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The Lead with Jake Tapper

"Historic" Storm Kills At Least 49 People In Nine States; January 6 Committee To Release More Transcripts After 800+ Page Final Report; Emergency Power Outages In Ukraine, Including Kyiv; Migrants Face Freezing Temperatures At U.S.-Mexico Border; China To End Quarantine For International Arrivals And All Other COVID Restrictive Measures In January. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 16:00   ET



DEMETRICE TISDALE, SPENT CHRISTMAS AT BUFFALO FIREHOUSE: Santa came. It was very awesome. Those guys were amazing at the firehouse. They're treated us with nothing but love and welcome us with open arms. We felt like family there.

They will cut for the kids and everything, pancakes. It was just a beautiful, like this is something we'll never forget. We actually felt like the family will (INAUDIBLE). It was -- they made it a beautiful Christmas.



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN HOST: It's being called a, quote, war with Mother Nature.

THE LEAD starts right now.

More than two dozen people are dead from the horrific blizzard that slammed Erie County, New York, over the holiday weekend. Some dying in snow buried cars, others in homes with no power. Conditions so bad rescuers needed rescuing.

And the travel nightmare continues for thousands of Americans, so far more than 3,000 flights have been canceled today, the majority are Southwest flights.

Plus, how a toy and a car led police to find a kidnapped baby.


MATTINGLY: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Phil Mattingly in today for Jake Tapper.

We begin this hour with the rising death toll from the vicious winter weather across the country. At least 49 people across nine states have died from storms, at least 27 of those deaths are centered in Buffalo, New York, and surrounding Erie County which were hit with a blizzard, winds so fierce they reached hurricane strength, rescuers had to be sent out to help stranded rescue crews facing, quote, some of the worst conditions that any of us have ever seen.

Many roads around Buffalo remain impassable, driving bans still in place in some areas as crews try to clear the streets to restore power to the thousands of homes.

We begin our coverage today with CNN's Polo Sandoval in Buffalo as crews continue the heartbreaking work recovering the bodies of those who didn't survive.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the worst that we have had.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Buffalo, New York, it's being called the most devastating storm ever.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: We are in a war. This is a war with Mother Nature and she has been hitting us with everything she has.

SANDOVAL: In a region that's used to harsh winter weather, this is worse.

SHERIFF JOHN GARCIA, ERIE COUNTY, NY: We deal with snow all the time, but the conditions were different because with the gusts of wind, I could tell you firsthand, zero visibility. I couldn't see two feet in front of my vehicle.

SANDOVAL: Up to 43 inches of snow, hurricane-force winds and hundreds of vehicles stuck.

MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: There's cars everywhere. Everywhere, pointing the wrong direction on roads.

SANDOVAL: Buffalo's roads still impassable in most areas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just been crazy. I mean, a snow bank that's taller than me on my front lawn.

SANDOVAL: More than 500 rescues, some people were trapped in cars for days before they were found by rescue workers.

HOCHUL: Going into homes, going into vehicles and too many tragic times finding people who did not survive the experience.

SANDOVAL: In the western New York region, power substations are frozen and the electricity is out. Thousands of people left without heat.

DANIELLE TISDALE, MOTHER: Conditions were deteriorating so fast maybe about 2 degrees every 10 minutes.

SANDOVAL: One family trying to get their children to a warm hotel was rescued by their car by the airport fire department.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Demetrius opened his window and said, please, don't leave us. I said, don't worry, I promise I won't leave you.

SANDOVAL: But elsewhere in the city, looters were taking advantage of the crisis.

MAYOR BYRON BROWN, BUFFALO, NY: People who are out looting when people are losing their lives in this harsh winter storm is just absolutely reprehensible.

SANDOVAL: As Buffalo tries to dig out, more snow is in the forecast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even though it's been two days, it feels like it's been two weeks.


SANDOVAL (on camera): And just a few moments ago, the Erie County medical examiner's office updating the total number of storm-related deaths in the region, that number up to 27, Phil, 13 of those people were found outside. Meanwhile, though, those authorities they continue to go door to door from one stranded car to another. Sadly, they do fear that that figure, that 26 is likely to keep going up -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: It's heartbreaking. Polo Sandoval, reporting from Buffalo, thanks so much.

