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CDC Director: Vaccines, Testing Keep Schools Open Safely; Harris Health System Treating Record Number of Covid Patients; Unvaccinated Push U.S. Hospitalizations to New Pandemic Record; Biden Will Give Urgent Speech Pushing Voting Rights Laws; North Korea Launches 2nd Suspected Missile in a Week; Kaine Gets Highway Survival Kit: Blanket, Orange, Dr. Pepper. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired January 11, 2022 - 15:30   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: The teachers union and the city of Chicago coming to an agreement on COVID mitigation efforts. This is the country's third largest school district. So, the measures include more testing for students, distribution of KN-95 masks and a benchmark for when a school will move to remote learning.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: The teachers started voting on the proposed agreement today. It is expected to pass. A 340,000 students have missed four days of class after teachers voted to move to virtual learning amid a COVID surge, and the school district responded by cancelling classes.

In Los Angeles, a lot of students are back in the classroom today. In order to return to school, they must show a proof of a negative COVID test.

CAMEROTA: But more than 60,000 students and staff will not be able to return to in-person learning after testing positive. CNN's Stephanie Elam joins us now. So, Stephanie, what is the plan there to keep schools open?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're very clear here in L.A. USD that they will be keeping schools open, Alisyn and Victor, kids coming back today after the winter break taking that extra day to make sure they have plenty of time to do this mandatory testing of students to come here. And that testing of students and of staff and teachers finding more than 65,000 positive cases.

So those people aren't here, but they said if there's people that are going to be out, that they are going to have plenty of certified teachers who can step in for teachers who may be out quarantining and the like. That said, I did ask to find out what they were doing here in LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation, with 650,000 students, how they were able to stay open. I asked the interim superintendent, Megan Riley, here's her answer.


MEGAN K. REILLY, INTERIM SUPERINTENDENT, LOS ANGELES SCHOOL DISTRICT: This is our third semester under this new normal. We know how to handle this. We've had many months of being innovative and responsive in our school communities. And Los Angeles Unified is in constant communication with our health partners, to continue adapting and reevaluating the multilayered safety protocols and standards currently in place.


ELAM: And just to give you an idea, the last data that they gave us, LAUSD says their positivity rate was just under 15 percent. While for L.A. County it was above 21 percent. So, they're saying it's much safer to have students back in the classroom where, A, they're learning, their mental health is stronger as well, and also because if you look at the county, while we're in this Omicron surge, they're definitely doing better here. And their testing and catching the people who are sick so they're not coming and infecting people at the school. The other thing to note is they have about a thousand schools in LAUSD, and they said this academic year, they have had to close zero of them -- Alisyn and Victor.

OK, Stephanie Elam, thank you very much for that reporting.

BLACKWELL: COVID hospitalizations in the U.S. have reached an all-time high. In Harris County, Texas the spike is so bad they've had to increase the coronavirus threat level to the highest level, and the majority of the people who are admitted with COVID are unvaccinated.

The CEO of Harris Health System in Houston, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa joins me now. Thank you very much for being with me, doctor. And I want to start there, with what we know for a year now, that the people who are filling hospital rooms are those who have not been vaccinated. The numbers in your system, what's the percentage if you have it with you of those who are unvaccinated who are there at those hospitals.

DR. ESMAEIL PORSA, CEO, HARRIS HEALTH SYSTEM: Definitely. Let me first start by saying thank you for this opportunity, and I want to thank all the healthcare providers, definitely at Harris Health System for what they have done over the last couple of years. Definitely more than anything I or anyone else could have asked them for, and also all healthcare providers across the country who have helped us get us through this pandemic to this point.

To answer your question, you're absolutely right. I mean, what has not changed is the fact that this continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Specifically, to answer your question of Harris Health System, you know, we had an all-time high of 190 COVID positive patients. Good 85 percent of them are not vaccinated.

What has changed is that that number used to be 90 percent -- or over 90 percent and yes, it's 85 percent. So more of the vaccinated people are getting infected, but what has not changed, and really very important is that among the people who require hospitalization in the ICU, that has not changed. The vast majority of the people who are being hospitalized in Harris Health System, requiring ICU hospitalizations, more 86 percent are not vaccinated. BLACKWELL: So again, those numbers, although down from 90 percent to

85, still the lion's share here, those people who have not been vaccinated.


There is now this concern about the distinction between those who are admitted for COVID versus those who are admitted for other things, and incidentally test for a positive for COVID. Wat's the break down, if you know it, percentage of those who are in the hospitals with COVID, but that's not really why they're there primarily?

