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Interview With Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison; Mixed Jobs Report; CDC Director Under Fire. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Victor Blackwell. Alisyn is off.

The director of the CDC is defending her leadership. Dr. Rochelle Walensky today held the agency's first solo briefing since last July. And she took questions from reporters.

As CNN has learned the White House is growing increasingly frustrated with Walensky, her messaging to the American public and the confusing guidance coming from the agency.

And sources tell CNN Walensky has been getting media training for months now to try to fix the problem.

CNN's chief White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, is one of the reporters who broke the story.

So, Kaitlan, how is Walensky responding to the criticism?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we actually heard from her today.

It was the first time the CDC, Victor, has held its own independent briefing since the summer of 2021. Normally, they do a COVID briefing about once a week with the White House team. Dr. Fauci is often on those briefings. But, today, it was just the CDC director and some other scientists at the CDC taking questions from reporters.

And we're told by sources that was the decision that the CDC director, Dr. Walensky, made this week pretty abruptly, saying that she wanted to take the incoming of questions, of which there are many, given the confusion generated by the CDC's new guidance, head on.

And so she took those questions. And, Victor, of course, a lot of the questions that came up during today's briefing had to do not just with the new guidance that's coming out of the CDC, but their credibility overall, because there's been so much confusion over the changes to their guidance, the updates to those changes.

And she defended it as saying, the science is moving quick, and so are we.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We're in an unprecedented time with the speed of Omicron cases rising. And we are working really hard to get information to the American public, and balancing that with the realities that we're all living with.

This is hard, and I am committed and -- to continue to improve as we learn more about the science and to communicate that with all of you.


COLLINS: So, of course, Victor, there's no doubt that it's an unenviable position. It is an unprecedented time. And there are a lot of factors and challenges facing the CDC.

But our reporting shows that the criticism and the frustration with the CDC is not just coming from outside the administration. It's also coming from within the federal agency, with scientists at the CDC expressing that frustration to CNN, saying that, sometimes, when this guidance is drafted, it's just a very small level of advisers surrounding the CDC adviser.

And there's not always a ton of input, where other people could say, hey, maybe this is an argument that's more reasonable or maybe this is more digestible and easier for the public to understand.

And so we should also note we have learned Dr. Walensky started doing media training since last fall in order to help her improve her communication skills, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

Dr. Walensky also said that there is a chance that the Omicron surge here in the U.S. will look like an ice pick, rather than a wave, much like what happened in South Africa. Now, the ice pick analogy refers to a rapid rise and then a rapid fall in cases.

But as it plays out, Omicron is impacting schools across this country.

Here CNN's Alexandra Field.


ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Most Chicago schools closed for a third day, the city still fighting for in person learning with the teachers union that voted to go remote.

CLAIBORNE WADE, PARENT: It's our kids who are being affected by it. And parents need to be at the table as well.

FIELD: In California's Bay Area, teachers protesting current COVID protocols, staging a sick-out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People just want to be safe. I mean, it is a surge that we're concerned about. FIELD: But a major push keep kids in class now coming from one of the nation's most prominent hospitals. Given the milder cases of COVID it's seeing, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says, even in times of significant community transmission, kids should stay in school.

The hospital's supports putting more exposed, but asymptomatic students and staff back in class with masks and calls for less testing of asymptomatic individuals.

Their stance more aggressive than the CDC's latest guidance for schools, which calls for at least five days of isolation, in line with its recommendations for the general public.

DR. RICK BRIGHT, FORMER DIRECTOR, BIOMEDICAL ADVANCED RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY: So, our new normal will look like a future where we have SARS-CoV-2, but it's not a panic, it's not a crisis, it's not devastating our public health infrastructure and our economy, the way we see it today.

FIELD: Six former advisers to President Joe Biden are now calling for new measures from the White House to move Americans more quickly toward a new normal, among the suggestions, quicker updates to vaccines to keep pace with the changing virus.


DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL ADVISER: COVID is going to be around us, just like the flu is around us. And we're going to have to live with that. And we're going to have to bring the mortality rates down to make it so we can go back to our normal everyday lives.

FIELD: Moderna's CEO the latest to say a fourth dose of the vaccine could be needed for some by fall, as hospitalizations approaching an all-time high and as the average number of daily cases tops 600,000.

The governor of West Virginia says the time for a fourth shot is already here, Governor Jim Justice requesting permission from the CDC and the FDA to give an extra booster to people who need them most.


FIELD: And New York's governor announcing that she will require all health care workers to get a booster shot within two weeks of eligibility, governor Kathy Hochul saying that there will be no exemptions, except for medical exemptions, no way to test out of this requirement.

