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CDC Director Turns To Media Consultant As Messaging Blunders Mount; U.S. COVID-19 Cases, Child Hospitalizations At Record Highs; No Public School In Chicago Since Wednesday; Australian Open 2022; Kazakhstan's President Says Situation "Stabilized" After Deadly Rallies; U.S. President Joe Biden Tours Colorado Wildfire Damage; Airlines Cancel Over 1,000 U.S. Flights; Japanese Women Changing Sumo. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired January 08, 2022 - 05:00   ET




IVAN WATSON, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and a warm welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world. I'm Ivan Watson.

Ahead, the COVID fight moves to classrooms around the United States. With hospitalizations of children on the rise, teachers and parents are on different sides of the debate.

Plus we are learning why organizers of the Australian Open granted the top tennis player a pass to compete. We're live in Sydney.

And an eerie calm over Kazakhstan after the country's president gives a shoot to kill order to quell the protests.


WATSON: We begin in the U.S. where COVID-19 cases are soaring, driven by the super contagious Omicron variant. We're giving you a look at the dramatic spread across the country. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high and some of the largest increases are in children under 5, not authorized to be vaccinated yet.

Hospitalizations in that group are up 48 percent from a little more than a month ago. And Americans want to know when will it end. At a news conference on Friday, President Joe Biden was asked if this was going to be the new normal.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think COVID is here to stay. But having COVID in the environment here and in the world is probably here to stay. But COVID-19 as we are dealing with it now is not here to stay. The new normal doesn't have to be. We have so many more tools we are developing.

(END VIDEO CLIP) WATSON: Some experts say any kind of normal will likely mean living with COVID-19 in much the way we live with the flu. A former adviser to President Biden speaking to CNN's Anderson Cooper and explained what it would take to get past the case numbers we are seeing now.


DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL, FORMER MEMBER, BIDEN'S TRANSITION COVID-19 ADVISORY BOARD: Unfortunately, if you vaccinate today the people who are unvaccinated, who account for about 75 percent of the hospitalizations, it is not really going to make a big difference over the next month because they need a second shot and then 14 days after the second shot.

Public health measures that we've mentioned, better air quality, masking, not going into crowded indoor spaces, those are really important measures in order to get past Omicron. You need to plan today for three months from now so we're not caught in the same problem.


WATSON: As Omicron cases grow in the U.S., so does frustration over the mixed messaging from the CDC over isolate. Alexandra Field explains.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: I'm honored to join you today.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Facing mounting criticism, the CDC director speaking out.

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

FIELD (voice-over): The agency under fire again. This time for confusing guidance on isolation as people, business and schools forge their own way forward.

KATRINA CUBILO-SICAIROS, SAN FRANCISCO TEACHER: People just want to be safe. I mean, it is a surge that we're concerned about.

FIELD (voice-over): In California's Bay Area, teachers are protesting current protocols, staging a sickout.

In Chicago, the city still fighting for in-person learning with the teachers union that voted to go remote. Most schools there canceled for a third day.

CLAIBORNE WADE, FATHER OF CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENT: It's our kids who are being affected by it. And parents need to be at that table as well.

FIELD (voice-over): But a major push to keep kids in class now comes from one of the nation's most prominent hospitals. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says even in times of significant community transmission, kids should be in school. The hospital supports putting more exposed but asymptomatic students and staff back in class with masks and calls for less testing of asymptomatic individuals.

RICK BRIGHT, FORMER MEMBER, BIDEN-HARRIS TRANSITION COVID-19 ADVISORY BOARD: Our new normal will look like a future where we have SARS-CoV- 2.


BRIGHT: 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 (voice-over): 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.

EMANUEL: 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 (voice-over): At the Supreme Court, justices are hearing arguments today against COVID vaccine mandates affecting large businesses and some health care workers. That as New York's governor announces she'll require booster shots for all health care workers, the first state in the nation to do so.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): You would want to make sure that anyone taking care of you is fully protected.

FIELD (voice-over): Moderna's CEO is the latest to say a fourth shot could be needed for some by fall as hospitalizations approach an all- time high and as the average number of daily cases tops 600,000.

