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Interview with Xavier Becerra, Health and Human Services Secretary: COVID Guidelines and Supreme Court Ruling on Mandates; Omicron Causes Major School Disruptions and Bitter Debate; Experts Warn Virtual Schooling Worsening Kids' Mental Health Crisis. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired January 10, 2022 - 15:30   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: So, less severe than the Delta or the wild strain. How do we approach this? How do we balance something that individually may be less severe, but is just over stressing America's hospitals?

XAVIER BECERRA, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, Victor, you made a very important qualification. For those who are vaccinated and boosted, Omicron may not become very severe. But if you're not vaccinated and certainly if you're not boosted as well, you really run the risk that you could be in a lot of hurt and pain and perhaps death if you don't get vaccinated and boosted.

So, it's important if you want to stay out of the hospital, if you want to stay alive, if you want to be able to do the regular things in life, you should get vaccinated and boosted first and foremost. And what we want to do is make it so our health care workers don't continue to be exhausted, because so many people are now entering the hospitals again.

BLACKWELL: Yes. We know that we're standing by at any moment for a decision from the Supreme Court on the administration's vaccine mandates, partially expected or scheduled to start today. If they go the way that maybe the numbers of a conservative court suggest they would, what's the plan?

BECERRA: Well, hopefully the plan is that the Supreme Court will recognize that the federal government, the Biden administration has the authority to require these vaccines. We know that they work, they save lives. We've proven it, here at HHS, with 88,000 workers. Nearly 100 percent of our workers are vaccinated already.

BLACKWELL: And if they don't?

BECERRA: And if they don't, well, I think that will be on their conscience. I think there's some clear authority, legal authority for us to move forward as we have proposed. Both for the private sector workforce and for the healthcare workforce. And we understand that if we don't get people vaccinated and covered this way, people will die. And if you're a healthcare worker, for sure. BLACKWELL: So, again, we expect that decision to come from the Supreme

Court, and of course, this puts a greater premium on testing. There are 50 lawmakers, some top Democrats among them, who have sent this letter over to the administration today, who are urging the president to invoke the Defense Production Act to make more rapid antigen tests, these at-home tests, available. Is that something that is going to happen?

BECERRA: Well, the president has already taken action that I think preempts the need for any type of action that Congress may be requesting. Think about it, the president just announced, we're going to make 500 million tests available to Americans for free, starting this month. That's on top of, separate from, the 200 million tests that were made available last month, close to, we think we're going to get to about 300 million available this month. Apart from, again, the 500 million that the president has spoken about that will be free.

He's also made the announcement that those tests that are available through the commercial market, you'll be able to get reimbursed if you have private insurance. If you don't have insurance, you'll be able to go to healthcare centers throughout the nation in your community that will be able to dispense them to you for free. And so, the president has already acted. And the people has to recognize, all of this is being done, where when you compared to where we were a year ago, where zero Americans had easy access to any of these rapid tests.

BLACKWELL: Yes, but if you're looking at numbers from a year ago, I remember, it was about this time when Dr. Fauci was testifying before Congress and said, one day, we could get to 100,000 new cases a day. And that had jaws on the floor in Congress. And now the daily average is 709,000 per day. So, I don't know, Mr. Secretary, if a year ago, is the best reference to suggest that the country is in a better place, as it relates to testing.

BECERRA: Well, if you think about it, Victor, most of those folks who are getting infected, who are ending up in the hospital, and of the so -- I think it was 1,400 or so who died yesterday, most of them, the vast majority, were unvaccinated. And so, I think what the president has said is right on the mark. Get vaccinated, now get boosted, be current with your shots. And you're probably going to be safe. But if you're not vaccinated, you're probably one of those folks that's ending up in the hospital. We can only tell people so many times. We know what works. We know what cost saves lives. And Victor, everyone should be clear. There's no ambiguity here. We know how to make this work.

BLACKWELL: Speaking of being clear and no ambiguity, there's been some criticism of the CDC and namely the CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky about confusing, sometimes contradictory guidance from the agency. And this has been admitted by some members of the administration.


What do you think the damage that has been done by some of that confusing guidance has been? Well, I'm not where they fall? Let me tell you what I think. First,

Dr. Rochelle Walensky is an infectious disease expert. She has a medical license and she also has a degree in public health. She doesn't have a degree in marketing. She has a degree in medicine and in public health and she's an infectious disease expert. Who do I want running CDC? Someone who knows infectious diseases, someone who understands this stuff. And so, while we may have issues with some of the marketing that's been done, I guarantee you, Dr. Walensky is someone we need at CDC.

BLACKWELL: Mr. Secretary, yes, the Bonafede's from her degrees in science are certainly valuable as CDC director, but relaying the message is as important. So, I know that you may not need her to have a marketing degree, but there have been some challenges there and --

BECERRA: Victor, I'm going to push back on that.

