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The Lead with Jake Tapper

FDA Authorizes First Pill In U.S. To Treat COVID; January 6 Committee Asks To Interview Trump Ally Rep. Jim Jordan; Biden Extends Pause On Student Loan Payments Until May 1; TSA: About Two Million Passengers Screened For Six Straight Days; COVID Cases In South Africa Dropping After Omicron Sparked Dramatic Rise. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired December 22, 2021 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Jim Sciutto here again today.

A newly-approved pill a day could keep severe COVID away.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The COVID task force just finished meeting as cases surge and omicron takes over. But this afternoon, a possible game changer gets the okay from the FDA. Possibly positive omicron clues from the country where the variant was first found, cases already dropping in South Africa. Why is that? We're going to speak live with an expert there.

Plus, as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin faces criticism from his own party, there is a new, very public push by the country's top Republican lawmaker for Manchin to switch sides.

And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our health lead. Moments ago, the White House COVID response team wrapped up its meeting highlighting today's big news from the FDA, authorization of the first antiviral pill for COVID patients. It could not come at a better time.

Look at the timeline. It took the delta variant about two months to become the dominant variant in the U.S. How long did it take omicron? Two weeks. Now already it accounts for 90 percent of new cases in several regions of the U.S.

CNN's Athena Jones starts us off this hour with the urgent actions happening now to save more lives.


ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a season of setbacks, a glimmer of hope. The FDA today granting Pfizer's new antiviral pill Paxlovid emergency use authorization.

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Folks who took Paxlovid early within three days of symptom onset had a 90 percent reduction in hospitalization or death compared to those who took placebo. So, this is very -- very, very potent agent.

JONES: One problem, the highly effective treatment has to be administered within the first five days of symptoms, making hard-to- come-by tests all the more important, even as Walgreens and CVS limit the number of tests customers can buy at once in the face of sky high demand.

Meanwhile, the now dominant, highly contagious omicron variant first detected in the U.S. just weeks ago is helping drive new COVID-19 case numbers back up to levels last seen three months ago in the midst of the delta surge. New infections jumping more than 20 percent over last week, nearly 70,000 people hospitalized with the virus.

DR. RICHINA BICETTE-MCCAIN, EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: I'm pretty worried that the surge we're going to see in the coming weeks is going to be worse than the surge we saw last winter.

JONES: COVID deaths rising 11 percent over last week as the CDC reports COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in 2020 and life expectancy dropped by nearly two years. Despite the spike in cases, holiday travelers do not seem deterred. With the TSA screening around 2 million or more people a day for the past six days. The CDC director reminding travelers --

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: How safe your holiday is is really about how safe you are in the time leading up to the holiday.

JONES: And as Israel considers rolling out a fourth dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, for medical workers, the immunocompromised, and people over 60, U.S. health officials say they will follow the science.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Right now, we feel confident that if you have a booster, you have a high level of protection against overall infection, particularly against hospitalization and death, the most severe outcomes of COVID.

JONES: Meanwhile, after the united kingdom reduced the quarantine period for people who test positive for COVID from ten days to seven, new debate on whether the U.S. should follow suit.

WALENSKY: We're actively assessing that data and doing some modeling analyses and we anticipate we'll have updates soon.


JONES (on camera): And we do have an update on some CDC data showing a third of fully vaccinated adults have received a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. That's a little more than 63 million people. But, and here's the critical number here, 22.6 percent of the eligible population has not received a single dose of COVID vaccine. And that represents about 71 million people -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Folks, listen to the doctors. Get those shots and get those boosters.

Athena Jones, thanks so much.

Well, Dr. Paul Offit is on the FDA's vaccine advisory committee. Earlier today I spoke to him about omicron -- and listen to this -- he expressed a pretty encouraging view of the new variant. Have a listen.


DR. PAUL OFFIT, MEMBER, FDA VACCINE ADVISORY COMMITTEE: Between people who are naturally infected or people who have been vaccinated or both, you're seeing a blunting of serious infection caused by omicron. Not so much mild infection. Even if you've gotten two doses of an mRNA-containing vaccine, for example, you're at higher risk of mild infection than you were for the previous variant. But -- and I think the booster dose offers you additional protection against mild disease.



SCIUTTO: Dr. Megan Ranney is the associate dean of public health at Brown University, also a professor of emergency medicine.

