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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Thanksgiving Travelers Hit The Road And Skies In Big Numbers; Ukraine Upgrades Navy As Fears Grow Of Russian Invasion; NASA Launches Spacecraft To Test Asteroid Deflection. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired November 24, 2021 - 05:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: It is the second pandemic Thanksgiving but Americans are not locked down. They're not waiting for vaccines. Nearly 53 million people will be traveling this weekend getting home to family.

CNN's Pete Muntean is along busy I-95 in Aberdeen, Maryland. Pete, happy almost Thanksgiving. Happy vax-giving. We're seeing travel numbers back to near pre-pandemic levels. Tell us more.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's so interesting here Christine is that the vast majority of people will drive and these numbers are going to be huge. And they're really not all that far off from where we were back in 2019 before the pandemic.

Here is the AAA prediction, that 48 million people will hit the road right about now. Those numbers really only down about three percent from where we were in 2019.

But what's also so interesting here is that people are doing this when the gas is so expensive. The average price of a gallon of regular, $3.41 nationwide. It's only down about $1.30 from where we are last year. This is a 7-year high though when you compare this number from where we were during the depressed travel levels back during Thanksgiving of 2020.

So, the bottom line here is that the traffic is back and so is the expense. And AAA predicts that people will simply just swallow the costs and still travel in spite of all these challenges in front of them.


ANDREW GROSS, SPOKESPERSON, AAA: There's a lot more confidence. People are feeling better about traveling. And no matter what the gas prices are -- and they are quite a bit higher than last year -- people are still going to take that trip.


MUNTEAN: AAA anticipates significant delays, generally, throughout the country starting this afternoon. The worst times to travel, between noon and 8:00 p.m., according to AAA. The best time -- they're going to have to wait until after 9:00 p.m. tonight.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for this stretch of I-95 here at Aberdeen, Maryland -- they say the best time to travel is right now before 6:00 a.m. or you're simply going to have to wait until after 11:00 p.m. tonight -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yes. You're going to have to pack your patience before you have your pumpkin pie. That is true every year but especially this year.

All right, Pete Muntean. Nice to see you this morning. Thank you.

PAULA REID, CNN ANCHOR: A new study reveals cancer screenings dropped dramatically at the start of the pandemic and still haven't fully recovered. Researchers found cancer-related CT scans declined by 82 percent during the COVID-19 peak between March and May of 2020. And from May to November, rates were still down 12 percent from before the COVID surge. And the study's authors say the decline in screenings could lead to an increase in advanced rates of cancer in the future.

ROMANS: A major decision on the opioid epidemic in Ohio. A federal jury found three of America's biggest pharmacy chains -- CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens -- substantially contributed to overdoses and deaths. It's the first time the retail side of the industry has been held accountable for the opioid crisis. A judge will rule on damages this spring.

REID: Spokespeople for all three chains criticized the ruling, so we can certainly expect an appeal. But the verdict could have big ramifications for cases across the country, arguing that pharmacies turned a blind eye to the escalating crisis. New federal data shows opioid overdose deaths reached record levels during the pandemic.

ROMANS: All right. The U.S. is thinking about sending advisers and more weapons to Ukraine as fears of a possible Russian invasion grow. And now Ukraine is pressing ahead with upgrades to its navy.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen got a rare look at the work underway at a naval base and he joins us live this morning from Kiev. Nice to see you, Fred. We understand you have some new reporting about Ukraine defending its territory not just from Russia but from Belarus in the north.


ROMANS: What can you tell us?

PLEITGEN: Yes, and one of the things that we have to keep in mind with all that is, of course, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is the main ally of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, in that region. So certainly, there are some concerns by the Belarusians that not only could there be an increase of the Belarusians trying to bring migrants across that border as they've been doing with Poland, but also that an attack, if it were launched, might happen by the border with Belarus as well. So, what the Ukrainians have done this morning is that they've started

those exercises, which they say involve anti-tank units. That, of course, some pretty big hardware that they're using. There are also some airborne units as well. They say that is, in part, to strengthen the border that they have with Belarus. But, of course, they also have that border with Russia in mind as well.

The U.S. says, the U.S.' allies say, and, of course, the Ukrainian government says Russia has been amassing troops. And they've been doing that not only in the east of Ukraine but, of course, also in the south of Ukraine as well.

The Sea of Azov is really one of the places that could be one of the main battlegrounds. And we did manage to get on a patrol there with the Ukrainian navy on an artillery boat and they flat-out said they're modernizing their navy and they certainly want to and will stand their ground if there is an attack and if there is an invasion.


