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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

U.S. Hits Record Average Of Daily New Coronavirus Cases; Disturbing New Details Revealed In Shooting Spree That Killed Five; Hong Kong Police Raid Pro-Democracy News Outlet. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 29, 2021 - 05:30   ET




PAULA REID, CNN ANCHOR: Ready to return an unwanted holiday gift? You might just be told to keep it. That's because the return of a $50.00 item costs merchants about $33.00. That's up 59 percent from 2020. And with three in 10 online purchases returned, retailers have quickly figured out that it doesn't pay to process returns since the items are frequently discarded, donated, or repurposed for sale.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: But there's a catch. If you're thinking about gaming the system for free stuff you better think twice because retailers keep tabs on what they call frequent returners, and some even keep a risk score on customers. I fear I might be on one of those black lists.

REID: Same.

JARRETT: Retailers are encouraging people to return their unwanted gifts directly to the physical stores. That way companies can make return products available for resale to offset all of those supply chain issues.

EARLY START continues right now.

Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.

REID: And I'm Paula Reid in for Christine Romans. It is 31 minutes past the hour.

JARRETT: Paula, great to have you.

Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.

A record number of new COVID cases in the United States -- more than 265,000. Hospitalizations of children are up about 50 percent in just one week. And according to the FDA, at-home antigen tests may be less sensitive to picking up the Omicron variant. More on that in just a moment.

REID: And former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid has died. Reid was an amateur boxer and former Capitol Hill police officer who spent 30 years in the Senate. He lost his battle with pancreatic cancer Tuesday at the age of 82.

JARRETT: Legendary NFL coach and Hall of Famer John Madden has died. Madden's Oakland Raiders never had a losing season. Coach, as he was known, was also a beloved football analyst for 30 years. He was 85 years old.

REID: And jurors in the Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking trial tell the judge they're making progress. Day six of deliberations is set for today. The judge told attorneys if no verdict is reached she will tell the jurors to deliberate over the New Year's holiday weekend.

JARRETT: California's Sierra Nevada Mountains are seeing record snowfall for December -- nearly 17 feet. But it's not enough to snap the region out of extreme drought. The snowpack in the Sierras accounts for nearly a third of California's freshwater supply and reservoirs are still low.

REID: Ready to forget 2021 with a glass of bubbly? Well, you're not alone. The alcohol delivery service Drizly says 17 percent of wine delivered in December is actually champagne. That's kind of surprising.

JARRETT: All right, turning back now to COVID. It was considered just unthinkable a few months ago. The U.S. shattering its record for average daily COVID cases more than doubling in two weeks alone. This is thanks to a combination of both Omicron and Delta, which the CDC now says hasn't fallen into the background as much as first thought.

REID: Now the FDA says at-home coronavirus tests may be less sensitive to picking up the Omicron variant. That could send more people into those long testing lines, which could make results take even longer.

Let's bring in Dr. Ali Raja, executive vice-chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Mass General Hospital. Doctor, thank you so much for being with us.

Now, of course, the FDA put out that warning that at-home test kits, which have been so coveted over the past few weeks, may be less sensitive at picking up the Omicron variant. Can you help us make sense of this?

DR. ALI RAJA, EXECUTIVE VICE-CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE, MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL (via Skype): Absolutely. Now, here's the thing. The FDA and NIH team looked specifically at these take-home tests and they found that a few of them had lower sensitivities for Omicron than other variants because they could have some false negatives even though people have the disease.

But here's the thing. They're good tests to start with, especially if they come back positive or if you're just testing because of the fact that you maybe had an exposure or at a gathering and don't have symptoms. But if you have symptoms you're absolutely right. Even if you have a negative test you have to get a PCR test and that may mean waiting in a line just like you just talked about. JARRETT: Well, and part of the way -- and folks need to understand -- is how to use them properly, which is to use them serially and not just sort of a one and done.