PORSA: Yes, so that has changed as well, right. So, I mean logically, it follows that as the percentage of the people who are being hospitalized, given vaccination from, you know, less than 10 percent up to around 15 percent. The percentage of the people who are in the hospital and happen to have COVID infection, just because the number of cases and the transmission of this variant is so high, it follows. So right now, it's around 30, 35 percent of the people who are in the hospital with COVID are here for something else but happen to have COVID.

But let's not lose track of the fact that it really doesn't matter. If you have COVID and you're in the hospital and you're going to be treated with the same precautions, regardless of if COVID brought you to the hospital or you came to the hospital because of a gallbladder and you have COVID, you still have to be in isolation, and have to follow all the precautions.

And let me say this before I forget about the question previously about the impact of the vaccine on vaccination, and this is a really sad story of the people who have lost their lives to COVID at Harris Health Systems since the beginning of last calendar year, January 1, 2021, unfortunately 282 people until January 5th of this year, just last week, 282 people lost their lives to COVID at Harris Health System. Out of those numbers, only nine were vaccinated. Not a single person was vaccinated and boosted. Zero who were vaccinated and boosted lost their lives to COVID at Harris Health System since the beginning of last calendar year. That is really --

BLACKWELL: Those numbers really drive it home. Of course, the importance of the vaccination, as we move into this phase where we're seeing so many people who are getting COVID, who are getting -- because Omicron is so contagious, those who are vaccinated and those who are boosted get the symptoms of a cold or maybe a mild flu, they're certainly, as we're seeing the numbers from your hospital, no one dying who's vaccinated and boosted, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, thank you so much for the insight.

PORSA: My pleasure, thank you.

CAMEROTA: OK, Victor, moments from now, President Biden is scheduled to speak in Atlanta. He's going to make a big push for voting rights, and we'll bring you that live.

BLACKWELL: Also happening right now in Georgia, big celebrations, the bulldogs returning after their national championship Victory over Alabama's Crimson Tide.



CAMEROTA: Any moment now President Biden and Vice President Harris will deliver urgent speeches in Atlanta pushing for voting rights legislation. The president is expected to support changing Senate filibuster rules in order to pass new voting protections.

Let's bring in Professor Sam Wang. He's the director for the Princeton Electoral Innovation Lab. Professor, thanks so much for being here. I don't have to tell you there's all sorts of troubling things happening at the state and local level where former President Trump's cronies who believe the big election lie are being installed into important election positions. So, is President Biden making this speech today too late?

SAM WANG, ELECTORAL INNOVATION LAB DIRECTOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: I don't think it's too late. I would say that there are several choke points, weak points in our democracy that really need to be addressed. One is local control of elections, and having elections be honest as they have been in great and large part over the last decades.

And the other is election rules that get in the way of fair outcomes. Things like anti gerrymandering provisions, things like voter I.D. provisions. So, I would say that it's really important for there to be a local role. Citizens can do that by joining their election boards and a national role for the Department of Justice and federal laws to protect democracy. So, it would have been great to have these protections in place a few years ago, but it is not too late and it's very important to pass these voting rights acts as President Biden is advocating.

CAMEROTA: I mean, when you talk about citizens joining their local election boards, some of that is happening, but again, some of that is happening where Trump cronies are joining those. I'll give you two examples, Wayne County, Michigan, a GOP supporter of Trump's big election lie was selected to the board of canvassers which will certify the election results. Genesee Count, Michigan, a 13-year veteran of the county canvassing board lost her seat because she said there was no evidence of widespread fraud. And so, what can stop those things?

WANG: The difficulty is that these election canvassing positions used to be duties that local party regulars did, that used to be not that interesting. I mean, no offense to them, these are essential duties but used to not attract a lot of controversy. But now they've attracted controversy. And so, I would say that things like passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, passage of the Freedom To Vote Act, that Senators Manchin and Klobuchar have sponsored. Those are important protections that will protect the right to vote in various ways, and local citizens, whether Democratic or Republican need to be a counter weight to extreme elements of any party that may want to overturn elections and keep elections from being honestly reported.


I think there are opportunities and it's just a situation where people at every level have to pitch in and I think at the highest levels, Congress and the president have a duty and opportunity to do what they have done in past decades, which protect voting rights.

CAMEROTA: It's interesting that those two examples that I just gave you are from Michigan. Because you say that Michigan is like the shining star in terms of the laws it has passed against gerrymandering. You know, gerrymandering is a big problem because it makes these super entrenched districts that are not competitive, so what did Michigan do right that could serve as a model?

