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World Prepares to Welcome 2022 Amid Covid Explosion; Pediatric Hospital Admissions Hit Record Hight in U.S.; Countries Across Europe Set Daily Records Amid Covid Surge; Thousands of Residents Flee Flames in Boulder County; Biden, Putin Hold High-Stakes Phone Call; House Committee Asks Supreme Court to Release White House Documents. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 04:00   ET



PAULA NEWTON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and a warm welcome to viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Paula Newton.

Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM, we're seeing pandemic records ahead of the New Year in the U.S. and parts of Europe as hospitalizations for children soar. I'll speak with a professor this hour.

Plus --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just devastating to see this in this time of year, and just never imagined having this happen in December.


NEWTON: A wildfire emergency unfolding at this hour in Colorado. Flames, fanned by hurricane-force winds. We'll take you to the scene in the weather center for detail.

And President Biden's phone call with Vladimir Putin. We're live in Moscow. But the warnings they gave each other and how they're responding.

Cities right around the globe are preparing to welcome in the new year, but for many the celebrations are set aside as an explosion of new COVID infections takes hold on several continents.

Now, the U.S. has set a third straight record with average daily cases now topping 355,000. John Hopkins reports, meantime that 650,000 cases were reported in the United States on Thursday alone. We should point out, of course, that number could be inflated because of a lag in reporting over the holidays. But let's take a look at this map. It gives you a sense how fast it's spreading. Most states showing a 50 percent increase or more in cases in the past week compared to the previous week. All but two now reporting some type of an increase.

Now, more children, meantime in a worrying development, are spending time in the hospital with COVID, and that is more than at any time since the start of this pandemic. Close to 400 admitted now each and every day. A source tells CNN the Food and Drug Administration will authorize Pfizer vaccine boosters for children aged 12 to 15 in the coming days. CNN's Alexander Field has more now from New York.


DR. LEE SAVIO BEERS, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS: This is probably not the time to have the New Year celebrations, really dial things back.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A new year bringing in new COVID records. As for the big party in New York's Times Square --

JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: We're in the public health crisis of our lifetimes. Frankly, it should have been canceled.

FIELD (voice over): But this ball will drop despite the highest numbers of new daily cases the city has ever seen and without LL Cool J who called off his performance after testing positive for COVID.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D) NEW YORK: It's going to be outdoors vaccination only, masks required, socially distance, but we want to show that we're moving forward and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this.

FIELD (voice over): The city insisting you can party safely even while navigating staffing shortages affecting EMS, the Fire Department and the subway.

SYRA MADAD, NYC HEALTH + HOSPITALS: You know, stiff shortages is a real issue, both from a pre-hospital standpoint, so from EMS, you know, bringing patients into the healthcare system as well as my healthcare worker shortages and not just in New York, but around the nation.

FIELD (voice over): Atlanta is canceling its annual New Year's celebration, the peach drop. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian temporarily shutting down five of its museums. Another thousand flights canceled today with airlines still crippled by staffing shortages and JetBlue announcing they're canceling nearly 1,300 flights through the middle of January.

Testing lines are still stunningly long. The pressure only rising for hospitals across the country, 10 states and Washington, D.C. are seeing some of the highest hospitalization numbers of the pandemic. In Georgia, six major health systems report collectively seeing 100 percent to 200 percent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Unvaccinated adults remain the most likely to be hospitalized, but pediatric hospital admissions for COVID are now at a record-high.

BEERS: The vast majority of the children who are being admitted are unvaccinated. There's small numbers who are vaccinated, but the vast majority are unvaccinated and so being unvaccinated increases your risk for hospitalization significantly. FIELD (voice over): Twelve to 15-year-olds could become eligible for a booster shot as soon as next week if the FDA signs off according to a person familiar with the agency's plan.


That's the same time many students will be heading back to the classroom after the holidays and amid a surge the likes of which we've never seen. Princeton University already announcing they're pushing back the return to campus by one week.