We also got very rare and exclusive access to the construction site of a major naval base that the Ukrainians are building down there in the town of Berdyansk. And the interesting thing about that is they've actually now said with this threat going on that that construction needs to be greatly accelerated to get it done faster just to make sure that they can project more power in those very contested waters of the Sea of Azov.

Again, the U.S. and also Ukraine are saying there could be close to 100,000 Russian troops amassed in that area. There's some satellite images that have come out that seem to show big troop concentrations in the southwest of Russia. It's a big concern for the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainians certainly are saying that right now they are ready. They will remain ready. And late last night they actually announced that they are going to pass a law that will allow them to draw up some 200,000 conscripts if that is something that should become necessary.

But, of course, in this region, the Ukrainians are saying and the U.S. is saying they warned Russia that they should not invade. The Russians are saying all this is hysteria and saying they have no plans to invade. A very tense situation here and certainly if you speak to the soldiers there on the ground, they certainly say they don't want this to escalate any further, guys.

ROMAN: Yes. The tension there is real.

Fred Pleitgen, we're so glad that you're there for us. Thank you so much.

REID: A potentially dire situation unfolding in Ethiopia. The country's prime minister says he will personally lead troops on the front lines against advancing rebel fighters. The latest escalation of a yearlong conflict now has the U.S. positioning special operations troops near Ethiopia. If the situation deteriorates it could destabilize the impoverished region and trigger a huge humanitarian crisis.

CNN's Larry Madowo has the story for us from Nairobi, Kenya. All right, Larry, how did we get to this point, and what happens going forward?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN So, Paula, we got here because the war that began last November in the north of the country in Tigray has spilled over now into neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara.

And the Tigray People's Liberation Front has now assembled a coalition of other regional militias and they are threatening to march onto Addis Abada, the capital of Ethiopia -- the political capital of Africa -- and overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That is why his government is now saying that as of Tuesday he is leading from the front lines and has handed over routine administrative duties to his deputy so that he can really lead what he calls the last fight to save Ethiopia. He has been stoking up this nationalist sentiment.

I've recently returned from Ethiopia and spent more than a week there. We were not allowed to report. And one of those internal-external enemies that the government of Ethiopia considers is CNN.

There's a huge anti-Western, anti-international media sentiment out there and that is why the U.S. is asking U.S. citizens who are in Ethiopia to leave while there are still commercial flights available. Because this could change at any time. France and Germany are also doing the same.

The prime minister met with the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, on Sunday. And Feltman came out of that saying that he thinks there's some progress but it risks being overtaken by the military escalation here. And that is a real problem because the only way to find a negotiated political ceasefire here is if all sides are willing to talk, but that will still doesn't exist. So, it's a really problematic situation here.

And the last time, Paula, that an African leader went to the front lines to battle against rebels, he ended up dying. That was back in April against the -- that was the president of Chad, Idriss Deby. So, we're not quite sure who strongly the prime minister of Ethiopia is committed to going to the front lines to battle against these rebels who threaten to overthrow his government.

REID: Larry, thank you for that excellent reporting on a potentially dire situation.

ROMANS: To Germany now. It has reported its highest single-day surge in COVID infections as it battles a fourth wave of the pandemic during a change in its leadership. Fifty-seven (ph) thousand new coronavirus cases in one day. That's almost 50 percent higher than the previous 24-hour period.

Germany has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe at 68 percent. Critics blame this on a lack of leadership as longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to leave office. REID: After nearly two years virtually sealed off from the world, New Zealand plans to gradually reopen, but only to those who are fully vaccinated. Displaced New Zealanders can go home from January 16th onwards, while tourists can enter from April 30th. The country imposed some of the toughest pandemic measures since March of 2020.

ROMANS: We'll be right back.




Scene from "Armageddon."


REID: Imagine that, Armageddon, but in real life. Well, NASA has been thinking about just that. So, if a killer asteroid hurtling toward earth -- how would you be able to change its course and save humanity? Overnight, the space agency launched a first-of-its-kind mission to figure out just that.

We'll get more from CNN's Kristin Fisher.


KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Good morning, Paula and Christine.

It really does sound like the sequel to the movie "Armageddon." But instead of a killer asteroid being destroyed by a bomb with the help of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, NASA's DART Mission, which is short for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, is using something called kinetic deflection. And that's really the scientific way of saying that this DART spacecraft is on a Kamikaze mission to smash into an asteroid in an attempt to try to push it off course.

Here is NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

BILL NELSON, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: It may be the way to save Planet Earth if there's ever an inbound big asteroid that could really challenge our existence as a planet. If it's successful, then if we had a real inbound killer asteroid, we could do that with it and it would miss us in its trajectory.