You're in the Northeast. You're in one of the troubling hotspots as we've seen this omicron surge. I wonder if you agree with Dr. Offit that the data we're seeing so far, not just hear in the U.S., but in earlier places where it struck, South Africa, Israel, and elsewhere, shows by and large omicron causes less severe illness in general.

Do you share the view?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, ASSOCIATE DEAN OF PUBLIC HEALTH AT BROWN UNIVERSITY: So, I don't know when I'm taking care of a patient in the emergency department whether they're infected with omicron, delta, or the original version of COVID. All I know in the emergency department is I'm seeing a dramatic surge in both the number of patients who are sick and the number of patients who need to be hospitalized.

The truth is, if omicron is milder, but it's infecting a ton more people, we're still going to see more hospitalizations from it. And our hospitals are at the breaking point already, Jim. I can't even begin to describe to you the disaster level of care we're facing across the northeast right now due to a combination of short staffing, staff being out due to infection themselves, and then the wave of regular illnesses on top of the current COVID surge.

SCIUTTO: So let me ask you about the importance then, in the midst of this, of the approval of Paxlovid, an antiviral drug to be given to folks suffering illness from infection. How important is this development?

RANNEY: This is huge. This is really the first major new therapeutic that has been approved since remdesivir and the monoclonal antibodies. This has the potential to transform the way that we treat COVID-19 among high risk and vulnerable individuals. Imagine, you get sick with COVID. You're someone who is high risk.

You're obese. You're aged greater than 60. You're immuno-suppressed. You have diabetes.

When you get that positive test, assume that you get it in three to five days, your doctor can call in a prescription to the pharmacy and you go and pick it up. You don't have to go to the hospital. You don't have to go on an IV. It's a way to avoid hospitalization and death.

So, I'm really excited, but there are some big limitations, right? It's not going to be immediately available to all. It's expensive. It has side effects. And it interacts with a lot of common medications and medical problems.

So it's going to be out of reach for a lot of folks, unfortunately.

SCIUTTO: And to be clear, because I don't want to give folks the misimpression that this is a substitute for vaccination, in other words sit back, and see what happens with infection, this is just if you're in the unlucky group that contracts this and faces the prospect of serious illness.

RANNEY: That's right. So, vaccines plus boosters are still your very best protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death. I will say the studies of this drug were done in unvaccinated, high risk individuals. But it's now been approved for all high risk individuals age 12 plus. The best bet is a vaccine plus a booster if you haven't gotten it yet. But if you are one of those unlucky ones to catch it and are in a high risk group, this is a good backup plan.

SCIUTTO: I don't want to get ahead of where the data is and I also don't want to sugarcoat the data because, as you say, regardless of where omicron goes, you're already suffering from the effects of a very virulent pandemic here, but we are seeing policymakers and public health officials discuss changes to indicate a different approach to this wave of the virus, for instance discussing shortening the quarantine period, already happening in the UK. Dr. Fauci has discussed the same thing handing here in the U.S. do you think that's the right -- and by the way, Biden and others are saying, hey, we're not closing schools this time around.

Do you think that's the right combination of policy responses to what we're seeing now?

RANNEY: I think it's critically important for to us follow the science. And the science around this virus is ever-evolving. The science does point to the fact that if you are fully vaccinated, which in most studies it's been just two shots, not three, and you are asymptomatic, and you have a rapid negative antigen test, those tests in such short supply right now, the BinaxNOW and the like, you're almost certainly not infectious and almost certainly safe to go back to work.

That's great. Let's not keep people in isolation if they don't need to be. But I don't want this used as an excuse to push people to go back to work when they're still infectious or still feeling sick. We need to maintain the ability for people to continue to isolate for ten days if they're having symptoms, obviously, if they're unvaccinated, or if they're just still feeling under the weather, they need time to heal so we don't increase their risk of getting long COVID.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Leana Wen told me this morning that this idea of test to go back to work, in effect, a couple of negative tests, and you're safe to go back.


But just one thing before you go, because there has been a shortage. Two out of the three monoclonal antibody treatments that have been used successfully for folks who contract serious illness, what is the effect of that? I imagine it adds to the importance of this approval of the antiviral pill.

RANNEY: That's exactly right. You know, we've been listening to a number of governors, DeSantis and others tout Regeneron as this magical cure for COVID. It's not. Vaccines are better.

