Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

U.S. Nears 400,000 Cases A Day, Shattering Records; Airlines Cancel Thousands Of Flights Due To COVID-19 And Bad Weather; January 6th Committee Claims Firsthand Testimony On Trump During Insurrection; President Biden Set To Speak With Ukraine's President. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired January 02, 2022 - 13:00   ET



FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. There are growing concerns among U.S. health officials as the country grapples with a troubling surge of COVID cases. Daily cases are now at an all-time pandemic high, nearing 400,000 Americans infected every day. Almost every state is dealing with this rapidly spreading disease fueled largely by the Omicron variant.

The accelerated spread having far-reaching impacts on American lives. Short-staffed airlines along with winter weather forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights again today. A travel nightmare for people returning from the holidays, and parents now worrying as classes are set to resume for their children after the winter break. Several school districts, in fact, announcing they are switching to online learning to start this semester.

The White House feverishly working on plans to address and mitigate COVID's daily disruptions while acknowledging those disruptions will only get worse as the virus advances.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: So it's kind of like a very interesting, somewhat complicated issue where you have a virus that might actually be less severe in its pathogenicity, but so many people are getting infected that the net amount, the total amount of people that will require hospitalization might be up. So we can't be complacent in these reports which are likely accurate that it is ultimately in the big picture less severe, we're still going to get a lot of hospitalizations.

CNN's Polo Sandoval and Ryan Young are monitoring the situation.

Polo, you first. You're in New York which just set a new record for daily cases. What more can you tell us?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, no mistake that the general trend shows no signs of slowing here in New York state as the governor's office announced that yet again we have set a daily record in terms of the daily number of new positive COVID cases totaling roughly 85,000 yesterday alone. So that's certainly concerning for officials.

And this is happening as millions of students across the country -- of course New York no exception -- are preparing the go back to school. So this is really renewing many COVID concerns that we're all too familiar with for so many parents who are now faced with those tough decisions.

Now experts in general, they're divided when it comes to this return for several students heading back to class. Some of them just saying it just won't go well in some of those areas of high transmission like D.C. where negative tests will be required for students and staff. Like here in New York where at-home tests will go home with students and staff who test positive so that they know when it's safe to return.

The department in general -- at least the Department of Education in general, as we heard from the secretary of Education early this morning on CBS believes that there is a way for these students and staff to head back to school in the coming days if certain mitigation steps are taken.


MIGUEL CARDONA, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: The message hasn't changed. We need to make sure we're following mitigation strategies, we're supporting educators by providing a safe learning environment, we're providing vaccination for our students as young as 5 so that the whole community is safe. We need to double down now that Omicron is higher to make sure we're doing that, but it works.

You know, we went from 47 percent of our schools open in person in January of last year to 99 percent in December.


SANDOVAL: Secretary Cardona also recognizing there will be what he described as bumps in the road, Fred, as students and staff get ready to head back to school. They're already getting phone calls that there are some schools out there with 5 percent or 10 percent of their staff are available. And as you mentioned, a lot of districts, or at least several of them, are turning to virtual learning including at least five there in metro Atlanta where you are that are preparing to do just that.

WHITFIELD: All right. Polo, thank you so much.

Anxiety very high in households, at schools and at airports. Our Ryan Young is at Atlanta's airport. We're seeing thousands of new cancellations, Ryan, very frustrating for flyers trying to get back after the holidays.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fred, Happy New Year, first of all. And you think about this. You want to start the new year off on a good foot. So many people planned their holidays right around traveling back on that Sunday to get back in time for work on Monday. And of course when you add all the testing and the whole idea of some of the storms that are hitting some parts of the northeast, you understand why some of these cancellations are happening.

But at the same time, talk to a traveler who has been stuck at an airport for several days and you understand why they are upset. In fact we just walked out from talking to a husband and wife who have been stuck here in Atlanta since Thursday. They're trying to get to Sacramento. And four of their flights have been canceled. And on the way to the airport right now, their flight was canceled and they had to get rebooked to another flight later today.


So when you think about all that time they've been spending going back and forth between the airport, you can understand frustrations are pretty high. Take a look on the inside. You can see the line, especially on the Delta side. And this is multiplying itself across the country. Already today we know that more than 2100 flights have been canceled across this country, 2700-plus on Saturday.