The governor of West Virginia says the time for 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 on that question of a fourth shot, Dr. Walensky is saying more people need to get a third shot before we talk about a fourth shot. Just about 35 percent of people who are eligible for a booster have gotten a booster, despite what we know already about how effective that booster can be -- in New York, Alexandra Field, CNN.


WATSON: We heard a little bit there about the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the guidance aimed at keeping kids in classrooms.

The prominent health care system said, "With evidence that COVID-19 is becoming a milder infection in most children and at a time when all adults and youth in K-12 settings have been offered vaccination, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and PolicyLab at CHOP support in- person education, even in times of significant community transmission, and propose new guidance that reduces excessive burden to school staff and families."

That new guidance in brief: continue indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status. People with respiratory illness must stay home while sympathetic. Those with mild illness should continue to get tested if there is high risk of severe infection.

Discontinue required weekly testing of people with symptoms. Allow exposed but asymptomatic individuals to continue to come to school under modified quarantine and encourage vaccinations and booster shots.

Here are some health experts on in-person learning.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Our updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine and our and prior publications and continued assessment of test to stay protocols in schools provide the tools necessary to get these schools reopened for in-person learning and to keep them open for the rest of the school year.



DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: It is safe enough to get those kids back to school, balanced against the deleterious effects of keeping them out.



DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: That teacher's union is wrong. And all the teachers unions that are saying that we have to delay kids going back to school are wrong. We know what it takes to keep children safe in schools. We need to get our children back at all costs.



DR. PAUL OFFIT, U.S. FDA VACCINE ADVISER: We need our children to be in school. Most importantly, the socialization, social development, the kids so sorely missed last year.


WATSON: The serious debate of returning to the classroom is playing out in Chicago. Public school classes have been canceled there since Wednesday after teachers said they could not work safely. The teachers union voted to work remotely but the district canceled classes and called it a work stoppage.

Chicago's mayor says in-person learning is safe.


MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT (D), CHICAGO, IL: Our kids need to be back in school. Schools are safe. There's no question about that. We have, as all school systems across our city, across our state and our nation, when there's a need to shut down a classroom or even a school because of surge, we've been doing that.

We've been doing that all year long. So this is an unnecessary and illegal work stoppage and I've drawn the line. We are not going to remote for the whole system. It's completely unnecessary.


WATSON: Now talks between the union and the district are ongoing but the mayor says she wants kids back in the classroom by Monday. And a lawsuit has been filed by a group of parents over the standoff. Here's what one Chicago mother said.



LAURIE SKUROW, CHICAGO PARENT: I would send him back five days a week with a mask on in September of 2020. I will send him back as soon as he can go back in. He's -- my son is fully vaccinated. We have him tested regularly.

And you wear a mask and you send your kid to school. I feel like I have very little say in what happens and I'm a pretty involved parent in my son's school. But I feel like I'm completely at the mercy of what the union wants to do.


WATSON: Now I want to turn to Australia where a very different standoff over COVID-19 is playing out. Novak Djokovic's visa was revoked because he was not vaccinated before arriving at the Australian Open.

We have seen crowds of supporters gathered at the hotel where he is required to stay. He is the defending men's singles champion. He made comments on Friday, thanking his fans as he remains confined.

We have also learned Czech player Renata Voracova has had her visa revoked as well. Her government said she decided to withdraw and was seen leaving the detention center a short time ago.


WATSON: Former tennis pro Pam Shriver spoke about the need for social media to be respectful of Djokovic during a very difficult time.


PAM SHRIVER, ESPN AND TENNIS CHANNEL ANALYST: Well, what I think the support is for social media to treat one of tennis's greatest ever champions with respect and a very difficult time for everybody.

I mean, you can be critical of somebody for being anti-vax and showing up in a country that made it really clear you need to be double vaxed but, at the end of the day, I think we all want people in our sport to be treated with respect, with empathy.


SHRIVER: And I think that's been done for the most part. Obviously, Monday is a big day. See what the judicial system does but the federal government has made it clear, the border patrol people have said his exemption did not warrant entry into the country.


WATSON: Coming up, Kazakhstan's president has ordered deadly force to be used against protesters, saying the brutal response is, in his words, yielding results.

