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1,000+ Killed After Powerful Earthquake Hits Morocco; World Leaders Stop Short Of Condemning Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine In Joint Declaration. Rescuers Begin Operation To Extract American From Turkish Cave; Zelenskyy Defends Counteroffensive In Exclusive Interview; Record-High Temps Force Schools Back To Remote Learning. Aired 12-1p ET
Aired September 09, 2023 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
And we're following the breaking news out of Morocco, where more than 1,000 people were killed, after a powerful 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck late Friday.
It was the strongest to hit the area in over a century. The epicenter was located in the High Atlas Mountains, just southwest of Marrakech, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rescuers are now struggling to access the hardest hit areas after roads were damaged. Hospitals are filling up, prompting many patients to wait outside as hospital beds were moved onto the streets.
More than 700 people are in critical condition. And with intense aftershocks expected in the area, officials believe the death toll will steadily rise.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MOHAMED TAQAFI, WITNESS (through translator): I heard people screaming. Everyone went out of their houses. The street is full of people. An women's screaming, that's what happened. Even now, people can't go back home because they are still afraid.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: I want to bring in CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman for more on this. Ben, the destruction devastating. I mean, looking at some of the video that we saw and just the collapsing of buildings, what our emergency crews up against.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What they're up against is that the epicenter of this earthquake, 6.8 on the Richter scale, which happened at 11:15 p.m. on Friday. The epicenter is in a very mountainous area. That's very difficult to get to I've been up there. You know, there are very deep ravines and roads that aren't even in very good condition in the best of times.
And, of course, after an earthquake of this magnitude, many of those roads are simply blocked. Now, there are a lot of remote towns and villages in those mountainous areas. And these rescue teams need to get to all of them because the by all reports, it is in those areas where the injured and the dead are concentrated. So, they need to get there.
But the Moroccans clearly don't have the manpower or the equipment to reach all those areas simultaneously.
And keep in mind, Fredricka, that really the first 72 hours after an earthquake are critical. It's after 72 hours if you're caught under the rubble and you have no water, you will die of dehydration. So, time is of the essence.
At this point, the death toll has now exceeded 1,000. The last we've heard from Moroccan state television is 1,037. But we have seen the death toll steadily increasing throughout the day, as those rescue teams are getting more and more access to the areas that have been hit.
But there have been aftershocks, more than a dozen -- most people in these affected areas slept outside because of fear that more -- another earthquake or just simply strong aftershocks, as well.
Now, help is on the way. A variety of countries, including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and others are sending teams and supplies. And some of these countries like Turkey and Israel have lots of experience in dealing with this kind of natural disaster.
But the Moroccans clearly are in desperate need of all the help they can get given the strength of this earthquake. Fredricka?
WHITFIELD: That was devastating. All right. Ben Wedeman, thank you so much.
I want to also bring in now a CNN researcher, Benjamin Brown, who was on top a rooftop in Marrakech when the earthquake struck.
Ben, you're joining us on the phone. Tell me, what did you experience?
BENJAMIN BROWN, CNN RESEARCHER: I was on my hotel rooftop when the earth started shaking beneath us. At first, honestly, didn't know what was happening. I've never experienced an earthquake before I just had the weird sensation of everything shaking, glasses breaks, but then, after a few seconds, (INAUDIBLE) kicked in that. That this was an earthquake.
And immediately, basically, after, I started shaking and shaken up with this stuff in Marrakech that filled the sky. Yes, this cloud dust basically above the city.
We, that's me and other hotel guests then made our way out and through the narrow alleyways Marrakech very quickly to get to open areas where we were hoping we'd be far enough away from falling debris, be at -- toward buildings or a wall. Marrakech, obvious with ancient city walls (PH).
We were quite worried about because we'd also seen some of the damage that they had come under. Things piling and falling off wards. They (INAUDIBLE) also things, stuff that had toppled off ancient walls out into the streets.
And actually, seeing injured people being been brought out. At first in stretch has been brought out and destroyed half that one person wraps carpet. And seeing that, there were what appeared to be quite serious wounds, head injuries as well with lots of blood.