BLACKWELL: Go ahead.

BECERRA: I'm going to push back on that. She made it very clear and she based her words on the science. Now, look, even scientists don't always agree exactly how we do this. But what she said not only was accurate but could lead us to a better place. Could we do it differently? Absolutely. And scientists have said that we could do it differently. But, you know, don't compare Rochelle Walensky to the almighty when it comes to how she should have done it. Compare her to the alternative. And I guarantee you, the alternative -- you name me someone who's an alternative and I'll poke holes in it.

BLACKWELL: I'll hear you, Mr. Secretary. I've heard the comparison to the almighty from the president, but I can compare her to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia or I can compare her to the World Health Organization or other organizations that have put out clear, specific guidance, as it relates specifically to five days in quarantine, should I take an antigen test? That would be a good idea, but it's not required. Some of that can be confusing. But Secretary of Health and Human Services --

BECERRA: Bring me back. Bring me back and I'll poke holes in what you just said.

BLACKWELL: All right, well we will certainly have you back. Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Thanks so much.

BECERRA: Victor, thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Really interesting conversation there.

All right. So just ahead, we're going to talk live with a parent who says, it's time to make the tough, grown-up decisions about kids, COVID, and classrooms. What are those decisions?

Plus, an incredible rescue caught on camera. Police pulled this pilot from his crashed plane right before a train slammed into it. We're going to show you how this went down.



BLACKWELL: Schools in Chicago are closed for a fourth straight day. City officials are arguing with the teacher's union over COVID safety protocols.

CAMEROTA: But in New York and Los Angeles, the nation's two biggest school districts, they're moving ahead with in-person learning. So, what's the right answer? Adam Zimmerman is the father of two school- aged children, and his recent op-ed, "A Parent's Plea To Policy Makers, Start Prioritizing Our Kids," appeared in "The Baltimore Sun." Adam, thanks so much for being here.

So, in your op-ed, you make the case that it is vital for kids for a host of reasons, everything from mental health to their academic level to be in the classroom. But Victor just interviewed a teacher in Chicago who also happens to be a parent, and you know, she talks about the danger. So let me just play for you her sound and get you to respond.


HALLE QUEZADA, CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER AND MOM: We are in unchartered territory right now. We are in a spike. We're not asking for remote learning forever. We are asking for remote learning until these cases get under control. I am a teacher who is vaccinated and had a breakthrough case of COVID and my vaccinated husband ended up hospitalized. And while he survived, it was just wildly traumatic to my family. And having lived that and asking me to subject my students and their families who are even more vulnerable, it feels wrong.


CAMEROTA: So, Adam, what's your response to that?

ADAM ZIMMERMAN, FATHER OF TWO SCHOOL AGED CHILDREN (via phone): So, my heart goes out to her, Alisyn. Teachers are heroes. And we've seen throughout this pandemic, whether it's been in a classroom or behind a computer screen that our teachers are doing everything they can to teach our kids, to show them the love and compassion that they need to get from those teachers every day.

I think we're in a situation right now where parents are afraid. Either we're afraid to send our kids to school, because in many cases, our schools don't have the resources, whether it's the masks or the testing they need in order to keep the classrooms as safe as possible, or we're in a situation where schools that want to do the right thing, they can't.

In 17 states right now, schools are prevented from putting in place vaccination mandates. Even as we heard from Secretary Becerra. As we know that vaccines can play such a pivotal role in reducing severe disease, hospitalization, and death, schools that want to do the right thing, understand the need to do the right thing, are being prevented from doing the right thing and so it puts us, as parents, as teachers, in a real bind. And our kids are caught in the middle.

BLACKWELL: You know, Adam, you start this right in "The Sun" by catching your son, Aidan, almost chucking his Chromebook at the wall and understanding his frustration. I just thought about all of the kids in rural districts who don't have Chromebooks, who are given just a packet at the beginning of the week and then get it done and come back.


As you talked about just the resources that so many poorer kids don't have and what they miss by not being in the building.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh absolutely. And when my son was about to throw his computer against the wall, there was an anger and a rage, a question of, how could you do this to me? How could the adults in the room take me away from my classroom, from my friends, from all of the things that I rely on each day? Not just from an academic standpoint, but from mental health and standpoint, a social and emotional well-being.

So, the call to go to remote schooling, even for a short time, I can understand it. And a part of me even wants that. But then when you remember, as you said, Victor, not every child has a computer or a home internet connection. Millions, tens of millions of parents in this country have no paid leave, who have difficulty accessing affordable childcare. So, that if schools do go remote and kids are home, who's going to keep an eye on the kids? Who's going to watch them while mom and dad or another caregiver have to go to work?

And these are impossible questions that tens of millions of families have to face and again we're in this position because for too long now, our children have not been at the top of the priority list in our response to this pandemic and that's just got to change.