FISHER (on camera): So, this mission has incredibly big goals. I mean, we're talking about potentially saving all of humanity and Planet Earth.

Now, NASA is quick to point out that this particular asteroid poses no danger to earth nor does any other asteroid that we know of, though it's likely only a matter of time. Nor does this DART mission have the potential to create that kind of huge debris field that we saw from that anti-satellite weapons test that the Russians did last week in low-earth orbit, which jeopardized the International Space Station. And the reason for that is because it's going to take 10 months for the DART spacecraft to reach this asteroid. So, it's very, very far away.

But again, just in case something goes wrong, in case something doesn't work, or a potential killer asteroid does appear, NASA says that it did invite Bruce Willis to the launch just in case -- Paula and Christine.


REID: Wow. If Bruce Willis is going to be there, I feel better about the whole situation.

Thank you so much for that report, Kristin.

ROMANS: Thanks, Kristin.

It's going to be an especially happy Thanksgiving for one Missouri man. Tuesday, a judge set aside Kevin Strickland's conviction in a triple murder. Strickland had spent 43 years in prison -- one of the longest wrongful imprisonments in U.S. history.


KEVIN STRICKLAND, EXONERATED FOR TRIPLE MURDER: I was actually watching a soap opera and the things went across -- news break or whatever they call them -- and I just couldn't believe what I was hearing.

REPORTER: So that's how you learned?

STRICKLAND: That's how I learned.

REPORTER: You saw your own name on the screen?

STRICKLAND: And my picture, yes. And then other inmates start hollering and I heard them beating on walls and carrying on.

I'm not necessarily angry. It's a -- it's a lot. It's a lot. I mean, I think I've created some emotions that you all don't know about just yet.


ROMANS: Forty-three years.

Strickland will join the 8:00 hour of "NEW DAY," so don't miss that.

REID: And the return of a beloved holiday tradition. The Macy's parade balloon inflation happens tonight ahead of tomorrow's main event. All attendees over the age of 12, though, must be vaccinated, and younger kids can come with vaccinated adults.

ROMANS: Unlike last year's basically empty parade, the 95th annual event will feel more normal with 8,000 marchers and Santa Claus.

So, will you be giving thanks for the weather during the long holiday weekend? That's the big question. Here is meteorologist Tyler Mauldin.


TYLER MAULDIN, AMS METEOROLOGIST (on camera): Christine, Paula, today is one of the busiest travel days of the entire year. If you're traveling, either by ground or by air, across the eastern third of the country, the weather's looking fine.

Across the central U.S., we have this weather maker beginning to develop. That's going to cause the winds to pick up and also rain to begin to be produced. That could lead to a few delays here.

Then you've got mountain snow across the Northern Rockies and more in the way of rain across the Pacific Northwest.

The storm system across the central U.S. is then impacting areas of the Deep South and the Ohio River Valley on Thanksgiving Day. But notice the majority of the country on Thanksgiving Day is looking fine and dandy.

Here is the timing with this system as it pushes to the east. Once we get to noon on Thanksgiving Day, it is producing some showers and maybe some thunderstorms. And then on Black Friday, it draws in some colder air and we could see some wintry mischief (ph) across the higher elevations of the east coast as we head into this upcoming weekend.

Back to you.


ROMANS: All right, Tyler. Thank you so much for that.

Los Angeles has launched a new program to deal with its homeless problem. The city is dispatching unarmed intervention teams rather than police to respond to non-violent 911 calls. The mayor says the new program will free up officers to deal with serious crimes.

REID: And the theory of relativity isn't cheap. Some notes Albert Einstein made as he developed his scientific breakthrough sold at a Paris auction for more than $13 million. The buyers or buyer is also smart, as they chose to remain anonymous.

ROMANS: All right, let's get a check on CNN Business this morning, speaking of money.

Looking at markets around the world, Asian shares have closed mixed here. Tokyo down about 1 1/2 percent. European shares have opened lower here. On and Wall Street, stock index futures are also leaning down just a little bit.

Markets are open today but it will be shortened holiday week for the Thanksgiving holiday. New overnight, Samsung will make its largest investment in the U.S. next year. The South Korean electronics giant building a huge $17 billion semiconductor plant in Taylor, Texas that will create 2,000 high-tech jobs there. Samsung says it's intended to -- in part, to contribute to the stability of the global supply chain, which has already been interrupted by COVID.

The company already has a site in Austin. International companies are attracted to Texas with its lower tax rates and housing costs, and fewer regulations.


There could be another hitch for delivery of your holiday packages. Ships in Chinese waters are disappearing from global data trackers after a new law went into effect in China, November first. And that law dictates how domestic and foreign agencies collect and export China's data -- data that helps keep shipping routes clear so you can see where the ships are and where they're going.

