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President Biden Speaks Out on COVID Surge. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 04, 2022 - 14:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota.

At any moment, President Biden will lay out his latest plan to tackle the rapid explosion of coronavirus cases, the U.S. breaking its daily case count record every day for the last week.

We are now averaging almost half-a-million new infections a day. The CDC reports more than 95 percent of those cases are the Omicron variant.

BLACKWELL: And we're just getting this in, that U.S. COVID hospitalizations have now surpassed the peak seen from the Delta variant. That was in September.

Nearly 113,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID. A large number of infections has forced everything from schools to airlines, hospitals to cut back or modify services.

CNN's Alexandra Field explains.


ERIC ADAMS (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: We cannot feed into hysteria. This is traumatizing our children.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In an unprecedented COVID surge, New York City's new mayor insisting schools really are the safest place for children.

ADAMS: I need my cities to open. And we have to be safe. We have to double down on vaccinations and booster shots. We have to double down on testing. But we have to reshape our thinking of, how do we live with COVID?

FIELD: The vast majority of schools throughout the country are pressing on and keeping students in the classroom.

DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: What we have learned over the past two years is that there's significant risk keeping children out of school, risks in terms of not just educational learning, but socialization and mental health and all kinds of things that are really, really important.

FIELD: But according to the data company Burbio, more than 3,200 schools are going remote or delaying returns from winter break. L.A. Unified School District the latest to push back its start date by one day and require proof of a negative test.

In Chicago, the powerful teachers union is threatening a walkout over decisions to bring students back to the classroom.

STACY DAVIS GATES, VICE PRESIDENT, CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION: Contact tracing and vaccination efforts by her administration have been an abject failure. Only 30 percent of our elementary school students are vaccinated. Only 50 percent of our high school students are vaccinated.

FIELD: Across the country, pediatric hospitalizations are still rare, but now at a record high, spurring questions over whether children are being hospitalized for COVID or with COVID, as well as questions about the impact of Omicron on children.

DR. EDITH BRACHO-SANCHEZ, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IRVING MEDICAL CENTER: Now, did those children show up because they had a broken leg or a broken arm and then happen to test positive for COVID, vs. did they show up because they had trouble breathing because of COVID-19?

I think we would be foolish to keep minimizing COVID-19 in children at this point in the pandemic.

FIELD: Hospitalizations nationwide again surpassing the 100,000 mark. The surgeon general says vaccines and boosters are proving extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: When I talk to doctors in the emergency room and my colleagues who are in hospitals around the country, they continue to emphasize it the people they are seeing who are hospitalized are primarily those who are not vaccinated.

FIELD: The sheer volume of cases coming with dire consequences, one in five hospitals with an ICU -- that's more than 700 hospitals -- reporting that at least 95 percent of ICU beds were full last week, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In Massachusetts, doctors and nurses are sounding alarm bells with an urgent appeal: We are overwhelmed. Your emergency departments are at a breaking point.

The strain on testing continues to be a problem too, Ohio turning to its National Guard for help, while Florida's surgeon general offers a new approach, what he calls high-value testing, prioritizing those most at risk.


FIELD: And, Alisyn and Victor, Israel has started giving forth shots, boosters, to people who are 60 and up, as well as health care workers.

Now a new preliminary study out of Israel shows that that fourth shot of a Pfizer vaccine can improve antibodies fivefold within the space of a week. Seems to support the policy that's being rolled out in Israel. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the struggle continues to get more adults to get a first course of vaccine, children as well, who still remain the least vaccinated age group, even in the face of what we're seeing are major consequences across the country -- Alisyn, Victor.

CAMEROTA: Alexandra Field, thank you.

So President Biden plans to meet with his COVID response team soon. A source says that the CDC plans to update their guidance on that shortened isolation period for people who test positive for COVID.

BLACKWELL: But some experts say a negative test should also be required to end isolation.

CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins joins us now.


So, what do we expect to hear from the president?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's going to talk about just an update generally on Omicron.

I wouldn't expect a ton of new, though we did just hear from the White House that he is going to say that they have doubled their purchase of that Pfizer anti-COVID pill. Of course, that's the one that got the authorization from the FDA last week.

