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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

CDC Shortens Isolation Periods For Healthcare Workers; Two More Tiananmen Memorial Statues Taken Down In Hong Kong; Doctors And Nurses Face Threats From COVID Patients. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 24, 2021 - 05:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: School heroism award for his good deeds -- all of those in one day. A man with a very big future.

EARLY START continues right now.

PAULA REID: Good morning, this is EARLY START. I'm Paula Reid.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans on this Christmas Eve. Happy Christmas Eve to everyone who celebrates. It's minutes past the hour. Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.

The Centers for Disease Control shortening the COVID isolation period for healthcare workers. Workers who are asymptomatic and test negative can return to work in seven days instead of 10. More in a moment.

REID: The Omicron surge leading Delta and United Airlines to each cancel more than 100 Christmas Eve flights. Holiday travel now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

ROMANS: Japan will not send government officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They stopped short of calling it a boycott but a top Japanese official says Tokyo believes that respect for human rights is important.

REID: Former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter is awaiting sentencing after a jury convicted her of manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright with her gun instead of her taser during a traffic stop. State guidelines recommend a sentence between six and eight years in prison.

ROMANS: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski transferred to a prison medical facility in North Carolina. He's spent the last two decades at a Colorado supermax prison for a series of deadly bombings that targeted scientists. No specific details on the reason for that transfer.

REID: After years of delays, NASA is preparing to launch one of its most powerful telescopes into space. It's expected to look deeper into the universe than we've ever been able to before. Launch is set for Christmas Day from French Guiana off the northeastern coast of South America. And the CDC announcing a major change to address COVID surges at

hospitals. The new guidance says fully vaccinated healthcare workers who get COVID can return to work after seven days instead of 10 if they are symptom-free and test negative.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This new change by the CDC allows what is basically an entirely vaccinated staff who will almost certainly have either asymptomatic or low-impact illness to get back to work quickly.


ROMANS: It is time for three questions in three minutes holiday edition. Let's bring in Dr. Ali Raja. He's the executive vice-chair of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Good morning. Thanks for taking time out of your busy day to join us here.

Doctor, I imagine it -- I have to imagine it's going to be helpful to staffing where you are, right, in the thick of it in the healthcare universe. Should the same rules apply to the general public? And are you expecting this is -- I mean, I assume you're welcoming this move from the CDC.

DR. ALI RAJA, EXECUTIVE VICE-CHAIR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE AT MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL, PROFESSOR AT HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: It's a great question, Christine, and I am. I'm really glad that the CDC's changed its stance on this. I mean, the evidence shows that immunized people are less likely to transmit the virus. And healthcare facilities generally have strict protocols in terms of vaccinations for employees and masking and distancing for everyone.

But your question is really good. It's still a calculated risk. We know that Omicron is more infectious but we've got staffing challenges in hospitals that really need this to happen. But we know that more broadly in the general public, people don't have the same vaccination requirements. They don't have the same masking and distancing. So I don't think you can go out -- go out much more broadly than this.

REID: And the head of the top lobbying group for airlines asked the CDC to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated airline workers who experience breakthrough COVID infections from 10 to just five days. What do you make of this request, especially as millions travel for the holidays?

RAJA: Yes, Paula, I get it. I understand where it's coming from given the pressures on the industry, but I don't think it's the right now. Anyone who has been in an airport or in -- on an airplane recently knows that despite the fact that the staff are working so hard, there just isn't strict adherence to safety protocols. And I think the surge of cases we're seeing right now is already bad enough. We don't need to make it worse by lowering that isolation protocol number.

ROMANS: Yesterday, the FDA approved Merck's antiviral pill. The company says it is effective against Omicron. Pfizer has an antiviral pill that was authorized on Wednesday. You know, vaccines are still the best first-line defense -- you know, full-stop.

But how do these pills fit into the fight against COVID, Doctor?

RAJA: It's really fantastic to have some more options for the treatment of patients with COVID, especially since these pills can be given at home and keep people out of hospitals.

Now, the Merck pill isn't quite as effective as the Pfizer pill. It's about 30 percent compared to 88 percent for keeping people out of the hospital. But it's still good to have another option.

