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At This Hour

Death Toll From Storm Climbs To 25 In Erie County, New York; Buffalo, NY And Surrounding Cities Under Driving Ban; Temperatures Rising Nationwide After Freezing Christmas Weekend; Washington Power Substations Vandalized, 14k+ Lost Power; China To Distribute First Foreign-Made COVID-19 Antiviral Drugs; Respiratory Virus Activity "High" Or "Very High" In Most States; Any Day: Cmte. To Release Trump Tax Returns. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 12:00   ET



AMARA WALKER, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, everyone. At This Hour, an ongoing winter emergency snarls millions from coast to coast, at least 47 are dead. First responders now locked in a desperate race to dig hundreds more out of trouble.

Plus, China nears a COVID breaking point. An outbreak over stretches hospitals and pushes its precedent to take a new step in that country's fight against the virus. And how soon is soon. The committee investigating Donald Trump's taxes promises to release them any day. This is what we're watching At This Hour.

Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I am Amara Walker. Kate Bolduan is off today. And we begin this hour in western New York, where a quote, generational blizzard is pummeling the city of Buffalo and all of Erie County. The death toll has now climbed to 25 and the county executive says that number is likely to grow.


MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK EXECUTIVE: I just have to offer my deepest condolences to those who lost a loved one as a result of this horrible situation. Never thought I'd face this, I thought the storm that we faced in 2014 would have been the worst in which we had 14 deaths, but this is far surpassed it and there still are probably additional deaths that will be announced later today.


WALKER: The city of Buffalo and some surrounding suburbs are under a driving ban as most roads are still covered with snow. CNN's Polo Sandoval is in Buffalo with the latest.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Amara, here in the city of Buffalo, which is widely considered as ground zero with this massive winter storm over the weekend. There is no shortage of heartbreak and devastation heartbreak, of course, because of the mounting numbers of storm related deaths. Authorities here fearing that that number is likely to continue to climb as they get into some of these neighborhoods that have been snowed in for days. But also, frustration because authorities here in Erie County say that they continue to see folks driving on the streets for non-essential business.

So, as you're about to hear from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He is issuing renewing that call for people to adhere to that travel ban that was put in place on Friday morning, that if people are relatively safe at home, they are not in any danger. Stay there.


POLONCARZ: We still have a lot of travel of individuals who do not appear to be doing anything other than enjoy writing or going to a friend's house. Police have been working round the clock on life saving measures. So, they're not been going out, there ticketing people, but now they're going to - because truthfully, you are harming our ability to recover. And you may be the reason that we're not able to get an ambulance to a location.


SANDOVAL: Now, when it comes to what we're currently seeing in downtown Buffalo, the streets they have been trying to plow them, so that they're at least clear for emergency personnel to get to where they need to go. These are operations that have really been - really kicked up yesterday when there was a clearing in the weather. And so, they want to try to stay a step ahead because there's still more snow in the forecast.

But then you also look at some of the drone footage that's been provided by New York state police, takes you into the residential areas that have been hit particularly hard. That's where first responders are basically going door to door according to Mayor Byron Brown, making sure that the folks inside some of these homes, some of which are still without power are OK. Amara?

WALKER: All right. Polo Sandoval, thank you. And joining me now is Patrick Lucey. He is the highways supervisor in Amherst, New York, not far from Buffalo. One of the towns still under a driving ban, due to the snowy roads. Patrick, appreciate you joining us. First off, can you just explain to those at home? Why it's so imperative that people abide by this driving ban? Why it's dangerous for people to get out there?

PATRICK LUCEY, HIGHWAY SUPERVISION, AMHERST, NY: Well, yes, because of the amount of snow that fell in a relatively quick manner. And in Amherst, the town, again, we're just north of Buffalo, we receive between 30 and 40 inches depending, where you are in the town. Vehicles even far away vehicles could not navigate the roads. I mean, I had plow, our small plow pickup trucks, they could not be operated on the roads that they were getting stuck.

All we could use our big ones. And if you're a private citizen or resident driving around and you get stuck, you could have been in that car for a long period of time before somebody could have found you, especially if you're in some remote area and not close to a house or anything.