Now, if you were trying to fly somewhere in the U.S. today you might be feeling frustrated right now. Thousands of flights canceled and delayed. Southwest Airlines says it had to cancel more than half of its scheduled flights today. CNN's Carlos Suarez joins us live from the Atlanta airport.

Carlos, you're talking to travelers, you have been all day. What are they telling you right now?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, so the folks here that are flying Southwest Airlines are expressing a great deal of anger and frustration toward the airline because they feel they're just not getting enough information about all of these cancellations.

Here out of Atlanta's airport, 230 flights have been canceled.


Of those flights a majority of them are southwest airlines. The airline has canceled nearly 70 percent of its flights from Atlanta. In fact, this line here behind me, these are folks that were on board one of these flights that was canceled and I'm about to walk with you to give you a sense of just how many people are in line. Just about everyone that we've talked to out here has been here for several hours, we are talking about anywhere between two to three to even four hours.

My photographer will show you how long this line goes. We are going to take a bit of a walk. It goes all the way towards that north checkpoint, makes a left and then goes right back around to the Southwest Airlines terminal. Folks here as you can see on the look on their faces they are not

happy, they are very frustrated. A lot of them showed up here early this morning hoping that they were going to be able to get out. We caught up with one passenger who traveled not necessarily for the holidays, she had a more personal reason, something that she wanted to express to us and then she got stuck here. Here is what she told us.


MAY MENARD, STRANDED TRAVELER: My mom is in the hospital and I wanted to be there for her when she got discharged. Unfortunately, because of the situation, they are saying that the closest flight is the 29th. The call line is busy so it's giving you a busy tone. So not being able to communicate with a single person about what you're going through or how you can fix the situation, I think that has to be the most frustrating part.


SUAREZ: Yeah, so she told me she traveled to take some medical exams and that she was hoping to get back well in time to spend the holiday -- the Christmas holiday with her mom, however, she was not able to -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: Carlos, the one question I think everybody has, I don't know that there is a good answer as that line demonstrates, but what should someone do if their flight is impacted, if they are standing in a line like that?

SUAREZ: Well, Phil, at this point if you are flying southwest for a good part of the country, chances are you might just want to call them. I'm not really sure folks want to show up to this line here. Folks, as you can see, have been here for several hours, a lot of them are on their phones.

We talked to one guy who said he got here at 7:00 this morning, he's been trying to get ahold of someone through customer service. He finally decided to come out to the airport. He showed up here, saw just how long this line was and figured he would just go home, try to sort out the rest of his itinerary. A lot of these folks are traveling, they got hotel reservations. They've got dinner reservations and they have to figure out how they can get that money back -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, a few more frustrating things. Carlos Suarez reporting live from Atlanta -- thanks so much.

Let's go now to the CNN weather center with meteorologist Tom Sater.

And, Tom, this winter storm isn't over yet. Who is most at risk right now?

TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, take a look at the colors. We are seeing the watches and warnings start to dwindle away somewhat. Buffalo right here is still under an advisory. Now, you get up toward Watertown, this is Lake Ontario. This is a deeper lake so it has warmer waters and that cold air is coming right up through the lake. So Watertown and surrounding counties still under a warning, they could see another foot, maybe a couple inches for the buffalo area. Buffalo typically gets their lake effect snows early in the season. Until these lakes, Phil, freeze over, the lake-effect snow machine still in full force.

So, again, as the winter progresses, we're going to start to see this dwindle somewhat, only a little bit left in Buffalo but this was a storm nor a generation, touted as that. How often do you have an area of low pressure drop in from Canada, drop to equivalent category 2 hurricane which broadens the wind field and, therefore, you get wind chills that are minus 50, minus 60, minus 70 degrees.

Hey, a little surprise snow, icy roads in southern Tennessee, Northern Mississippi, and Alabama, Atlanta could see some flurries. Not associated with this monitor storm that's going to drop quite a bit.

Look at Ontario, you think it's worse here, or bad here, it is. It's more widespread to the north. Watertown roads are slushy, a lot of crews on the roads, they're going to continue to be below freezing for a while.