REID: And one bonus Christmas Eve question. With all the progress we've made this year -- look, this is not where we thought we'd be in the fight against COVID at the end of 2021.

What has happened in the new year -- or what do we hope will happen in the new year to just get us out of this once and for all? Is there anything?


RAJA: Well, Paula, here's the thing. We're getting there. We've got vaccines and we've got more rapid tests than we had last year, and we're all becoming much more familiar with how to keep ourselves safe.

But the biggest thing is it's still not easy to find tests. I've got to tell you, my family and I canceled our Christmas Eve plans for tonight because we can't find rapid tests everywhere. We drove around all day after my shift yesterday.

So, this year, we're hoping that I can -- I'm really hoping that I can see more rapid tests in addition to vaccination and booster rates so that we can start to connect with each other safely again next year.

ROMANS: Dr. Ali Raja of Massachusetts General Hospital, thank you so much. And thank you, honestly, for all the work you and your colleagues do. This has been just an incredible couple of years and we just -- our hats off to you. Thank you, sir.

RAJA: Thanks, Christine and Paula.

ROMANS: All right, looking for clues for the biggest question in the economy. Will the fast-spreading Omicron variant slow the U.S. economy? Looking at consumer spending here, consumers boosted their spending by six-tenths of one percent last month, but that's down from 1.4 percent in October.

Rising case numbers leading to understaffed businesses shutting down. Universities are shifting to online classes. Some events are canceled or postponed.

Data from Open Table shows consumers dining in restaurants nationwide, 16 percent lower in the week ending December 22nd than the same period in 2019.


BOBBY STUCKEY, CO-FOUNDER, FRASCA FOOD & WINE, PIZZERIA LOCALE, SCARPETTA WINE: It's very much a struggle for restaurants. Even if we're not faced with closures, we're hanging -- many restaurants are hanging on by a thread. This is December. This is their Super Bowl month and people are having to close because staff are getting COVID. Guests -- reservations are down because guests are afraid to go out. Even if there isn't a mandate to close your restaurants, you're seeing a decrease in numbers.


ROMANS: Yes, not necessarily official restrictions but people are reining themselves in a little bit because they're trying to stay safe. And many economists are lowering their growth projections for early next year because of the growing concern about the latest surge.

Also not helping, inflation. A key measure hit a nearly four-decade high again in November. The Personal Consumption Expenditures Index rose 5.7 percent from last year, the fastest increase since 1982.

And Paula, you have the strongest economy, really, since the Reagan administration and you have the highest inflation since the Reagan administration, too. So that is the -- that is the COVID economy contradiction, right? Very strong and also prices running hot.

REID: The COVID economy certainly full of contradictions --


REID: -- as we've seen over the past two years.

Well, overnight, two more Tiananmen memorial statues removed from Hong Kong university campuses.

CNN's Will Ripley live in Hong Kong with more. All right, Will, is this an extension of the crackdown in Hong Kong?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is perhaps not a Chinese government-directly imposed crackdown, Paula. But it is certainly a continuing example of self-censorship, which we've seen in the media and we're also seeing on the campuses of academic institutions, including the University of Hong Kong, which is one of Asia's most prestigious universities. It has been a bastion for free speech and education on Chinese-controlled soil. But the removal of, now, a total of three statues here in Hong Kong is yet another sign that time of freedom in Hong Kong is rapidly coming to an end.

It sat -- it stood for more than 20 years, the Pillar of Shame. It was a statue very bold, very dramatic -- contorted torsos. And it was a reminder of the massacre at Tiananmen Square back in 1989. It stood there defiantly and there were orders from the university leadership to take it down. And that's what happened under the cover of darkness during the Christmas holiday when most people were off-campus.

The construction workers moved in. You could hear their equipment. And now, that iconic statue sitting in storage along with two others, including two that were created by a China-born New Zealand artist Chen Weiming.


CHEN WEIMING, CREATOR OF REMOVED TIANANMEN MASSACRE STATUE: Now that in the Hong Kong they started the new law so the broken one country- two system. So now it's one country-one system.


