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Biden Downplays COVID Rise; Biden on Labor Shortage; Florida Leads in New COVID Cases. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 22, 2021 - 09:00   ET




JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: That's great. Birdability.

KEILAR: I love that.

AVLON: I love it.

KEILAR: And the soothing sounds of nature, too, in that piece. You can see why it helps her so much and will help others.

CNN's coverage continues right now.

AVLON: I think.

KEILAR: I love it.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. So glad you're with me. I'm Poppy Harlow. Jim is on assignment today.

And today the White House is holding at least preliminary conversations about whether vaccinated Americans are going to need to start wearing masks again. Sources tell CNN that top Biden health officials may revise their mask recommendations as COVID cases surge and vaccination rates stall.

After months of declines, the CDC now projects deaths and hospitalizations from COVID are likely going to increase in the next month. Still, President Biden is stressing this pandemic is really one now of unvaccinated individuals.

Here's what he said at CNN's exclusive town hall last night.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a simple, basic proposition. If you're vaccinated you're not going to be hospitalized. You're not going to be in an ICU unit and you're not going to die. So it's gigantically important that you act like -- we all act like Americans who care about our fellow Americans.

We're not in a position where we think that any virus, including the delta virus, which is much more transmissible and more deadly in terms of non-vaccinated people, the various shots that people are getting now cover that. They're -- they're -- you're OK. You're not going to -- you're not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.


HARLOW: For the most part, that's the case.

So let's go to John Harwood at the White House.

John, good morning.

Let's get to the mask conversation in a moment.

But it was -- it was so notable last night at that town hall to hear the president imploring the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, you really heard in that town hall with Don Lemon last night the frustration of the president that millions and millions of Americans, for whatever reason, are declining to get vaccinated, and that is slowing the progress of the United States against this pandemic and creating this opening in which the delta variant is taking off and endangering all the process that the government has made and the American people have made over the last several months. And that, of course, in turn endangers the entire Biden agenda because it's key to economic recovery.

Now, what President Biden indicated about kids is that they may have to -- young kids under 12 who are not vaccinated, they may have to wear masks when they go back to school. I think that's going to come as a blow to a lot of parents, although he did express the hope that the vaccines for kids under 12 will soon be approved.

Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The CDC is going to say that what we should do is everyone over the age of -- under the age of 12 should probably be wearing a mask in school. That's probably what's going to happen.

Secondly, those over the age of 12, who are able to get vaccinated, if you're vaccinated, you shouldn't wear a mask. If you aren't vaccinated, you should be wearing a mask.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: When will children under 12 be able to get vaccinated?

BIDEN: Soon, I believe.

Soon in the sense that I do not tell any scientist what they should do. I do not interfere.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARWOOD: So, that's the hope of the president. But, of course, he's going to wait for that scientific guidance.

HARLOW: John, it's a big deal that White House officials and health officials are talking about whether the CDC should totally reverse course here and tell vaccinated people to wear masks. How real are those conversations?

HARWOOD: They're very real because the delta variant is very real, and this upsurge of cases is very real, which in turn means an upsurge in hospitalizations and deaths. Again, we know, Poppy, that if you're vaccinated, you can get the virus again, but you're very, very, very unlikely to get very sick from it.

But until more people get vaccinated -- we've only got half the country fully vaccinated right now -- until we get more people, we're not going to get the herd immunity that allows us to really put this pandemic down. And that is something that for all of the efforts of the president and his team they've not been able to get done so far.

HARLOW: John, thank you.

Stay right there. We've got a lot more to get to with you in just a moment.

But right now let me bring in former city of Baltimore health commissioner and our medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen.

Dr. Wen, good to have you.

Let's start where John left off. Masks. I mean, at this point, medically, would it be your advice that vaccinated people should wear masks inside?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I am really relieved that the White House is considering to revise their guidance because the circumstances on the ground have changed.


The realities have changed. The science has changed. And you would expect that the policy changes accordingly.