But losing the ability to give these monoclonal antibodies to high risk patients is a huge blow to those of us that are trying to keep high risk patients out of the emergency department and the hospital. I'm hopeful that Paxlovid will fill that gap but time will tell.

SCIUTTO: And we know the administration is hoping to boost supplies of the antibodies as well.

Dr. Megan Ranney, always good to have you on.

RANNEY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Breaking news next, a top Trump ally in Congress was asked to talk with the January 6th committee. So, how will Congressman Jim Jordan respond?

Plus, will the omicron surge be short-lived? There are encouraging clues from South Africa where it first struck. That's just ahead.



SCIUTTO: Breaking news in our politics lead. The House Select Committee investigating January 6th announced in the last hour they want to force, or ask, fierce Trump ally Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan to voluntary meet with the panel. He's the second sitting Republican lawmaker to be asked. The first, Republican Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, immediately said no.

CNN's Evan Perez joins me now with breaking details.

Evan, why do they want to speak with Jordan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jordan, Jim, Jordan has in recent interviews in the last few months, has said he was in touch with President Trump. He's given a variety of answers. And the committee in their letter to Jordan mentions that they know that he communicated with the former president at least once, perhaps multiple times.

They also say that they know he was in touch with people associated with the former president who are in this Willard Hotel war room surrounding the rally and, of course, during the assault on the capitol. And they also mention that there was a January 5th message that Jim Jordan has acknowledged he forwarded to Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff to the former president, in which this legal theory was outlined, describing how the former vice president, pence, could essentially decline to certify certain states' electors and try to keep former President Trump in office.

These are among the many things that the committee would want to talk to Jordan about. Of course, as you pointed out, he is one of the closest allies of the former president and continues to support him.

SCIUTTO: So they already asked Republican Scott Perry to testify earlier this week. He said no.

PEREZ: Right.

SCIUTTO: What happens now? They could subpoena, I imagine, and if the subpoena is turned down, they could do a criminal referral. That's a few steps down the road. What happens next, if both Perry and Jordan say no?

PEREZ: Right, and that's the thing, right now the committee is not saying that they're going to move to a subpoena, but of course that is possibly the next option. That would be an extraordinary step, not only for the fact that you have a sitting lawmaker who is a top leader for the conservatives on Capitol Hill, but also, you know, obviously for Republicans who have said that members of their caucus are off limits to a committee that they are obviously at odds with.

So, we'll see whether the committee tries to take this next big momentous step in the coming weeks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching. Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our panel to discuss.

Zolan, you know, let me play devil's advocate here, right? Why not subpoena him? I know he's a member and I know there's discussion of the can of worms you open up for congresses down -- down the road. But the question is what is a request from Congress worth if folks can decide, hey, I'm just not going to cooperate?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, look, we do know there has been a concern among some members of Congress that the actions taken in this investigation, as well as some actions taken against other Republicans in the House when it comes to stripping committee assignments as well, it could then come back to bite Democrats when, if, during the midterms, the Republicans were to overtake the House. But as you said there, Jim, look, they're asking now. The other

options, the more forceful options, are still in the back pocket here, it's still an option for them. So, you know, they're attempting this route at first, you could see them turn to that. And just to take a step back when it comes to what they maybe considering now, when you work at Representative Jordan, the goal of this investigation in part for the committee is to find out what some of these political leaders and some of the more powerful people in our government, what they knew about the steps that were taken leading up to this deadly attack.

Representative Jordan, both in texts sent in the days before January 6th, forwarding a text to Mark Meadows about whether or not the vice president should rule some of the electoral votes unconstitutional or even meeting on November 9th in the campaign headquarters as well with other close allies of the former president, and plotting out a strategy for really fomenting some of the baseless allegations about the election, these are things that you could see them take a look at going forward.

SCIUTTO: So, Tia, Jim Jordan is an interesting case here because he was supposed to be on the committee. Pelosi objected to McCarthy picking him. Does this put him under more pressure, perhaps, to cooperate with the committee?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION: Well, I think, you know, him being on the committee was something that Nancy Pelosi was never going to go for, because it was already known that he was such a close ally of President Trump, and even without knowing what the committee knows now, they knew that he had been part of the Stop the Steal movement in spreading some of that misinformation about the campaign.