This warm up, Phil, is a dividing line. Miami had their coldest Christmas on record with a high of 50. L.A. had their second warmest at 84. The temperatures are still quite cold but behind this little clipper notice a high of 11 in Minneapolis, 15 Omaha, 22 Chicago.

But look at the dramatic warm up. Here's our next flooding -- flash flooding with all of this snowfall, the ice will clog into areas of the sewer drains so we're going to have urban flooding. You get near 50 degrees in Buffalo and your lows are in the 40s, Chicago, too, and that comes with rain.

So, again, just remember the warm up is coming, it's going to be a massive melt off, but if you are out there shoveling remember the heart is beating faster to keep your body warmer, if you shovel a one car driveway with a foot of snow, it's equivalent to moving 4 tons. So, easy does it. We are going to most likely find, unfortunately, more victims in this crazy, crazy storm.

MATTINGLY: It really is. Buffalo is having problems with snow, that's when you know it's pretty real out there.


Tom Sater in CNN weather center, thanks so much.

And coming up, as the January 6 committee releases more transcripts from witness interviews, we're learning how Donald Trump's former press secretary found out about the insurrection. A little tease here, it involves a turkey sandwich.

Then growing concerns about the spread of the flu as thousands of people travel for the holidays.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTINGLY: In our politics lead, the House Select Committee investigating the deadly January 6th insurrection has released more transcripts from interviews conducted during its year and a half investigation.

CNN's Sara Murray reports, the latest batch of documents reveals how a key member of the Trump White House responded upon hearing about the ride at the Capitol.



SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Donald Trump's former White House press secretary -

MCENANY: The violence we saw yesterday at our nation's capitol was appalling.

MURRAY: Didn't realize the full extent of the violence at the Capitol until she settled in to eat a turkey sandwich for lunch on January 6th. Kayleigh McEnany telling the January 6th committee: I initially went back to my office to eat lunch but I eventually turned up the volume on Fox News.

McEnany saying she was piecing together what was playing out at the Capitol, not merely sitting by as the attack unfolded.


I in no way, shape or form would eat a turkey sandwich if I thought the Capitol Hill was being sieged.

How White House officials learned of rioters storming the Capitol on January 6 just one of the details emerging as the House Select Committee releases new batches of transcripts from roughly a thousand witness interviews.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): The Select Committee intends to make public the bulk of its non-sensitive records before the end of the year.

MURRAY: A separate transcript revealing how the White House crafted a press release in December 2020 calling for the firing of anyone who accepted the election results. Hours earlier, then-Attorney General Bill Barr had told the "Associated Press" there was no widespread voter fraud.

According to the draft press release: Anybody that thinks there wasn't massive fraud in 2020 election should be fired. The press release was never sent and Barr resigned from the White House later this month. Since then, he hasn't held back in criticizing Trump's election lies.

WILLIAM BARR, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was somewhat demoralized because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff he has, you know, lost contact with -- with -- he's become detached from reality. And I went into this and would, you know, tell him how crazy some of these allegations were. There was never -- there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.

MURRAY: The trickle of transcript revelations coming after the committee recommended that the Justice Department bring criminal charges against former President Trump.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): There was a conspiracy to defraud the United States, to exchange an honest to goodness presidential election for a counterfeit election.

MURRAY: Trump's legal team downplaying the committee's findings.

TIM PARLATORE, TRUMP LAWYER: The report itself is not of much value, it's written by politicians for political purpose.

MURRAY: And dismissing its criminal referrals, even as Trump faces scrutiny from a DOJ special counsel that is now investigating his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

PARLATORE: The referral itself is pretty much worthless. The Department of Justice doesn't have to follow it.


MURRAY (on camera): Now, the committee has, of course, released its final report, but they have released just a fraction, Phil, of the underlying evidence they have put out fewer than 100 of their interview transcripts so far. They interviewed roughly 1,000 witnesses and we are expecting many more transcripts, many more tidbits about how this all unfolded.

MATTINGLY: That's good because I don't feel like you've been very busy the last couple months, years, decades.

Sara Murray, great reporting as always. Thank you so much.

Let's discuss with former special assistant to President George W. Bush and "USA Today" columnist, Scott Jennings, along with Democratic former South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers.