She says this is about preventing health care workers from getting sick and stopping the further spread of Omicron -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Alexandra Field, thank you so much.

Dr. Paul Offit is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also a member of the FDA vaccine advisory committee. Dr. Offit, good to have you back.

And, of course, we're going to start with the new guidance that came out from your hospital, six simple recommendations to get kids back into the classroom -- quote -- "even in times of significant community transmission," far simpler than what we're hearing from the CDC and from the FDA.

Just talk us through the critical points. And why are you able, you, as in CHOP, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, able to go further than the CDC?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: Well, I think the question is, when are you really contagious?

And the way that this virus works is that, initially, you're exposed, the virus reproduces itself hundreds of times, thousands of times, and you have no symptoms then. That's when you're the most contagious, before you ever develop symptoms.

Then you start to develop symptoms. With that, the virus reproduction becomes less and less and less. And then, as your symptoms abate, meaning decrease, then the virus replication is really no longer part of the disease process anymore.

So I think it's perfectly reasonable that, when people are asymptomatic after, for example, having an infection, they can go back to school, wear a mask, preferably, than having to constantly test, because testing is often not available, and testing can be misleading.

The PCR test, which many people use, can be positive when you're no longer contagious. So I think it's -- what the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has done is tried to come up with a more practicable, more usable sort of system.

BLACKWELL: Practical, more usable. It's not really what we're hearing out of the CDC, a lot of criticism, as Kaitlan Collins talked about, specifically of the CDC director.

I wonder your view of the messaging coming out -- we know that now Dr. Walensky is going through media training -- and the impact of often confusing, sometimes contradictory guidance that we have heard from the CDC.

OFFIT: Well, first of all, I'd like to say this country is lucky to have Rochelle Walensky. She's a brilliant researcher and clinician.

And I think the good thing that will come out of this, hopefully, is that the CDC will step out from the shadows of the National Institutes of Health or step out from the shadows of the White House. I mean, most of these recommendations, if not all of these recommendations, are coming out of the CDC.

So what I would love to see happen is that, for example, when you hear the booster dose recommendation, you have millions of people in this country who have received, say, two doses of an mRNA vaccine, millions of people who have received three doses.

This is a premier organization at doing the kinds of studies where you look at those two groups, compare them, and show that a third dose significantly decreases your risk, say, of serious illness, or doesn't, in which case then maybe that recommendation wasn't the best recommendation

But lead with the science. And the CDC is the group that does that science. So I think this is all good. And it shows Dr. Walensky is circumspect and wants to do the best job that she can.

BLACKWELL: Yes, clear and simple is the best way.

Let me ask you about these six Biden administration advisers who have published these three pieces in the -- in "JAMA," in which they say that there has to be a new normal now, as there's a move to an endemic phase of the pandemic.

They say: "Without a strategic plan for the new normal with endemic COVID-19, more people in the U.S. will unnecessarily experience morbidity and mortality, health inequities will widen, and trillions will be lost from the U.S. economy."

They say that the tests aren't linked to the right data, that the tests -- take-home tests are too expensive. They're hard to find. What is the transition that needs to happen at this phase?

OFFIT: Right.

So I think we learned a lot from what happened last winter. Last winter, when we didn't really have a vaccine, last winter, when we didn't have much population immunity because most people weren't naturally infected, what you saw was, you saw a clear decline in hospitalizations and deaths starting around mid-February.

Now fast-forward a year. Where are we this winter? Where we are this winter is, at least 60-plus percent of people have been fully vaccinated. Probably 100 million people have been naturally infected. You probably have a bad 80-plus percent population immunity at this point.


What's going to happen now, even with Omicron, is, I think you're likely to see a clear decrease in cases, hospitalizations and deaths by end of January, mid-February. We should really stop thinking about mild cases and just focus really on the severe cases, because that's what we care about. That's what we care about with flu.

I mean, flu -- every year, the flu vaccine, prevents hospitalizations and deaths, but it doesn't do a very good job of preventing asymptomatic infection or mildly symptomatic infection. If we did to flu what we do with COVID, you would find there's a there's a mountain of sort of mild or asymptomatic infections out there, which we largely ignore. And that's really the new normal, is being able to accept mild

infections during the off-season and get ready when the winter comes. Do we want to give a boost in winter? And, if so, where's the evidence that supports that?

BLACKWELL: Well, speaking of the flu, Rick Bright, an HHS official from the last administration, says that, like the flu, that there should be variant-specific vaccines, that he points out that people are receiving the same vaccine that was administered two years ago.

