Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

President Biden Speaks Out on COVID Surge; Interview With Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 04, 2022 - 15:00   ET



SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): And that's what made the -- that's what made this so challenging.

I didn't find the roads that challenging to drive on. But as soon as somebody has an accident, a semitrailer jackknifes, cuts off a couple of lanes, somebody runs out of gas, which is going to happen if you're stuck between exits for five or six hours, people are going to run out of gas.


KAINE: And so it was very, very dangerous on a cold night. When the sun came up this morning, and you started to see that ice melt, my mood improved considerably. And I'm sure others did, too. But it didn't mean that the traffic started to move fast.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh, Senator.

I mean, you are Senator Tim Kaine. And you would think that you could -- if anybody stuck in this traffic hell, could get some sort of special treatment, you could. Were you calling the governor? Were you in touch with the Department of Transportation during this?

KAINE: We did, but I didn't -- I didn't, because I'm not the kind of person that asks for anything special. I was calling to find out, hey, when are you going to reopen Interstate 95?

So I did -- I spoke to the secretary of transportation in Virginia, who's a longtime friend, about when different sections will reopen. I also -- first thing I asked is, what's the emergency number that people should call to get help?

Because, again, I had gas in my car. I was able to make one stop on the way in Fredericksburg. There was a period of about five or 10 miles where the traffic opened up and it was moving, I could get off at an exit, get gas and get back on. But a lot of people were really in trouble and needed help.

And so I wanted to get the information about the best number to call out to as many people as I can. So that was the first conversation I had with them this morning, and we put it up on social media, so people who really needed help could get it.


CAMEROTA: But, Senator, I mean -- understood, and that's really wonderful.

But when you talked to the secretary of transportation, did you say, how did this happen? I mean, how could a traffic snarl for 27 hours happen?

KAINE: It -- well, I -- you know what? Frankly, I didn't ask that, because I was trying -- I was still in survival mode when I had that call.

I kind of -- at some point, it switched from a miserable travel day into kind of a survival mode day for me. And the roads are incredibly slick and my car is sliding around, and I don't have food or drink in my car. So I was more focused on, OK, how do I safely get out of this mess?

But I'm sure there's going to be a lot of questions about, OK, what happened? Was it poor weather forecasting? Was it inadequate pretreatment of roads? But I will just say that the snow was very heavy and very wet.

And when that happens, as soon as the sun goes down, that slush turns to ice on a cold day. And that's what happened last night. And that's what brought everything to a standstill.

CAMEROTA: Senator, I know that your time is short. You actually have another meeting, because you're making the best of being trapped for 27 hours.

What is your gas needle at right now? And do you have water and food for however long it's going to take to get to the Capitol?

KAINE: I do not have any liquid in the car. I'm -- I drank two cups of black coffee yesterday morning for breakfast. And then I drank a Dr. Pepper when I stopped for gas at 4:00 this morning. That's all the liquids I have had since yesterday morning.

I do have some popcorn in the car. But to eat popcorn without any liquid, I don't think that's a good idea. So now that I'm 90 minutes from the office, I'm planning on eating a lot and using a restroom as soon as I pull in.


CAMEROTA: And how much gas do you have in your tank?

KAINE: My mileage thing says I have got 150 miles of gas left, and I'm 40 miles from the Capitol. But had I not been able to pull off in Fredericksburg and refill, I could have been one of those cars disabled with an empty tank out there.

CAMEROTA: How many miles per hour are you going right now?

KAINE: Now I have just gotten on -- back on Interstate 95, the portion that has just reopened. It's not only clear of traffic, it's dry, and I'm going 60.

And I haven't gone 60 since about 2:00 yesterday afternoon.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh.

Senator Tim Kaine, we are with you in spirit. We're thinking of you. Be careful out there. And thank you very much for talking to us and telling us about your 27-hour ordeal.

KAINE: Alisyn -- Alisyn, very glad to talk.

I once did this by bicycle, and it took me 13 hours. So it's going to take me 27 or 28 by car. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Yes, there is. And I'm sure you will share it with us as soon as we figure out what went wrong here.