Plus NATO displays a united front ahead of next week's talks between the U.S. and Russia. We'll have a report from Moscow coming up.




WATSON: Welcome back.

An eerie quiet has fallen over Kazakhstan where security forces are under order to kill protesters without warning. The president gave the order Friday after days of deadly anti-government protests. He now says the situation has stabilized in the largest city, Almaty.

A local journalist told CNN security forces are in control of government buildings that were partly burned during the protests.


WATSON: Still, the U.S. has approved of voluntarily departure of non- essential staff from its consulate there.

Meanwhile, more Russian-led troops are moving in. The group says the number of what it calls peacekeepers will grow to about 3,600. The U.S. is asking why they are needed in the first place.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It would seem to me that the Kazak authorities in government, certainly, have the capacity to deal, appropriately, with protests and to do so in a way that respects the rights of protesters, while maintaining law and order.

So it is not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance. So we are trying to learn more about it. I think one lesson, in recent history, is that, once Russians are in your house, sometimes it's very difficult to get them to leave.


WATSON: Scott McLean is joining now from London.

Scott, no surprise Putin does not like crowds, mobs threatening the authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet sphere and rushing troops there. It is a very fluid situation on the ground.

What is the latest you are hearing there?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think that is an understatement. It is quite difficult to get firm information because over the last few days the government has shut down the internet in most places. The president has promised to bring it back in a piecemeal fashion and that is happening in some areas, including the capital, but not where we saw that violence break out.

Walking around the city, we saw those checkpoints. They're firing warning shots at people who get too close. A journalist saw bodies in the streets with bullet holes in them, the remains of a gun store that had been looted. There are also people out and about, trying to buy the essentials. But no protests.

The president it seems has succeeded in restoring some order to the city but probably addressing concerns that brought people to the street in the first place, concerns about inequality or corruption.

Instead, he's taken the opportunity to paint all the protesters with the same brush, calling them terrorists or gangsters, saying, with terrorists, you don't negotiate with them. You have to kill them.

He's describing a counter-terrorism operation in the country. We know according to state media, 4,000 people have been detained. Several thousands have also been killed on both sides.

The president also, new today, spoke with President Putin about that continuing presence of Russian troops made up of this alliance of ex Soviet states. The U.S. seems baffled by their presence there.

But the president making a speech yesterday that they are welcome and continuing to say that they were welcomed in at the request of his government. Even though the White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to request whether that was a genuine invitation.

HOLMES: Yes, everybody has their opinion on this. Scott McLean in London, thank you very much.

I spoke earlier with an expert on central Asia. He said the causes of the unrest have been growing there for years despite the country's reputation as an island of stability in the region. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN ROBERTS, DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT STUDIES PROGRAM, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think two things that have been festering in Kazakhstan for quite some time, that kind of pointed to things becoming unstable, one is the widespread corruption that has led to economic inequality and I think that's been exacerbated over the last couple of years by COVID-19.

In general, the country was on a trajectory where it was constantly experiencing economic growth and that kind of plateaued and has started to fall.

The other issue is the state has not really dealt with how to have a leadership succession from its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He stepped down in 2019 but he sort of retained a lot of his power by putting himself on the -- heading the national security council.


WATSON: Russia was so quick to show its support of the government amid the violence, the country's defense ministry said nine Russian military transport aircraft had landed in Kazakhstan with many more on the way.


WATSON: It comes after NATO allies met in Brussels over the crisis facing another former Soviet republic, Ukraine. CNN's Nic Robertson has the latest from Moscow.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: With that extraordinary session of NATO foreign ministers, the NATO secretary- general Jens Stoltenberg said that Russia continues to build up troops on the border of Ukraine and bring in more military hardware, including artillery pieces.

He said that the NATO foreign ministers are absolutely united in their position, happy to have talks with Russia. However, Russia's demand that NATO should deny Ukraine membership was off the table, he said.

Russia, he described, has put itself in a position where it is not an apparently trustworthy interlocutor because of its invasion of neighbors in the past, because of the demands that it is putting on the table and because it is ramping up troops.