And unfortunately for one instance, in which a woman was denied access to an ambulance, the quite shaken ambulance crew were telling her that they had no more room. They were full of injured people and they couldn't take this injured elderly woman with them. So, quite harrowing -- quite harrowing scenes last night in Marrakech.
WHITFIELD: Oh, my gosh, that's horrible. And so, you know, when you were on that rooftop and you saw the dust, you know, and then you and others ran outside to the streets only to then realize, you know, that there was an earthquake.
Tell me about your concerns or the concern of others about aftershocks, whether, you know, more was coming, you know, you mentioned the ambulance being too full to take any more people.
I mean, this must have been a kind of feeling of panic. Also, a feeling of desperation.
BROWN: Absolutely. The concern, of course, was getting away from powerlines, tall buildings, trees, and lampposts.
Then, after that, it shifted obviously to this theory of aftershocks. So, where we'd be safest, where did we want to be if the earth did start to tremor again.
And obviously, it's not only that, many of the buildings did sustain quite serious damage. So, even if there weren't to be an aftershock, we were still quite concerned about, yes, the state of the buildings and whether they would be further collapse.
The aftershock is one of the rumors, that flying different times. We're being -- things throwing around lots of new searching in Marrakech social media on went to be the next aftershock. Which then in the end led to many, many people actually deciding to set up makeshift beds in the streets.
So, transforming parks, plazas, parking lots of Marrakech into these impromptu campsites where people decided to stay for the night.
BROWN: Obviously, many people as well because they couldn't return to their home, either simply because they were too afraid to do so, and are worried of the aftershocks.
And when I left in the morning again to see the scenes, there were many people is still sleeping out there, who spent the entire night on the street.
WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness. What harrowing moments and they continue to be. So, Benjamin Brown there in Marrakech. Thank you so much for being able to be with us. We'll check back with you as you continue to see witness and experience yourself now after this very serious 6.8 magnitude quake hitting the Marrakech region.
And for more information on how you can help the victims of Morocco's deadly earthquake, go to cnn.com/impact.
All right, now to India, where President Biden is attending the annual G20. summit today. World leaders agreed to a joint statement laying out their shared views on a range of issues including climate change and economic development.
But the declaration showed the fractures within the group by stopping short of explicitly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Earlier, President Biden met one on one with Indian Prime Minister Modi, as he seeks to embrace India as one of the most critical partnerships for the U.S. and a key ally, a regional ally to counter China.
Noticeably absent from the summit are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
This is the first G20 summit that Xi has chosen not to attend since he took power.
Let's bring in now, CNN's Ivan Watson, live for us in New Delhi. So, Ivan President Biden commented on President Xi's absence. What more is he saying?
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredricka. I lost you just a little bit at the end there. But there were real concerns going into this summit, that the gathered leaders would not be able to come to any form of agreement, in part, because of the Ukraine war, because Vladimir Putin isn't attending because he's wanted for alleged war crimes. And Xi Jinping canceled at the last minute.
But in the end, everybody was able to agree on a common statement. It stopped short of condemning Russia, but it did go deep into the Ukraine war. Saying that all states must refrain from the use of force to seek territorial acquisition, that the threat of nuclear weapons is inadmissible, and that the geopolitical security issues can hurt the entire economy, and that the Ukraine war is having a terrible impact on the economy, and particularly, on the world's poorest countries.
Ukraine isn't happy with this. Its foreign ministry has said this hasn't gone far enough that there's nothing that the G20 countries should be proud of.
But the fact that they're able to come out with a statement is a sign of at least they can get around in a same room and agree on something. They also agreed on some climate change measures, they want to triple the amount of renewable energy capacity by 2030.
And there is a significant outreach to the world's poorer countries. For example, inviting the African Union to be a member of the G20, which I guess theoretically would make it the G21. And this gave President Biden a chance to come out and present himself as a defender of poorer countries.
One of the measures he announced was an initiative to create an economic corridor, linking India to the Middle East, to Europe.
Take a listen to what he had to say about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As a key part of this corridor, we're going to invest in ships and rail that extends the India, extends from India all the way to Europe, connected by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Bridging ports across two continents, unlocking endless opportunities, including making it far easier to trade, export clean energy, expand access to reliable clean electricity, lay cables that will connect communities and secure a stable Internet, contributing to a more stable, more prosperous and integrated Middle East.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WATSON: So, by abandoning his position here, the Chinese leader, leader of the world's second largest economy, basically, seated the podium to President Biden, who's also promised to invest more money into the World Bank, also to help the world's poorer countries, Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right. Ivan Watson in New Delhi. Thank you.