BLACKWELL: Yes, you call them the forgotten victims of this pandemic. Adam Zimmerman, thank you so much for your perspective.

ZIMMERMAN: Thanks for having me.

BLACKWELL: Tennis star Novak Djokovic is back on the tennis court for training, after an Australian judge overturned his visa cancellation.

CAMEROTA: But it is still unclear whether or not he can play in the Australian Open. That's next.



BLACKWELL: The world's top men's tennis player has won a legal battle over his vaccination status in Australia. A judge in Melbourne overturned the cancellation of Novak Djokovic's visa and ordered him to be released from immigration detention. CAMEROTA: Djokovic was detained after authorities determined he did

not qualify for a vaccine exemption. In a series of tweets Djokovic says he still intends to play in the Australian Open later this month. Whether he actually will remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the entire season of college football comes down to tonight when the Georgia Bulldogs face the Alabama Crimson Tide for the national championship. As you know, Victor.

BLACKWELL: We are so excited.

CAMEROTA: We are so excited. I'll find out what time this is on. We saw a preview last month of these two S.E.C. rivals when Alabama crushed Georgia, as you'll remember, Victor, 41-24. And that was, of course, in the conference championship game.

BLACKWELL: Yes, I remember it so well. It was Georgia's only loss of the season, so could the Dogs' need for revenge be enough to overcome the Tide tonight? That's a question for CNN's Andy Scholes who joins us from Indianapolis. Chilly in Indianapolis. Hey, Andy. You can hear the excitement in our voices.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: You all know a lot about what's been going on the last month in college football.

And I tell you what guys, thank goodness the game is indoors because it's like 20 degrees out here with a windchill of like 16. But thankfully we'll be inside Lucas Oil Stadium tonight. And I'll tell you what, all those Georgia fans are certainly hoping that tonight is finally their night because recent history against Alabama has not been too kind to the Georgia Bulldogs. They haven't beaten Alabama since 2007. They've lost seven in a row. But they're hoping that they can finally get over that hump tonight.

Now, Alabama head coach Nick Saban he's trying to win his eighth national title. He's 25-1 against his former assistant coaches and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is one of those former coaches. He's 0- 4 against his old boss. The latest loss coming in the S.E.C. championship game which Alabama won in a blowout, but Georgia's players say they've learned from that game.


JORDAN DAVIS, GEORGIA BULLDOGS DEFENSIVE LINEMAN: After the last Alabama game, it was like our wake-up call. We realized that we had a lot of work to do. And we haven't arrived yet, I had three shots at Alabama and haven't beaten them yet. So, you know, that's speaking for myself. As a team, you know, winning the national championship, this is what we're grinding for and worked for all season. So of course, it's going to be an amazing feeling.

BRYCE YOUNG, ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE QUARTERBACK: We understand it's different. We have to earn it. Anything that happened in the past you learn from it, but it's in the past. So, it's on us to work day in, day out and to earn the outcome that we want.


SCHOLES: Yes, and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was amazing in that S.E.C. title game. We'll see what Georgia's great defense can do against him tonight in the national title game.

And guys, before I go, I got a great stat for you. Alabama has only been an underdog three times in the past 13 seasons. Every single time they were an underdog, they won handily. Two of those games were against Georgia. And guess what? Alabama is an underdog tonight. Three-point underdog to Georgia. Wait and see what happens.

BLACKWELL: All right.


BLACKWELL: Andy, you should have done this live shot a little closer to that the heat lamp behind you. Why are you so far from the fire?

SCHOLES: I just -- I ran back over here just now. I was over by that lamp seconds ago. Believe me. I'm going back.

BLACKWELL: All right.

CAMEROTA: Good call.

BLACKWELL: Andy Scholes, thanks so much.

Right now, a judge is hearing arguments on whether former President Donald Trump can be sued by members of Congress. We'll have more on that ahead.



BLACKWELL: Legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou will be the first black woman to appear on the U.S. quarter. The U.S. Mint announced today that a coin has started to circulate.

CAMEROTA: The Maya Angelou quarter is the first in the American Women Quarters Program which will feature prominent women in American history.

BLACKWELL: So, in Los Angeles, there's this dramatic rescue of a pilot from a plane crash with seconds to go before a train slammed into the wreckage. Now this video is graphic but take a look.


POLICE: Go, go, go, go!



CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh. That single engine plane crashed onto the train tracks in L.A. -- as you saw. And the video shows officers at first struggling to pull the pilot from the cockpit as the train was approaching.


The pilot was taken to the hospital. He's reportedly doing OK, but it's just remarkable. I mean, they're such heroes.

BLACKWELL: It is amazing. Yes, this video is graphic but so glad that they got that man out of that way. Thanks so much for being with us for the last two hours.

CAMEROTA: "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.