WANG: Michigan is a beacon to the states, just as in other states there have been established independent commissions where the commissioners are citizens. They are selected from applicants taken from the population, Democrats, Republicans and independents, and at our site at, we did a deep dive into the mechanism there. And found that having independent commission where independents, Democrats and Republicans had to come together, where there was public input and where the final authority was not in legislators but, in fact, in the people themselves.

These were key steps, and about half of states have the possibility of having a voter initiative to allow such a thing to occur, and I would say that the grades that we gave at the gerrymandering project at Princeton, those grades that we gave to those plans were A's, maybe a couple of B's here and there. But the outcome as measured by quantitative metrics illustrate that Michigan has succeeded in drawing fair maps that in all likelihood will reflect the will of voters in the decade to come.

CAMEROTA: Everyone should check out your web site to see exactly how it was done, and again, your grades. Sam Wang, founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, thanks so much.

WANG: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: North Korea launches a new missile, and the FAA issues a ground stop for some pilots on the West Coast. We'll go live to the Pentagon to find out what happened.

CAMEROTA: And we are waiting for President Biden's speech in Atlanta. That will be happening at any minute, and we'll bring it to you live when it does.



BLACKWELL: Officials say the suspected ballistic missile launched Monday by North Korea is more advanced than the missile the rogue country launched just a week ago.

CAMEROTA: So, we have a picture of last week's missile. And according to South Korea's military, the latest launch reached a velocity of more than ten times the speed of sound and it traveled more than 430 miles. So as a precaution, the FAA grounded some planes on the West Coast.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann joins us now. So, Oren, what is the Pentagon saying about this?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the military's Indo-Pacific command says they were aware of this ballistic missile launch and were in consultation with allies in the region. Of course, that specifically means South Korea and Japan.

They say it was never a threat to U.S. personnel or to territory, but that it was a destabilizing action coming from North Korea. The missile, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency achieved an altitude of about 40 miles and reached a speed of Mach 10. According to Japan's ministry of defense, it landed west of Japan in the Sea of Japan.

This comes just one week after another launch from North Korea. North Korea had claimed it was a launch of a ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle but there is quite a bit of skepticism about that claim. Nevertheless, North Korea experts say these two launches so close together just seven days apart is a way for North Korea and leader Kim Jong-un to remind the U.S. and the west of his relevance, as well as the country's importance to the region. A way of trying to figure out whether North Korea wants to engage perhaps diplomatically or through provocation.

It comes just a few weeks after the U.S. and South Korea agreed to update their Operational War Plan. A classified strategy about how the U.S., South Korea and allies would respond should there be an outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.

And in the months before that announcement which came in early December, there was a number, four in fact, missile launches from North Korea, including cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. From this latest launch what's also very interesting is that the FAA issued a ground stop that lasted only about 15 to 20 minutes earlier on Monday. That was a result of this North Korean missile launch.

Now what's interesting is, the FAA made no mention of North Korea but the White House and others had made it clear that's what it was. The FAA says they often take precautionary measures. That part may be true but not like this in response to a missile launched thousands of miles away -- Victor and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Yes, OK. Oren Liebermann, thank you for that update.

All right, so we're waiting for President Joe Biden's speech in Atlanta on voting rights. And we will bring that to you as soon as it starts.


[15:25:00] BLACKWELL: Senator Richard Burr wants to make sure his colleague, Senator Tim Kaine, is ready if he gets stranded again on a snow- covered highway.

CAMEROTA: You'll remember that Senator Kaine spent 27 hours trapped on I-95 after that powerful winter storm shut down the highway. And Senator Kaine spoke with us during his ordeal. Well, today in a lighthearted, bipartisan moment, Senator Burr gave Senator Kaine a highway survival kit.


SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC): I want to make sure that he's got an orange for his car. That he's got a Dr. Pepper and I provided a lumbi blanket to make sure that these are three things that you've got in your car regardless of what you run into on I-95.


Tim, we're sorry you had to spend 27 hours, but you're now qualified to be the Secretary of Transportation if you're looking for a second job.



BLACKWELL: Now that's a fun moment. That's a fun moment. Although, I am pretty sure that Senator Kaine will not be caught without granola or trail mix or some jerky or something in his car.

CAMEROTA: No, all you need is Dr. Pepper and an orange. Totally life- sustaining foods. That's what the astronauts should take to space.

BLACKWELL: You need more than that.

"THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.

CAMEROTA: You need Jake Tapper.