You can think about this. In the last 10 days, 14,000-plus flights have been canceled. You add in all the frustration we've seen. You have COVID who's been taking out some of these flight crews and they've dealing with some of these situations and now the added frustration of arriving here, seeing long lines and TSA pre-check that's long, you can understand why people are ready just to get on a flight and get home -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my gosh, terribly frustrating. All right, well, pack the patience today and hopefully things will get better somewhere around the corner.

All right, thanks to both of you. Appreciate that.

All right. Let's talk more about this real reality check for all of us across the country. Joining me right now, emergency medicine physician Dr. Anand Swaminathan.

Happy New Year to you. I keep saying hopeful new year because everyone needs an uplift right now. So, I mean, the harsh reality is we are seeing cases rise to levels not seen before, largely being blamed on this Omicron variant. But so far hospitalizations and deaths have not risen at the same pace of positive infections. What are you seeing right now? How do you look at the landscape now of COVID?

DR. ANAND SWAMINATHAN, EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: When we look at the percentages, Fred. You're right, the percentages say that it's not as high a percentage of hospitalizations and deaths as with Delta or with prior variants, but it is still a large number, an absolute number because of the large absolute number of Omicron cases. And so we as a hospital are still quite overwhelmed or quite stretched thin because we have so many patients who are coming in.

I expect that today and the next couple of days going forward are going to be particularly busy as people are trying to get tests. They know they can't get tests anywhere else so they're coming to the hospital for those tests. But we're also seeing people who both have chronic illnesses that are worsened by Omicron and then we're seeing lots of people coming in pretty sick with Omicron, specifically patients who are unvaccinated.

And so we are still quite overwhelmed, we're quite stretched thin. The hospital is full, the ICU is full, and of course at the same time we've lost 20 percent, 25 percent of the overall staff in the hospital due to them getting sick and having to stay home and isolate. So it's really one of these perfect storms with all of these cases coming in and hitting the door while we don't have the resources to take care of everybody.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness. So talk to me about the fact that, yes, there are very few tests out there available in terms of what would be optimal, and so people are resorting to coming to the hospital to get tested. But then you just, you know, laid the groundwork right there that staff workers are taxed.

So what is this doing to hospitals like the ones in which you work at where people are coming in to find out if they are even positive?

SWAMINATHAN: It's a very difficult scenario. Most of the testing centers in the area, people are waiting 12, 16 hours. I've talked to many patients who said, well, I waited at a testing center for 12 hours. By the time I got to the front of the line, they said they were out of tests. So they were closing for the day. They didn't have the availability and so now they're ending up in the emergency room and they're again having to wait for long periods of time.

And emergency rooms, hospitals, we're not outfitted to do the type of testing that people need. But we also know that we're the only option they have left. And so we're doing everything we can to test as many people as we can so that they can get back to work and get back to school. They can know that they're safe to see family members. But it's very difficult and all of this really comes back to our lack of real infrastructure for the testing that we need.

We've seen all of these different efforts to increase testing, to increase pop-ups. We haven't seen those pop-up yet. And we're in the middle of a surge. And we need those, well, we need those a week ago, Fred, honestly, in order to help people out.

WHITFIELD: All right. Needed those a week ago. Meantime, a lot of schools are starting back tomorrow. There's a lot of concern in so many households. I want to play right now some sound from the former FDA commissioner and what he said this morning.


DR. SCOTT GOTTLIEB, FORMER FDA COMMISSIONER: It does appear now based on a lot of experimental evidence that we've gotten just in the last two weeks that this is a milder form of the coronavirus. It appears to be more of an upper airway disease than a lower airway disease. That's good for most Americans. The one group that that may be a problem for is very young kid, very young children, toddlers who have trouble with upper airway infections.

And this new strain could have a predilection again for the upper airway which could be a bigger challenge in young kids because of the way that it binds to the airway cells.


WHITFIELD: So help parents and families understand what that means. We're talking about the Omicron variant really affects the upper respiratory and we're talking about younger kids, particularly those under 5, you know, or maybe even those under 12 who have not been vaccinated yet but are planning on going to school.


What should, you know, the concern be and the way forward?

SWAMINATHAN: This is a concern because we are seeing much larger numbers of pediatric patients with coronavirus, much larger percentages that needed to be admitted to the hospital, even if it's just for a night just to make sure that they're safe. We're seeing a lot more of that. So what can we do? Obviously if your kid is over 5, get them vaccinated. It's still not too late. We can still do that. That still gives them a huge amount of protection.