Initially, in May, when the CDC came out with their guidance saying, if you're vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. First of all, they didn't take into account that the honor system was not going to work and that unvaccinated people were taking off their mask as well.

But, also, we are now seeing that we have 40,000 new daily infections per day compared to 11,000 a month ago. We have the delta variant that's surging and actually we don't know at this point whether, if you are fully vaccinated, whether you're able to transmit the virus to others if you're carrying the delta variant, which is the dominant variant here.

And so I think it makes a lot of sense for the administration to be considering a policy of, let's say, if you are fully vaccinated and you're around other people fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. But if you're fully vaccinated and the people around you are of unknown vaccination status, you should be wearing a mask in these public, indoor spaces because you could get sick yourself, you could transmit it to others.

This is not undermining trust in the vaccine. That's like saying if you have a seat belt, you should be wearing the seat belt, but that's not going to protect you against all car accidents. I mean it's really important to use the interventions that we have, but also recognize that we may need other interventions if the situation gets worse.

HARLOW: I hear you, and the situation has changed.

But let me ask you this, Dr. Wen, because I remember in May, when the CDC made that decision, which many people felt -- and we had no idea this was coming, right, and it came. And part of the incentive for it was to incentivize more people to get vaccinated. Like here's the reward if you get vaccinated, you can lose the mask.

With 50 percent of the country still not vaccinated, could a result in part of this be another disincentive for people to get vaccinated? Do they need to weigh those things?

WEN: I definitely think that the Biden administration should be thinking about these things. And this is the reason why it should not just be a decision of the CDC.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the Biden administration has been equating following the science with listening to one scientific institution, when actually the implication is not just about the actual data and the physical science, it's also about social science and people's behaviors and what's likely to come as a result of them.

The CDC, in the first place, made the right decision when it comes to the science, but they didn't take into account human behavior. And I think there's something that -- there is one thing the Biden administration could be doing right now that would change the equation when it comes to incentives, and that's to use proof of vaccination. If they could say, get the vaccine, you have a proof of vaccination, you can take off your mask, that would be really key. And I also think that vaccine mandates are something that will have to come.

HARLOW: Can we play that out because -- so that would mean every -- I went to a restaurant the other week that wanted to see my vaccination proof to sit down. I can see it happening in restaurants. It would be much harder if you're walking into any public building or super market or a shopping mall or just being with people at a house party, things like that. How does proof of vaccination work in all group circumstances?

WEN: Right. I think it depends on the circumstance. So if you're going to the grocery store and the grocery store doesn't have the capacity to enforce a -- some kind of proof of vaccination, then they have to say that indoor masking needs to apply because we don't know who's vaccinated and who's not. The same thing for schools. Schools -- you can't expect the teacher in every school to be asking, well, you're not wearing a mask, so are you vaccinated or not? And so, if that's the case, everybody should be wearing masks.

But I could imagine there are already concert venues or workplaces that are saying --

HARLOW: Right.

WEN: If you are not vaccinated, you can't come, or you have to get a negative test. And that's what's needed in order to really incentivize vaccines at this point.

HARLOW: We just saw the Minneapolis Federal Reserve make that move, and I think many more even potentially government entities to do so.

Dr. Wen, thank you.

Also I want to tell everyone about your new book. I can't wait to read it. Here it is. "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health." It hit shelves on Tuesday and has already gotten so much acclaim. So congratulations to you.

Well, two major economic worries front and center at the president's town hall last night on CNN. Fears that inflation will keep rising and employers in certain sectors of the recovering economy still very much struggling to find enough workers.

Listen to this exchange between the president and a restaurant owner who said he is having an incredibly hard time finding staff for his 39 restaurants.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you and the Biden administration plan to incentivize those that haven't returned to work yet? Hiring is our top priority right now.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, two things. One, if you notice, we kept you open. We spent billions of dollars to make sure restaurants could stay open. And a lot of people who now, who work as waiters and waitresses decided that they don't want to do that anymore because there's other opportunities at higher wages because there's a lot of openings now in jobs.