RIPLEY: Chen's works were at two other universities here in Hong Kong. Both of the artists involved here are asking for their work to be returned so that they can be reassembled and possibly even displayed in Washington in front of the Chinese Embassy.

This is an ongoing disappointment for those who have hoped that education here in Hong Kong would remain untouched despite the imposition by Beijing of a national security law last year that has radically and quickly changed the face of this once bastion of free speech in the Asia-Pacific region -- the only place on Chinese soil where the Tiananmen Square massacre was marked, although the last two, Paula, have been canceled by authorities because they said COVID safety protocols.

And the museum that was commemorating the massacre also was forced to shut down. They say it was because of political oppression.

REID: Interesting. Will, thank you so much for that report.


We'll be right back.



DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don't take their vaccine, but it's still their choice. And if you take the vaccine you are protected. Look, the results of the vaccine are very good and if you do get it, it's a very minor form. People aren't dying when they take the vaccine.


REID: An important and, frankly, long overdue message from former President Trump. Now three times this week he's been publicly backing the coronavirus vaccine developed on his watch and the White House is praising him for it.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are grateful that the former president got the booster. We're also grateful that he made clear in a recent interview that they're effective and they're safe. We believe that the former president being out there and stating what is factually accurate about the efficacy of vaccines, of getting boosted -- which he recently did, of course -- is a good thing.


ROMANS: He was sitting next to Bill O'Reilly, right, and he was talking about how he got the booster and how it was a good thing. And there was a smattering of boos and he shut them down. He said oh, that's just a small group. I mean, that was an important moment I think.

There have been real consequences to anti-vaccine rhetoric. Vaccine hesitancy runs higher among supporters of the former president. For basically an entire year, people in states that voted for President Biden have been getting vaccinated more than those in states that voted for Donald Trump.


REID: Yes. It's too bad he couldn't have come out more forcefully with this message sooner, though he's been sort of waffling -- saying yes, the vaccine, but no mandates. But it's good to see him doing this over the past week.

Now, a lot of people who have been questioning the science are also at the root of a disturbing trend -- hostility towards doctors and nurses across the country. Once celebrated as the heroes of the pandemic, that goodwill appears to be gone.

Frontline workers are now dealing with threats from patients and their families demanding unproven treatments.

We'll get more from CNN's Ed Lavandera.



ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dr. Jack Lyons spends his days treating COVID-19 patients fighting for their lives inside St. Cloud Hospital in Minnesota. Like so many other doctors, he feels the strain.

LAVANDERA (on camera): What's it been like to work in this atmosphere?

LYONS: It's exhausting. It is, frequently, heartbreaking. It is demoralizing at times.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Dr. Lyons says it's also getting hostile as patients are demanding bogus medical treatments.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Are people treating these treatments like they're picking items off of a menu at a restaurant? LYONS: Absolutely. Folks act as if they can come into the hospital and request any certain therapy they want or conversely, decline any therapy that they want with the idea being that somehow they can pick and choose and direct their therapy. And it doesn't work.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): That's putting healthcare workers at risk. Hospitals are facing a slew of lawsuits demanding risky treatments. Across the country, there are reports of growing hostility between medical workers and patients and their families. It's a daily dose of threats and vitriol.

LYONS: It insults your intelligence. It insults your ability. And most hurtful, they say that by not using their therapies you are intentionally trying to harm the people that we've given everything to save.

LAVANDERA (on camera): What has been the worst experience you've had?

LYONS: The most difficult experience we've had is a patient and family who, under a pseudonym, had made threats against the hospital. There was a reference to making sure the hospital is locked and we've got people that are coming for you.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Was it a death threat?

LYONS: I'm not sure how a person would take we're going to come to -- we're going to march on the hospital -- we're coming for you -- as anything other than a death threat.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): Barbara Chapman is a nurse practitioner and works at the University of Texas at Tyler. Last summer, she started a hotline offering teachers and healthcare workers mental health support.

CHAPMAN: I used to think of it as being overwhelmed. The healthcare workers are overwhelmed. That doesn't even address it. The way I address it now with folks when I talk to them is I refer to it as moral injury.