In schools, they should be wearing masks just like everybody should be wearing masks. It's hard for the really little kids to wear masks. So if they're going to daycare, that is a setting where we know there can be quite a bit of spread of any kind of respiratory infection. And I don't know how to exactly advise on this, Fred, because people need their kids to go to school so they can go to work.

And so there's this balance of, you know, what's safe, what can I do. Hopefully schools are doing the right things by opening windows, having ventilation going on. Masking any kid who can wear masks is the next thing that we can do to help and then hopefully we see that expansion of vaccines to that younger age group coming soon to help to protect them more. Obviously that's not going to help during this current surge but hopefully that protects us down the line.

For older kids, it really is the stuff that we've been talking about. Again, getting vaccinated, ventilation in schools, and all schools should be mandating masks at this point when they're indoors. Those are the ways that we can protect our kids from getting sick.

WHITFIELD: All right, Dr. Anand Swaminathan, thanks to you. Appreciate it.

All right, still ahead, new details that Ivanka Trump herself visited President Trump on January 6th asking him to stop the violence at the Capitol. Plus, President Biden is getting ready for a critical call with Ukrainian President Zelensky today as he tries to prevent a possible Russian invasion. Much more on all of that straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: All right. This just in to CNN now. Just days ahead of the one-year marker of that insurrection, the January 6th Committee says it has critical firsthand testimony about former President Trump's words and actions during the siege on the Capitol. This was the committee's Vice Chair Liz Cheney this morning.



REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): The committee has firsthand testimony now that he was sitting in the dining room next to the Oval Office, watching the attack on television. We have firsthand testimony that his daughter Ivanka went in at least twice to ask him to please stop this violence. At the same time the violent assault was happening, he's watching television, he's also calling at least one senator urging delay of the electoral vote.


WHITFIELD: All right. I want to get straight to Melanie Zanona now on Capitol Hill.

Melanie, I mean, this certainly suggests the committee is talking to someone within the former president's inner circle. So how consequential potentially is what Congresswoman Cheney had to say this morning?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's very consequential, Fred. I mean, look, this committee has been conducting a lot of its work behind closed doors. There's also been a lot of attention on the witnesses who have not been cooperating. But clearly there are some people who are very close to Trump who are talking.

I think what's also pretty revealing about what Liz Cheney said this morning is that investigators are really zeroing in on those 187 minutes that Trump was publicly silent while his supporters breached the Capitol. And we're starting to learn a lot more about what Trump did and did not do during that window of time.

Take a listen to what Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the Select Committee, told our Dana Bash this morning.


REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): We have significant testimony that leads us to believe that the White House had been told to do something. We want to verify all of it so that when we produce our reports and when we have the hearings, the public will have an opportunity to see for themselves.


ZANONA: Now one big question facing the committee is whether that lack of action amounts to criminality in any form. Dana Bash actually pressed Bennie Thompson on this very question. He said that is still something that the committee is working to determine. But if they do feel like any criminal acts were committed, they have no problem making a criminal referral to the Department of Justice.

WHITFIELD: And then, Melanie, this investigation now is moving into a new phase with public testimony. What is it expected to look like?

ZANONA: Well, I think from a macro level, Bennie Thompson has said what they're going to try to show is where this was just a comedy of errors or whether this attack on the Capitol was indeed coordinated. And he himself said it's pretty clear that this was planned, it was not just an accident. So I think that is the story that they're going to try to tell.

And as far as witness, Bennie Thompson also revealed that they plan to haul in local and state election officials who were in charge of overseeing the 2020 election, DOJ officials who were pressured by the Trump administration as well as the National Guard troops who were eventually hauled in but it took hours to have them show up here at the Capitol on January 6th.

They could also call some of the GOP lawmakers who talked to Trump that day to come and testify. But of course, it's a big question whether they would show up voluntarily. Bennie Thompson said subpoenas are something that are on the table -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Melanie Zanona, thank you so much. Just chipping away at the tip of the iceberg now.

I want to bring in former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.

Renato, good to see you. I mean, you actually wrote just a few days ago that it's a high bar to prove that the president conspired to stop the election. So is this kind of new information potentially coming from someone within the inner circle of the former president, according to what we just heard from Congresswoman Cheney, is this enough to potentially push it over the edge into something more serious?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: You know, I don't think it's enough, but it really provides some interesting leads. If I was a prosecutor looking at this, the first thing I would do is I would subpoena that senator. I'd be very interested in what happened in that phone call because that is more like action than inaction. We talked -- you know, you talked a moment ago about inaction.