It is very significant, because it can be -- it can make a real difference in treating coronavirus and responding to patients who obviously get it. However, we should add that Dr. Anthony Fauci did tell CNN last week, when it was still those 10 million courses that they had ordered -- now it's 20 million courses -- that this is something that's going to take months before it's widely available, because it is so complicated.

It's this multistep synthetic process to create this antiviral pill. So we should note that that is something, a word of caution, essentially, that it is something good, it is something significant, but it will take a while before you see it widely available for treatment.

But Victor and Alisyn, overall, you're going to hear from President Biden just an update on the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, and, of course, as it's coming alongside these other issues, number one being what Alex just laid out there, the nationwide shortage of testing.

And so some big questions for the White House are about this new plan to distribute half-a-billion tests for free to people who sign up for them online. Right now, that is a Web site that's not available. And it's not clear yet which companies are making those tests or how quickly that's going to ship. Those are big questions, because health experts have said right now is really the critical period when it comes to testing and making sure you can get tested.

That is something that has been in short supply. I think the other thing that President Biden will be asked about if he does take questions here at this event in a few moments, this briefing with his top COVID officials, is about the CDC guidance.

And we know that change is imminent. They're going to be some big questions about it. Does it include now a recommendation to take a rapid test after those five days? That's what a lot of officials wanted to see. That remains to be seen, Victor and Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: All right, Kaitlan Collins.

Of course, we will bring those remarks live when they happen.

Thank you so much.

Listen, we're just getting this in from the American Academy of Pediatrics that there have been an alarming increase -- or has been an alarming increase in new COVID-19 cases in children, close to 64 percent over the prior week.

Let's talk now about this and more with pediatrician and scientist Dr. Ofer Levy, director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children's Hospital, also a member of the FDA's Vaccine Advisory Committee, perfect person to have on all these questions.

Let's start with this increase in hospitalization of children. We heard from a hospital official in Texas that it's not incidental diagnoses for many of these children. They come in with a broken leg, and then they're diagnosed. The main cause for them is COVID hospitalizations.

Is there something unique about Omicron or specifically about the vulnerability of children that's leading to this increase that we're seeing?


It's a remarkable time. January is shaping up as a very challenging month. Omicron is really raging across the country. And as your lead- in piece illustrates, children are getting infected as well. Now, thankfully, most of those children are getting mild disease, but some of them are getting more serious infection and are showing up in emergency departments.

And, as you illustrate, some are even being hospitalized. The risk is, of course, going to be greatest with children with comorbidities or immune deficiency of various sorts. But, as you illustrate, some other children as well are getting hospitalized.

This is a delicate time in the pandemic. And that's why it's busy times at FDA and CDC to make available the tools, the vaccines and other tools, to try to protect children as well.

CAMEROTA: Well, speaking of making the vaccines available, why aren't they available yet for children under 5? I mean, all of us remember getting our childhood vaccines, the measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, before we were 5 years old. Why is this one different?

LEVY: Well, the currently approved platform is a new platform, the messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines.

We now have a lot of experience with this platform in adults, as you know, millions and millions of doses given, and they have marched down in age, age de-escalation, as you remember, initially, 16 years and up, and then the next group down, 15 -- 12 to 15 years old.

And FDA just reviewed real-world data from Israel, and for over 6,000 children, and now recommends boosters in that group as well. And then, for the 5 to 11 years of age, as they went down to that age, Alisyn, they felt the need, Pfizer, to go to a lower dose. They want to emphasize safety in the youngest children, make sure that we don't get any untoward safety events.

So that dose was a quite a low dose. And as they went under 5 years of age, that low dose was not producing the antibody response that was hoped for. So, now they're going to study a three-dose series in those younger kids less than 5.


So those studies are ongoing. And we look forward and would welcome these data. But we're not there yet for a vaccine in those less than 5 years of age.

BLACKWELL: So what's the timeline for that for that group less than 5? Are we talking a month, three months, six months until those kids can be vaccinated?

LEVY: Right.

I don't know precisely. My impression is that we're still months away, not days, not weeks, but months away from the sponsor, in this case, Pfizer, having the data, which they then submit to FDA, and then FDA will make a determination whether the data justifies convening a an advisory panel meeting to discuss that and consider authorization.

CAMEROTA: Dr. Levy, we have a graph, and this needs to be updated because, as Victor just reported, we have now seen this big spike in kids and hospitalizations.