And people are beginning to move. People are looking to make more money and to bargain. And so I think your business and the tourist business is really going to be in a bind for a little while.


HARLOW: John Harwood back with us.

Also let me bring in Evan Osnos, CNN contributor and author of the fantastic book, "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run and What Matters Now." Good to have you both.

That was -- I mean that was, John, a big admission, I don't know if admission is the right word, but from the president. That was some tough medicine, right? I mean this is -- this is the new economy. And we've never seen something like this play out before. But you're seeing certain sectors reeling much more than others.

HARWOOD: That's right. And the two phenomenon that you outlined at the top of that introduction are related. That is the inflation and the difficulty hiring. The president has embraced on behalf of workers saying, we want wages to be bid up. This is a president who inherited a recovering economy, which every president would love to inherit. He's taken actions through the coronavirus and the American Rescue Plan -- through the vaccination efforts in the Rescue Plan to try to accelerate that recovery. But it's not a straight line. It's a bumpy thing to try to jump start an economy that was basically put into a coma for months last year.

And so you've got these supply/demand mismatches. You've got workers recalibrating what their goals are going to be, whether they're going to jump back into the workforce. And the president was trying to make the case last night that the things he wants to do in the infrastructure plan are going to tame inflation rather than exacerbate it.

Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, here's the deal, Moody's, today, went out, Wall Street firm, not some liberal think tank, said, if we pass the other two things I'm trying to get done, we will, in fact, reduce inflation -- reduce inflation, reduce inflation because you're going to be providing good opportunities and jobs for people who, in fact, are going to be reinvesting that money back into all the things we're talking about, driving down prices, not raising prices. And so it is -- I sincerely mean this.


HARWOOD: So he's expressing his hope that he can drive down inflation, but, of course, he's got to get that rescue plan passed. That's not going to be easy either.

HARLOW: I read the Moody's report after -- this morning after he said that last night and he's right in the analysis of it, but it's predicated on two big if's, and that's getting that stuff through Congress.

Evan, to you, as somebody who studied the president so closely for so many years, how do you think he did last night at making the case to all Americans of all political persuasions?

EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, one of the things that came through that was very interesting, Poppy, was this was sort of the next phase of the language we've heard from him from the beginning of his campaign, which is that we should somehow be able to do things even if we don't agree on everything. He tried to give these very sort of concrete examples of ways in which, over the last six months, there had been things delivered to people of any political stripe.

I mean he referred to the fact that there are now child tax credits, people are opening envelopes this week, about 30 million American families. It doesn't matter if they're Democrats or Republicans.

He talked, obviously, about the vaccine. He hit it over and over again. At one point he said, that's not a red or a blue issue. This is just basic common sense.

And then, of course, you know, there is, underneath this whole debate, there's the question of whether we can strike an infrastructure deal that appeals to both sides. That is hanging in the balance right now. And he said he thinks that's going to happen. That is putting a marker on the table. He says he thinks they're going to get it. And if they do get it, that, in some sense, will give a bit of a boost to him in terms of being able to make the case that bipartisanship is possible, even in this rancorous political moments.

HARLOW: There was also, Evan, this moment that was so -- I thought it was one of the biggest takeaways of the night, and that is when Don Lemon asked him, from a very personal perspective as a black man, about voting rights in America and protecting them.


HARLOW: Here's part of that.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: You agree with the former president, he has called it -- your -- as you call him, your old boss, that it is a relic of Jim Crow?


LEMON: If it's a relic of Jim Crow, it's been used to fight against civil rights legislation historically. Why protect it?

BIDEN: There's no reason to protect it other than if you're going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done.

LEMON: Right.

BIDEN: Nothing at all will get done.


HARLOW: Evan, how -- I mean what is the message that you heard from him there to moderates and to progressives, and about how he is weighing federal voting protections with protecting the filibuster?