I mean, if President Trump was just eating popcorn and watching this unfold, it's absolutely reprehensible. But that would be difficult to bring a criminal case based on that. But if he's making phone calls trying to get the senators, for example, to delay certification, I mean, that's more like an active step where he's trying to help the insurrection succeed in some way.

Similarly, I think they should be talking to Ivanka Trump. Her testimony about what he said and what his mindset, you know, was would be very valuable. Now obviously she's going to probably do whatever she can not to testify, but I think that is where I would be going if I was a prosecutor.

WHITFIELD: OK. But why in your view, Renato, is inaction not enough when you're talking about the president of the United States, sworn to protect and serve the nation, and if by everyone's accounts he is simply watching on television the violence taking place, the threat to democracy, and he did not act? Why is that not enough?


MARIOTTI: Well, it's certainly a dereliction of duty. I mean, very much maybe the worst thing -- I mean, there's a lot of awful things that have been done of course in the past. But that's an awful, awful, awful act by the president to sit silently and maybe gleefully as an attack is occurring on our Capitol, but whether it's a crime, you know, in terms of charging him for the attack itself, we usually in this country, criminal law does not charge people who are merely passively watching as an attack is unfolding.

Now, he did -- you know, the argument would have to be that he had some sort of duty like -- you know, for example, if a Capitol police officer, you know, just stood by and smiled and waved as the attackers were going past him, you might have a stronger case. I mean, the argument, you know, you could try to make an argument that he was effectively aiding them by doing nothing, but it's just a very -- it's very difficult.

It would be already a difficult case to bring against anybody, but against the former president of the United States merely for not -- you know, to charge him with an attack, an assault or, you know, aiding and abetting and entering into the Capitol for just sitting there and doing nothing, I think that would be difficult.

WHITFIELD: And of course, among those allegations, too, is for the president he has the power to get the National Guard to move in and that didn't happen right away.

Yes. I think what would be -- what I think I'm most interested in, in terms of I'm interested in figuring out about what the committee is uncovering here is, what did Trump know in advance about this? I mean, did he know about this scheme? Did he know that this attack was going to occur? And, you know, for example, was that option put before him? Like, well, you can call the National Guard, and he made a deliberate decision not to do that.

You know, what evidence do we have of his state of mind. Remember in a criminal case you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, including their knowledge and intent. That's the sort of thing that I'm going to be looking for in the weeks and months ahead.

WHITFIELD: And what might this potentially mean for Trump allies also implicated in the investigation?

MARIOTTI: Yes. They have -- I think they have more to be concerned about, particularly the people who were hands-on coordinating this rally and then what we saw, of course, later, that turned into a violent attack. You know, anybody who was involved in funding that effort, in coordinating that effort, they're much more hands on.

If you're somebody on walkie-talkies with the people storming the Capitol or you funded their efforts, your knowledge and your intent is going to be much easier to establish.

WHITFIELD: All right, Renato Mariotti, always good to see you. Thank you so much. Happy New Year.

All right, today President Biden will be speaking with Ukrainian president Zelensky just days after he warned Russian president Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. The latest on the escalating situation straight ahead.



WHITFIELD: All right. Right now President Biden is preparing for a critical talk with Ukraine's president. The call is scheduled for later on this afternoon. The Ukrainian president looking for assurances from the U.S. as Russia keeps tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin says the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO is a threat to Russia.

Eva McKend is at the White House for us.

So, Eva, what do we expect from this call between Biden and the Ukrainian president?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, this call is really aimed to keep President Zelensky in the loop. President Biden expected to update him on the strategy in engaging with Russia. You know, of paramount concern is to emerge -- for the U.S. to emerge from this entire negotiation and episode with a diplomatic solution, without the invasion -- without Russia invading Ukraine.

Now, in terms of what Russia wants, Russia wants legally binding security guarantees. They want no membership for Ukraine in NATO and a rollback of military deployments in Eastern Europe.

Congressman Adam Schiff, he chairs the House Intelligence Committee, he was asked about this today, and he is very concerned about this. He believes that the threats from Vladimir Putin are not hollow and that Putin is, in fact, looking to invade Ukraine. Take a listen.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I fear that Putin is very likely to invade. I still, frankly, don't understand the full motivation for why now he's doing this. But he certainly appears intent on it, unless we can persuade him otherwise. And I think nothing other than a level of sanctions that Russia has never seen will deter him, and that's exactly what we need to do with our allies.


