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White House Chief of Staff Won't Commit to Specific Date for Booster Shots; Multiple Crises Roil Biden Administration; Louisiana Dealing with Power, Fuel Shortages More Than a Week after Ida. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 06, 2021 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Good, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. I'm so glad you're with us on this Labor Day. This is a special holiday edition of CNN Newsroom. Jim has the day off.

And we begin on COVID and booster shots. Top health officials say, not so fast, when it comes to COVID-19 booster shots. They say more time is needed to review the data. The White House is now backing off of its promise that a third dose of COVID boosters would be available starting two weeks from two weeks from today. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain says, at this point, he doesn't know when Americans will be able to get them because they're waiting for the green light from the FDA. Dr. Fauci, however, says he is confident that Pfizer is so on track for that September 20th booster rollout. He says Moderna's may be slightly delayed beyond that.

All of this comes as COVID cases are surging once again in the United States. The seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 residents is 300 percent higher than it was on Labor Day of last year. The CDC also says children's hospitals across the country are filling up with COVID cases and community transmission is dangerously high. We'll have much more on this in a moment.

Let's begin though with our Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. Elizabeth, good morning to you. Why is there such a lack of clarity here on the booster? The way I understand it is the White House is saying, we got them, we bought them but now we need the green light from the FDA. But they thought they were going to get that by the 20th of September.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, I just want to sort of cut through all of this and say I don't usually like using sports metaphors but I'm going to use one now. This is an unforced error by the Biden administration. Back on August 18th, they said, we'll be ready. President Biden said we'll be ready by around September 20th to do this booster rollout. They never should have named a specific date. What they should have said back then was, look, in the coming weeks and months, we will have boosters ready. We are planning, we are preparing, it will happen but we don't have an exact date. Once you give an exact date, as we've seen during this pandemic, things happen. And exact dates, you don't always meet those deadlines. So let's look at where we are right now with the U.S. booster rollout. So, Fauci has said that Pfizer looks like they'll be ready to go the week of September 20th. So that means if you got your first two shots with Pfizer and you're in the right age range and all of the other specifics, it looks like you could get a booster on September 20th. Moderna, Dr. Fauci said, might be behind that by a week or two, and there could be data in a couple of weeks on mixing and matching. In other words, just because you got Moderna the first time, maybe you'll get a boost fresh Pfizer or vice versa. That is possible.

So, the bottom line here is that for anyone who is fully vaccinated and enough time has passed, say, five months, six months, seven months, eight months, somewhere in there, you could be getting a booster in the coming weeks or months. It will most likely be offered and available to you, it might not be the week of September 20th, but it will happen.

Let's take a listen to Dr. Fauci.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Pfizer, one of the companies that has the mRNA, has gotten the information and has been examined and things look like they're ready to go. Moderna might be actually a little bit behind that. And if they are, what you might see is rather than the simultaneous rolling out of the booster program of both dose products, you may have the sequential by about a week or two.


COHEN: Now, to a great extent, the Israel for its Pfizer data. The Pfizer has been pretty much the only game in town in Israel, and they've been keeping very careful track of how people are doing.

Let's take a look at their booster rollout. They've began their booster rollout July 30th, so quite a while ago. Anyone is eligible at five months past their second shot, it doesn't matter how old you are. In a study of people ages 60-plus, it showed that the booster reduced the relative risk of severe illness more than ten times. Poppy?

HARLOW: Elizabeth, thank you, obviously following and watching very closely what happens in Israel as more people get these boosters.

Meantime, more than half of the nation's schools either have part-time nurses or no nurse at all and the ongoing shortage of school nurses is turning dire as children go back to the classroom and as COVID cases are also rising now among kids. The CDC says hospitalization rates for children have soared this summer as the delta variant has spread.

Let's go to our Jacqueline Howard. She has more on all of this. I mean, it is just making such a difficult, such a troubling situation even harder if you don't have what you need in the schools.