OSNOS: That was an enormously important moment, Poppy, because what he was essentially saying was, look, my strategy for trying to protect voting rights is to rely on voters to turn out. He said at one point they showed up in 2020. They're going to show up again.


That's a big bet.

What he's essentially saying is, look, we have the power, even without blowing up the filibuster, to try to get people to exercise their votes. We'll get them focused on the threat, get them focused on the issue. In fact, we can get people to vote as they did last time.

But there's nothing guaranteed about that. And I think there are going to be progressives especially, and African-Americans, who are going to say to him, look, we asked you about it in advance. And if, in fact, that doesn't work, then that's going to be -- this is going to be part of the record that he has to figure out.

HARLOW: Right.

OSNOS: But he is saying very clear right now, very clearly, he doesn't want to blow up the filibuster and he's not budging on that. Like, progressives are saying to him, the time is getting closer where you're going to have to make a final decision. And for the moment he's saying, no, no, it's not -- it's not just on the Senate, it's on all of us. And that's a big bet on his part, I have to say.

HARLOW: For sure. And they came out and voted in 2020 in an election that had very different rules state by state than will have if nothing changes in a number of these states for the next -- for the next go round given what's passed so far.

John, there is new audio from -- from the reporters, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, who interviewed the president for their fantastic, new book. And I want you to listen. First you'll hear Biden talking about the reality of the insurrection on January the 6th and then you'll hear audio from this book interview of how Trump saw it.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't care if you think I'm Satan reincarnated. The fact is, you can't look at that television and say, nothing happened on the 6th. You can't listen to people who say, this was a peaceful march.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: It was a loving crowd, too, by the way. There was a lot of love. I've heard that from everybody. Many, many people have told me that was a loving crowd.

In all fairness, the Capitol Police were ushering people in. The Capitol Police were very friendly. You know, they were hugging and kissing. You don't see that.


HARLOW: John, it's really telling of America, right, with the reality of what our eyes see on the video and then what the president is saying and what a lot of Americans believe.

HARWOOD: That was two sound bites, Poppy, from American presidents, one of whom, Joe Biden, was saying what is true, what we all experience, what existed in reality, and a second president, in Donald Trump, who is detached from reality, who is delusional, who is trapped in this need psychologically to see himself as having won and make others follow that line. And the Republican Party, alas, it's what's driving a lot of those efforts to restrict voting rights -- voting access that you were talking about with Evan a moment ago, they're going along with that argument. They are not going to buck the former president who's got such a grip on the Republican base.

It is a terrible problem for the country that you've got a former president and a political party that are not dealing with reality. We saw that yesterday with Jim Jordan. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, put Jim Jordan on, somebody who denies reality. We heard from Liz Cheney, a Republican Nancy Pelosi put on, who said that it's disgraceful the way Jim Jordan has behaved and Kevin McCarthy as well.

But the Republican Party is not diverting from that course. And that is one of the burdens that American democracy and Joe Biden, as president, have to bear right now.

HARLOW: John Harwood, thank you, at the White House.

Evan Osnos, always great to have your expertise as well.

We have a lot ahead this hour.

We're going to take you to Florida, which is now leading the nation, sadly, in COVID cases. Some hospitals back to the levels they saw during the worst of the pandemic. An intensive care nurse shares her heartbreaking experience of watching unvaccinated people, some in their 20s, die from COVID.

Also, the raging fires out west are so large they're actually creating their own weather systems, and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate, not knowing what they'll return to.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you to all the firefighters. It's very emotional.




HARLOW: New this morning, Florida now leads the nation in new daily cases of COVID. The latest data comes from Johns Hopkins University. And what it shows is Florida is averaging more than 6,400 infections a day, double where they were a week ago. This comes as some Florida hospitals report their number of COVID

patients are approaching, and in some cases exceeding, the levels they saw during -- what we thought was the worst of the pandemic.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, is urging people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. Right now less than half the residents of the state of Florida are vaccinated. That mirrors a lot of the country, sadly.