FIELD: And a new warning from the CDC for people to avoid cruise travel, despite their vaccination status. The CDC raising the risk level of cruising to a four. Highest level. They are citing increase in cases aboard ships since Omicron was first identified.

In New York, Alexandra Field, CNN.


NEWTON: So, we are tracking a lot of new developments on this right around the globe at this hour. Canada's most populous province, Ontario, will start offering a fourth COVID vaccine dose to its most vulnerable residents. Those who qualify can get it just three months after their third dose. Meantime, the U.K., Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain all among the European countries reporting their highest daily case count ever. A new study estimating that 75 percent of people in the U.K. experiencing cold-like symptoms, likely have COVID. Paris is now requiring people to wear masks even outdoors. The government there says Omicron is now officially the dominant variant.

Sydney, Australia, meantime, is preparing for its famous New Year's fireworks as cases there, though, continue to skyrocket. Spectator will need tickets to see the show from most vantage points. Rome, Athens, Berlin and London, among many European cities that have canceled fireworks displays this year over COVID concerns.

Now, we want to head live to Paris, and our Jim Bittermann, whose been tracking all these developments. Just absolutely sobering developments at the end of 2021. In France there, for instance, where you are, two record-setting days. Over 200,000 cases each and every day. The French government chipping away at some freedoms. Masks now, even outdoors in Paris, right? How are Europeans and specifically French citizens taking all of this in?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think with a lot of resignation. In fact, one of the newspaper headlines here, writers this morning said this year in fact, celebration rhymes with resignation. Basically, because there's nothing that people can do about this spike in the -- spike in the number of infections. Except for follow the rules which is to say, put on masks and get vaccinated and the rest of it.

One of the things you see, this morning all around, people wearing masks on the streets again. As you mentioned, this hasn't been seen since back in June when that mask mandate was dropped. That was a mandate that started beginning of last year. So once again it's returned to the same kind of thing where you're seeing at the beginning of last year.

It's a kind of thing that is kind of taking place all over Europe. European countries you mentioned, Greece, for example, they're going to be closing restaurants and bars at midnight. There's also restrictions on the number of people that can be around a table, and how many people have to be around a table as opposed to standing. In Austria, perhaps one of the most severe places in terms of regulations around Europe, they're going to close the bars and restaurants two hours before midnight -- Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, obviously, we thought these restrictions would be a thing of the past. They are not. Jim Bittermann there covering all of it for us. Appreciate it.

Simon Clarke is an associate professor in cellular microbiology University of Redding and he joins me now. Listen, not that long ago we were still being told that this would now become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. That is not turning out to be true, and the main problem is infection. That many people are susceptible to this virus even if it does not make them severely ill. When you look at these case counts, they're absolutely breathtaking. What is it about this variant that now seems to have made it one of the most infectious viruses we have ever seen?

SIMON CLARKE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN CELLULAR MICROBIOLOGY UNIVERSITY OF REDDING: Well, strictly speaking what we're seeing is the ability of this variant to grow its numbers of infections very quickly. We don't actually know for sure, that it's more effective at jumping from person to person. So exactly why we're seeing this, this -- this very rapid increase. What is it about the biology of this particular variant, I think we're still not sure about? We don't really know. It might just be that it grows in number very quickly in people. I think we've seen evidence of that in the lab.

But it is entirely possible that it's just more effective at jumping from person to person, and that could be all sorts of reasons. Maybe the dose that causes the infection needs to be lower? Maybe it hangs around in the environment a bit longer? There are all sorts of reasons why it could be.


NEWTON: You know, in many jurisdictions they're struggling really even to diagnose the cases. Whether it's rapid tests, PCRs it really is tough to know at this point. Especially when you look at that statistic we just cited in the U.K., that perhaps, you know, 75 percent of everyone who's gotten the sniffles likely has COVID. You know, are we throwing in the towel on testing, contact tracing? And if we are, what are the consequences of that?