Senator Kaine, thank you very much. Be careful.

KAINE: Absolutely. Thanks, Alisyn.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Listen, he may not want to eat that popcorn, but he's probably going to have to.


But I am sure he would be dehydrated if he ate some salty popcorn after a Dr. Pepper and two black coffees. I feel his conundrum there.


BLACKWELL: Last meal Sunday night. Here it is Tuesday afternoon. He's got to do something.

All right, our best to Senator Tim Kaine in all that traffic.

So, a few minutes ago, President Biden said that schools can and should be open because the U.S. has the tools to keep kids safe. But the Omicron variant has complicated the return to class. In Newark, New Jersey, schools are reverting to remote learning for two more weeks.

In Philadelphia, 77 schools were abruptly switched to 100 percent virtual last night. And in Chicago, it returned to in person learning on Monday, but the teachers union is holding a vote in a few hours there. If they vote to demand the district switch to virtual learning, there could be a walkout tomorrow.

Now, if that happens, the head of the Chicago Public Schools District says that classes will be canceled tomorrow.


PEDRO MARTINEZ, CEO, CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS: If none of that works, the one thing -- and we're going to send a message to parents later this afternoon about this -- I will have to cancel classes tomorrow. It doesn't mean that the schools will be closed. The schools will be open. But I will have to cancel classes tomorrow, because I can't -- I have to be responsible, not knowing who's going to be showing up to the buildings.


BLACKWELL: Joining us now, Jesse Sharkey, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Thank you for being with us.

First, have you taken the temperature of your membership? Do you expect that there will be this vote which could lead to the walkout?


And we have. We did a telephone town hall on Sunday, had about 8,000 people on it. So ave we have been in constant touch with the members.

BLACKWELL: OK, so will there be a walkout? Do you expect that you will vote, that the membership will vote to demand virtual?

SHARKEY: I mean, we're trying to stay in, in person school.

And our members have been in front of students in, in person school all school year since the fall. The difficulty is at the Omicron variant is surging, and we don't have adequate testing in the district. And I know a lot of places like D.C., for example, New York, L.A., Cleveland have basically had a short pause in order to put testing in place, so they have some assurance that students coming into the buildings aren't increasing the transmission rates.

But we don't have that in place in Chicago. So, despite the federal help, despite the work that the Biden administration did throughout the school district, the mayor or the city hasn't been serious about setting up testing. And so that's the problem.

BLACKWELL: So let me play something from you.

This is for the -- from the Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, just a few moments ago on this potential for schools now returning virtual.


DR. ALLISON ARWADY, COMMISSIONER, CHICAGO DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH: I understand that people are scared. I understand that you're looking at those numbers and seeing that they're high. But I want to just reassure you that, especially if you're vaccinated, your child is vaccinated, this is behaving really like the flu.

And we don't close school districts, especially for extended periods of time, for the flu.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLACKWELL: Your reaction to that?

SHARKEY: Well, the positivity rate in Chicago was is higher than 23 percent.

It's 18 percent on positivity among students that they tested. The problem is that among 5-to-11-year-olds among black children in Chicago, the vaccination rate is 12 percent. And so what we're talking about is the very -- the very highest part of a surge.

And if we had testing, if we had a way to help ensure that people coming into the buildings weren't carrying the Omicron variant, that would be a different matter. But that's not what's going on right now. And so the teachers are being put in the unfortunate situation where we're trying to keep people safe, we're trying to run school, and we're not being given the tools to do it by the administration or the city, I should add.

And in that situation, we have few other options left.

BLACKWELL: Well, Jesse, you say that you want to keep schools open. And that's because we all know that virtual learning for a lot of communities, not just in Chicago, but across the country, was awful for students.

We learned from the American association of -- Academy of Pediatrics -- let me read this out to you, where they found that remote learning, which exacerbated existing educational inequality -- inequities, rather, was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages, worsened the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents.

World Health Organization says that opening schools generally does not significantly increase community transmission. So, I know that you want what's best for your students. Why return to that?