An urgent rescue mission is now underway to bring an American who has been trapped 1000s of feet below ground to safety. Details on the operation to get him out of one of Turkey's deepest caves. Next.
WHITFIELD: Right now, almost 200 rescuers are working to extract an American trapped over 3,000 feet down a Turkish cave. 40-year-old Mark Dickey began suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding a week ago while on a research expedition in the cave. At one point, he had to receive a blood transfusion from rescuers.
Dickey is now stable and spoke about his condition earlier in the week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK DICKEY, INJURED AMERICAN TRAPPED IN CAVE: I look forward to working with everyone to safely get myself out with their assistance from as you can see, I'm up, I'm alert, I'm talking, but I'm not healed on the inside yet. So, I need a lot of help to get out of here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: And it's clearly very cold down there.
Joining us now is CNN's Nada Bashir. So, Nada, what more are you learning?
NADA BASHIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL REPORTER: Look, it's been around a week now that they have been waiting for Mark Dickey to be in a stable enough condition in order to actually begin his ascent out of the cave.
And as we have learned in the last few hours, that process, that rescue mission has now begun. He is essentially being carried by rescuers on a stretcher, through what is really more really than 3-1/2 thousand feet through Turkey's third deepest cave.
Now, as you mentioned there, he suffered from gastrointestinal bleeding last week, and he has been receiving medical attention at base camp in the depths of this cave. But this is going to be a long and complex operation.
Typically, it will take an experienced cave at around 16 hours to make it to the surface under ideal conditions, but this is going to take a lot longer than that and they are taking extra care because of the delicate health situation that Mark Dickey is in and, of courses, a lot of the passages in this cave are very narrow, they are very winding, and so this will pose an obstacle to rescuers as well.
He is, of course, being transported mostly via stretcher. So, that will certainly be a challenge to overcome. Now, we've heard from the European Cave Rescue Association, who I've been lending hand in this rescue mission. They say that so far, the plan is to divide the ascent into seven segments with a separate rescue team overseeing the process for each section.
And this is a really multinational rescue effort. We're talking about teams from Turkey, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Poland, all taking part. Around 180 rescuers on the ground. So, days ahead until Mark Dickey is out. This is certainly a very positive indication Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: It's an extraordinary event. All right. Nada Bashir, and effort. Thank you so much. All right. Coming up, former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is shutting down speculation about her political future.
Why she thinks it's urgent that she seek reelection in 2024?
WHITFIELD: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it official. The 83- year-old is running for reelection in the U.S. House next November. As Democrat tried to win back the House and hold on to the White House and Senate.
Pelosi's announcement puts an end to speculation that the California Democrat may be retiring after more than 35 years in Congress.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Why I'm motivated to do everything I can to win this election? I think it's urgent for our democracy, for our relationships worldwide, and more importantly, for every kitchen table discussion in our country.
So, I've made my decision in favor of winning. I don't want to see any underutilized resources, any wasted time, or any regrets the day after the election.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: And with me now to talk about this is David Gergen. He is a CNN senior political analyst and a former presidential adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. Great to see you.
So, Pelosi, you know, pointed out that she is running to help protect democracy in part and help Democrats win back the House and keep control of the White House. She also talked about the importance on the world stage.
So, what does this Ron, in your view, symbolized?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I think it's so important, Fredricka to where with -- where the country is going. And that is why I -- first of all, Nancy Pelosi stepping down from leaving in power, because it really helps the democracy and enriches the democracy, she moved at the right time. And she moved for the right purposes. But now, she is staying on as sort of a counselor to the Democratic caucus.
And she can have enormous influence. But let's take one measure that why a Nancy Pelosi has been important in the Congress. When she arrived back in 1987, I think it was, there were 12 women in the Democratic caucus. Today, there are 90 women in the Democratic caucus, and still counting. And she has a lot to do with that. She has been as a champion, and as a model, and has made a major difference. So, I think her gift to the country, her gift to her party, transcend almost everything else. That she is been doing.