CLARKE: Well, if we can't do accurate testing -- and I think in the U.K. at least, we are in a situation where the system has become saturated and cannot cope. Then really, the numbers almost become meaningless. We'll get in this country, at least, some newspapers, hang flags out and say that the infections have peak. They aren't going up anymore. When in fact what we may well be seeing is just inability to test those people. So, in fact, the numbers could stilling going up. It could be going up by quite a lot and we won't know about it. So, this sort of losing control of the system means we don't have accurate data.

NEWTON: Yes, kind of flying blind if you will. You know, there is preliminary research, and it is preliminary, that indicates Omicron will replace the Delta variant as the dominant variant. Now, given that -- and I know that this is also preliminary -- that it does seem to lead to less severe consequences. In your opinion, could this epic wave of infections actually usher in a virus that is weaker and less dangerous and will remain that way?

CLARKE: Well, all throughout this, for nearly two years, I've been hearing how this is going to happen. How this is inevitable and how what happens with viruses. I've even heard that it's the definition of viruses. It's absolutely not. It's something that can happen. Virus ability to cause disease can go up as well as down. The idea that we're heading in one direction and that it will not turn around or cannot turn around and become more disease-causing in some respect, is nonsense.

They can happen in either direction, and I fear it probably will. It is not inevitable that this it thing will become some sort of common cold. In fact, we have no evidence the previous common colds we have cause diseases like this so I don't see why we would expect it to be the case here.

NEWTON: And I don't have a lot of time but really want to ask you this. In South Africa right now we saw that steady climb of cases and now it's starting to go down quite rapidly. Is there any sense that could also happen in other countries?

CLARKE: Well, that could happen, yes. But South Africa has a younger population than places like the U.K. and of course, they are in they are in their late spring, early summer, whereas we are in winter. So, it's possible but we don't know what the circumstances governing this are. I mean, it may be a different type, a different picture here.

NEWTON: OK, Simon CLARKE, a lot of good information there. I wish it was a little bit better news. Happy New Year to you and yours.

CLARKE: Happy New Year to you, too.

NEWTON: Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

NEWTON: Now, we will have more coverage from around the world a bit later in this hour. CNN's Steven Jiang is live China, where 13 million people at this hour have spent more than a week under strict lockdown after an outbreak in the city of Xi'an. And our Scott McLean takes us inside the American factories trying to make the United States a PPE powerhouse. That's all ahead.

We go to Colorado now and a life-threatens situation as wildfires destroy hundreds of homes. Thousands of people in Boulder County, forced to leave as the flames close in. Some have now been able to return though. That's good news. At least six people, though, have been injured. The flames seemingly came out of nowhere spreading quite quickly, driven by tinder dry air and hurricane-force winds.

Here's what it looks like from the air. A passenger flying out of Denver International Airport captured this view from the airplane. Isn't that just terrifying? When you look at it from there. Now, this is the view from Broomfield Police Department. Patrol officers showing a line of homes engulfed in the flames in the town of Superior.

On the departments Facebook page, they wrote: our thoughts are with our neighbors tonight who lost their homes and businesses. We continue to assist our law enforcement and fire partners as necessary.

And we want to go right now to CNN meteorologist Gene Norman who has the latest for us. It just came up so quickly. When I was looking at some of the posts on social media, I mean, People really had to leave in a panic and you can see why, with over 500,000 homes destroyed.

GENE NORMAN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Exactly, Paula. And you know, this really speaks to the strength of wind. We talked about how these were hurricane-force winds. Well, these are some of the numbers. They were over 100. In fact, one of them 115. That's the same as a category 3 hurricane.


Just wrap your head around that for a second, and this speaks to how quickly those flames once they develop, raced across areas, as you said, people had very little time to get themselves to a safe place or to try to get out of harm's way. These winds came racing out of the mountains, much the same way the Santa Ana winds do. And when they reached the foothills, they were accelerating, and that's the reason why they were so fast.