LAVANDERA (on camera): What do you mean by that?

CHAPMAN: We want to help folks. And now that folks aren't getting vaccinated, they're not believing us. They're questioning our education and our background. It's hurtful. We're exhausted. We're tired. And so, we have been morally injured.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Chapman says some nurses have endured so much abuse that even getting them to walk from their cars into work is a challenge.

CHAPMAN: It's like when a veteran comes back from the war. He may be out of the war but he hasn't left that war.

LAVANDERA (on camera): I mean, it's crazy to me that you're talking about a healthcare job as if it was walking into a battlefield.

CHAPMAN: It's a battlefield. It is a battlefield.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Dr. Jack Lyons often thinks of the pandemic's early days when grateful communities banged pots and pans to honor frontline healthcare workers.

LYONS: The vast majority of patients we take care of now come to our interactions with distrust.

LAVANDERA (on camera): So, yes -- that feeling of goodwill is gone.

LYONS: Long since dissipated.

LAVANDERA (on camera): The medical workers we spoke with say they sympathize with patients and the families who are desperate for any kind of treatment that can help save their loved one's lives, but these doctors also say that the people requesting and pushing for these bogus treatments are victims of misinformation -- Christine and Paula.


ROMANS: A whole different kind of pandemic. A pandemic of misinformation overwhelming, targeting, and harassing healthcare workers. Just unacceptable.

Financial markets closed today in observance of the Christmas holiday. U.S. stocks closed higher Thursday ahead of the long weekend. The S&P 500 rising 0.6 percent. That is a fresh record high.

Investors balancing inflation fears and uncertainty about the spread of Omicron, which are negatives against record-high profit margins and solid earnings performances for companies amid the pandemic.

The blast at a Texas oil refinery yesterday will probably push already high gas prices higher. Analysts say the accident could hamper output at one of the country's largest refineries for months. That could weigh on gasoline supply.


Gas prices have been falling for weeks now. The average price for a gallon of regular gas now stands at $3.29. That's down 11 cents from a month ago.

Tesla agreeing to stop allowing video games to be played on dashboard screens while its vehicles are moving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says Tesla will send out a software update for the passenger play feature. The agency had just announced a formal investigation into risks posed by drivers distracted by video games.

REID: And here is the good news we all need. Audi is promoting its season of giving and the car company proved worthy after a "WHEEL OF FORTUNE" contestant lost out on a new car when this happened.



CHARLENE RUBUSH, CONTESTANT: Choosing the right (pause) word?

SAJAK: You know, this one's tough because you said all the right words, including the word "word" -- but, as you know, it's got to be more or less continuous.


REID: Oh, come on, Pat. The technicality cost Charlene Rubush, but not for long. Audi stepped up and gave her the prize she was denied on the show, a luxury SUV -- tweeting, "There's no community like the Audi community. With your help, we tracked down Charlene!"

ROMANS: They --

REID: A lovely ending to that story.

ROMANS: That is the easiest P.R. move. The best money ever spent --

REID: Right.

ROMANS: -- by a corporate P.R. department. Well done, everyone, solving that problem.

All right, a COVID outbreak forces the cancellation of tonight's Hawaii Bowl. Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report. Hey, Andy.


So, there's good news and bad news with this story. The bad news, you traveled 4,000 miles to have your bowl game canceled just 24 hours before taking the field. The good news is the place you traveled to is Hawaii. So, I'm sure Memphis is making the best of this. This is the first college football bowl game to be called off because of the virus.

The University of Hawaii forced to pull out on the eve of the game after some 30 players and staff recently tested positive. Last year's Hawaii Bowl was also called off due to the pandemic.

Now, the Gator Bowl, meanwhile, has a replacement for Texas A&M. Rutgers, who finished next to last in the Big 10 Eastern Division, is going to now play Wake Forest one week from tonight in Jacksonville, Florida. This will be the first time the Scarlet Knights will play in a bowl game since the 2014 season. It was the second-longest bowl drought among Power Five programs behind only Kansas.

The Aggies had to pull out of the game after a large number of players tested positive.