WHITFIELD: Do you believe that her decision also comes as a result of certain observations she made within the Democratic caucus, in terms of its viability of, you know, the leadership role that she has held for so long?
GERGEN: I don't think so. When she stepped down, of course, knowing that she stepped down from power as a Speaker. But her top two lieutenants also said, Hoyer and Clyburn both stepped down too. And the successor as Speaker of the House, Jeffries is actually getting some pretty strong support and sort of the tom-toms for being -- he's done a good job so far.
And he's been -- it is been a quiet but effective move toward greater part and bipartisanship. And it seems to be working out pretty well.
WHITFIELD: So, Pelosi's announcement also comes, you know, as there is escalating debate about the age and the health of many of the top politicians and leadership positions for both parties.
Pelosi is 83, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is 90 years old and has been battling numerous health issues, which caused her to have extended absences in the U.S. Senate. And of course, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he's 81.
WHITFIELD: And just had two very public medical incidents where he froze in front of cameras.
So, Pelosi does not have a health issue that anyone knows of, or anything that has been demonstrated publicly.
WHITFIELD: Do you think her age is a factor among her constituents?
GERGEN: Yes, I think it's going to be a factor. But it's -- there is a world of difference between quitting when you're -- when you've got a lot of power, and you're the major -- you're the Speaker, you know, the first woman in history to be the Speaker, stepping down from that with a major, major role.
This is much less of a kind of important step. What it says is that Nancy Pelosi is going to be among those carrying out the Democratic platform that she will -- she will, I'm sure she is going to crusade across much of the country.
But it's a very different feel from say, the compounds that are beating about Joe Biden should he step down or not, because he is -- he has immense power, he has the most powerful office in the world, the presidency.
And so, it's a big, big jump when somebody's on it. It can be earth changing when a transition like that takes place.
But this is much more like a traditional passage of the flag. She is, you know, she is passing a torch onto the next generation speaks, speaks passionately about the next generation, as does Jeffries.
And that I think, is politically much smarter than when you -- and was it been done with a certain amount of great unconsciousness. That we're not seeing, particularly on, say, the Republican side on the Senate, whether real division about whether McConnell ought to step down or not.
And, you know, then, on the national stage, and I've been among the for some time, but we've been arguing that both Trump and Biden ultimately would be what the real favor for the country if they stepped aside and welcome new generations as well.
WHITFIELD: All right. David Gergen, great to see you. Thank you so much.
GERGEN: Thank you, Fredricka. Good to see you.
WHITFIELD: Still ahead. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy sits down exclusively with CNN and addresses the ongoing criticism about the pace of Ukraine's counter offensive against Russia.
WHITFIELD: Right now President Biden and other world leaders are gathering in New Delhi for the G20 Summit. And topping the agenda, the war in Ukraine. The Summit comes just as Ukraine's counter offensive enters its fourth month. CNN's Fareed Zakaria sat down exclusively with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week and asked him about concerns over the pace of Ukraine's operations.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: Everyone is wondering about the counter offensive, there was a sense that it was slower than expected. Now there is some hope that it is speeding up. Can you give us a sense from your perspective, what -- how is it going?
PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Depends on many directions on many cases and issues how to speed up counteroffensive but remember that we need the result. The result we need. We have to get our land. We have to get to occupy the land. And it's all -- also not about the land it's about the people because the frozen war is not the peace. We're speaking about Putin. He want to take all our country, to destroyed all our families, houses and et cetera because if he understands, why he destroy.
[12:35:11] He understand that Ukraine will never go back go away from our land, we'll never do it. That's why he has to kill us. He want to do it. That's why when we speak about their counter offense, it depends on many cases. Of course, we gave a lot of time for Russians. We gave a lot of time to prepare the mine.
ZAKARIA: To put the mines in --
ZELENSKYY: Put the mines on the fields on the big territory. And so you see the three defending lines.
ZAKARIA: And that's because you were waiting for --
ZELENSKYY: For the weapons. That's why I said, yes, yes -- that's why -- that's what I said, it depends on many issues. We, look, we waited too long. It's true. Now I'm thankful to partners to the United States, E.U., other partners, and thankful very much President Biden and said, but we have, and to Congress, but we have to understand, we thought we waited too long. They put mines.