What do you -- a year ago now. What do you say to that?

OFFIT: I disagree.

I mean, if you take a look at the beginning, when -- the vaccines that were made, all the vaccines were made, mRNA vaccines, Johnson & Johnson's vaccines were all made to that original strength, the Wuhan strain. Now, that's not the strain that left China. The strain that left China was the first variant that didn't have a Greek letter.

It was D614G, swept across Asia, swept across Europe, swept across the United States, killed a couple 100,000 people here, was replaced by the Alpha variant, was replaced by the Delta variant. It's been replaced by the Omicron variant.


OFFIT: What all of those variants have in common is that protection against severe disease is mediated by the original vaccine against the ancestral strain. Until that changes, until you see that, despite vaccination, you're seeing still a fairly high percentage of people who have serious illness, then you reasonably can have a variant- specific vaccine.

BLACKWELL: All right.

OFFIT: But until that happens, it doesn't make sense to do it.

BLACKWELL: All right, Dr. Paul Offit, thank you so much.

OFFIT: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Another mixed job report. December ended up being the month with the fewest number of jobs added in 2021. But wages grew and the unemployment level dropped. How the president is responding, that's next.

And we're watching the Georgia courtroom where a judge is set to sentence the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. We have a live report ahead.



BLACKWELL: We got the December jobs report today. The unemployment rate fell to a pandemic error low of 3.9 percent in December, but jobs fell short of economists' expectations again. The U.S. economy added 199,000 jobs in December, the fewest jobs added in any month of 2021.

Now, economists had forecast jobs growth of double that number. Even so, 2021 saw record-breaking job growth and lower-than-expected gains from previous months were revised upward. The U.S. added 6.4 million jobs last year, the most since records began in 1939.

Now, President Biden this morning touted the low unemployment rate, and he addressed the record number of workers who quit their jobs in November.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's been a lot of press coverage about people quitting their jobs. Well, today's report tells you why. Americans are moving up to better jobs with better pay, with better benefits. That's why they're quitting their jobs.


BLACKWELL: Leaders of the January 6 House Select Committee tells CNN that they are not ruling out the possibility that former President Trump's action surrounding January 6 amounted to a crime.

Let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles.

Ryan, what's Congresswoman Liz Cheney first saying about the former president's role?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Victor, I don't think there's any doubt that this seems to have become a special focus for the January 6 Committee, the conduct of the former President Donald Trump in the days leading up to and specifically on January 6.

Is the fact that he did not move quickly enough or was not engaged enough in attempting to get his supporters to leave the Capitol on that day an example of, at the very least, a dereliction of duty or all the way up to a crime?

Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the committee, talked about the thinking the committee has on that topic in our special event that we held last night. Take a listen.


REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): The president of the United States is responsible for ensuring that the laws are faithfully executed. He's responsible for the security of other branches.

So, for a president to, through either his action or his inaction, for example, attempt to impede or obstruct the counting of electoral votes, which is an official proceeding of Congress, is -- we -- the committee is looking at that, looking at whether what he did constitutes that kind of a crime.


NOBLES: So, obviously, what the committee would need to do if they think this is a crime is that they would have to compile all the evidence, write the record as to why they think that it constitutes a crime, and then they would have to hand that over to the Department of Justice, who would ultimately decide if they would prosecute.

Victor, there's a long way to go until we get until that point. We still need to know what else the committee is finding over the course of this investigation before we can draw any real conclusion if they have been able to determine whether or not the president's actions constitute a crime.

BLACKWELL: All right, Ryan Nobles for us on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Well, President Biden was direct and forceful when it came to the former president's role in the Capitol insurrection. It was a notable shift in tone, as he forcefully vowed to defend democracy.


And joining me now to discuss, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison.

Mr. Chairman, good to see you again. Thanks for being with me.

Oh, can you hear me? Because I think your shot was frozen. You got me, sir.


BLACKWELL: Yes, I got you now. All right. So let's start...

HARRISON: OK. Happy new year.

BLACKWELL: Happy new year to you.

So, the president -- this speech was pretty passionate. He said that the organizers, instigators, rioters held a -- quote -- "dagger to the throat of democracy." It's a message for the moment and prosperity -- posterity, I should say.

But I wonder, from a political perspective, does the 1/6 investigation, this line move voters? The man who's tasked with getting the Republicans control of the Senate says -- that's Rick Scott -- he said: "Look at what people are focused on. It's really focused on what impacts their family, inflation, their schools and public safety, stuff like that."