Also dealing with drought conditions in the state of Colorado. The entire state under drought. Think about that. 100 percent under drought. The areas of Red, Denver, Boulder, in some of the highest levels of drought. Denver didn't get snow until December 10th and only 3/10 of an inch and the last six months they've had just over an inch of precipitation overall. So, it was bone dry and that allowed these conditions. A perfect storm, if you will, to let the fires spread once they began to get going.

Now as far as the winds, they will begin to die down. Watch the areas of Red, this is the forecast. And what will happen? They disappear. That's good news, but right on their heels, we've got snow moving in. And is going to be a weather whiplash for people in the Denver area.

Watch the flakes starting to fly out to the West, and this weather system coming out of the Rockies is already dumping heavy snow in Salt Lake City. The snow will start to arrive in the Denver-Boulder area about let's say 9:00, 10:00 their time and it will continue right on into early Saturday morning. How much will they get? Anywhere from four to ten inches in Boulder and perhaps at least that much in Denver, over a foot further out to the west in the mountains. And talk about how wet weather looked like, Paula. 44 in Denver today.

They'll 36 in the morning before dropping to 5 degrees by early on Saturday. It's just incredible to see all of these rapid changes in the weather.

NEWTON: Yes, and those changes proving to unfortunately be dangerous. Gene Norman, thank you. Appreciate it.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency, meantime, because of those fast-moving wildfires. At least 1,600 acres have been burned so far in populace areas.


GOV. JERED POLIS, (D) COLORADO: This area for those who don't know this area of Boulder County is right in and around suburban subdevelopments, stores. It's like the neighborhood that you live in. It's like the neighborhood that any of us live in. And so, 1,600 acres near a population center can be and is in this case absolutely devastating.


NEWTON: Yes, and he's right about that. I mean, think about it. Over 500 homes already destroyed and thousands of residents fleeing in a hurry. Now, Tinder-dry conditions and hurricane-force winds fed the flames, of course, as Norman was saying. The National Weather Service clocked gusts up to 150 miles per hour. Boulder County Emergency Services says this weather is unusual for this time of year.


SARAH HUNTLEY, BOULDER COUNTY EMERGENCY OPS CENTER SPOKESPERSON (via phone): It's very concerning. You have very dry conditions here, and today, as you mentioned, we've had hurricane-force winds. So, any fire that sparks and spreads incredibly quickly. What's unusual about this fire is, if it spreads very quickly, it's a very populated areas. We know we have probably hundreds of homes and businesses that have been consumed by fire. Come after damage the assessment with the situation being as volatile as it is, and we are encouraging anybody in harm's way to evacuate to nearby evacuation centers.


NEWTON: Now the good news here. Winds are not as strong as they were just a few hours ago, and heavy snow is forecast to roll in, which will hopefully help douse those flames. And we will continue to have coverage for you on those Colorado fires in the next hour.

Now, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin lay out their positions in a high- stakes phone call just weeks before both nations hold diplomatic talks over the crisis in Ukraine. We'll have details ahead.

Plus, the Supreme Court could decide a major case on presidential authority. The latest in the fight to release hundreds of White House documents related to the January 6th Capitol insurrection. [04:20:00]


NEWTON: Now, against the backdrop of Russian forces massing along the Ukrainian border, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart for nearly an hour Thursday. And that was at Vladimir Putin's request. Both sides appeared to stick with the positions on Ukraine that they've already stated publicly. But it did allow the two leaders to speak one-on-one ahead of high-level diplomatic talks next month in Geneva.

CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson is standing by for us in Moscow. Nic, you know, as usual the dueling readouts really didn't say much. Neither described any real progress. But do you think both sides at least now have a clearer picture of how they can get to some kind of common ground or resolution?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: That does seem to be an understanding, at least on the U.S. side, that -- and this is the readout from the U.S. side -- that both sides think that there are areas of commonality, where perhaps agreement can be made. But there'll be areas where there will be some disagreement.