Guys, thanks so much. Welcome to the show.

Scott, look, the former president railed against the January 6th committee after they referred him to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, one of his attorneys calls the referrals worthless and political noise. I don't ask this question from a legal basis. Politically, are they? Are they just noise? Are they worthless or do they have something that can actually resonate here?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the lawyers say they're worthless from a legal perspective because the DOJ is going to do whatever it's going to do outside of what Congress says, but as a political matter. Obviously, this entire process, this entire unfolding of this has taken a toll on Donald Trump, along with other things, but clearly, this is dragging him down.

I mean, look at the polling. I mean, the nation has soured on Trump even more than they already were, the Republican Party is souring on Trump, he is losing in head to head matchups with Ron DeSantis, when you match him up against Joe Biden in a rematch that nobody wants he's losing badly. Obviously, this along with everything else he has going on has taken a toll on him politically even if the legal aspects are less than important.

MATTINGLY: Bakari, do you feel like -- my sense was part of the rationale for doing this was to put pressure on the Justice Department. Do you feel like the Justice Department needs to act on these criminal referrals for the select committee's investigation to be seen as worthwhile in the eyes of the American people?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, I'm not sure you can actually put pressure on Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice. I think this department of justice compared to the one that we've seen with Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr and I can't remember the guy who was there for like a blink of an eye, he was there for like Scaramucci -- Matt Whitaker I think maybe was his name. That was a more political Department of Justice, whereas this is a Department of Justice that can't really be pressured.

What I can say is that the information that's garnered from the January 6th committee does provide a roadmap for the special prosecutor to make, just maybe, come with charges from January 6th. I don't think Donald Trump has that much legal jeopardy from January 6th. I do think that individuals around him who obstructed justice usually it's not the crime it's the cover up, have a great deal of exposure from January 6.

I think that Donald Trump has the most exposure, Phil, from actually taking classified documents down to Mar-a-Lago. I think that when you see his handling of those classified documents, that and what's going on with Fani Willis in DeKalb County -- Fulton County, Georgia, those are the cases that probably give him more exposure than January 6.


MATTINGLY: Impressive recall of Matt Whitaker's distinguished tenure at the Justice Department.

Scott, there is a "New York Magazine" cover story that writes about Donald Trump's 2024 campaign in an article provocatively titled "Trump's sad, lonely, thirsty, broken, basically pretend run for reelection". A Trump adviser says that this campaign, quote, it's not there. In this business you can have it and have it to hot and it can go overnight and it's gone and you can't get it back.

I think we're just seeing it's gone. The magic is gone. Is the magic gone for the former president at this point?

JENNINGS: Well, he's certainly losing altitude. I mean, look, he is not without things to build a campaign out of. He's got money. He's got a cadre of advisers who are fully dependent upon them for their livelihoods.

He's got people that want Donald Trump. I mean, there is a base of people inside the party that would rather have Trump than anybody else. So that's not an insignificant thing to start with.

But where he has lost is that over the last -- I mean, go back to 2016, he backs into the presidency and from that point forward losing in 2018, losing in 2020, losing in '21, losing in '22, all the legal stuff that has come along, every Republican out there is carrying his bags and those bags are getting heavier all the time.

So whether you want to call it losing magic or whatever, it's just getting too heavy to carry Donald Trump's bags because nobody wants to lose to Joe Biden in 2024 and that's what the Republicans are coming to terms with, and that's why you see people who look like winners, who feel like winners, like Ron DeSantis on the rise and people who have been losing for a number of years like Donald Trump sinking.

MATTINGLY: Bakari, the former president was responding to the criticism on truth social writing we have almost two years to go, the rallies will be bigger and better than ever, but it's a little bit early, don't you think? Is it too early to judge this campaign or do you see real vulnerabilities based on everything that Scott just laid out in detail to some degree?

SELLERS: There are two points I like to make. First is I ain't never counting Donald Trump out of an election again in my life. Like I firmly believe we should be on the second term of the Clinton presidency.

And so, I was one of the many people who prognosticator and got paid good money to come up here and I was flat out wrong. So, I'm not going to count him out. In fact, his campaign was worse then in 2015-2016 than it is actually today. There is a lot of stuff like Scott said for him to build on.