I think what hurts Representative Jordan is that he himself has said in the past he has nothing to hide. And so now what the committee is doing is they're, you know, kind of calling his bluff and saying, if you have nothing to hide, why not come in, voluntarily, and speak to us? And how he moves from here, it's going to be a delicate balance because, of course, I'm sure he's not inclined to cooperate, but why would you not cooperate if you have nothing to hide?

SCIUTTO: If you hear his answers, which have been all over the place, about his communications with the president, the former president, on January 6th, I wonder.

Zolan, we just learned former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, his challenge to the committee's request for phone records rejected within 24 hours, filed yesterday. A federal judge blocked it today. Is that a warning, a sign of things to come for other Trump allies who are taking the sue-the-committee path?

KANNO-YOUNGS: You'd think it would be. I mean, the takeaway there, and you hit it, the takeaway there, Jim, has got to be the timing. We have seen a previous playbook, especially when it comes to the former president, whether impeachment proceedings, the past two impeachment proceedings, really, you saw a playbook of going to the courts, trying to run out the clock.

You're seeing it once again, right? You're seeing them try to, folks trying to run out the clock, especially with the awareness that there could be a ticking clock for the length of time that the Democrats have control of the House and do have a majority in Congress.

But the fact that the decision came so quickly in the Flynn case, that likely has gone -- there is going to a lot of other potential witnesses paying attention to that turnaround.

SCIUTTO: All right. We like to accentuate the positive where we can. A surprising positive twist and highly partisan times. The 45th and 46th presidents did not lob insults at each other for a day, but praise. Have a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thanks to the prior administration and our scientific community, America is one of the first countries to get the vaccine. Just the other day, former President Trump announced he has gotten his booster shot. Maybe one of the few things he and I agree on.


SCIUTTO: And former President Trump told Fox News last night, I'm very appreciative of that. I'm surprised to hear it. You know, it has been -- it has to be a process of healing in this country and that will help a lot.

Tia, process of healing, not a phrase we have often heard from the former president. Does this have meaning here? I mean, purely almost in public health terms, right, because there is a large portion, much in Trump's base, that has resisted vaccines and boosters.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. And I think that's why it was so groundbreaking for the former President Trump to say what he said at that rally even despite the boos from the crowd, he stood firm in saying no, this is a good thing, you need to get vaccinated, get your booster. And so I do think current President Biden and his administration said this is an opportunity here because we now have President Trump doing something he was doing in the past, which is encouraging vaccinations, and again, as you've noted, MAGA folks, Trump allies, are part of that subset of Americans that are more likely to be vaccine hesitant.

So I'm sure the Biden administration, which has said over and over again, one of the biggest things we can do to try to get through this pandemic is to get more people vaccinated. So if that means amplifying what former President Trump is saying and making sure that people who are -- who tend to listen to and follow what former president Trump says, make sure that they hear what he's saying, then I think the Biden administration says, let's amplify it and let's keep him on our side, at least on this topic, where we do agree.

SCIUTTO: Zolan, does that have potential here? Because this anti-vaxx group in this country has proven largely impenetrable audience, right, because that has been so clear, right? I mean, the unvaccinated far disproportionately make up those who are dying and are being hospitalized from this.

Would a word from Trump, even for a day, make a difference?

KANNO-YOUNGS: I think what it shows is the sense of urgency to try anything to combat vaccine hesitancy at this point. A couple of months ago I reported on a story where I was examining the hesitancy breakdown and really how it was divided amongst red counties and blue counties and what have you, rural conservative areas tended to be more vaccine hesitant.

And I was examining this focus group that Frank Luntz, obviously a conservative strategist, and Chris Christie, they were looking to combat hesitancy in speaking to a group of conservatives.


And at that point, they were also asking that members across the aisle, that Democrats and President Biden as well really try and throw a compliment to the former administration in order to try and combat some of that hesitancy. I think that's what you saw yesterday. It's not just a spirit of unity, it's trying any option you can to try and convince this hesitant group.

But, Jim, let's remember, it's the White House themselves who have often said the president and former president are only going to have so much of an impact, but really the impact will probably be felt from your local doctor, your religious leader, and your community.

SCIUTTO: Hey, anything that saves lives, right? We'll take it.

Zolan, Tia, thanks so much to both of you.