MCKEND: Now, after this call, there will be several calls this month. The principals will not be involved, so President Biden or Vladimir Putin, but high-level diplomats and these calls will be very consequential. As for the call today with the Ukrainian president and Biden, that is expected to happen about 3:00 p.m. We will keep you updated on what we learn -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Eva McKend, at the White House, thanks so much for that.

All right, let me bring in now Susan Glasser. She is a CNN global affairs analyst and staff writer at "The New Yorker." She's also a former Moscow bureau chief for the "Washington Post" and co-wrote a book called "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of the Revolution."

Susan, good to see you and Happy New Year.


WHITFIELD: Thank you. So what does the Ukrainian president need and want from the U.S. right now?

GLASSER: Well, unfortunately, you know, when you have an invasion army -- and that's what it is -- of 100,000-plus Russian troops on your border, you know, there's not -- you're never going to get enough security and the United States really isn't in a position to militarily head off an invasion. So it comes to the question of, you know, what levers, if any, does Joe Biden, the rest of NATO and Ukraine do they have on Vladimir Putin right now?

But the key thing, you know, as the correspondent just pointed out, is to keep Ukraine -- what Putin's goal here is to separate Ukraine from the West, is to show that he's negotiating superpower to superpower with Joe Biden and that the affairs of little countries like Ukraine don't matter.


So it's important for Biden to show solidarity, if nothing else, with the Ukrainians in this call.

WHITFIELD: And President Biden's talks with Putin last week, it lasted for about an hour. The meeting itself was Putin's suggestion.

What is the strategy behind why Putin reached out to President Biden to initiate this conversation?

GLASSER: Well, you know, people have spent the last two decades trying and often failing to say what does Vladimir Putin want. So I'm not going to hazard a guess as to what's in his mind.

But I will say this. You know, right now there's a big mismatch between what Vladimir Putin is demanding and what Joe Biden and NATO could possibly give him.

He's demanding things that are impossible, essentially. And so that's why you see this heightened concern from, you know, Chairman Schiff on the Intelligence Committee and other analysts that Putin really may be planning another invasion of Ukraine, because he's demanding something that's just simply unacceptable.

And so I think the concern is, you look at the messaging from Russians after the call between Biden and Putin the other day, and what they're saying is, well, you know, it would be a huge rupture in relations if the United States put new sanctions on Russia.

Well, the rupture would be if Russia invades another country, and the sanctions would come in response to that.

So it's -- again, I fear we're in a cycle where Vladimir Putin is running down a checklist of things that one might do before going forward with some kind of military action.

WHITFIELD: President Biden, you know, keeps insisting that, you know, he doesn't want to negotiate these matters in public. But this is what he said after Thursday's meeting with Putin.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D) CALIFORNIA, CHAIR OF THE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I fear that -- that Putin is very likely to invade. I still, frankly, don't understand the full motivation for why -- why now he's doing this, but he certainly appears intent on it, unless we can persuade him otherwise. And I think nothing other than a level of sanctions that Russia has never seen will deter him. And that's...



PRESIDENT JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.: I made it clear to President Putin that he -- if he makes any more moves and goes into Ukraine, we will have severe sanctions. We will increase our -- our presence in Europe with our NATO allies and there will be a heavy price to pay for it.


WHITFIELD: Now, of course, the president is saying that was the content of the conversation. Perhaps that's different from then just announcing these plans prior to the conversation.

But, I mean, does President Biden have any choice but to reveal something about what was said or how he is taking a strong stand against Russia?

GLASSER: Well, look, there are definitely much more stringent sanctions that the U.S. and its allies could impose on Russia even than were imposed in 2014 after Russia illegally annexed Crimea from the Ukrainians.

One thing that I think is really important for people is, like, Putin's stated pretext, and it is a pretext, for this military buildup is the idea that he wants to stop further NATO expansion. Well, one thing that's virtually guaranteed is, if Vladimir Putin does launch a military action of any kind in Ukraine, that there will be additional NATO presence in Eastern Europe with -- which Putin says he wants to avoid.

There's talk now that, you know, even European countries that aren't members of NATO, like Finland, you know, would be so concerned about this destabilizing action on the part of Russia that they could want to join NATO. I mean, countries will be clamoring to do so.

So Putin is almost ensuring that he would have more NATO in Eastern Europe than he has right now if he moves forward with this. And that is something that is a serious cost, and I think it's something certainly Vladimir Putin doesn't really want.