Then when we been ready, from the point of view of our partners, because the decision to give us, for example, Bradley, or and other kind of weapon, the decision, it doesn't mean the result.
ZAKARIA: You don't get them immediately.
ZELENSKYY: Of course the -- of course you don't. Of course you don't. So something still on the way, until now, when we are sitting and speaking about it with counter offensive and a lot of different people said that it's too slow, but it's still on the way.
WHITFIELD: And you can catch Fareed's whole interview tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. on GPS. For more on this, now let's bring in retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. He's also a CNN military analyst. Colonel, Great to see you. So you heard President Zelenskyy, you know, defending the counter offensive there amid suggestions that it's, you know, going too slow. What is your reaction to his comments and -- and some of his expressed frustrations?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Fred. Well, he's absolutely right. I mean, when you look at it, from his point of view, he is in the middle of a war. He's fighting for the very existence of Ukraine, of his country, his culture, his society. And the lack of urgency or at least to the perceived lack of urgency in the West has caused Ukraine a lot of grief.
It has caused Ukraine to delay and uncover offensives. They were able to do magnificent things in terms of military speed, last year, when they were able to recapture areas around Kharkiv. And later in the south around Kherson, and that particular part of Ukraine. But at that point in time, the Russians had no defensive positions to speak of, they didn't have the tank traps, they didn't have the Dragon's Teeth, they didn't have the trenches, they didn't have the mines. And that's the kind of thing that they were allowed to build up during this period that Zelenskyy was waiting for weapons to arrive from the West. So this, in essence, a lack of urgency on the part of suppliers of that, that has created the slowness in this counter offensive.
WHITFIELD: And this interview taking place before world leaders have been meeting now in India, you know, for the G20 summit and, you know, Ukraine, now, you know, blasting the group of 20, after they agreed, you know, on a joint statement today that calls on states to refrain from the use of force to seize territory, but stop short of condemning Russia. So, is this declaration strong enough?
LEIGHTON: No. It's not when you really think about it, and the Ukrainians have a point here as well, because, you know, what we're looking at is a war of conquest, a war of a, you know, in essence, that throw us back us back to the 1930s. And that's the kind of war that should be condemned by all of the powers in the G20. And the fact that they went basically halfway, they took half steps to saying that a war of aggression is wrong. And that is correct.
The problem that you have is that they didn't specifically condemn Russia, so Russia, China, other countries that are aligned with that can say, well, look, you know, this hasn't really a doesn't really apply to us, because we're, you know, taking care of our people, our populations that are in other countries. We're taking care of our own security, things like that. So they will find an excuse to justify their actions.
And those excuses are, of course, going to create problems for the world order. And in essence, they're not really, the G20 nations are not really defending the world order, as they shouldn't be defending it. But of course, it's not necessarily in their interest in some specific cases to do so.
WHITFIELD: All right. We're also learning this week of some, you know, rather stunning revelations and a new biography about Elon Musk, you know, detailing his impact on the war in Ukraine. The book Elon Musk alleges the ex-owner disrupted a Ukrainian sneak attack against Russia, its naval fleet in Crimea by shutting off Kyiv's internet access via his Starlink satellites. What do you make those allegations?
LEIGHTON: Well, they're quite serious. And it really shows that one individual in this case, Elon Musk, has a lot of power to influence more outcomes. And, you know, you it was good that he allowed Starlink to be used by the Ukrainians that in essence saved Ukraine, because the communications that are allowed through Starlink, the connectivity that it enables that is analogous to the kind of connectivity that a great power would have in their communications links.
And the Ukrainians got that as a commercial off the shelf type capability. But when it was cut off, that enabled the Russians to, in essence, protect their fleet by a not being attacked by the Ukrainians. And so, you know, he's kind of playing a dual role in this. He's worried about the Russians responding with nuclear weapons to Ukrainian attacks. But on the other hand, he's not allowing the Ukrainians to defend themselves fully.
He did, you know, the right thing at the beginning of this conflict, but because he cut off communications at this particular juncture for that sneak attack, it prolonged and, you know, has the possibility at least a quote from the war at this point in time.