And that, he said, leads to a very dangerous situation.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: The challenge is that, when you see this gradual military buildup, combined with the threatening rhetoric, combined with the track record of Russia, that have, actually, used force against neighbors before -- Georgia and Ukraine. The capabilities, the rhetoric and the track record, of course, that

sends a message that is a real risk for a new, armed conflict in Europe.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): The U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who was part of that meeting, said that Russia is creating a false narrative by saying that it is U.S. forces, NATO forces, that are the threat to Russia, close to Russia's border.

He said that what Russia is trying to do at the moment by taking this twin track approach, of talking to the United States, talking to NATO separately, of giving them separate security demands, he said that is an effort to divide NATO.


BLINKEN: Russia is now demanding that both the United States and NATO sign treaties to withdraw NATO forces stationed in the territory of allies of settled Eastern Europe and to prohibit Ukraine from ever joining NATO.

They want to draw us into a debate about NATO, rather than focus on the matter at hand, which is their aggression toward Ukraine. We won't be diverted from that issue.


ROBERTSON: So NATO and the U.S. in alignment right now; NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg saying that they had to be prepared for diplomatic failure. And if that is the case, very strong and tough sanctions on Russia would follow.

But how to solve this diplomatically really isn't clear. Threading that needle, finding something that President Putin can take away from the talks, that he can feel is a success, given it has set such a high bar and something that is not going to divide the NATO allies, that is the tough challenge -- Nic Robertson, CNN, Moscow.


WATSON: Coming up, rampant COVID case numbers and mixed messaging are trying the patience of Americans. Ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, the growing frustration over the government's changing guidelines.

And countries across Europe scramble to deal with the spread of Omicron as soaring cases tax hospitals. A live report from London just ahead.





WATSON: The Omicron variant is complicating more than health statistics in the U.S. It's leading to recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that many are calling confusing. The agency's director is facing sharp criticism from the White House and experts within the CDC itself. Gabe Cohen explains.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: As we've articulated before, CDC is working on updating --

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky facing renewed criticism from within the White House and her own agency after yet another guidance gaffe.

A source telling CNN that CDC scientists are increasingly frustrated with Walensky's handling of guidance. And between her circumventing their vetting process for guidelines and the public criticism, moral at the agency is sinking.

WALENSKY: It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.

COHEN (voice-over): It comes after the CDC cut the COVID isolation period from 10 days to five, making no mention of a negative test, drawing pushback from health experts and contradiction from the surgeon general.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: They have certainly received feedback and questions about the role of testing.

COHEN (voice-over): As well as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASES: I'm saying it's something that absolutely should be considered. And I believe the CDC is going to clarify that.

COHEN (voice-over): They did. Same people can test if they want to. But if they test positive, they should isolate for five more days. The head of the American Medical Association says all of this is not only confusing but risking further spread of the virus.

DR. TOM FRIEDEN, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: I think the problem here isn't so much the guidance, it's the lack of effective communication about the guidance.

COHEN (voice-over): Dr. Tom Frieden was CDC director under the Obama administration.

FRIEDEN: And yes, there are some judgment calls, so be frank about them.

COHEN (voice-over): Now CNN has learned Dr. Walensky is in media training. For months, she's been meeting with a consultant to improve communication skills. Today, she held a rare solo news conference. WALENSKY: 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.

COHEN (voice-over): The well-regarded infectious disease expert had no government experience before President Biden appointed her and has often seemed out of step with the White House and Dr. Fauci, leading to some abrupt and confusing changes and guidance.

In May, she announced vaccinated people could stop wearing masks indoors, drawing quick criticism that it was too soon.

And last February, the White House had to clarify Walensky's comment that teachers did not need to be fully vaccinated for schools to reopen.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Dr. Walensky spoke to this in her personal capacity.

COHEN (voice-over): Now Walensky is under fire for not following the CDC's own playbook for explaining new guidance. A Biden COVID adviser tells me the CDC has got to do a better job communicating what they're doing and why. And that has to happen quickly.

PSAKI: That's what happens when you lead with the data and the science and not lead with a clear communications plan.

COHEN: And Dr. Friedman is urging the White House to move their COVID- 19 briefings from D.C. to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta to make it less partisan and to let the subject matter experts control more of the public messaging.