I wish Donald Trump if he was actually going to be a good candidate would simply say merry Christmas, he would talk about the joy of the New Year, he would talk about the lessons learned and maybe even tweet he is risen.

But he is not capable of doing that and he hasn't changed. If you do not change, if you do not learn, if you do not adapt, if you do not mature in politics, you will get beat every day of the week and he hasn't been able to do those things.

MATTINGLY: Scott, real quick, before we go and this is something you can have a lengthier conversation about but I'm asking more about the optics of what happened. Last night dozens of migrants were dropped on Christmas Eve in front of the vice president's residence in freezing cold weather, many wearing t-shirts to keep warm. The White House called the move cruel, dangerous and a shameful stunt.

Again, I understand the rationale, Republican governors have given, for doing this, but what's your sense of whether or not you think that this -- I guess how do you respond to what happened here given the moment, the weather, everything about this as this issue continues to gain no traction in terms of any type of resolution?

JENNINGS: Yeah, what I think is those people got taken in to a shelter and got to sleep in a warm place last night and if people who are crossing the southern border by the thousands are sleeping in and being forced to go into these detention facilities, laying on top of each other, laying on the door day after day after day, these Republican governors are desperately in need of help from the federal government. Biden has failed. They are not telling the American people the truth about what's happening at the border.

This is going to continue until they get their act together. So I've got sympathy for what these governors are going through because what's going on at the border is an absolute travesty and it's a humanitarian crisis. You're worried about people in Washington, how about the thousands of people who are in a real humanitarian crisis in Texas and Arizona?

MATTINGLY: Well, there was a bipartisan framework the Senate had, couldn't quite move it forward.

Scott Jennings, appreciate your time. Bakari Sellers, as always, my friend. thanks so much.

SELLERS: Merry Christmas.

MATTINGLY: All right. Russia's brutality is not easing up for the holidays, Ukrainians taking shelter from air strikes and freezing out power. Now, Vladimir Putin says he's really to negotiate?



MATTINGLY: In our world lead today, power blackouts and fighting in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin's brutal war isn't taking a break for the holidays. CNN's Will Ripley is live in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian capital, Will, is one of those areas experiencing blackouts. What are you seeing on the ground?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, they lit up a Christmas tree, which was a very symbolic and important step certainly for the people who live here to have some feeling of Christmas, even though we woke up to air ride sirens on Christmas day.

But the reality is that the Ukrainians are bracing themselves for a potential Russian attack in the coming days. They're doing that partially because of this Ukrainian drone attack or at least purported Ukrainian drone attack deep inside Russian territory hitting the western port city of Engels, which is along the Volga River, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow.


The Ukrainian air force is falling just short of claiming responsibility for this, but they're certainly not denying it, either. They are saying that this is a consequence of what Russia is doing.

They have an expression, Phil. They say, you know, be careful where you smoke because you might start a fire. In other words, what goes around comes around, that's the answer they give us en time these drone attacks happen. It's also the same thing they said when they bombed the Crimean bridge but never officially claimed responsibility for it.

So, these attacks deep Russia have the Ukrainians bracing for a potential catastrophic strikes on infrastructure. Millions of people are enduring blackouts in the dead of winter here.

MATTINGLY: Well, one of the things as I've watched the commentary throughout the day when it comes to some of the stuff that President Vladimir Putin was saying earlier about the possibility of negotiations, what's your sense whether or not that's taken seriously or as a viable option going forward when you talk to Ukrainian officials.

RIPLEY: Here in Kyiv, it's certainly not taken seriously at all. In fact, one of the advisers for President Zelenskyy that this is just, you know, Moscow not wanting negotiations but not wanting to take responsibility. So by raising the possibility of peace talks, they can appeal to some NATO members like Germany that have war fatigue and perhaps starting to pressure -- the French President Emmanuel Macron as well -- potentially pressuring the Ukrainians to start thinking about concessions. Ukraine said there is no end to the war until they get back Crimea which was taken by Russia illegally nearly nine years ago.