Coming up next, the president trying to spread good cheer as his legislative agenda hangs in the balance. That's next.



SCIUTTO: In our politics lead, the White House today trying to recover some of its holiday spirit. The Biden administration announced people with federal student loans have a few extra months of no payments, sliding the restart of payments from February 1st to May 1st of next year.

That decision comes as the president touts some good economic news about supply chain problems which plagued millions of customers and stores alike.

As CNN's Phil Mattingly reports, the White House is trying to gently steer the president's legislative agenda back on track.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Senator Manchin and I are going to get something done.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After a roller coaster 72 hours, the White House now fully engaged in the effort to resuscitate the cornerstone of president's agenda.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, the president will be engaged with members and could be over the coming days, and we are looking forward to moving forward in January.

MATTINGLY: With White House officials and the president taking pains both publicly and privately to put an explosive break with centrist West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in the rearview mirror.

BIDEN: Some people think maybe I'm not Irish because I don't hold a grudge.

MATTINGLY: Manchin dialing into a call with fellow Senate Democrats on Tuesday night as White House officials and Democratic leaders attempt to navigate one of those issues, an expansion of the child tax credit.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is an agreement by the vast majority of members that we absolutely need to move forward and the cost of inaction makes it so that we -- there is no other option, I should say.

MATTINGLY: Yet Manchin left several senators, according to some who spoke with CNN, with the impression that the door wasn't entirely closed.

PSAKI: I think you heard optimism, Phil, from an a number of senators who came out of a meeting or discussion with members of the Democratic Caucus last night.

MATTINGLY: It's a critical month ahead as Biden underscored the urgency to unlock the bottleneck on Capitol Hill.

BIDEN: We heard a lot of warnings about supply chain problems leading to a crisis around the holidays.

MATTINGLY: As he touted progress in unlocking the supply chain.

BIDEN: The much-predicted crisis didn't occur. Packages are moving. Gifts are being delivered. Shelves are not empty.

MATTINGLY: With shelves stocked and delivery times tracking faster than before the pandemic, Biden touting progress on an issue of persistent concern for Americans.

BIDEN: Top of mind for me is what is top of mind for so many families, the pinch of prices.

MATTINGLY: The pandemic-driven supply constraints from ports to rail to trucking playing a central role in driving inflation to its highest year over year level in nearly four decades. With energy prices also starting to ease, the White House hopes it marks a turning point. BIDEN: Today, America is the only leading economy in the world where

household incomes and the economy as a whole are stronger than they were before the pandemic. Even accounting for price increases.

MATTINGLY: Jim, you mentioned that extension of the student federal loan freeze at the start of this. I can't underscore enough how significant a shift that is for the White House, according to officials that I've been speaking with. Over the course of the last several weeks, I've been told multiple times, there was no way they were going to extend it one more time and just had to end according to these officials. But there was tremendous pressure both from outside groups and perhaps more importantly from critical Democrats on Capitol Hill, both House and Senate progressive and moderate, making clear this had to get done, yes, for policy reasons but as one member told me today, Jim, it would have been political suicide to do anything else -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yeah. They're looking for something to run on in the fall. Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

Joining me now to discuss, Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman of the great city of New York.

Congressman, thanks so much for taking the time.

REP. JAMAAL BOWMAN (D-NY): Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

SCIUTTO: All right. Senator Joe Manchin who I know you're acquainted with, says he's got a lot of issues with the current BBB bill, but he's open to negotiating.

You have said he's absolutely not trustworthy. I wonder, though, do you have any choice but to negotiate? Your -- the Democrats' margin is one vote away in the Senate.

BOWMAN: Well, we have been negotiating for several months. That's how we got to this point. Remember, Build Back Better was voted out of the Senate at $3.5 trillion. We worked it in the House at 3.5.


But because of Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema's objections, it's been cut down to 1.75. And it's not just them. It's lobbyists, it's special interests, it's their donors and dark money that continue to cut it down.

So it's good that we're here at 1.75, still negotiating. The bottom line is, we have to get this done. This is how we recover and rebound and build a better economy than we ever have had in American history.

Listen, this will be the first equitable investment, equitable investment in women, children, people of color, seniors, housing, and climate. When we do this right, and we will do it right, we are going to take off as an economy. We'll be able to compete with China and do all of the things the senator is saying that he's really concerned about. But the bottom line is, this level of inequality cannot persist. And

the inequality falls along racial lines, and that's unacceptable. We have to do better and we have to get this done.