All right. The NBA continues to struggle with the surge in COVID cases. Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns the latest star to enter the league's health and safety protocol. The two-time all-star lost family members, including his mother, to the virus last year. And Towns previously tested positive for COVID on January 15th.

He tweeted about his recent status before last night's game against the Jazz, posting, "Can't catch a (bleep) break!"

Now, you've got no games in the NBA today. But we do have five tomorrow for Christmas, starting with the Hawks and Knicks at noon eastern.

All right, Titans and 49ers kicking off week 16 last night and they ended up playing a thriller. San Francisco ties the game at 17 with Jimmy Garoppolo's two-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Aiyuk with 2:20 left on the clock. That was plenty of time though for Titan's quarterback Ryan Tannehill to march the team down the field, setting up Randy Bullock for a 44-yard field goal with four seconds left.

The Niners hoping for a Christmas miracle with a bunch of laterals but it didn't work. Tennessee wins this one 20-17, moving a win or a Colts' loss away from clinching the division. San Francisco's loss also means the Dallas Cowboys have officially clinched a spot in the playoffs for the first time in three years.

All right. Finally, the holidays bring people together -- not like this. The Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa had to take a timeout after UCF's Cole Schneider somehow got a Gator's player helmet stuck to his face mask. You see the ref there trying to get it off and couldn't do it. To quote Clark Griswold in "Christmas Vacation," I've got a little knot here. It took UFC's equipment crew a little while to get those apart.

They ended up beating the Gators for the first time in school history, 29-17.

I'm not sure I'd seen the two helmets getting stuck together, at least for that length of time, guys. But they got it all figured out and gave us a nice laugh.

ROMANS: You couldn't do that again if you tried, right?


ROMANS: That's just one of those things.

All right, nice to see you, Andy.

SCHOLES: All right, guys.

REID: I love the Griswold reference. Always appreciate that.

And the holiday spirit shines bright in central Tennessee. Each year, Larry Jenkins transforms the front of his nursery business into a Christmas tree lot, and he's giving away free Christmas trees to people who can't afford them during the year when tree prices are at an all-time high.


LARRY JENKINS, OWNER, JENKINS NURSERY: I know how COVID's been and people are out of work and family having a rough time. I decided why not give trees to some of the people that couldn't afford it. You'll see some people shed tears because they're just not used to nobody giving them nothing like that and they really appreciate it.



REID: That's lovely.

Well, this is the first time he's publicized it. Jenkins has helped people in the past. He says he hopes to spread kindness beyond just the Christmas season.

ROMANS: And hopefully, people in that community will reward him with a lot of business this spring.

All right, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sharing the first photo of baby Lilibet in their 2021 holiday card. The family portrait shows Meghan holding their now-6-month-old daughter in the air while Harry sits next to them with 2-year-old son Archie on his lap. The couple writes on the card, "Archie made us a mama and a papa, and Lili made us a family."

REID: Aah.

ROMANS: Living the dream in Santa Barbara.

REID: Absolutely.

Santa Claus' sleigh is packed, and in just a few minutes you can track his every move. NORAD is about to activate its Santa tracking system. People can follow Santa's journey around the world on NORAD's website or call the command center. The Santa Tracker started by accident in 1955 when a newspaper misprinted the number in an ad for kids to contact Santa and the call went to a defense base.

ROMANS: Yes, and now they do this really well. Every year my little guys line up and we watch this all night long. It's really -- it's very fun. So, well done.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Thanks for joining us. I'm Christine Romans. So nice to have you here these few days, Paula. Thank you.

REID: Thank you so much. It's been great to be with you. I'm Paula Reid. "NEW DAY" is next.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good Friday morning, I'm Erica Hill. Brianna Keilar and John Berman are off. Jim Sciutto joins me on this new day.

Christmas Eve travel hitting pre-pandemic levels but not without some turbulence as hundreds of flights are grounded thanks to Omicron.

And the CDC reducing the isolation time for healthcare workers who tested positive, as some of the airline industry push for the same.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good to be here this morning.

A guilty verdict for former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter after four long days of deliberations.