WHITFIELD: All right, Colonel Cedric Leighton, we'll leave it there for now. Thank you so much.
LEIGHTON: You bet, Fred.
WHITFIELD: And a quick programming note, follow 9/11 activist Jon Stewart and John Feal as they fight Congress to ensure that thousands of terminally ill first responders get the health care they deserve.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This country was based informed on. Volunteerism and those who went to 9/11 voluntarily are paying the ultimate price.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm like, I've been vacillating from being incredibly sad to like, incredibly mad to being nervous to ban, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why are you nervous?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to -- this up for everybody, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could've call it quits and go get a beer.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said it right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've had to fight overcome every obstacle, every hurdle for almost 18 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, how crazy is this?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was the how they voted on the three bills.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee to hopefully give some insight into Congress as to why 9/11 survivors and victims are dying.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: No Responders Left Behind airs tomorrow night at 9:00 right here on CNN. We'll be right back.
[12:47:10] WHITFIELD: An intense heatwave across the Northeast and Midwest is forcing schools to cancel in-person learning or send students home early. More than half of the nation's public school districts have outdated air conditioning systems that are unable to withstand these kinds of record breaking temperatures. CNN correspondent Gabe Cohen has more.
GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): As scorching heat bakes Baltimore, these kindergarteners and first graders are heading home from school hours early.
DELANO FAISON, SEVEN-YEAR-OLD STUDENT: Because it's too hot.
COHEN (voice-over): The rest of the students are staying home entirely, taking virtual classes all week because the school has no central air conditioning.
(on camera): Is it hot in there?
FAISON: Yes. It was super hot.
COHEN (voice over): Seven-year-old Delano and his mother, Patricia, are frustrated.
FAISON: I want the sun to go away and be winter today.
COHEN (on camera): Do you worry about your son's safety when it's this hot out and there's no air conditioning in the school?
PATRICIA BURTON, BALTIMORE PARENT: Yes. Yes, I do, because he has asthma.
COHEN (voice over): Fifteen Baltimore schools are on similar heat schedule this week because they lack air conditioning. In some cases, delivering cooling units to classrooms.
(on camera): I can already feel this place heating up.
ANDRE RILEY, SPOKESMAN, BALTIMORE CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Yes, imagine trying to learn in that environment where it's this warm.
COHEN (voice over): Andre Riley, a district spokesperson, took us inside these empty classrooms.
RILEY: It's better to shift them to an environment where we can have the focus again be on teaching and learning as opposed to it's hot.
COHEN (voice over): This widespread heat wave is closing classrooms from Connecticut to Wisconsin. In Pittsburgh, dozens of schools are going virtual. In Philadelphia, 74 schools dismissed early on the first day. Near Detroit, an entire district shut down Tuesday because of the heat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It really doesn't make any sense to me why they don't have air-condition.
COHEN (voice over): Parents at this D.C. school are upset that kids are in class despite a broken cooling system.
CLAIRE WILDER, D.C. PARENT: We know how hot it's going to be every summer. So, the fact that they aren't really prepared for these kinds of incidents is a little ridiculous.
COHEN (voice over): A 2020 government report estimated 41 percent of public school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their schools, 36,000 in all. Many of them spent COVID relief dollars on HVAC improvements. But districts not known for sweltering September temps are now struggling with what could be a new climate-fueled norm, with recent heat days in major districts like Kansas City, Denver and Milwaukee.
(on camera): How big of a setback can this be for students to have several heat days in a row with the start of school?
RILEY: It's definitely not preferable. You don't want to send students home early or transition them to a virtual environment for a long period of time.
COHEN (voice over): At a time when kids are still recovering from pandemic learning loss, many, like Delano, are headed right back home.
BURTON: What are we going to do? We can't just keep letting them go without the air.
WHITFIELD: Yes. Gabe Cohen, thank you so much for that.
Joining me right now is CNN wellness and medical expert and former Baltimore health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen. Dr. Wen, great to see you. So should we all get used to this or heat days as the new snow days?