JACQUELINE HOWARD, CNN HEALTH REPORTER: That's right. If you don't have a school nurse, it definitely makes it harder to test for COVID- 19, track cases, isolate cases. So, school nurses play a role specifically in the COVID-19 mitigation measures, but also in other every day activities as well, like making sure a student who might have some anxiety on the first day of school feels comfortable and, of course, making sure students might have food allergies are okay, and so many other things, Poppy.


So, this shortage has been ongoing here in the United States for years, but now, infectious disease experts I've talked, school nurses I've talked to, they all say that the shortage is becoming dire. And based on data from the year 2018, we can estimate that about 39 percent of schools nationwide employ a full-time nurse. About 35 percent employ part-time nurses. But there is still that quarter, about 25 percent of schools do not have a school nurse at all.

And there are some Democratic lawmakers who are hoping to address this. Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus and Montana Senator Jon Tester, they both have introduced legislation called the Nurse Act. And Congresswoman Titus' office, they sent a letter that says, quote, the Nurse Act would provide federal funding through Department of Education grants to hire school nurses, the first investment of its kind.

Now, the congresswoman is also pushing for this bill to be in the upcoming budget reconciliation package. We'll see what happens there, Poppy. But, of course, this is an ongoing issue. And school nurses I've talked to really hope that the pandemic can shed light on this and lead to change.

HARLOW: Yes, of course. Jacqueline, thank you for the reporting very much.

Let me bring in to talk about all of these headlines, Public Health Physician Dr. Chris Pernell, Fellow at the American College of Preventative Medicine. Also, I should note, Doctor, you participated in the Moderna vaccine trial after you lost your own father to COVID- 19. We're glad to have you back. Thanks for your time.


HARLOW: Where is your head now this morning amid all of these headlines and the real unknown about when boosters might be coming, namely Moderna, which you were part the initial trial?

PERNELL: Definitely. Where I want the public and the community to focus is that we need to rev up our game, and I use that sports analogy just to continue with the previous conversation. We need to rev up our game around getting unvaccinated persons vaccinated. Yes, boosters are important. Yes, the White House had a misstep in its communication by giving a specific date but I don't want people to lose sight, the one way to end this pandemic, because we're in a whiplash. We started to see progress about May and June, and now daily cases are exploding. Hospitals are at their end. We need to get unvaccinated folks vaccinated, while then thinking about a rational strategy around boosters, especially for those most vulnerable and most at risk.

HARLOW: On top of all of this, we have the havoc that Hurricane Ida wreaked on the gulf coast, on New Jersey, where your hospital is, in New York. What has the impact of that been for you are guys?

PERNELL: Well, Ida did what, unfortunately, hurricanes do. Whenever there is any type of public health disaster -- and hurricane is public health disaster. You have flash floods. You have tornados that touched down in New Jersey, and that put communities further on edge. I even have people in my family who were impacted by Ida. And so whenever you have vulnerable or marginalized groups, groups already at risk, groups that are already beleaguered by the pandemic, a public health disaster like that just worsens it.

HARLOW: When you think about the Biden White House right now and the -- I don't want to discount that we're seeing an increase in vaccinations. That is a good thing, right, especially in states that we weren't seeing before and that have these tragically high COVID rates and hospitalizations and deaths. But now, a lot of the focus out of the White House and, frankly, a lot of the media attention is on boosters. So, my question to you is are you at all concerned that that is sort of speaking to the people that have already acknowledged the importance of vaccination rather than tackling those who are still hesitant to get an vaccine?

PERNELL: I'm somewhat concerned, Poppy, if I can be just very forthcoming. I don't want us to lose sight of what the appropriate endgame is. In this pandemic, there will be several finish lines and we don't want to ever declare premature victory or we don't ever want to get our eyes off of what is most essential. And what is most essential is ensuring that those who are unvaccinated get vaccinated.

Look, if you're unvaccinated, your risk of hospitalization, your risk of death is not even comparable to if you are vaccinated. Boosters are about getting those most vulnerable with the most robust immune protection and I'm in favor of that.


But I just want to right-size the urgency and right-size the message.

HARLOW: Thank you very much, Dr. Pernell. As always, good to have you.

