standoff at a Texas synagogue. It comes as the rabbi who escaped that attack says training helped him and the other hostages get out alive.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins me now with much more on this. So Shimon, what are you learning about this new warning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So the big concern for law enforcement all across really the United States are copycat attacks, is that someone seeing what happened here over the weekend in Texas, could be sitting in their home and get inspired by this attack and go out and do it themselves. So they're putting a warning, just reinforcing some of what many of these faith-based communities already doing, what many synagogues are already doing, just warning them to just be vigilant. Stay vigilant, stay careful, stay safe, and keep the security measures in place.

And also telling them, you know, don't forget those security measures, those training courses, do those. Those will help you as we saw over the weekend with the hostages in this case. So that's what this is about. It's not tied to any specific threat.

The other concern for authorities as we've been reporting for months now is domestic terrorism, this extremist views that we are now facing here within our own country. But then what we saw over the weekend is foreign terrorism, and people who don't live in this country or do live in this country, and they get inspired by foreign terrorist. That is another warning that they gave to the law enforcement community and, of course, the religious institutions, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Shimon, thank you so much for that detail. I really appreciate it.

We are also learning new details about how the survivors of that synagogue attack manage to escape. Here's how the rabbi describes it.


RABBI CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER, CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL: We were terrified. And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn't in a good position, I asked -- made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman. And I headed for the door.


BOLDUAN: Joining me right now, Jonathan Greenblatt, he's the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and the author of the new book, "It Could Happen Here." We're going to get to that in just a second because it's very relevant, Jonathan, today.

I want to ask you what you think about the rabbi describes it. How it was training that kicked in, that helped. He also said that, "We are alive today because of that education. I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools and others to participate in active shooter and security courses."

Training that if we're going to be honest, Jonathan, should not be necessary. But training that it seemed that is very clear is a must today. What's your reaction to that?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, CEO & NATIONAL DIRECTOR, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: Well, Kate, I have many reactions, I mean, but I am alarmed and angry more than anything else. I mean, this is a rabbi who showed up at services to teach Torah and had to implement tactical maneuvers. This is insane. And no one should think of this as normal at all.

And I really appreciated Shimon's intro. But let's all be very clear about this. The FBI isn't saying all religious institutions, they're saying synagogues, because again and again and again, the Jewish community finds itself targeted. I mean, I have to worry about sending my kids to Hebrew school, about my wife going to a kosher supermarket, about, you know, my nephew's going to their JCC because these are all places that have been targeted, where Jews have been attacked, held hostage and murdered. It isn't normal. And we've got to finally wake up and do something about it.

BOLDUAN: When something that the ADL -- you know, you and I have discussed so many times -- is your ability to track hate and anti- Semitism in America. And on the heels of this warning from the FBI and DHS, does their assessment match what ADL is seeing in response to this hostage situation?

GREENBLATT: Well, certainly, again, I think I give a lot of credit to law enforcement for handling Saturday as well as they did -- as well as the heroism of Rabbi Charlie again -- \


GREENBLATT: -- who just showed so much calm and so much leadership. But I -- and I was humbled when Rabbi Charlie said it was training from ADL, as well as the FBI and other organizations that helped him survive. I mean, that's what he said because that's what we do. And they're correct to say there's real risk here, Kate.


Remember that six months to the day of Pittsburgh, we had the shooting at the synagogue in Poway. And remember, I mean, we're almost seven years to the day from the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris. And we've talked about other attacks in recent years. There is real risk. And if we want to start it, I think we need to acknowledge a few things. We can never build, you know, walls that are high enough. We can never have enough cameras.

Preparation is essential. And I am so glad the rabbi did it. We are concerned, but we are not daunted. You're going to see more Jews show up for synagogue on Saturday morning than anyone could imagine. But there are indeed steps we need to take to stop this from happening again.

BOLDUAN: And this is exactly what you warned about in your new book, this level of violence is happening and will continue to happen. I want to read just for everyone, just one piece of the book which you write. "My fear is that if we allow hate to go unchecked, we might well look back on this moment is the turning point at which America became unraveled and the American berserk came into ascendence."