WALKER: Yes. Hopefully, you know, you're being found alive, right? I mean, have you had any deaths in Amherst?

LUCEY: Unfortunately, yes, not to my knowledge, where people were found in cars, but there were problems with emergency services, reaching some people at their residence. And just because the emergency vehicles couldn't get there quick enough, and that's all we've been doing really, for the last two days are assisting our emergency crews getting down streets.

But unfortunately, that takes time even to get our trucks there in front of them to clear the road. And from what I've heard, there are a few people just didn't make it because they couldn't get this necessary medical attention they needed.

WALKER: Can you tell us more about the kinds of calls that emergency crews are responding to what you're hearing?

LUCEY: There's about at the peak, there's about 3000 people in our town of Amherst. And again, we have about 37 households, 130 - I'm sorry, yes, 37,000 households, 130,000 people. The peak was about 3000, where they were without power, this was households. Again, some of them had necessary equipment that needed power to maintain it, whether ventilators or something of that nature.

So that was difficult. Again, they needed to be taken to somewhere where there was power, most likely some type of medical service or a medical place where they could then be taken care of. So, that was really one of the biggest things that we had to try to help people with.

WALKER: Yes. I mean, just looking at the pictures, you know better than I do, but the roads are clearly treacherous. People just need to hunker down right now. How long do you think it's going to be before the roads are passable again?

LUCEY: We made tremendous progress last night and into today. We had some more vehicles come in. Thanks to Erie County and the county executive Mr. Poloncarz. They've got some more high lifts, which are instrumental.

WALKER: OK. It looks like we lost our connection with Patrick Lucey's audio there, but we got the gist of it. We do hope and wish everyone up there. The best of luck. Patrick Lucey, thank you very much. So, those frigid temperatures are getting a little better. CNN's Chad Myers joins me now. Chad, enough to melt some of that snow in Buffalo.

CHAD MYERS, METEOROLOGIST: By Thursday, little bit of snow. What happens is now is that, when the sun comes out, it melts the snow on the roof. And then it starts to melt down through the gutters. And then there's long, long icicles come off your house. And those can be dangerous as well, especially if you're walking under it.

And if it's a two or three storey home, those icicles become a danger. But then, later on when it actually the air gets above 32, the icicles fall off or don't make any freezing at all because it's cold enough to just keep dripping. So that's where they're at in this process right now.

I think what people don't understand about Amherst, Kenmore Tonawanda in North Tonawanda, the areas are north towns. Those north towns are not really snowbelt towns. They're not used to this. South of town, East Aurora, Orchard Park, (Inaudible), Cheektowaga. Those are the areas that get a lot of the snow and then Cattaraugus, Chautauqua County far of south map.

That's where they have a lot of this equipment. But here, Buffalo 49.2 for the man in Amherst, we're just talking to, they had three to four inches of snow per hour, trying to keep up with that. And so, the snow is stopping, slowing at least for now. But 98.9 inches of snow so far this year. That's more than the normal year and we're not even in January yet.

Here's the snow across parts of the, I'll call it the Ohio Valley. This is just a small clipper, not anything that's going to be piling up any snow. Here's the light snow ending finally in Buffalo at this hour, things are going to get better, but there's a lot of snow on the ground.

There's also a lot of snow on the ground in parts of Ontario. And to keeping our eye on New York and Buffalo and all that, but Ontario had a lot of snow off superior and also off of Lake Huron. There is your warmer - the warmer air is in the Rockies right now. And it's on its way. It isn't a Kansas City at 20, but it is to Denver. I'll get to 51 later on this afternoon.

And here is your real warm up for Buffalo on up to above 50 degrees by Sunday. Chicago, you'll get there by Thursday. So, all of this will be a bad memory, but an awful lot of shoveling and very heavy snow to move. You need to be very careful, moving it piece by piece and not try to do it all at one time.

WALKER: Good advice. And it's so much snow, it's just hard to wrap my head around in such a short period of time. Chad Myers, appreciate you. Thank you very much. So, a power attack, leaving thousands of Washington families in the dark on Christmas Day. Police say vandals damaged four power substations in Pierce County, knocking out power to more than 14,000 homes. Crews are out yesterday, working to restore service and the lights are back on for most of those affected. Now the search is on to find out who is responsible.