I'll also note that the Biden COVID-19 advisor I spoke to, told me that this is a larger coordination problem across the administration, between the White House, the CDC, the FDA and the National Institutes of Health.


COHEN: And blame here can't solely fall on Dr. Walensky -- Gabe Cohen, CNN, Washington.


WATSON: Now to a different COVID situation, in China, where COVID 19 cases are on the rise despite the nation's zero COVID strategy, on Friday reporting nearly 100 new locally transmitted infections, almost half from the city of Xi'an. Residents don't have access to many basic needs, including medical care.

Now Chinese authorities are telling hospitals to accept all patients no matter what their status is. Kristie Lu Stout has more.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: I'm Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong. As the Chinese city of Xi'an enters a third week of hard lockdown, a second pregnant woman has suffered a miscarriage due to delayed medical aid. This is according to state media.

A Chinese vice premier is telling hospitals not to turn patients away under any excuses. The Xi'an hospital told CNN they initially turned the first pregnant woman away because they were following government COVID rules.

After that incident went viral, local health officials were suspended. The director of the Xi'an municipal health commission bowed and apologized. But for angry citizens, it isn't enough, with one saying, "COVID may not kill you but bureaucrats can."


WATSON: Professor Ben Cowling is the chair of epidemiology from the University of Hong Kong. Earlier, I spoke to him about the rapid spread of Omicron there and how Hong Kong's government is dealing with the rise in infections here.


BEN COWLING, CHAIR OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG: Right now we have Omicron in the community but the government is working very hard to do contact tracing. I'm a little concerned it may be difficult to keep up with Omicron because it spreads so fast.

So I wonder if the government is going to have to consider bringing in more stringent measures. In your report, you mentioned each time there is an outbreak, there is a very stringent set of interventions implemented to get cases back down to zero again.


WATSON: In the U.K., the spread of COVID cases is putting such a strain on hospitals that British troops have been called in to help with staffing shortages. At least 200 have been deployed to hospitals around London, where about 4,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

That's more than triple from a month ago. For more Nada Bashir is in London.

We are hearing about sick medical staff.

How bad has the situation gotten?

NADA BASHIR, CNN PRODUCER: Health care leaders are warning the situation is nearing overwhelming for the National Health Service. The head describing it as a perfect storm, with both cases and admissions rising at an alarming rate.

And we are now seeing a significant increase of staff shortages, increasing by nearly 60 percent. So the significant shortfall there in staff available because they are getting sick or having to isolate. And we are continuing to see the spread of Omicron, where this could

have another knock-on on health care service, due to the lack of staff available to deal with the spread. As you mentioned, 200 members of military personnel have been deployed in London to support health care workers.

The situation is so serious the prime minister is saying the health care service is on a war footing. But there are calls for the government to implement tougher measures but the prime minister is saying they are sticking with plan B.

What that means is wearing masks in indoor public spaces and public transport and working from home. We've heard from the largest union in Britain, calling for stricter measures to really mitigate the impact of staff shortages and to ease pressure on the NHS dealing with the rise of cases.

But at this stage, the prime minister isn't looking at tougher measures.

WATSON: I guess he has a very different definition of what a war footing is. Nada Bashir, thank you very much.

The flight cancellations just keep coming. And this weekend is no exception. We'll look at what is causing this travel chaos -- ahead.






JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The situation is a blinking code red for our nation because the combination of extreme drought, the driest period from June to December ever recorded -- ever recovered -- unusually high winds, no snow on the ground to start, created a tinder box.


WATSON: President Joe Biden there, sounding the alarm on the climate crisis and its impact on wildfires. He was in Colorado Friday meeting with families who lost homes and businesses in the wildfires that swept through the state last week. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed, causing $0.5 billion in damage.

The Impact Your World team has verified ways viewers can help Colorado wildfire victims. You can visit

Airlines have canceled more than 1,000 U.S. flights today The website says many were on the East Coast, both Omicron and a fast moving winter storm impacting the region. Pete Muntean has more. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Airlines are once again axing flights by the thousands. This time thanks to the latest snowstorm hitting airports up the East Coast.