And so, they think that this is Russia trying to cause a divide between the U.S., Ukraine and NATO. They also think this is Putin buying time to train his hundreds of thousands conscripts, some of whom are assembling, you know, to the northern border of Ukraine, Belarus, ready for potentially -- the Ukrainians are saying for another ground invasion attempt early next year.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, no clear off-ramp for the near term. That's certainly clear.

CNN's Will Ripley in Kyiv, thanks so much as always.

In our national lead, border officials in the Texas' El Paso region encountered between 1,500 and 1,600 migrants every day despite dangerous, below freezing temperatures. A drop from previous weeks when authorities came across as many as 2,500 per day.

As CNN's Camila Bernal reports, many migrants spent the holiday on the street under blankets to combat frigid temperatures.


CAMILA BERNAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A dream come true in the form of a hula hoop, toys their parents say they would not be able to afford in native Venezuela. An opportunity for his children, says this 30-year-old, who left his country more than three months ago with his partner and four children. In November, they made it to the U.S. and turned themselves in to immigration authorities.

They sent us back, he said. And because they're not legally married, the two got separated, and after about a week in a detention center, they ended up in two different cities in Mexico.

Elvin's partner Caroline says she was told they were being sent back to Mexico because of Title 42, which allows border agents to immediately expel migrants, citing COVID-19 concerns. And this is what they say led them to an illegal crossing 20 days later.

I wanted to cross legally, says Caroline, but as a family, they felt they had no other option.

It's a desperation felt by many here. And, as a result, they end up on the streets during a cold front in El Paso. The city accommodates those who have documentation taking more than 400 people into this makeshift shelter in its convention center over the holiday weekend.

Others ending up in Washington, D.C., outside of Vice President Kamala Harris' residence.

AMY FISCHER, MIGRANT SOLIDARITY MUTUAL AID NETWORK: The majority of them are planning to, you know, stay in D.C. or head up to New York.

BERNAL: Since April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants to northern states. These migrants were bused from Texas to D.C. on Christmas Eve, some wearing only a t-shirt in 18 degree weather.

For Elvin and Caroline the final destination is Chicago. They say they want to apply for refugee status, find work and provide for their four children.


BERNAL (on camera): And many of these migrants here have a similar story. Many of them telling me that all they're waiting for is to get some money to get a bus ticket and go to their final destination.

Right now, a peaceful protest happening, they're making posters. It says returning is not an option. We need work. These are the kinds of things that they tell me in-person that they want to stay in this country for the future of their children and they say they want to do it legally but the process just makes it very difficult -- Phil.


MATTINGLY: No question about that. Camila Bernal, great reporting in El Paso, Texas. Thanks so much.

Still ahead, China abruptly lifts its strict COVID travel restrictions, but not everything is what it seems.


MATTINGLY: We're back with our health lead. China is set to get rid of more strict COVID measures, that includes

dropping quarantine requirements for international travelers. This is just the latest abrupt change made by China all while the country is being hit with a wave of COVID infections and deaths.


CNN's Selina Wang is live in Beijing.

And, Selina, I've got to be honest, I was trying to read and get my head around what is actually happening from a tangible perspective. Can you walk me through what these major changes to China's COVID policy actually are?

SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Phil, the bottom line is that these changes are major. It is a huge step towards the formal end of zero COVID and towards China's nearly three years of isolation. So, the biggest announcement is from January 8. The country is dropping quarantine requirements for all international arrivals.

Now, to understand why this is such a big deal, we have to look at what the reality has been. So, throughout the pandemic, China has been severely limiting who can go in and out of China, with strict border controls, flights have been very limited and expensive, all arrivals had to go through quarantine in government facilities. So, I went through multiple quarantines myself, including 21 days earlier this year.

And, Phil, these are hard quarantines. So, no opening your door except for food pickups and COVID tests. But, look, a lot still remains unclear. We don't know how many flights will be allowed to enter the country or how easily Chinese nationals will be able to travel out. Officials said they will start tourism in a, quote, orderly member but it depends on the international COVID situation and the capacity of domestic services.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, it's such a jarring shift and so much on the back ends needs to be figured out.

Can I ask you know, though, why is China's national health commission no longer counting daily COVID case numbers?