What do you say?

HARRISON: Well, listen, if our democracy does not hold, then none of that stuff will happen, right? We saw -- and we saw -- we just had the anniversary of something that

we have never thought that we would see in American history. The Capitol was under siege. And the president of the United States, a man who has pledged an oath to defend and protect this great nation, sat in the White House with a bucket of popcorn watching it like it was some movie.

That can never happen again. We need to make sure that we investigate who was involved, what -- why they did it, what was the motivation behind it, and hold anybody accountable for their actions on that date.

And so this isn't about politics. This is about the rule of law. This is about making sure that we protect our great democracy, because we can never let January 6 or an event like January 6 ever happen again.


The president and the vice president also referenced the need to get some progress on protecting voting rights as well. It's been about six months since the president gave as passionate a speech about that topic at the National Constitution Center. There is this vote that's coming up on the filibuster before the King holiday.

We understand the urgency. Let's stipulate that. What can get done, do you believe, with Senator Manchin still not on board with changing the filibuster?

HARRISON: Well, Victor, I have been on the Hill talking with senators, had a lot of conversations over the past few months and just before the holidays.

And I know that there are a lot of discussions happening within the Senate conference. The sad part is that, if things get done -- and I'm hoping and praying that we can get it all across the finish line -- it will happen only because of Democrat. And that's a sad testament.


BLACKWELL: But what can you get done with only Democrats? I understand Republicans aren't on board. You still have two Democrats who are holding out, Senators Manchin and Sinema. Can something get done?

Is they -- are you any closer to convincing them?

HARRISON: Well, those conversations are being had.

And Senator Manchin is a part of those conversations, along with a small group, led by Senator Tester and Senator Kaine. And so the deliberations are being had.

There are many times in which, when I worked on the floor of the House, we would take legislation to the floor, still working out, making sure that we had all the votes, but you had to take it to the floor because it was significant. And this is going to be one of those pieces of legislation that I

think, when history looks back on it, people are going to want to be on the right side of history. We know that voting rights has always been a struggle in this country. But we have made a lot of gain, and that this is not like any other issue, Victor.

As you know, as I know, this is personal for so many of us, because our forefathers and foremothers didn't have that right to vote. And now we do. And we got to do everything within our power to make sure that we secure it. I wish it was a bipartisan effort to do this. But it seems like the Republicans, the ones who voted for the last Voting Rights Act reauthorization -- I remember when they did it, when they had a Republican president, Republican House, a Republican Senate.

And John Lewis was there and helped to shepherd that. All of these people, many of the members who are still there voted for the last voting rights reauthorization on the Republican side. And now these folks are feckless. They only want political power. And they see that this is the way that they get it, by hook or by crook.

And so they are not going to stand on the right side of history and stand for democracy in this country. And that's sad.

And so, if it's only Democrats that have to do it...


HARRISON: ... then, hell, we got to do all that we can in order to make sure that we bring this over the finish line.

BLACKWELL: All right, so you talked about political power.

Let me ask you about some of these retirements from the House; 25 House Democrats have now said that they will not be running for reelection, more than twice the number of Republicans, for a myriad of reasons. Six of them are running for other offices, statewide offices, double this pace in 2020 of Democrats.


What's the message to Democratic voters when you have got 25 members of the House caucus who are not going to run for reelection?

HARRISON: Well, many of the retirements are coming from some of our senior Democrats who've been in the House for 10, 15, 20 years, some even more than that.

And they run in what you call a traditionally secure Democratic seat. And those who are not, the DCCC and our state parties are working very hard to recruit some of the best candidates out there to run for some of these districts.

We even have...

BLACKWELL: Is that an acknowledgment that you won't have the majority next time around? HARRISON: No, it's an acknowledgment that some people have been on the Hill for a while, and they're ready to transition to do some other things.

But we have got a lot of great candidates out there. Here in South Carolina, we have got Dr. Annie Andrews who's running, so many great candidates. And I'm looking forward to hitting the campaign trail with them.

BLACKWELL: Yes. All right, Jaime Harrison, good to talk to you again. Thank you.

HARRISON: Thank you, Victor. Take care now.

BLACKWELL: All right, you too.

Now, join Fareed Zakaria as he investigates "The Fight to Save American Democracy." This new special begins Sunday night at 9:00 right here on CNN.

A Georgia judge is about to sentence the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he was jogging. Arbery's mother, father and sister, they told the judge today how they have been impacted by the killers' crimes.

We're going to go live to Brunswick, that courthouse, next.