WHITFIELD: And, Susan, you recently wrote that this really is a critical time for this president as he's now about to start his second year. You wrote just this week about what a brutal start it has been for President Biden's tenure, his struggles domestically, and now, potentially, he has a chance here to score a foreign affairs victory, or at least, you know, take a stand or make a significant imprint on the global stage?

GLASSER: Well, look, I would say this. The weakening of American democracy internally has also, of course, been a blow to American prestige internationally. And Vladimir Putin and every other world leader is looking at an America divided against itself, beset by crises, you know, with a large faction in the Republican Party seemingly dedicated to, you know, the attack on democracy itself.

Today 71 percent of Republicans in the latest poll, a year after January 6th, 71 percent of Republicans say they don't consider Joe Biden the legitimate president of the United States.


Now, that is a weakening factor in international relations, too.

Would it be a victory for Joe Biden if Vladimir Putin decided to pack up his 100,000 troops and go home? Sure. It would be a victory for the world, though, not just for Joe Biden. It would be a victory for Ukraine's rule of law.

Russia, by the way, is a guarantor of Ukraine'es territorial integrity, which Vladimir Putin no longer seems to recognize this commitment that Russia made to international rule of law.

So, you know, again, I don't think it's -- it's hard to see, though, that there's a win-win situation for Joe Biden in dealing with Russia. If anything, Putin has forced himself again and again, on the agenda of Joe Biden, who came into office on a foreign policy sense of hoping to really reorient American diplomacy and geopolitics toward the -- the concerns about China and rising authoritarianism in Asia.

So, if anything, you know, this is Putin successfully pitching a fit to commandeer the world's attention.

WHITFIELD: That helps him score points. That's the way he sees it.

All right. Susan Glasser, thank you so much. Appreciate that.

All right. Still ahead, the debate over how to return to school. I'll speak with the former education secretary, Arne Duncan, about balancing the importance of in-person learning and keeping kids healthy. But first, a quick programming note, tonight Carole King and James

Taylor, and an unforgettable concert film, "Just Call Out My Name." It airs tonight at 9:00 p.m., right here on CNN.


WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. From colleges to primary schools, getting-back-to-school plans keep fluctuating. Most of the country's largest school systems are bringing students back in person in the next few days, despite a growing surge in Omicron cases.

But many schools will not be in the classroom this week.


In fact, more than 30 universities are either moving online or delaying their start dates. And over 2,000 K-12 schools are closing this week, according to Verbio. with us now, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education during closing this week according to (inaudible).

With us now, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education during the Obama administration.

Secretary Duncan, so good to see you.

So you had -- and happy new year.


ARNE DUNCAN, FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: Happy new year. Good to see you. Thanks for the opportunity.

WHITFIELD: What a way to get started.


All right. You said last month that, you know, schools should mandate vaccines. What do you see as a potential path forward to actually making that happen?

DUNCAN: Well, we've learned a lot, unfortunately, over the course of the last two years. One, obviously vaccines save lives. We know how critically important that is.

Secondly, obviously, with the upturn in cases, frequent testing is very, very important; mandating masks for children and adults in school.

I think the biggest thing we've learned over three years of disrupted school years is that virtual school is really problematic. It's problematic for kids academically. It's very problematic socially and emotionally. And whatever we can do to keep children in school learning with their teachers, with adults, building those relationships with peers, with adults and teachers who care about them, we have to try and do that as best we can. WHITFIELD: Um-hmm. But it seems as though, in so many school districts

and households, it's the concern about kids getting sick that are, you know, outweighing the concerns about whether virtual school is, you know, giving them the best educationally.

I mean, you know, it's really a matter of health. And so is it your feeling that so many school districts are just so taxed right now that they have no other choice but to resort to virtual learning?

DUNCAN: Yeah, school districts are taxed. And, again, I just continue to be so disappointed that we as adults aren't willing to make the sacrifices we need to make so that our children can be safe and go to school.

And the trauma that children have dealt with -- we've had 150,000 young kids lose parents due to COVID, parents losing jobs. It's been an extraordinarily difficult time. And our children need to be able to build healthy relationships with adults.

So I would argue -- I know everyone may not agree with me -- schools should be the last things to close. The -- the pandemic usually comes outside in. It's not being spread in schools. Schools have been very, very safe. It's being spread in the community.