WANG: So they don't give an official reason, but this decision was made after widespread criticism over how unreliable the data was. So get this, in the first 20 days of December, health authorities publicly reported less than 63,000 COVID cases, but leaked documents from China's top officials showed very different internal estimates that almost 250 million people may have caught COVID in the first 20 days.

Now, if correct that estimate, which CNN cannot independently verify, it would mean that this is the largest COVID outbreak to date globally. But, again, that information was not made public and this medical system in this country is under a huge amount of pressure, fever and cold medicine nearly impossible to get at drugstores. But in a huge announcement, Beijing has said it is going to start

distributing Paxlovid to community health centers in the comes days. That's a big deal because it's been hard for people to access antivirals. For example, in mid-December an online platform started selling Paxlovid but it sold out almost immediately -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: Watching this happen in real time feels like a flashback to some degree.

Selina Wang in Beijing, thanks so much.

Now, also in our health lead, respiratory illnesses have been circulating throughout the U.S. for weeks now, ruining holiday plans for many this year. New data from the CDC shows the seasonal flu activity is still prevalent in most parts of the country but states seen here in red with very high levels.

Joining me now is Dr. Peter Hotez.

There's at least some positive news, Dr. Hotez, hospital admissions for the flu dropped again for the second week in a row. Are we seeing a sign that the flu season may have peaked in the U.S.?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR VACCINE DEVELOPMENT AT TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: It's starting to look that way. It looks as though, Phil, that it peaked early, about two or three weeks ago and now it's starting to decline. Although it's really important to point out that the level of flu activity in the United States is still quite high. So if you have not gotten your flu vaccine, now is the time to do it.

The big unknown with regards to influenza is as those numbers start to decline do they stay down or do we see another peak as we hit January or February. We've sometimes seen that, it sort of goes up and down. So, it's a bit unknown. It rose very early, we were great, the numbers would steadily climb into January. Right now, it's not looking that way, so perhaps some optimism.

MATTINGLY: We could all use some of that at this point. To some degree the flu isn't the only illness that's been spreading, we see COVID cases ticking back up again, not nearly the devil that we saw in previous surges. As you look around the landscape how concerned should people be when it comes to COVID?

HOTEZ: I'm concerned because the hospitalizations are starting to rise, especially in New York and New Jersey, and it's not just the hospitalizations, Phil, but if you look at the type of variants, so in New York City, for instance, in New York, New Jersey, you're seeing about half the variants are this new XBB subvariant, and the reason that's important is that the first vaccines that were rolled out that were directed against the original lineage that came out of China probably won't hold up against XBB.

You need that bivalent variant to give cross neutralizing antibodies. A new paper just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine saying there is some cross neutralization but you have to get that new buy veil ant booster and very few Americans are accepting it right now. So, there is a vulnerability and I'm worried the hospitalizations will continue to climb.


Maybe not as bad as what we saw with the Alpha wave in the winter of 2021 or the BA.1 omicron wave in the winter of 2022. But it could still get pretty bad and the numbers of deaths are still at 300 to 400 deaths a day.

OK. It's not 2,000 to 3,000 deaths per day, but if you look at that over the course of a year, that's still 100,000, 150,000 deaths annually. Our worst flu season is 40,000 or 50,000. It will give you a sense of how dire this still could be.

So, bottom line, get your bivalent vaccine booster as soon as you can.

MATTINGLY: When you talk about variants, I understand that what's happening in China right now, their policy shifts -- dramatic policy shifts may seem afar away. But public health officials, how close are you watching China with concern about from a variant perspective what may come of what that country is currently going through?

HOTEZ: I'm looking at China for two reasons, one is the humanitarian tragedy because it's a perfect storm of the fact that the population of China is undervaccinated, also the types of vaccines they've been using the inactivated virus vaccines not holding up well and the fact that they have poor intensive care unit capacity. So, that's a perfect story. So, that's a humanitarian tragedy waiting to happen.

Some analytics groups are saying 5,000 deaths a day. You know, and maybe 1 to 2 million deaths overall before this is over. And then when you allow this virus to circulate among an unvaccinated or undervaccinated population, we know what happens with that. That's how the delta variant arose out of India, omicron out of South Africa. So I worry that we may see this out of China as well, a new variant.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, seems like much more to come out of there. Dr. Peter Hotez, as always, my friend, thanks so much.