But the latest graph that we had of coronavirus hospitalizations in minors shows this obviously really dramatic upswing here. Are kids having the same symptoms that adults were in terms of loss of taste and smell, in terms of difficulty breathing, not getting enough oxygen, or is it different somehow in kids?

LEVY: Thank you for that. Those studies are still ongoing. Our impression is that children can president with fever, with runny nose, cough, sore throat, and body aches, so similar symptoms to those that adults can develop, and, yes, in some children some loss of sense of smell.

Thankfully, over time, that loss of sense of smell usually returns. Sometimes, it takes weeks or months to come back, but it does come back in nearly everyone. Rarely, in less than 1 percent of children with coronavirus, there's a Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in children, or MIS-C.

This is rare, less than 1 percent of kids, but they can present with bloodshot eyes, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and rash. That's a rare case.

CAMEROTA: Dr. Ofer Levy, thank you very much for all the information. We really appreciate it.

We're going to go now to the president.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The admiral is in the house.


BIDEN: Well, since we're more than 10 feet apart while we're speaking, we're going to take our masks off.

And let me begin by saying, good afternoon to my team, good afternoon to the press, good afternoon to anyone who may be listening.

I'm about to receive a briefing from our COVID-19 team. But, before I begin, I know there's a concern and some considerable confusion about the rising cases, so let me provide a quick update and talk about three specific topics.

And I will give it to you straight, as I promised you I always would. We're going to see, as you all have been hearing, continued rise in cases. Omicron is very transmissible, transmissible variant, but much different than anything we have seen before.

And -- but you can protect yourself. And you should protect yourself, quite frankly. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. There's plenty of booster shots. Wear a mask while you're in public, because what we know is this. The impact from a rise in cases depends on the effect on the person based on whether that person -- what their vaccination status is.

You can control how big an impact Omicron is going to have on your health if you get Omicron. You know, those that are fully vaccinated, especially those with the booster shots -- and, by the way, we have booster shots for the whole nation, OK?

We -- you can still get COVID, but it's highly unlikely, very unlikely that you will become seriously ill. And we're seeing COVID-19 cases among vaccinated in workplaces across America, including here at the White House.

But if you're vaccinated and boosted, you are highly protected. You know, be concerned about Omicron, but don't be alarmed.

But if you're unvaccinated, you have some reason to be alarmed. Many of you will -- you will experience severe illness in many cases if you get COVID-19 if you're not vaccinated. Some will die, needlessly die.

Unvaccinated are taking up hospital beds and crowding emergency rooms and intensive care units. And that's displacing other people who need access to those hospitals.

So, please, please, please get vaccinated now. We have reduced the number of American adults without any shots from 90 million to about 35 million in the past six months, but there's still 35 million people not vaccinated.

And let me be absolutely clear. We have in hand all the vaccines we need to get every American fully vaccinated, including the booster shot. So there's no excuse, no excuse for anyone being unvaccinated.


This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. So, we have got to make more progress. And for patients who still haven't gotten your kids vaccinated, please get them vaccinated. Look out for their interests here. It's the best way to protect them.

And for parents with kids too young to be vaccinated, surround your kids with people who are vaccinated. And make sure you're masking in public, so you don't get COVID and give it to your kids.

Look, we have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants. We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That's why I believe schools should remain open. You know, they have what they need, because, with the American Rescue Plan with the first month we were in office, or second month, that I signed in March, we provided the states with $130 billion with a B, billion dollars, to specifically keep our students safe and schools open.

Funding for ventilation, ventilation systems in the schools, social distancing classrooms, even larger classrooms, on buses and everything from bus drivers to buses, to the actual bus. There were an additional -- in all this process, we also back then included an additional $10 billion for testing for schools.

That money went out to the states. And the states and the school districts have spent this money well, many of them. But, unfortunately, some haven't. So I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding that you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.

Countries across the world are seeing rising cases. Here in the United States, our team has been working around the clock during the holiday weeks. And the last two weeks, we have developed hundreds of military -- we have deployed, I should say, hundreds of military doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals in our states that are overrun and overworked because of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients primarily.

The Federal Emergency Management association -- Agency, FEMA, is also working at our direction in every state on hospital capacity, including whether they need beds. I have directed FEMA to be ready to provide emergency hospital beds wherever and whenever they're needed.