And because we haven't done those things in the community to keep our kids and our adults safe, then our kids are paying a tremendous price. And I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right, particularly for our most vulnerable students, Fred, those who are, maybe are not getting meals at home and they're food insecure; maybe home's not the safest place. School serves a lot of needs beyond the academic. And I really worry about the -- the impact socially and emotionally on children continuing to miss school for now the third consecutive school year.

WHITFIELD: Last week D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that D.C. public schools will require all students and staff to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result before returning to school on Wednesday, January 5th.

But listen to what Dr. James Phillips had to say about these rapid tests.


DR. JAMES PHILLIPS, CHIEF OF DISASTER MEDICINE, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: There is absolutely no way to keep Omicron out of the schools. These antigen tests at home simply are not sensitive enough to keep Omicron out of our schools.


WHITFIELD: So do you think testing, you know, for students, is an effective solution, I mean, you know, especially if the Omicron variant seems to be, you know, escaping accuracy on those tests?

DUNCAN: Well, first of all, we know there are no perfect solutions on any of this. But we know three things. We know vaccinations are critically important. We know wearing masks are critically important. And frequent ongoing testing, whether it's weekly, every two weeks, during this real time of crisis with this, you know, tremendous spike in COVID cases, we know those three things, vaccinations, testing, wearing masks, are all critically important to maximizing the chance to keep our kids healthy and safe, which is paramount, and then keeping them in school, learning with their peers, which they desperately need as well.

WHITFIELD: Y've been speaking with superintendents around the country. What are they telling you about the biggest challenges that they're facing?

DUNCAN: Yeah, again, the real challenge of superintendents -- and they're just doing heroic work everywhere; I feel so bad for them -- is that this virus is spreading from the community into schools.

And schools have done a much better job of being disciplined, of keeping both children and adults, bus drivers, lunch -- you know, lunch workers, custodians, teachers, principals, keeping the adults and the students safe. We have not taken this seriously enough for a long, long time in our communities, and our children, again, have paid, I think, a tremendously unfair and high price because of that.

WHITFIELD: This was the education secretary, Miguel Cardona, this morning, if you'll listen.


MIGUEL CARDONA, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: We know that this Omicron came quickly, and in many districts there aren't systems set up yet.


We're working closely with those systems. We've partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to help develop contracts.

And we're seeing, in many large districts across the country, that they do have them. That, coupled with what we know is going to help, having a shorter quarantine period, we do believe our schools can remain open. We have to stay vigilant. We have to stay focused on those mitigation strategies that work. And we have to continue to work together to give our students a chance to learn in the classroom.


WHITFIELD: Is the Biden administration, in your view, spending too much time trying to strike this optimistic tone, you know, when this variant has COVID, you know, spreading even faster in households and in school systems than what we saw this time last year?

I mean, is it time for this administration to be less reactionary and more proactive?

DUNCAN: Yeah, I actually don't agree with that statement. I don't think Secretary Cardona is being overly optimistic. I think he's being very realistic. Districts are working extraordinarily hard to keep everybody safe. And he understands as well as anybody the devastating impact of children missing more school.

And you've got to think about children who are seven, eight, nine years old. They've only been to school three or four years. Every year they've had has been disrupted.

We as adults, it's tough on all of us, but you think about children where this has been their only school experience, it's not right; it's not fair. And we have to continue to be absolutely vigilant and careful and safe. Again, that's first and foremost. Nothing's more important.

But we have to continue to find ways and make sacrifices, we as adults, to make sure our children can go to school safely and learn and not continue to have the trauma of having to stay home and not be around their peers. That's a very abnormal thing for any of us, but particularly for young children.

WHITFIELD: Yeah, and it also underscores there really are no easy answers. It's been a struggle for everybody and continues to be.

DUNCAN: That's exactly right.

WHITFIELD: Former education secretary Arne Duncan, thank you so much.

DUNCAN: Thank you so much.

WHITFIELD: All right. Still ahead, the weather system that brought a rare tornado to Georgia is not over yet. Where will we see severe weather? We'll get the latest forecast, right after this.



WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. The weather forecast today has intense changes on the way from Texas to New England, heavy snow, thunderstorms and possible tornadoes all part of the mix. A wave of severe weather is moving across the country and it could impact millions of Americans.

CNN meteorologist Tyler Mauldin is live for us in the CNN Weather Center.

So, Tyler, it's supposed to be a big travel day, but folks are frustrated for a number of reasons, cancellations of flights, and now weather problems, too?

TYLER MAULDIN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, so, Fredricka, we ended 2021 with severe weather, and now we're rolling into 2022 with a powerful winter storm.