CNN's Josh Campbell is following the latest developments for us. Josh, just shake your head. We're talking about, yet, you know, this happening again to a power substation. How to police - do they have any information on how this happened or who did it? JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Amara, police know what happened and how it happened. They don't know at this hour why this occurred. Now, what we're hearing from authorities is that on Christmas Day, nearly 14,000 people in the Tacoma area, south of Seattle in Washington state were left without power due to vandalism at four separate power substations.

Now authorities have not arrested anyone. They haven't identified a suspect or suspects the motive still remains unclear. We did get an update from police, providing us information on what authorities found when they arrived at the scene of these incidents as well as how their investigation is proceeding. Take a listen.


SERGEANT DARREN MOSS JR., PIERCE COUNTY, WASHINGTON POLICE DEPT: The suspects cut one of the locks on the fence area, made their way inside and caused damage to the substation which ultimately knocked out power for a large amount of residents in the county. All three happened in the middle of the night on Christmas Day causing power outages, nothing was stolen from either or any of those facilities.

So, there's a good possibility they are related. We are aware of other incidents that occurred in Oregon and southern Washington as well as the incidents from North Carolina earlier this wintertime. So that's what we're looking into.


CAMPBELL: Now the sergeant there made reference to other incidents. And this is so key of part of this investigation. We know last month there were two power stations that were attacked in Washington state. And of course, we've been reporting on extensively in Moore County, North Carolina residents there were left without power for days after substations were attacked.

Authorities believe with gunfire, this also concerning of course, because the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, they've been warning that violent extremists as well as anti-government groups have actually been urging some of their followers to conduct this very type of attack.

In fact, you can go online and see some of the urging, some of the writings, we know so many of these substations are located in remote areas, they don't have physical security around the clock. And so, investigators there in Washington state are now working to determine if there are commonalities here, if this was associated with some other type of event that they've seen before.

No information yet, that very much remains part of this investigation, but a very serious set of incidents. So, you have four separate power stations attacked in one day on Christmas. Of course, as we mentioned, thousands of people left without power, Amara?

WALKER: Yes. It's really unsettling and hoping that this is not part of a bigger trend. Josh Campbell, appreciate you. Thank you. CAMPBELL: You bet.

WALKER: All right. Still to come. China is looking to a new approach as it works to contain millions of COVID cases across the country.




WALKER: China making a big announcement today as it grapples with an unprecedented COVID wave after it eased its zero COVID policy. The country will now start distributing foreign made COVID antivirals for the first time. Beijing says, doctors will be able to prescribe Pfizer's antiviral drug Paxlovid after receiving training on how it works. This news comes on the heels of a decision from China's top health authority to not publish daily COVID numbers anymore. This as infections are soaring and hospitals are strained even further.

Joining me now, CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner. He is a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University. Dr. Reiner, great to see you. Are these mRNA vaccines going to be a game changer for China, you think?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE AND SURGERY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV & CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Hi, Amara. So, the big problem in China is that they've made three really now tragic mistakes. First of all, they relied on homegrown vaccines based on an old vaccine technology, which are significantly less effective than the mRNA vaccines used through much of the western world.

Secondly, they have done a very poor job at vaccinating the most vulnerable people in their country, particularly people over the age of 60. And then finally, they relied heavily over the last two years on this zero COVID policy of trying to put out brakes, not by vaccinating more people, protecting more people, but by locking people in.

And now that the virus is widespread throughout China, it's estimated that about a quarter of a million people might have contracted - excuse me, 250 million people may have contracted COVID just in the first three weeks of December. Now they're really trying to put the fire out and it's important that they're importing these antiviral drugs like Paxlovid. But what they really should be doing is importing more effective mRNA vaccines and vaccinating their elderly.

WALKER: And as returned to the situation that's happening in our country now, I mean, COVID cases appear to be flattening out and flu cases are actually beginning to draw. But what we're seeing is hospitalizations, they remain high. We are in the thick of the holiday season with families still getting together, people are still traveling or at least they're trying to. Are you worried that we're going to see a new surge of viral infections as we move into 2023?