PERNELL: Thank you.

HARLOW: President Biden's poll numbers are dropping as he faces multiple crises and even threats to his agenda, some from inside his own party. We'll talk about what this means ahead for his agenda.

Also, a tale of two schools. CNN looks at mask mandates and the impact in cases in class.

And Southeast Louisiana under another heat advisory today as some people are told it could be by the end of the month, not until the end of the month that they get their power back. We're going to take you there live.



HARLOW: This morning, President Biden and his administration are facing growing crises on multiple fronts, the pandemic surging, fueled by the delta variant, which is also slowing down economic recovery, also legislative challenges in Congress and threats to his agenda, some from within his own party. Add to that, the president is now facing his worst job approval numbers so far in his presidency due in large part to America's chaotic exit from Afghanistan. It's a lot.

CNN's John Harwood is at the White House with more. John, good morning. Eight months and it is tough for the Biden administration on pretty much all fronts right now.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, there is no question President Biden has taken a significant hit. The hallmark of his first several months in office was the stability of his poll numbers consistently above 50 percent, barely moved at all. Now we see from this the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, he's down to 44 percent, down to 39 percent among independents. Part of that, of course, is the fallout from Afghanistan.

Now, U.S. troops are out. The most significant thing that President Biden can do on that now, as Ron Klain indicated, the White House chief of staff, to Dana Bash yesterday on State of the Union, is to sustain and press those efforts to get remaining Americans out of Afghanistan as well as some Afghan allies. He's got limited ability to control that.

The most significant thing that he can do for his political standing is to get the pandemic under control. We know that the sustainability of the economic recovery depends on the ability to get -- tamp down this pandemic. We've been talking lately about the controversy over booster shots. That is really a side show. The most significant thing is getting those first and second shots in arms to the 25 percent of Americans who have resisted so far. That is going to be the key to sustaining economic growth, which is critical for the president's standing.

And then, of course, you mentioned the legislative agenda. He has got that infrastructure plan, two-part plan. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, the least liberal Democratic senators, are saying, hold on, slow down, cut the price tag. The indications that we've gotten so far is that Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate are able to manage this process moving forward but they got to keep managing it and September is a critical month because they are running out of time this year. And the longer you extend these legislative debates, the weaker your position gets.

So, for the Biden, we promise to hear from him this week. He said, on Friday, he will lay out some new strategies for addressing the delta variant at some point this week. And the thing that I would watch for, Poppy, is whether or not he moves more aggressively into vaccine mandates perhaps on flights and transportation, like rail transportation as well.

HARLOW: Right. Well, it seems like that is all they could do -- a lot of what they could do at this point to try to move the needle. John, thank you for the reporting at the White House.

Let me bring in Ron Brownstein, Senior Editor for The Atlantic. Ron, good morning, great to have you.


HARLOW: Let's start at -- I mean, this is what happens in presidencies. You plan for some disasters and then other ones just come your way. These have just all converged at the same time on this presidency and it is reflected in his polling numbers, down five points in a single month, down ten points when it comes to his handling of COVID since June. I thought Aaron Blake's op-ed in The Washington Post was interesting, and the title is the middle turns on Biden. And he writes, there are valid questions about the staying power of this issue, taking about the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. But, for now, it appears to have significantly undercut independent's approval of Biden. Even if the issue isn't front of mind for voters moving forward, there is some danger for Biden. Do you agree?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I agree with a lot of what John said. I think Afghanistan, if you look at history, is likely to be more of a short- term than long-term problem for the president, unless there are obvious hostage situations there. Ronald Reagan had the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 in Lebanon, which was more significant in loss of life, and then 149 states, the next year Bill Clinton recovered from Somalia.

I think the main arena for him is, in fact, the COVID pandemic, and I think that is the core of why his approval rating has been declining. Americans and the promise of the vaccine above all was a return to normal life, Friday night football and seeing your grandparents. And all of that is now in question, I think, for many Americans.

And the key for Biden is whether he can push up those vaccination rates and that is probably going to require him to move past where he has been, which is focusing on carrots to look at some tougher sticks to compel those who have been holding more of those holding out.