DR. LEANA WEN, CNN WELLNESS MEDICAL EXPERT: Yes, this is really difficult to watch. I -- you mentioned that I used to be the health commissioner in Baltimore. I also oversaw school health services. And even prior to this year's heat wave, every year, we had this situation of deciding, well, when is it that we close schools? How hot does it have to be for us to close schools, and we know that there are so many downstream effects of sending kids home. First of all, kids, many of these kids depend on school for having meals.
Also they may not have air conditioning at home, either. And then there's the learning loss aspect as well. But at the same time, extreme heat kills more people every year than any other weather emergency. And so as the climate warms, this is a really significant health issue, economic issue, and educational issue, too.
WHITFIELD: Yes. I mean, you heard from the one Baltimore mom there in Gabe's piece that, you know, her child has asthma. So that heat, you know, being in near suffocating, you know, heat is pretty potentially dangerous. So, you know, as the -- as you as the city's former health commissioner, you know, what kind of guidance are schools likely getting from their local health departments as they try to render these decisions?
WEN: I think a lot of this depends on what is the condition of the school? If schools have air conditioning, as they all should, then it's not really an issue, then the guidance becomes well, do we shorten outdoor recess and keep kids indoors more? And how can we make sure that kids stay hydrated when it's really warm outside? That's fine. But it's the lack of cooling, the lack of heating in some of these schools. That's a really significant issue. And really, you should not be the case in today's age.
WHITFIELD: Yes. You mentioned, you know, for a lot of kids, they're getting most of their healthiest meals at school. So besides, you know, meals, or even air-conditioning in schools, what are the factors that are being considered when schools make these decisions?
WEN: Yes. I think it is, what's the infrastructure in the schools do? Is it that every school needs to close? Or is it just those schools that don't have air-conditioning during these extreme heat days? And then a lot of what's been weighed to is how are we going to get basic services delivered in a city like Baltimore, for example, school meals probably still need to continue in some fashion, even during these hot days.
And then also one has to consider him, Well, where are these kids going to go otherwise? And so rec centers may need to be open during these extreme heat days.
WHITFIELD: Yes, I mean, there are a lot of parents who are at work or can't, you know, be home to assist their kids who are now at home because of the heat problems.
All right, switching now to COVID-19 the rising cases and hospitalizations. There are concerns that a shift in testing practices is making the case count less reliable. So how accurately do you believe the numbers are being tracked?
WEN: Well, we definitely cannot rely on the numbers that are being reported when it comes to number of positive tests because of the home tests that are being done. Wastewater testing, though, remains very accurate. It's a good early detection system, because this is just measures what is the level of virus that we see in community wastewater. Those numbers are going up. And we also see that hospitalization numbers are going up as well.
But I think it's important to put those numbers into context. Compared to last year at this time, we're actually quite a bit below last year's level of hospitalizations with COVID. And we're way below the peak of COVID. Back to when Omicron first started, we're only about a 10th of where we were back at that point for hospitalizations. And so I think it's important for us to talk about this uptick in cases because people who are still vulnerable to severe illness should make sure that they take additional precautions, make sure that they're up to date with boosters, and make sure they know where to get antivirals, like Paxlovid. And then consider masking, wearing a high quality mask.
But I also think it's important to consider that there is a cost to returning to pandemic era restrictions as well. And for many people who don't want to bear that cost, I think it's also reasonable for them to say, look, we have pretty successfully decoupled infections from severe illness for the majority of people. And so we're going to move on with our lives.
WHITFIELD: All right, Dr. Leana Wen, thanks so much.
WEN: Thank you.
WHITFIELD: All right, in just a few hours rising superstar Coco Gauff is playing her first Grand Slam final in the U.S. Open. We'll go there live straight ahead.
But first, meet this week's CNN Hero.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YASMINE ARRINGTON, FOUNDER, NONPROFIT SCHOLARSHIPS: What we're ultimately doing is ensuring that young people who have incarcerated parents are overcoming systemic barriers and also changing the trajectory of not only their lives but their families' lives and breaking the stereotypes and the stigma around having an incarcerated parent.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Getting ready for graduation.
ARRINGTON: Yes, I'm not. Congratulations. I'm so excited.
What keeps me going, it's that proud mama effect to see our scholars just achieve and accomplish and overtime gain a sense of healthy confidence just a little bit of support can go a very, very long way. It really is a snowball effect.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: And to find out more go to CNNHeroes.com.