HOTEZ: Thank you, sir.

MATTINGLY: How a kidnapped baby was found in another state several days after he was taken.



MATTINGLY: In our national lead, cadets may be on their holiday break but there is still significant work going on at West Point. The U.S. Military Academy now removing at least 13 Confederate references and symbols from its campus.

CNN's Oren Lieberman is live at the Pentagon. Oren, one of the items is a portrait of Robert E. Lee. What else is

West Point actually removing and what do we know about what they'll be replaced with?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Quite a few references to General Robert E. Lee the commanding officer of the Confederate military. On this list of these 13 different items that will be replaced. So, take a look at this, the first the portrait in uniform, also a bust that will be removed. There's also a bronze display at the main entrance to the science hall that shows an image of a hooded figure and it says Ku Klux Klan below it.

That two will be removed. There are buildings, streets, locations, that will also be renamed. This is all part of a process the superintendent of the U.S. military academy, more commonly known as West Point, says this will be a multi-phased approach. It will take time as they work through this and there's a committee named the Memorialization History and Museum Committee that will look for recommendations for what to replace the names with.

That part hasn't been decided yet. But the school did note, the Academy did note, I should say, that some of these that have to be renamed are class gifts, so they want to do this with a measure of respect in coordination with the class.

As you point out, Phil, it's all part of the process that stems from the NDAA back in late 2020, Congress passed this with bipartisan support overriding former President Donald Trump's veto to institute this naming commission. The commission first looked at names of military facilities, recommending Fort Bragg be changed to Fort Liberty, then a look at the Service Academies, and it looked at a list of other items.

It is West Point that's getting the attending now as the superintendent says the renaming process at the school will begin in the coming days.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, a methodical process at that. Oren Lieberman at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Also in our national lead, a family reunited after police located a missing 5 month old in a stolen car in Indianapolis. The ordeal began a week ago and nearly 200 miles away in Columbus, Ohio, when someone stole a car the baby in his twin brother were riding in.

CNN's Jean Casarez joins us.

Jean, tell us more about what actually happened here.

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, the amazing story is to really go by the timeline. It was December 19th, just as you said. The mother was a delivery driver for DoorDash. She went to go get the food, she came back and there were no babies in the car. She had 5 month old twins.

So, obviously, the police got ahold of that. The very next morning, December 20th, early morning hours, one of the babies, Kyair Thomas was found at the side of the road at the International Dayton Airport. That's 70 miles away. Well, where is the other baby, which is Kason Thomas?

Separate and distinct from that, on the 20th of December, there was a woman in Indianapolis, and this is according to the "Indianapolis Star". She met a woman, had interactions, drove the woman in her car. She got the woman's phone number. She goes home, she sees it all over the news about these two babies abducted 175 miles away. She gets her cousin, she says, I've talked to the woman today. They arranged that they would meet the woman, have the police move in and arrest her. That happened. But there was still a question, where is the other baby?

So the cousins decided they were going to go from bus stop to bus stop because the kidnapping suspect, Nalah Jackson, had actually left a bus map in the car. They didn't find the car but had to go eat after that.

And there they see the car, the description of the car, and inside the car, according to the "Indianapolis Star", they said was the baby and the baby was alive. They contacted police in the pizza restaurant, they came out and the police got the baby.


The baby was safe, secure and healthy.

MATTINGLY: It's -- you couldn't write a script like this and nobody would believe it. The circumstances around the officers finding this baby are completely remarkable, right?

CASAREZ: I want you to listen to the Indianapolis police department detectives. Listen.


SHAWN ANDERSON, INDIANAPOLIS METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT: It was time for us to kind of decompress because we were disappointed that we could not find him. And then god opened up the heavens to us and almost took him and put him right in our hands. We're surprised at how well he responded, considering the ordeal that he had been through.


CASAREZ: Nalah Jackson is charged with two discounts of kidnapping and they will be extradited from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Ohio.

MATTINGLY: Grateful for the parents. Jean Casarez, thanks so much.

Our coverage continues with the one and only Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM". Erie County first responders still in lifesaving mode after that deadly blizzard hammers the area. Buffalo police commissioner joins next.