The federal government will be there. We have shipped nearly 2.4 million pieces of protective equipment to hospitals, from gowns to gloves, and we're doing whatever we can to protect communities from the surge of hospital cases that -- are likely to see from the unvaccinated population.

Look, now, let me address three specific updates before I get my full brief from my team.

First, booster shots. I know, Dr. Fauci, I'm like an echo chamber here, OK? I know it. But repeating myself, but Dr. Fauci said it very clearly. Booster shots work. They significantly increase the protection. They provide the highest level of protection against Omicron.

Americans, we have given out over 70 million booster shots. Importantly, two out of three eligible seniors have received their booster shots. Booster shots are free, they're safe and available over 90 -- in over -- at over 90,000 vaccination sites. Let me say that again. They're free, available and at over 90,000 sites.

We have added sites, added hours, added appointments, added walk-in capacity. We have booster shots for every American in the country. It's easier than ever to get a booster shot, and more importantly than ever as it's been.

Look, the FDA has also now authorized booster shots for children ages 12 to 15. So, with the final approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, young people, when that occurs, young people ages 12 to 15 will be able to get booster shots later this week.

Second, on testing, I know this remains frustrating, believe me. It's frustrating to me. But we're making improvements. In the last two weeks, we have stood up federal testing sites all over the country. And we're adding more each and every day.

Google COVID test near me. Go there. Google -- excuse me -- COVID test near me on Google to find the nearest site where you can get a test most often and free.


Look, with more capacity for in-person tests, we should see waiting lines shorten and more appointments freed up. Look, if you want to test yourself at home, we have three options now. One, drugstores and online Web sites are restocking. Two -- well, actually, so, the more tests are available or going to continue to become available. Next week, our requirement that your insurance company reimburse you

for at-home tests take effect, so you don't have to -- you will get reimbursed. So, if you're insured, you can buy the test, then get paid for it.

The second thing I want to mention is, many states and local governments and health care providers are passing out free at-home tests that you can pick up. Just find out where they are.

And, finally, as I announced recently, the federal government is launching a Web site this month where you can get tests shipped to your home for free upon your request. The third point I'd like to speak about is -- also is on treatments.

For those at high risk who do get COVID-19, we now have a new Pfizer pill that greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death. I'm pleased to say that, on Christmas Eve, we shipped out the first batch of these pills that we received, we purchased and received.

And more will be shipped this week. We're already -- they're already saving lives. But due to complex chemistry of the pills to make the pill, it takes months, literally, to make a pill. But production is in full swing. The United States has more pills than any other country in the world, and our supply is going to ramp up over the coming months, as more of these pills are manufactured.

Today, I'm directing my team to work with Pfizer to double our order from 10 million to 20 million treatment courses to be delivered in the months ahead. We may need even more. That's the estimate we need right now.

We have already placed the largest order in the world. Now I'm doubling that order. These pills are going to dramatically decrease hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. They're a game-changer, and have the potential to dramatically alter the impact of COVID-19, the impact it's had on this country and our people.

Look, let me conclude with a quick recap. If you are vaccinated and boosted, you may get COVID, but you are highly protected against severe illness. Schools can and should be open this winter. We have all the tools to keep kids safe.

Unvaccinated kids are at risk, yet the vaccinated are going to have the best way to protect them. Get vaccinated. If you're vaccinated, get boosted.

Folks, I know we're all tired and frustrated about the pandemic. These coming weeks are going to be challenging. Please wear your mask in public to protect yourself and others. We're going to get through this. We're going to get through it together. We have the tools to protect people from severe illness due to Omicron, if people choose to use the tools.

We have the medicines coming along that can save so many lives and dramatically reduce the impact that COVID has had on our country. There's a lot of reason to be hopeful in 2020, but, for God's sake, please take advantage of what's available, please. You're going to save lives, maybe yours, maybe your child's.

Please take advantage of what we already have, OK?

So, thank you.

Now I'm going to get this briefing started. Thank you very much.



It does not sound like the president is going to take any questions right now from the journalists.

So back with us, until we get an update from his COVID response team, we have CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins and Dr. Ofer Levy, the director of Precision Vaccine Program at Boston Children's Hospital.

Thank you both for sticking around.