In the last three weeks, China's signals have dropped 90 percent, further frustrating efforts to ease these post-COVID bottlenecks.

REID: And it was awesome, baby. A legendary college basketball announcer gets emotional in his first game back after being diagnosed with cancer.

Coy Wire has this morning's Bleacher Report.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, awesome, baby. It's a battle between the top two teams in the country, Paula, but the best, most powerful moment came before tip-off.

Dick Vitale had undergone treatment for two different types of cancer this year, first having a melanoma removed in August before being diagnosed with lymphoma last month. And last night he made his return, calling the Gonzaga-UCLA game, and he couldn't hold back as he was introduced by his broadcast partner Dave O'Brien.


DICK VITALE, BASKETBALL HALL OF FAMER: It's great to be here again (crying). I didn't want to cry. I can't believe I'm sitting here. This is really a big thrill for me. I want to thank all you people who sent me so many great messages -- ESPN, Jimmy Pitaro, and all my buddies at ESPN. I want to thank, certainly, my family and all the fans. My, you've been unbelievable.

On October 12th -- I'll be -- I'll be honest with you -- when they walked in and told me I had cancer, they thought it was lung cancer and it was really going to be a serious surgery and all. I never dreamt that at 82, I'd ever be at courtside again. But to be here today -- I'm sorry, I hope I don't cause a problem out there but I -- I've been so emotional.

(END VIDEO CLIP) WIRE: Oh, good to have him back on the sidelines there.

As for the game, top-ranked Gonzaga putting the beat down on number- two UCLA in a rematch of April's wild Final Four game. There was one at the buzzer by the Zags. Gonzaga absolutely dominating from start to finish, going up by 20 at halftime, and they would hold that lead through the second half. Eighty-three-63 is the final, the largest margin of victory a number one over a number two in 16 years.

The Jets' revolving-door quarterback spins again after Joe Flacco and Mike White were placed on the reserved COVID-19 list yesterday. White tested positive for the virus, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, while Flacco was added as a close contact.

Flacco said last week that he was not vaccinated. That means rookie Zach Wilson will make his return to the starting lineup against the Texans after missing the last four games with a knee injury.

Finally, golf's best rivalry is going to the next level on Friday. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau one-on-one in The Match. DeChambeau started off the final countdown with some, shall we say, target practice off the top of the Wynn hotel in Vegas, taking aim at a giant cutout of Koepka's head.

Koepka, meantime, played a bit of word association about previous match competitors starting with Phil Mickelson.




KOEPKA: Winner.


KOEPKA: Forehead.




KOEPKA: Awful swing.


KOEPKA: Downtown.


KOEPKA: Dry humor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bryson DeChambeau. KOEPKA: Awful. Awful. Awful. Awful.


WIRE: Oh, yes. You can watch The Match on our sister channel TNT with simulcasts running across Turner platforms TBS, truTV, and HLN. And yet again, this is for charity. Typically, this event raises --


WIRE: -- millions of dollars.

ROMANS: A little celebrity golf trash-talking is always a lot of fun to watch.

All right, nice to see you. Thank you.

WIRE: You, too.

ROMANS: Have a great holiday if we don't see you.

WIRE: You, too. Thank you.

REID: Thanks.

ROMANS: All right, the final word on this Thanksgiving eve morning from President Biden before departing Washington for the long holiday weekend. The president and the first lady, along with Vice President Harris and the second gentleman, helped to pack Thanksgiving meals at D.C.'s Central Kitchen.

The president offering a holiday message of hope for Americans anxious about the pandemic and rising prices.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All these concerns a few weeks ago there would be -- there would not ample food available for Thanksgiving. So many people talked about that, understandably. But families can rest easy. Grocery stores are well-stocked with turkey and everything else you need for Thanksgiving.


ROMANS: It's true. Things are better stocked than we thought they would be. I mean, these grocery store chains have really done everything they can to make sure you're going to have all the goods you need.

The Bidens are spending their Thanksgiving holiday on Nantucket.

All right, buckle up, everybody. Americans are hitting the road for what could be the busiest travel day of the pandemic. You'll be on the road, right?

REID: I will be on the road, unfortunately. And should Justin Bieber cancel a show in Saudi Arabia? Hear from the

fiance of a murdered journalist.


Thanks for joining. I'm Paula Reid.

ROMANS: And thanks for being here at the beginning of this week. It's been really nice to get to know you on the set.

REID: It's been lovely to be here.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. "NEW DAY" is next.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Wednesday, November 24th, and I am Brianna Keilar with John Berman.