SHARKEY: No, remote learning was a really unpleasant experience all the way around. And I think that what we have heard from our members in schools is that they'd much rather be there in person.

The difficulty is that, when you think back to the early days of the pandemic, what people understand is that, when the virus is surging in the very worst parts of the uptick -- and, right now, in Chicago, it's going straight up -- that is a time when, if you're in there in the building, you're at the most risk of getting the virus yourself.



BLACKWELL: But, Jesse, we're not in the early days of the pandemic, though. We're not in the early days of the pandemic.

It's not March 2020.

SHARKEY: That's true, but it's the -- we're in the highest part of the Omicron surge. That's the issue.

And when there's 20 percent positivity or higher, people are very concerned that they're talking about a vaccine-evasive variant. They're talking about going into the building and essentially getting sick.

And, in fact, even in places that haven't done testing or haven't had temporary pauses, a temporary pause gets imposed by the virus.


SHARKEY: So I think that's the situation we're in, is that, like, we're in a very bad situation. The virus is running rampant right now in the city of Chicago.

BLACKWELL: Jesse, there are some parents who -- and you talked about the inequities that black and brown families in Chicago face.

There are some parents who need schools to stay open, so that they can go to work. It's not just the educational benefits of being in the classroom or the social or emotional benefits of students staying in schools, that they need the child care element of schools to stay open. If kids go to school, I can go to work, so I can buy groceries and pay the rent.

If schools are canceled, classes are canceled tomorrow, or virtual learning returns, what do you say to those parents who need their kids to be in class?

SHARKEY: I would say to those parents, then we need the administration of this city, we need our political leaders to do the right thing and make school into a safe place to be.

We know that, for example, Chicago got $2.5 billion of federal funding in order to do things like provide testing, in order to do things like set up vaccination centers. Those are things that haven't happened.

We have done very little vaccination in the schools. We have very low rates of vaccination. But vaccination is long-term. Getting a million instant tests, which is something that they have done in New York, that they're doing other cities, that they did in D.C., that's something that we could be doing -- that we could be working on today, instead of essentially threatening teachers with our jobs because they're trying to take actions in order to do what they think, we think is the best way to keep school safe right now.

BLACKWELL: All right, Jesse Sharkey, thank you.

CAMEROTA: OK, joining us now is a parent who has two children in Chicago schools.

Ismael El-Amin, thank you very much for being here. Ismael, I really appreciate it.

Do you have any idea if your kids are going to be in school tomorrow, given the threat of a strike? ISMAEL EL-AMIN, PARENT: So, I will go back to how the schools were

behaving just after Thanksgiving.

We saw a lot of schools across the city that were quarantining, that were sending kids home that hadn't gotten vaccinated yet, because we started to see those surges two weeks out from the Thanksgiving holiday.

And going into the Christmas holiday, New Year's holiday, we expected something similar. My particular job, my wife's job, they canceled in person job. They said you could work remote because surges were coming, and we couldn't travel to the downtown office safely.

And I do believe, at some point, with the rates climbing as they are, we're going to see the same thing within the school system. We have prepared for it. We have been reacting since -- for the last two years just playing the reaction game whenever the rules change, whenever the context changed.

We have been adaptive and been able to adjust to it. And we are fortunate for that.

BLACKWELL: And it really is what we all have to do right now, right?

We're seeing the numbers go -- increase across the country. But, still, there were bowl games on the 1st. There were football games over the weekend. Kids were in school. But I wonder what your concern is if there is this walkout for your daughters, what they will lose. What is on the line for them?

EL-AMIN: Sure.

So, anyone within the CPS system now, we're coming off of a year where we had a strike, and then followed by the year where it was ended abruptly with the -- with COVID the end of 2020, and then a full year of just remote adjustment.

This, as a recovery year, if we have to adjust back to the work from home, it's really a matter of how much effort teachers, parents, the faculty put into this adjustment to see if we can get back on track.

Our kids have been inconsistent, if not anything else, over the last two years. And I'd like to see that consistency so that they can enjoy and get the education that they're afforded.