[12:20:00] DR. REINER: Well, we've seen this over and over again over the last few years, anytime there is a significant amount of travel in the United States is typically followed by a bit of a surge. The difference this year is that we're not just facing COVID. We're also facing a really particularly bad influenza year. So, I do expect that after the first of the year, we'll start to see another, perhaps blip or surge in COVID. And hopefully, and not influenza, as that appears to be dropping, but we'll see.

WALKER: Will it be comparable to the way we saw with the Omicron wave in January, last January?

DR. REINER: I'm sorry, say that again, Amara?

WALKER: Do you expect that search to be comparable to what we saw last January winning with Omicron?

DR. REINER: I hope not. And the variants that are surging in the United States right now have a lot of immune escape, but a ton of people in the United States have contracted COVID, you know, since the last year. So, there is a lot of both illness, acquired immunity, as well as vaccine derived immunity. We haven't boosted nearly enough people in this country. If you've not been boosted with the Bivalent vaccine. It's not too late to do that. Do that now.

We know that most of the severe illness hospitalizations and deaths in the United States are seen in people who are not up to date with their vaccines. So even if you've gotten the initial series or maybe you had a booster last year, if you have not gotten a Bivalent booster sometime since September when they were rolled out, you are not fully protected against these new strains of Omicron. And you can still do that now.

WALKER: All right, good to know. Dr. Jonathan Reiner, great to see you. Thank you. Up next, it could be another big week for Donald Trump. A House committee is set to release the former president's tax returns just days after the January 6 committee released its final report.




WALKER: Today, a wait and see moment and a big investigation into the former president of the United States. Soon we will get a full glimpse at Donald Trump's raw financial numbers. His tax returns, courtesy of House Democrats.

Here with me now to discuss Sabrina Rodriguez of the Washington Post and Seung Min Kim of the Associated Press. Welcome to you both ladies. Seung Min, let's start with you. I mean, we already got some of the top lines from Trump's tax returns. What are the big things we're looking for once these documents are released. SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: So, once we see these documents released, which could come as early as tomorrow, but sometime this week, it does take a lot of time to redact those personal information. We're hoping to get more of insight, more illumination into exactly how he made that money. And also, what we're going to be watching too is exactly how he got to the point where some years is that including in the year 2020, that he was paying zero in taxes.

What we've learned so far is that he was taking a lot of business losses, reporting millions in losses when he filed his tax returns in 2020, he paid zero. And we're also looking at what perhaps sort of deductions he may have taken to get to the amount of taxes that he had paid. There are nonpartisan analysts who say, it could be a little suspect how he got to that level.

So, there are a lot of things he's going to be watching for. And why this is so significant is that so much of President Trump's life in the political eye, he had tried so hard to mask or hide a lot of his details about his finances. So, this is really the most raw, most complete look that we will get at how exactly he made his riches before he got into political office.

WALKER: Yes, zero, in federal income taxes one year. I mean, that that obviously raises a lot of eyebrows. Sabrina, what exactly will you be looking for? I mean, I think one of the things that kind of piqued my interest was the fact that he was also not audited at least until a couple years after he assumed the presidency.

SABRINA RODRIGUEZ, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. I think for me, it's really to see how it's played politically. How is it that Republicans in Congress are going to explain what's happened. You know, it's been interesting just to see them stay largely quiet about the IRS not auditing him for multiple years. And but I think for Democrats to its how exactly do they play this politically, because it's not just about Trump.

You know, we're already seeing some of the framing around the top lines in the summary we saw focusing on how, you know, this is about the very wealthy being able to game the system and the IRS to avoid paying taxes. So, it's also about sending a larger message and then one specifically about the former president who now is a 2024 candidate.

WALKER: And moving on to January 6, Seung Min. Obviously, it was predictable Trump's lawyer dismissing the criminal referrals from the January 6 committee as "worthless and political noise." Do you have any read on how the special counsel will or won't act on those referrals, which we know are symbolic in nature?