SCIUTTO: When you spoke to my colleague Laura Coates this week, this is how you described Joe Manchin. I just want to play it back for a moment and get your thoughts. Have a listen.


BOWMAN: It's tremendously frustrating for me as a black man in America because once again, it's an example of Joe Manchin as a white man showing that he doesn't care about black people. He doesn't care about Latinos. He doesn't care about immigrants. He doesn't care about women. And he doesn't care about the poor.


SCIUTTO: Congressman, I wonder if you stand by those comments. As a practical matter, do those comments bring you closer to negotiating a deal with Joe Manchin?

BOWMAN: So, we have to have honest conversations about who we are as a country. And we have to have honest conversations about systemic racism and how it manifests in our country.

The bottom line is, the majority of American policy that comes from Congress has a disproportionately negative impact on people and communities of color. Remember, our communities were redlined by design and undervalued simply because they were black. We've had to march for human rights and civil rights in this country. And now, we have to reauthorize voting rights because that has been gutted.

We have to do an honest analysis. The majority of Congress is white. And unfortunately, a lot of policies that come from policy disproportionately negatively affect people of color.

So, we need a racial analysis and an honest conversation, truthful conversation about our history, where we are and where we're trying to go.

So I'm open to having that honest conversation. And I'm opening the door to conversation, because guess what, our identity and our biases impact how we govern.

My people were called the "N" word and continue to be called the "N" word in this country while we suffer from mass incarceration, while we suffer from police brutality, while we suffer from underfunded housing, underfunded schools, and opioid pandemic that's killing us and killing our poor people as well.

So, let's be honest about who is privileged in this country and who suffers in this country and then we can move forward as one nation together.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because you bring up voting rights there. Is it a mistake in your view, has it been a mistake for the president, for Democrats, to go the Build Back Better path first rather than voting rights, which many Democrats, your colleagues, will argue have far longer term implications?

BOWMAN: Wait a minute. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. These are exceptional people elected to Congress. Some of them are millionaires. Some of them are doctors and scholars.

The American people ain't trying to hear that. They want us to get stuff done. We passed voting rights back in March. Why has it taken so long for us to get it done?

We passed George Floyd several months ago. What's taken so long for that?

We passed immigration reform. We've passed common sense gun laws. What's taking so long for things to move in the Senate?

It's because of special interests, corporate money, dark money, and big money controlling our government that is not being responsive to the American people.

People don't want to hear it. They want us to get stuff done. And it's not about progressives compromising enough. Listen, get it done, better my life so I can be a part of the American dream.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Jamaal Bowman, it's good talking to you and we hope you and your family have a happy holidays and a merry Christmas.

BOWMAN: Merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy New Year.


Coming up next, even with the pandemic, millions of Americans are packing their bags, traveling. You see friends and loved ones.

What you need to know if you're one of them.


SCIUTTO: Today's national lead: the lines nonstop at airports across the country, despite the surge of the omicron variant. Have a look at those pictures there.

For six days in a row now, the TSA, for the last six days in a row, has screened 6 million people as airports get ready for tomorrow, expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the whole year.

CNN's Pete Muntean live at Reagan International Airport, outside D.C.

Pete, these numbers suggest many Americans -- they're just not letting the omicron variant to slow them down, which by the way, the president has not asked them to.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It's true, Jim. You know, it's an important point to make. You know, these numbers are close to 2019 before the pandemic. Just yesterday, the TSA screened 1.98 million people at airports across the country, that number 99 percent of the same day in 2019, shy by only 2,300 people, if you can believe it. The busier days are ahead, according to the TSA. This barely ends this five-day strike where we saw 2 million people a day at airports nationwide.

Tomorrow will be one of the busiest days according to the TSA. That really kicks off this rush between tomorrow and January 3rd. The TSA says a total of 20 million people will fly. But AAA points out to us that the vast majority of people will drive, 100 million people will drive 50 miles or more. AAA points out that number really only down 7 percent from where we were before the pandemic.

SCIUTTO: All right. The CDC director emphasizes people should not travel if symptomatic about COVID. But she also says this about people who worry they might get sick while traveling. Have a listen.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: It is not really the act of being on the airplane or being in the car that puts one at risk. What puts one at risk is the behavior and mitigation strategies that may not have been used in the week prior to gathering.