The former surgeon general, Jerome Adams, is pushing back against some of this new CDC isolation guidance that we saw just yesterday, saying that you shouldn't leave quarantine. Adams is saying you shouldn't leave quarantine until you test negative. That's not what the CDC is saying, in part because tests are so hard to find.

Where do you come down on this?


RAJA: You know, I actually agree with Dr. Adams. I've talked to my patients about this -- and as you can imagine we were all talking about this yesterday whenever I saw patients in the E.R. And the ideal is really what we should be aiming for is that after five days and you don't have symptoms, you get a negative test. But, I mean, it is impossible to find tests in a lot of places so the CDC is walking that fine line that they're not going to require tests to come out of isolation because they're hard to find.

But they are asking people to wear masks for another five days. So at the very least, we need to do that.

JARRETT: But the problem is we see how well that has turned out so far.

RAJA: I know.

REID: So true.

RAJA: I know.

REID: And, of course, pediatric COVID cases continue to spike. Kids under five still can't get vaccinated. And major school districts, like New York City, are set to return Monday.

From what you're seeing in your E.R., is this an issue of a volume of cases or the severity of the virus, or is it just parents bringing their kids to the hospital because they're scared?

RAJA: It's all three. None of these are great but you'd much rather have volume than severity. Unfortunately, that's where it looks like we are right now. We've only got a handful of kids admitted to the hospital for -- at MGH for primarily for COVID, but we've got a lot of kids coming in for testing and patients -- or, rather, parents, in this case, who are worried. So I'd much rather have that than a bunch of kids being admitted. But there are a lot of parents and kids coming in for testing.

JARRETT: Speaking of parents that are scared right now, you've got sort of this awful viral buffet, if you will, this winter --

RAJA: Yes. JARRETT: -- with the flu, COVID, the common cold, RSV. It's all

circulating at the same time.

Help us out with some practical advice. How can you tell the difference in symptoms?

RAJA: It's really hard. I've been talking to my friends and family about his as well because they're wondering if they really need to go in and get themselves or their kids tested, especially with school starting up on Monday. My kids are both starting up on Monday, too.

And the fact is the same thing that I tell my patients applies here. When you come in for testing, I can't definitively tell you whether this is the flu or RSV, or COVID without doing that testing. And so, you really need it.

Now, there are some things like the loss of taste and the loss of smell, and a really bad headache that seem to be more associated with COVID.


RAJA: But the only way to really know is to get tested.

REID: Now, it's safe to say much of the country is near a breaking point with COVID. They've had it.

RAJA: Yes.

REID: Healthcare workers, of course, getting it worse than anyone. So many people are facing burnout.

Do you have any advice for people who are just over it and now heading into another unpredictable winter?

RAJA: Yes, you're so right. I -- the prospect of a third year fighting this pandemic is daunting, and I've run into this with patients and friends, and family. I've been really trying to focus on how far we've come over the past two years, right --


RAJA: -- safety protocols, vaccines, treatments, masks. But people still feel overwhelmed.

And I think the thing that I'm really emphasizing is right now is it is OK to feel that way. It is OK to ask for help and see a therapist -- a psychologist, a psychiatrist. And honestly, with telemedicine options available, that's actually easier in some cases than it was before the pandemic.

JARRETT: That's such a good point. Asking for help is always a good thing.

And we appreciate everything that you are doing, Doctor, and we appreciate you always getting up early for us on top of everything else you have going on. Thank you.

RAJA: Thanks, Laura and Paula.

REID: And disturbing new details in the Colorado shooting spree from Monday night that killed five people and injured two, including a police officer. New information suggesting each of the victims was targeted and it could stem from the suspect's failed business as a tattoo store owner.

CNN's Omar Jimenez reports.


OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Well, the suspect was identified as 47-year-old Lyndon James McLeod. He allegedly shot and killed five people in the Denver area in about an hour's time and injured others, including a police officer. And police say this suspect may have known the people he shot. At the very least, saying that they believe some of these attacks were targeted.