You have been tracking hate and anti-Semitism for decades. What is unique about this moment?

GREENBLATT: Well, I think one of the things that's unique about this moment, Kate, is, first of all, the level of incidents have risen to a historic number. In the last three years, we have the highest number and the third highest number of incidents, the ADL has ever tracked in over 100 years of fighting hate, and over 40 years of tracking these kinds of incidents.

Number two, social media has brought this into the middle of our public conversation. It's literally dredged up the sludge and allow it to seep into the mainstream. And with Facebook, the other companies doing not nearly enough, despite their trillions of dollars in market capitalization.

And then number three, we have kind of a polarization and extremism has been normalized, Kate, on the far right. You have people who say that what happened on January 6 was nothing unusual, despite men wearing camp Auschwitz, sweatshirts and rampaging through our Capitol, believing that Jews somehow control the government.

And then on the far left, you have leaders demanding calling ADL their enemy, and saying that we need to watch out for polite Zionists. Look, if you demonize the Jewish people or the Jewish state, if you make these wild accusations, if you traffic and conspiracies, you create the conditions for violence. It starts with words.

So I want to see people on the left and on the right, call this out, especially when it comes from their own tribe. So Kate, we don't have to have this conversation again.

BOLDUAN: It is always good to have you here. Thank you for your vigilance. I really appreciate it, Jonathan.

GREENBLATT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Coming up for us, Britain's Prime Minister is defending himself again after a former aide claims to -- claims that he lied to Parliament. A live report from London next.



BOLDUAN: Boris Johnson facing even more trouble today. A former aide to Johnson accusing the British Prime Minister of lying to Parliament, insisting that he was aware of and allowed parties at Downing Street at the height of COVID lockdowns. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz is live now for us from London with more. What's the very latest, Salma?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: The Prime Minister is now not just accused of lying to the country, he's accused of lying badly, essentially taking us all for fools. Let's go through that May 20th, 2020 incident that's under question. Allegedly, his top officials sent out an e-mail to up to 100 staffers asking them to come to the Downing Street garden and bring your own booze, exclamation point.

But the Prime Minister says, it's not a party. I didn't know it was a party. Take a listen.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Categorically, that nobody told me and nobody said that this was something that was against the rules. That was a breach of the COVID rules, that we were doing something that wasn't a work event. Because, frankly, I don't think -- I can't imagine why on earth it would have gone ahead or why it would have been allowed to go ahead.


ABDELAZIZ: Now this is not the only incident in question here, Kate. Downing Street is being accused of essentially partying it up during lockdown. A list of parties stretching from May 2020 into spring of 2021. The Prime Minister could simply lose his job over this, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Salma, thank you for that update. I want to turn now to the devastation in Tonga after the volcanic eruption there triggered a tsunami. You look at these satellite images showing thick ash covering much of the island nation. Tonga's government is calling it an unprecedented disaster now. New concern that aid has been slow to arrive.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is joining me now from neighboring Australia with the very latest on this. Paula, what are you learning?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, we've had a statement from the Prime Minister's office saying that at this point, three people have been confirmed dead, but they simply don't know how bad the damage is in many areas. They say there's one island of 50 people just off the coast of Tonga. Every single building and home has been destroyed, so they're trying to evacuate them.

Now the main priority this -- at this point is to get clean drinking water and then to get shelter and then to repair the underwater communications cable which has been damaged. Meaning, there is no contact with the outside world at this point. And one of the priorities as well as to clear the runway of the airport. The Prime Minister saying it is damaged. There is ash there and they're trying to clear that knowing that that is the quickest way to get humanitarian aid in.


There have been ships coming from Australia and New Zealand heading to Tonga, but that could take three days. So the priority now, clear the runway and allowed that humanitarian aid to come in. Kate?

BOLDUAN: The satellite imagery coming in is just really unbelievable. Paula, thank you very much. Much more to be learned there once communication, critical communication is hopefully re-established very soon. I appreciate it.

Much more to come on all of this. Thank you so much for joining us today. I'm Kate Bolduan. "Inside Politics" with John King starts after this quick break.