HARLOW: When you talk about his ability to combat COVID going forward, and the big drop we've seen in his approval rating from 62 to 52 percent now in terms of handling of the pandemic, you've written, Ron, and talked about sort of Biden using what you call low risk strategy. What do you mean and does that need to change?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes Look, I think he has been cautious in many ways and that now is exposing him paradoxically to a lot of risk. I mean, he has, by and large, tried to focus on cooperation and inducements to increase the vaccination rates, whether it is working with governors to get out the vaccine, that left him -- the emphasis on cooperation with governors left him slow to react when a number of Republican governors, particularly in the southeast, took steps that undermined public health, by banning mask mandates or banning vaccine passports.

He has been very cautious about imposing vaccine mandates. Yes, he's done it on people directly under his control in the federal government. But as John pointed out, to this day, he has still not used his power to require them for boarding interstate travel, particularly planes. He has not really -- the administration, I'm not aware, has explored the ideas that some have raised about using the leverage of Medicare or Pell grants to require institutions that participate in those programs to vaccinate all of their staff.

There was polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Poppy, a couple of weeks ago that a majority of those who are not vaccinated, said getting the vaccine was a bigger risk to their health than contracting the disease, if that is the attitude that he is dealing on the kind of remaining unvaccinated, it is hard to believe that carrots alone are going to get you to where the experts say you probably need 85 percent.

And the risk -- so he has avoided those kind of big cultural confrontations of mandates, but on the other hand, that is allowing or enabling the virus to continue to spread at this very high level. So, there is a clear risk to him in his low risk strategy because I think the biggest downward pressure on his approval rating is coming from the persistence of the outbreak.

HARLOW: Right. Before you go, let me get your take on Senator Amy Klobuchar's interview with our Dana Bash yesterday, where Dana asked her about the prospect of eliminating the filibuster, specifically propelling the conversation is what Texas has just done in terms of restricting abortion so significantly. Listen to what Senator Klobuchar said.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): I believe we should abolish the filibuster. I do not believe an archaic rule should be used to allow us to put our heads in the sand, to use Justice Sotomayor's words, to put our heads in the stand and not take action on the important issues that challenges that are facing our country right now. Now and over the next years, we just will get nowhere if we keep this filibuster in place.


HARLOW: She's not someone who has always been in the abolish the filibuster camp. She's talked about being open but this seems to tip the scale for her. How significant is that broadly speaking to the movement?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think Democrats are right on the edge of being able to abolish the filibuster but they are very likely to get over the edge for broad elimination of it, because you have Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who are saying, no. I think the real question in the next few weeks is going to be, can they get some kind of carve-out on the filibuster, not necessarily on abortion, but on voting rights. You know, what we are seeing is something extraordinary. Democrats have unified control of the House, the Senate and the White House, and yet, to many Democrats, it feels as if they are on the defensive, as the combination of a sharp turn right in many red states, from Florida to Georgia to Texas and Arizona, and the Supreme Court are advancing conservative priorities. They seem hamstrung in their ability to respond because of the filibuster. Voting may be the place where that comes to a head.

HARLOW: It very well may be. Ron, thank you. Good to have you.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Up next, rising temperatures and rising frustration. Hurricane Ida survivors are continuing to face dire conditions right now and ones that could last for weeks to come. We'll take you live to Louisiana after this.



HARLOW: Right now, there is a dangerous situation still unfolding along the gulf coast a week after Hurricane Ida first made landfall. Basic necessities are in short supply, food and fuel still very hard to find. Add to that power, still out for over 500,000 customers in Louisiana and it may not come back on for some until the end of the month. Without power, there is almost no relief from the scorching temperatures. Forecasters are predicting a heat index of 100 degrees in some areas.

Our National Correspondent Nadia Romero is in LaPlace, Louisiana. I mean, how do they contend with that? No power means definitely no air- conditioning, let alone enough clean running water.

NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy. I mean, think about it. You could handle it for a day or two. Now, we're going --