CAMEROTA: You're not alone, Ismael. I mean, wow, you sound very flexible, that you're willing to work with whatever you're handed this week.

But I know how complicated it is for parents, obviously. I have three kids in school as well. But what did you think of the argument that Victor just heard from the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, basically, that they want every student tested before they go back into the classroom?

EL-AMIN: Sure. So if we take it back to the beginning of last year, January, February

of 2021, we were in this situation where we were finding out, could we reopen for the spring? And myself only being involved in two different schools within Chicago Public Schools -- my daughters go to two different schools -- I only have a vantage point into those two.


What the city has to look at is, across the board, how are all of the schools doing, the best of the best and the worst of the worst? And pandemics like this do point out the inequities in the school system. And there are schools that have barely made it thus far with the reopening in the fall.

And they're still running on fumes. And those are the faculty and the teachers that you're going to see be most vocal in and the most upset. There's other schools that, statistically, they're able to manage. They have the support, they have the families that are able to be flexible and take off time and do the transportation and do the testing as needed.

But there's some who are just like, make it stop.

BLACKWELL: What was virtual learning like for your family, for your girls?

EL-AMIN: So, we had -- the hardest thing was my daughter that was going into kindergarten. That's when you would typically meet your classmates, see your new school, meet your new teacher, have your locker, have the joy of running up and down a cafeteria.

She started off kindergarten in the living room with her sister and parents. It's a different feel altogether of escalating into the school system.

And her parents were working. My wife and I are glued to our computer trying to keep our careers going, and still trying to play educator and still trying to play cafeteria, still trying to play custodian, still trying to play everything that these two girls needed out of a school setting, socioemotional and everything.

We had to adjust to that and still be adults and still run the household while outside of the brick house there's this pandemic that's growing, and we're not sure how safety is going to be and how the health system is going to be.

There was a lot going on. That was -- it was definitely a trying time. It's still a trying time. And you find out who you got in your family. You find out who you're married to. You find out who you're raising, because you can't escape them at that point.

CAMEROTA: Well, you have explained it perfectly to us all the challenges and how you both have your hands full.

So, Ismael El-Amin, thank you very much. And we will be watching closely what happens later today with this vote. EL-AMIN: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Good luck to your family.

President Biden says even he is frustrated by COVID testing in the country, but he says they are making progress. So will his plans be enough?

That's ahead.



CAMEROTA: Just a short time ago, President Biden said he will double the number of antiviral pills the U.S. has ordered to treat COVID. That's the largest order in the world. And it's just one part of the strategy he laid out in the last hour, as the U.S. is experiencing the highest level of infection since the pandemic began.

BLACKWELL: The country is now averaging more than 480,000 new infections a day.

The CDC reports more than 95 percent of those cases are of the Omicron variant. And two big developments just came in.

CAMEROTA: Well, U.S. COVID hospitalizations have now surpassed the peak seen from the Delta variant back in September. Nearly 113,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID.

And the American Academy of Pediatrics just reported the highest case count ever for children. They call it an alarming increase.

BLACKWELL: Now, for the week ending December 30, there were more than 325,000 new cases among children. That's 126,000 more new cases than the week before.

But the academy reports out -- points out, rather, that it appears that severe illness from COVID is uncommon among children.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

So, tell us more about the president's message.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that certainly is the backdrop for President Biden's first meeting of the year, his first formal briefing, at least, with his COVID-19 task force, which is still under way.

And the president voiced that frustration largely at the inability to get tests. We have seen lines across the country in cities across America, states across America. And the president was pretty blunt about what he sees as at least a failure for now.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Folks, I know we're all tired and frustrated about the pandemic.

These coming weeks are going to be challenging. 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.


ZELENY: So, the president echoing a message he has said again and again over the last year.

But, again, one of the challenges facing his administration is testing. It is something that they simply have not been able to get their arms around. Now, we do know that they are still going to order half-a-billion tests that people are able to order through a Web site.

We are expecting more information on that later this week. But that is something that has still not yet been rolled out, but, again, the president meeting with his COVID-19 task force.