SCIUTTO: That's been a fairly consistent thing throughout the pandemic. The airplanes themselves are actually not great vectors for spread. So what are the airlines doing to respond to this concern.

MUNTEAN: Well, the airlines are once again insisting that it is safe to fly. They point to all this research that says the heavily filtered air aboard the airplane plus masks build a layer of protection, making the chances of getting infected with COVID very low.

Remember, the federal transportation mask mandate remains in place on board planes and in terminals until March 18, 2022. Now the TSA and the FAA have announced a new partnership where if you defy that rule, you could lose your pre-check status for good -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Boy, yeah, that would hurt.

Pete Muntean, thanks very much.

Coming up, could it be some good news? Cases suddenly and already on the decline in South Africa. Remember, where omicron started.

We're going to speak to an expert from there, coming up.



SCIUTTO: In our world lead, perhaps some coronavirus good news unfolding in South Africa. The first nation, you'll remember, where the omicron variant was detected. Case numbers, that is, infections, which started rising in late

November, increased dramatically this month. Look at that graph there, they've started coming down. A senior researcher at the South African council for scientific and industrial research tells CNN the country is past the peak already of the omicron wave.

So let's go now to Johannesburg, South Africa, and epidemiologist Portia Mutevedzi.

Portia, thanks so much for joining us.

I wonder -- based on these numbers, can you explain why new infections are already dropping, based on these numbers?

PORTIA MUTEVEDZI, SENIOR EPIDEMIOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF THE WIWTERSRAND: Thank you for having me. So basically, since the 24th of November when the omicron variant was discovered, we saw a real steep increase in the number of cases, much higher than what we had seen with the delta variant, and this was basically because the virus seems to be more transmissible, more infectious. And it seems to also cause infections even in people who have previously been infected with either the beta or the delta variant.

But in the last couple of days, we've seen a decline in numbers, which mostly looks like the numbers are pointing to immunity, owing to vaccinations as well as natural infection.

SCIUTTO: Are you surprised how quickly it dropped, and is that a sign of hope, right, that it's burning through and leading to population immunity quicker than others might?

MUTEVEDZI: Yes, it is definitely a sign of good news. When you look at the steep increase in cases coupled with the reduction in hospitalizations. So, if you look at the statistics from South Africa, from the second and third waves, we had a large number of hospitalizations as well as deaths. The case severity with the omicron variant is pretty low.

We were expecting much more hospitalizations and deaths but it has proved that the severity is quite low. And the rate of spread throughout the population also means the natural immunity builds faster. And when you couple that with vaccination, you reach population immunity quicker.

That's to say the number of suck susceptible people within the population is largely reduced within a short space of time. That's why we're now seeing that rapid decline in the numbers of cases.

SCIUTTO: We can only hope we see the same here in the U.S. as you know, President Biden and other countries very quickly imposed travel bans on South Africa, and South Africa did not like to see that, understandably so. He now says he's considering reversing that.

Should he, in your view, and how much of a difference would that make?

MUTEVEDZI: So when you look at the American population and the vaccination rates here in South Africa, we're basically sitting at about 32 percent of the population vaccinated. In the U.S., it's about 63 percent.


So when you look at those vaccination rates as well as the population that was infected in previous waves, I think we can pretty much see that the trajectory in America will pretty much follow the same route, to be a steep increase that will rapidly decrease.

But you also need to consider the age population. So, South Africa is a very young population when you compare it to the population in America. So the dynamics might be a bit different. But when we look at the disease severity, we are seeing, as well as the way it's quickly reaching population immunity, we can pretty much predict that you will see the same trajectory of steep increase and then low decline in cases.

SCIUTTO: We do hope you're right.

MUTEVEDZI: So in terms of --

SCIUTTO: Please finish, I'm sorry.

MUTEVEDZI: So in terms of travel bans, I think it is justified to reduce the travel bans when you look at what has been happening in South Africa, and the way that we've managed to control the spread of the disease.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Portia, thanks so much for joining us.

MUTEVEDZI: Thank you for having me.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto in for Jake Tapper. Our coverage continues coming up next with "THE SITUATION ROOM" and Wolf Blitzer.