Kaitlan, so the president just was underscoring, I think, his overarching message, which is, we have the tools to stay alive through this and manage our way through this. He begged people, get boosted. That makes it highly unlikely for you to get very sick or hospitalized or die.


What else did you hear there?

COLLINS: Yes, he was saying he feels like an echo chamber talking about booster shots at this point, because so often he has touted how booster shots work, how effective they are, the point of getting them and what they will do to protect you.

And he said, once again, he is telling people to get a booster shot, talking about who was eligible, talking about the decision that we are waiting for from the CDC director, which is signing off on the FDA's authorization of booster shots for people who are 12 to 15.

Those are people who can already go ahead and get two doses. But so far, they have not been able to get a third shot, but the FDA has authorized it for a Pfizer shot a third shot. Right now, we're still waiting on a final approval from the CDC. So that is not something that they can get yet.

That's something that the president was noting there. He also talked about something that is frustrating Americans everywhere and something that the president says is frustrating himself. And that is the nationwide shortage of rapid tests. And the president said that he believes that stores are starting to get them back in stock and able to send them if you buy them online.

And he believes that something that's going to be ramping up soon. But there are still big questions, of course, about when exactly you're going to be able to walk into any drugstore on the corner and get a rapid test.

I'm sure, Victor and Alisyn, you know in New York, here in Washington, D.C., in many parts of the country and including when I was home in Alabama recently, it's very difficult to get a rapid test at a drugstore. And so that is something that they're working on.

And one timeline update that the president did offer there is he said next week is when that rule is going to go into effect requiring private insurance companies to reimburse you for the cost of those tests, because, when you can get your hands on one, they're pretty expensive. Sometimes, they can be $25 for two of them, the prices vary. But the cost can really add up if you're taking these rapid tests pretty often, which a lot of doctors have said is something that you should be doing right now, especially with the spread of Omicron.

However, I should note, when it comes to this rule going into effect, we're still waiting on some of the details of it. But you will have to file a claim with your insurance company if you have private insurance to get your money back for those rapid tests.

So it's not just a simple process where they're free or basically free. You still are going to have to file that claim. However, it is still notable you will be able to get reimbursed for it.

The one other thing I want to note really quickly is the president talking about ramping up what their purchase of this Pfizer anti-COVID pill -- this is an antiviral pill that you will be able to take to help with COVID treatment. Of course, testing will be critical to taking that, because you got to find out you have COVID and take it pretty quickly on to take that pill.

But we should note that officials, including Dr. Fauci, have said it will be months before that is a pill that's widely available, because it is so complicated to make. It is a synthetic process. It is multistep. And so, yes, it is great news, because that is something that will change the way we respond to COVID.

But it will take some time before it's widely available.

BLACKWELL: Dr. Levy, let me come to you on the point about schools that the president made. He said that kids must stay in school, talked about some of the investments that were made to try to keep schools open

But you know that there is a fight across this country on whether schools can stay open. Thousands of them have delayed or gone virtual for a short period as school resumes after the holiday break.

So what do you say to those, let's say the teachers union in Chicago that says they're going to vote today if they should return to virtual learning, because they don't believe they have all of the things that the president listed there to keep schools open and safe?

LEVY: Thank you for that, Victor, and a critical question.

Look, there's no doubt it's a major challenge to conduct business, health care and education at the height of a pandemic. Fortunately, although Omicron is serious, it's not as severe as the prior waves. And there are more tools available than ever, as President Biden just outlined.

So my message to the teachers union is, do all you can to avail yourself of those tools, but let's not lose sight of the mission, the critical mission of educating the next generation of Americans. It is so important, as a pediatrician, I will say and as a father of three, the psychological and emotional well-being of our children to attend school.

There are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, CDC, on safe opening of schools, and with the tools the president described, it should be possible to keep -- stay open and continue that critical mission.

BLACKWELL: All right, Dr. Ofer Levy, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

LEVY: Thank you all.

CAMEROTA: All right, now to this, this traffic nightmare on I-95 in Virginia, drivers stuck for hours and hours.

We're going to talk to a truck driver who decided to make breakfast for some strangers in nearby cars and how they responded.

BLACKWELL: And it's been almost a year since the January 6 insurrection. Some front-line officers are talking about the traumatic toll that day continues to take on their lives.