Now, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's website, Lyndon James McLeod owned a tattoo shop from 2005 until he was declared delinquent in 2017. Well, there's a new shop at that location now and that was near the site of the third shooting that happened Monday afternoon.

And in total -- this happened across multiple sites -- three of those sites were either at or near tattoo shops. And what's more, is police say this isn't the first time he has been on law enforcement's radar.

CHIEF PAUL PAZEN, DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT: This individual was on the radar of law enforcement. That -- there were two previous investigations into this individual's action. Neither of those investigations resulted in state or federal criminal charges.

JIMENEZ (on camera): Much of this investigation, so far, has been trying to nail down what happened. But moving forward, Laura and Paula, it's going to center on why.



JARRETT: Omar Jimenez, thank you for that update.

And new overnight, another crackdown on the media in Hong Kong. CNN's Ivan Watson is on the ground in Hong Kong with details about a raid and several arrests. Ivan, good morning. What more can you tell us?


Well, Laura, basically, one of the last remaining independent media voices in Hong Kong has been snuffed out. Because earlier this morning, in the dog days between Christmas and New Year's, police staged a huge raid -- 200 police officers -- on the newsroom of this online news portal. And also, arrested at least seven of its current and former editorial staff, accusing them of publishing seditious material.

And hours after these raids and after freezing the company's assets, the company made an announcement on Facebook saying hey, we're shutting down. We're dismissing everybody and clearing our social media.

And there's an echo here. This happened earlier this year with the biggest circulation newspaper in the city, Apple Daily. It was raided. It's publisher behind bars and just got new sedition charges a couple of days ago.

And the effect is a squelching of journalism here. The Hong Kong government would argue -- listen -- no. What we're trying to do is restore law and order after those protests turned into violent riots in 2019. But they've arrested dozens of opposition politicians -- behind bars. You can't protest in the streets anymore.

So take your pick from which narrative is happening -- either restoration of law and order or a crackdown around Christmas.

JARRETT: All right, Ivan. This is something to watch Thank you so much.

We'll be right back.



JARRETT: Forty-five minutes past the hour here in New York.

And prices for basic necessities -- I'm talking food, gas, homes -- are skyrocketing right now. Eating is taking a bigger bite out of family budgets. Pent-up demand, high shipping, and fertilizer costs, and bad weather could keep food prices high.

And a new Gas Buddy forecast predicts the national average for a gallon of gas will rise to $3.41 in 2022, up from just over $3.00 a gallon this year. That would reverse some of the relief drivers have felt recently as gas prices slowly receded from those seven-year highs.

REID: And home prices saw double-digit price growth again in October, up 19.1 percent from last year. The last four months have seen the biggest jumps in 34 years.

The bottom line, COVID is causing mayhem with the economy. The disruption, though, is different this time. Vaccines and boosters are widely available, but the staggering speed in which Omicron is spreading and the shortage of available tests is causing real pain.

Many companies have told office workers to just stay home. And restaurants are once again under pressure.

One significant unknown is what the latest spike in COVID-19 means for inflation and those already tangled supply chains. JARRETT: Some four months after that chaotic U.S. withdrawal from

Afghanistan, the fallout is being felt in that nation and beyond. The Taliban are clamping down once again on women's rights as thousands of Afghan refugees at American bases around the world wait for answers about their future.

Our coverage this morning starts with CNN's Arwa Damon in Istanbul. Arwa, good morning. It seems like all of these new rules from the Taliban seem to involve women and cars.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a lot of them do. And the Taliban keeps saying that this is all to keep the female population safe, but it really is quite reminiscent of the way that the Taliban used to rule and implement its rules 20-plus years ago.

These new set of rules are basically telling women that if they want to travel further than 45 miles, they have to have a male escort with them. The rules also tell drivers not to pick up women unless they are properly covered up, not to play music, and to make sure that they pull over during prayer times.