I'm joined now by Alix Zacharski. She is the medical intensive care clinical nurse manager for the Jackson Health System in Miami. Over the last two weeks, that health system has seen an 111 percent increase in COVID patients.

Thank you so much, Alix, for coming in. And I'm sorry it is under these circumstances.

What do people need to know? What are you dealing with?

ALIX ZACHARSKI, MEDICAL INTENSIVE CARE CLINICAL NURSE MANAGER, JACKSON HEALTH SYSTEM: We're dealing with -- thank you for having me, first of all.

We're dealing with a very young population of patients that are coming in extremely sick into the system.


They're coming with a lot of symptoms, diverse symptoms and very rapidly ill, becoming extremely sick, and then they, sadly, are dying pretty quick. So that is what we're dealing with right now.

HARLOW: How young are they?

ZACHARSKI: Unlike the previous wave that we had, the previous waves that we've had, they're dying in the early 20s -- early, mid 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. So we're now having the latest (ph) population that we had before.

HARLOW: You have people in their 20s who are dying from COVID in your hospital right now?

ZACHARSKI: We -- yes, we have had early in their 20s, which is extremely sad, extremely sad. We didn't anticipate folks dying that young.

HARLOW: Yes, of course -- of course, no one did. Are they -- is everyone who is getting critically ill from COVID, or even coming to your hospital with COVID and dying, are they all unvaccinated?

ZACHARSKI: Unfortunately, yes, they are all unvaccinated. And that's something that is sad.

HARLOW: What -- right, because the vaccine is now available to everyone in the United States.

What do they say to you, Alix, about -- about why -- if they do, do they tell you why they have chosen not to get vaccinated?

ZACHARSKI: Most of the time when we get them in the ICU, they're already too sick to get vaccinated. And -- but when they come -- they come into the system and early on they say, can I get vaccinated? And at that point you can't. You already have symptoms. You're unable to get them. You cannot get the vaccine yet. We have to let the virus run its course, and then hopefully once it runs the course and you can get well (INAUDIBLE) after you are better.

But once you get that sick, you need to be -- let it run its course. Unfortunately, what we've seen is a range of different symptoms. It's different for everyone. So what is so strange is that we -- everyone is very different. And, of course, it takes a different, you know, different game (ph) for everybody. So every patient is so different in how the virus presents and dying so early -- so early and so young and so rapidly is what is so unusual for this virus, especially as a delta virus.

HARLOW: I understand that you -- that one of your patients who died from COVID recently is a 24-year-old woman who had a -- who had a child.

ZACHARSKI: Yes. So that's a -- that's -- that's very sad for us.

HARLOW: What was -- what was -- of course. Of course. Look, the delta variant is making this so much worse, so much more contagious. You're dealing with it every day. What do you think would help? Obviously, more people getting vaccinated. But, I mean, do you want to see everyone wearing masks again inside? What -- what will help?

ZACHARSKI: I think for us we really want to make everybody aware that vaccination is very important. We want everyone to try to get themselves vaccinated. We do know that for some -- for some people vaccination may not be an option if they truly are allergic to the components of the vaccine. And that could be a factor. But if you can get vaccinated, do be aware that you need to wear the mask and you need to be -- exercise social distancing on some level and stay away from crowds or -- and do -- do you perform (ph) hygiene. That's something essential.

But vaccination for the most part at this point is really -- it's really a good option. But now the only option that we have.

We were -- we had no option before. We do have it now. It is very hard to see young population dying when we have an option out there. We -- it's very hard for health care workers trying to save lives when -- especially young lives -- any life for that matter when we have options. And we have done everything. We early on treat now who comes into the hospital and it's impossible to save lives when you don't help us. And so we really want to make sure everybody understands that we really need your help to help you.

HARLOW: Yes, of course. Of course. And we all owe all of you on the front lines all of our help, what we can do to keep more people out of your hospital.

Alex Zacharski, thank you to you and your whole team.


Also, this crisis out west. Thousands of firefighters and first responders are battling dozens.