If you'll remember, we've had record-breaking heat across the Southeast but well below temperatures -- temperatures well below average up here across the North. And where those temperatures are butting heads, that's where we're

getting the active weather. So we have thunderstorms, strong thunderstorms, at that, from the panhandle of Florida all the way through the Carolinas, and that's on the warm side.

On the cold side, where the cold air is meeting up with the moisture, we're getting snowfall. In fact, there's moderate snowfall at the moment ongoing in Memphis.

As this system pushes to the east, it's got this entire area shaded in yellow, from the Carolinas down to the panhandle of Florida, under a level 2 out of 5 risk for severe weather.

As you'll notice, we have winter weather advisories, winter weather advisories as well as winter storm warnings, in effect for the Mississippi and Tennessee River Valley going up into the Appalachians, because we expect the snowfall to continue to expand as the system pushes to the east.

And notice this, Fredricka, we are going to snowfall across the Mid- Atlantic, going on into the Northeast. Depending on the track of this system, the final track, that determines how much snowfall that areas like Washington, D.C., up to New York City, could see.

But as you'll notice right there, the bulls-eye seems to be right over Delaware and southern New Jersey. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Wow, what a mess. All right. Tyler, thanks so much.

All right. Coming up, new COVID restrictions going into place tomorrow in Chicago. If you want to go out to dinner, you need to prove that you're fully vaccinated. We'll talk about that, next.



WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. With COVID cases on the rise, many cities are beginning new restrictions for the new year. Starting tomorrow, Chicago will require proof of vaccinations to enter into any indoor venues, including restaurants, bars and gyms.

Illinois has seen cases double in recent weeks. And officials say they worry about what comes next.

Joining me now is Kevin Boehm. He's a co-founder for the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the (inaudible) Restaurant Group.

Good to see you, Kevin. So happy new year.


WHITFIELD: I know, it's hard -- it's a very hard start, isn't it?

BOEHM: It is. And it seems like this is a never-ending thing. WHITFIELD: It really is.

BOEHM: So here we are, 20 months into this fight, and it's still a real struggle.

WHITFIELD: So then do most restaurateurs welcome this, then, that patrons will have to show proof of vaccination?

BOEHM: I think, at the end of the day, the requirement of vaccination cards is something we can both handle and support. And we welcome anything that will keep our guests and our team members safe.

But it is problematic for restaurants in some ways. It does cause us extra labor. People can be argumentative over it at the front door. And specifically here in Chicago, you don't want to give people extra reasons not to dine when it's 5 degrees outside.

But at the end of the day, we're happy to do our part. However, the circumstances that got us into this new regulation, the variant spread that is the problem, cost multiple staff members work in December. And we also had to cancel many holiday parties. Millions and millions of dollars of parties had to be canceled across the country. And so restaurants are here once again in a major pickle, with no current government programs.

WHITFIELD: So -- so then I wonder, you know, if you're really also saying Chicago and the restaurant business has no other recourse, because, on one hand, you want to keep all of your employees safe. You have suffered a big blow from people getting sick. And at the same time, you want business, so you need the public to be cooperative about helping to keep you all safe.

BOEHM: That -- that's all true. Now, if they go to capacity limitations, that's the death sentence that caused 100,000 restaurants to close.

And there's a solution to all of this. The Independent Restaurant Coalition is 100,000 members strong. And we speak to restaurants all the time who are on the verge of closing. And the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was already designed. It just needs to be refilled.

We -- we asked -- we asked for $120 billion originally. We received $28.6 billion. There's 177,000 restaurants who never got support. So I think what restaurants want is just fair reciprocity. They want to say, "Hey, we're going to do our part; we're going to make it as safe as possible, but help us on the other hand so it doesn't kill our business and at the same time lose jobs for all these hard-working people."

WHITFIELD: So you're needing more federal assistance. You've said that 86 percent of the restaurants are in danger of -- of closing. And -- and Congress...

BOEHM: Yes. WHITFIELD: ... needs to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund established by the American Rescue Plan. And I know you, too, have been working really hard to ensure the safety of your customers. But, you know, those safety measures come with a cost.

You know, prices...

BOEHM: They do.

WHITFIELD: ... for just about everything, right, has been going up. So how much of a role has that played, too, in your current situation?

BOEHM: Well, yeah. I mean, everything's difficult right now. First of all, the restaurant business was already difficult.



BOEHM: It's like the hardest business in the world.