New York's LaGuardia airport is facing eight new inches of snow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I got stuck here, I probably wouldn't be as happy. But as long as I get home, I'm OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I won't make it in time so I canceled my flight. I'll see tomorrow if I can find something.

MUNTEAN: But it is winter weather along with airline worker shortages that have led to a perfect storm of cancellations nationwide. The latest figures from FlightAware show that U.S. airlines have canceled more than 27,000 flights since Christmas Eve.


MUNTEAN (voice-over): Cancellations so bad this week in Atlanta that travelers waited hours to get their checked bags back.

HAILEY CONN, TRAVELING AT ATLANTA AIRPORT: I went to try to talk to someone about my bags and they just said that they would try their best to get out on my flight and that was all I heard about my bags.


MUNTEAN: Industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says it's unlikely that airlines around the cancellations corner this month. An untold number of airline workers are calling out sick, either because they've been exposed to or infected with coronavirus.

HARTEVELDT: The random nature of omicron means that you don't know which of your employees are going to get sick.

While airlines are trying to take steps to reduce the impact, there's no way they can get to an absolute zero proof level of being disrupted.

MUNTEAN: Alaska Airlines is the latest carrier to trim its flight schedule, proactively canceling 10 percent of January flights, citing the continued impacts of omicron and unprecedented employee sick calls. Similar moves have been made by JetBlue and Delta.

Canceling for the third day in a row it temporary halted even still about 1.5 million people are flying each day -- Pete Muntean, CNN, reporting from Reagan National Airport.


(WEATHER REPORT) WATSON: Now sumo wrestling is no longer just for men. After the break,

we'll meet a woman who is helping to change Japan's traditional sport. You are going to want to see this.





WATSON: Welcome back, I'm Ivan Watson in Hong Kong, broadcasting live. Getting a view of the skyline over the Victoria Harbor where it is approaching 7:00 pm in Hong Kong.

Now when you think of a sumo wrestler, you might picture a massive Japanese man but never a woman. That is because women have been forbidden from competing in the traditional sport. But that might be changing. CNN's Don Riddell with more.


DON RIDDELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is sumo, the national sport of Japan. Their wrestlers are hard to miss, with their topknots and iconic loincloths, their hulking bodies and high impact bouts.

It is an ancient sport, dating back more than 1,000 years and, through all that time, very little has changed. As a professional sport, women have always been banned.

But changing attitudes in Japan mean there might now be a future for girls and women in sumo.

Senna Kajiwara has been learning sumo since she was 8 years old. She is also ready to topple the barriers to entry of a male dominated sport.

SENNA KAJIWARA, SUMO CHAMPION (through translator): People tend to think that sumo is just for boys and men. I think that is why they are usually surprised and even shocked when they find out I do it. If we get more girls and women in sumo, then we can level the playing field and make a living from it.


RIDDELL (voice-over): A number of scandals in recent years have tarnished the reputation of Japan's national sport. In 2018, when a city mayor collapsed in the ring, the women who were trying to save his life were asked to leave.

According to tradition, the supposedly impure women would pollute the sacred space of the dohyo. The man's life was saved but the incident sparked a backlash in Japan, prompting the Japan Sumo Association to apologize. The following year, the inaugural national sumo championship was held

in Tokyo. The event has been open to boys since 1984 but only now are girls aged between 8 and 12 getting their shot.

KAJIWARA (through translator): I do hurt myself sometimes but I don't get scared at all when I'm in the ring.

RIDDELL (voice-over): Senna Kajiwara is the defending champion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Sumo is Japan's national sport. Senna can be quite taciturn and earnest. The tournament can be determined in an instant. I think sumo suits her character.

RIDDELL (voice-over): The 12-year old, making it to the final in 2021 but looked as though she was on the brink of defeat. However, she turned it around to and successfully, defended her title.

KAJIWARA (through translator): I was so nervous. I won the championship when I was in fourth grade, so I felt a lot of pressure and expectations this time. In the future, I want to keep up sumo and go as far as I can.

RIDDELL (voice-over): Don Riddell, CNN.


WATSON: I'm Ivan Watson. For our viewers in the U.S., "NEW DAY" is next and, for our international viewers, "ECOSOLUTIONS" comes up next.