And the key to sort of answering what happens next is, what are those areas of disagreement? Because Putin is looking for this absolute clarity about NATO's intentions for Ukraine.

You know, President Biden laid out the scenario of de-escalate, and we can continue and have a productive diplomatic track. That diplomatic track is open, but the entry level for that is de-escalation. And the alternative to de-escalation is -- is sanctions. Military, economic, financial. That's the Kremlin's readout. They heard that message loud and clear.

But Putin's response to that was, OK, you put those sanctions on us and that's going to cause a huge rupture in bilateral relations. It'll be calamities for both nations will be felt for generations. And when it comes to de-escalation, from Russia's perspective, they said, look, we will do with our troopers what the United States would do with U.S. troops if Russia was close to the U.S. border.


So, there's no indication that either side is backing down at all here.

NEWTON: Yes, and it does seem as if the solution is further in the offing, and that they will continue talking. I want to ask you, though. Putin normally on this kind of an issue have the backing of a majority of Russians. How are the latest developments playing there?

ROBERTSON: Putin has huge influence over the Russian media, and therefore, perceptions in Russia, of what Russia is trying to achieve, of what he's trying to achieve, and he's also been able and has demonstrated that very recently, to sort of crush, you know, human rights groups. To crush their voices if you will. To stifle the voices of opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny.

So there really isn't, you know, an alternate loud voice on the streets of Russia to say, hey, president Putin, you're getting this wrong. And I think we have an echo of that today. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, hugely influential and experienced diplomat speaking to Russians state media today. Saying, we're not going to allow these talks with NATO and the United States to drag on. We're not going to essentially let them sort of filibuster this out.

So, Russia's absolutely keeping up the pressure and absolutely keeping up the narrative at home -- and this was another thing that Sergey Lavrov said to state media again today, that it's the West that's the aggressor here. It's the West that's increasing its troop presence in Ukraine and we have to do something about it. So, you know, that's the dominant message here.

NEWTON: It is a message that does resonate with many Russians there. Nic Robertson in Moscow, thank you for that.

And now to the investigation into the January 6th Capitol insurrection. The House of Representatives has asked the Supreme Court to allow the release of hundreds of White House documents. Former President Trump has been trying to keep secret more than 700 pages related to that day. The Supreme Court as yet to respond in the case. CNN's justice correspondent Jessica Schneider has the latest on that.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is now a waiting game to see how the Supreme Court will handle the request from former President Trump to take up his case to keep his White House records secret and out of the hands of the January 6th Select Committee.

Lawyers for the committee and for the Biden administration filed their replies on Thursday urging the Supreme Court to reject the case and allow Trump's record handed over. House citing what they're calling their overwhelming need to get more than 700 pages of White House records. They're saying their interests should outweigh the former president's interests, especially because the current president, Joe Biden, also favors handing over the documents to the committee.

Of course, two lower courts have ruled against Trump, but those documents are still being blocked from the committee. That's pending the Supreme Court's decision on whether they'll even hear Trump's case.

The documents would be significant to the investigation. They contain call logs, visitor logs from the White House on and around January 6th. Plus, drafts of speeches and handwritten notes that could provide some insight into how the former president was reacting during the Capitol attack.

Lawyers for the House Committee are asking the Supreme Court to decide quickly, by mid-January, on whether they'll even hear the case, or possibly grant Trump's request to keep blocking those documents. But so far, no word from the Supreme Court on just how quickly they might make a decision.

Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.


NEWTON: Now the situation in Xi'an China is growing more urgent as the city remains in strict lockdown. People going desperate just to get basic provisions. We'll have a live report from Beijing justified ahead.

Plus, an exclusive report on a push to make the U.S. a little more self-reliant when it comes to protective gear like masks and gloves.