We're also awaiting some new guidance from the CDC about those new recommendations of isolating for five days, as opposed to 10 days. So all of that will be coming this afternoon, we are told, but, again, a big challenge for this president, as he enters his second year in office still facing very much similar things here, again, testing such a challenge.


CAMEROTA: Absolutely.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.


CAMEROTA: So let's bring in to epidemiologists.

We have Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. He's the former health commissioner for Detroit. And we also have Dr. Michael Mina. He's the chief science officer at eMed. That's a biotech software company that offers at-home testing. He's also a former assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard University.

And so, Dr. Mina, I to start with you, because testing is the big question right now. Victor just spoke to the president of the Chicago teachers association, who very much wants every student tested before they go back in the classroom to see which students are possibly infectious and which are not.

And then, on the flip side, you have the Florida surgeon general, who today was saying all this widespread testing is totally unnecessary. So let me play this for you. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. JOSEPH LADAPO, FLORIDA SURGEON GENERAL: What doesn't make sense is all this testing before people can work or before people can go to school or because someone with no risk factors was exposed and has no symptoms whatsoever.

This fantasy that the federal leadership has painted that you can somehow stop this pandemic by just doing more testing, I mean, I'm waiting for more people to realize it's completely failed. It's impossible.


CAMEROTA: Dr. Mina, I know that you have some skin in this game, because you do work for a testing company, but should asymptomatic people and children test before they go out in the world?


And just to be clear, I have been pretty consistent in my message for over two years -- or almost two years now. And the fact is, testing was never going to eliminate the pandemic. But what we need to use it for is to keep vulnerable people safe, stop chains of transmission.

Now, when I hear things like what I just heard from the Florida surgeon general, that's disappointing, because it shows a failure to recognize that one transmission event spawns into multiple additional ones, which they each spawn into multiple additional ones.

And that's how we get exponential growth. And we get vulnerable people who are at risk landing in the hospital or dying. And that's why testing and every chance we can get to sever transmission chains, we should take it.

BLACKWELL: Dr. El-Sayed, let me lean on your experience as a city health official, and how big cities get back to normal.

We heard from the new mayor of New York, Eric Adams, today, saying that the city is going to stay open. They're going to do and promote all the things that make that happen. Let's listen to him. And then we will talk on the other side.


ERIC ADAMS (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: 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?


BLACKWELL: We have got on the side of the screen here 480,000 is the seven-day average of new cases. How do you make that happen, keeping places open, if you have got some cities, some officials who are devaluing testing? What do you do?

DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED, FORMER DIRECTOR, DETROIT HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Well, we're between a rock and a hard place here.

Ideally, we would have had the tests that we needed to be able to use them to cut those transmissions chains, as Dr. Mina has been talking about, frankly, since the beginning of this pandemic. And we have got an extremely transmissible variant here in a situation where people are sick and tired.

And, unfortunately, the fact that nearly 38 percent of our population still has not been vaccinated is now catching up to us. And so the things that we can lean on right now to make sure to keep our kids in school and to do as much as we possibly can around the critical infrastructure that keeps society going is to potentially upgrade those masks.

And for folks who have not gotten boosted yet, please do that. But right now, I do think we need to upgrade those masks. I do think that we need to ramp up testing as much as we possibly can, because, right now, Omicron is not giving us much time to adjust on other fronts.

CAMEROTA: So, Dr. Mina, who should be testing right now?

MINA: Yes.

So, unfortunately, one thing I have called for -- since the beginning is frequent testing to identify people who might not even know that they are exposed before they go and infect others. Unfortunately, we're stuck in a difficult position now, where we don't have enough tests to reasonably do that.

So we have to start using these tests very strategically, something we haven't yet done, and we have to make sure that we're putting them in the places where they will be most beneficial. A terrific use of the tests right now is test to treat.

We should be placing tests in the homes of people who are most at risk for landing themselves in the hospital if they get infected. Tell them that they can take the tests if they feel any symptoms. And then, if they are positive, we will figure it out very quickly and be able to get them these new oral antivirals shipped directly to their house, for instance.