And you also have to remember, Laura, that the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Afghanistan was shut down by the Taliban and replaced by what's known as the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. This was a very feared ministry under the Taliban of two decades ago; one whose operatives would roam the streets enacting the Taliban's very harsh rules, especially when it came to women and how women should be acting under the Taliban's interpretation of sharia law.

So you can just imagine now, once again, if you're a woman or a young girl in Afghanistan, you are seeing your happiness, your joy, your life, your ability to live being taken away. And to that count, it is worth noting that we do still see small protests being led by women standing up to the Taliban, wanting to hold on to the life that they used to have, Laura.

JARRETT: And the courage it takes to do that in the face of all of this. Arwa, thank you for your reporting, as usual.

REID: And months after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, thousands of Afghan evacuees abroad and at U.S. bases are still waiting to be resettled.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is live in Washington with more. Priscilla, what are you learning?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: Paula, the reality is that there is a lot of work ahead for the Biden administration as they try to resettle Afghans who evacuated when the Taliban took over.

To give you a sense of scope, nearly 3,000 Afghans are still waiting at so-called lily pad locations. Those were transit countries that were used by the U.S. to continue to vet and process Afghans as they made their way to the U.S. And tens of thousands still remain on domestic military bases. And this wait -- this delay is really taking a toll on those evacuees who already endured intense trauma in evacuating Afghanistan this fall.

Our colleague, Kylie Atwood, spoke to one Afghan who has been waiting in the United Arab Emirates with his family since September. And he says that his depression is increasing as he is desperate to come to the United States and unclear as to why there is a delay.


Now, he, like many others, left Afghanistan with little to no belongings and that is crucial paperwork that could be used to process. Now, the State Department says that they are trying to facilitate travel for those without documentation.

But the reality is that there is a lot of work ahead for this administration, both abroad and here in the United States as they work to get people off those domestic bases by mid-February -- Paula.

REID: A lot of work ahead. Priscilla, thank you so much.

JARRETT: And a rare move toward diplomacy in the Middle East. For the first time in a decade, the president of the Palestinian Authority has stepped foot inside Israel for talks with a top Israeli leader.

Elliott Gotkine is live for us in Jerusalem. Elliott, this seems significant.

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Laura, I suppose it's significant on a number of levels, and the level that it's not significant is that this doesn't mean -- you know, there is any sense of a move towards resuming peace talks. The peace process remains more abandoned (ph) and I don't think anyone seriously expects any progress on that front, not least while there's right-wing parties in the governing coalition, including that of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

In terms of the actual significance, there's a few things going on. We saw U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Israel just last week meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority to try to reinforce support for the peace around the Gaza Strip. And I suppose what this meeting does is it shows that the Biden administration's reengagement with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is having results, albeit just conversations.

Now, it's also -- another reason for this meeting was to bolster the position of Mahmoud Abbas. His meeting wasn't supported by anyone really outside of his own Fatah Party. But still, by reinforcing his position, Israel hopes to strengthen his position and also ensure that there is no real room for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to get a foothold in power in the West Bank.

And the other thing going on is that there's been rising tensions in the West Bank -- growing violence between both the Palestinians against the Israelis and Israeli settlers against Palestinians. And there are hopes that these conversations will lead to de-escalation of tensions, particularly with regards to some of the concessions that we're seeing coming out of this meeting with regards to money and also more permits and the like for Palestinians -- Laura.

JARRETT: Very interesting. Elliott Gotkine, thank you.

All right, let's get a little sports. The NFL is updating its COVID-19 protocols to be more in line with the CDC's new guidelines.

Coy Wire is back with us with this morning's Bleacher Report. Hey, Coy.


We saw a similar change to the NBA's policy on Monday. Now, the NFL taking action as well.

The league saying that any player who tests positive for COVID-19 will now have to isolate from their team for five days instead of 10, as long as they're asymptomatic and feeling well. Players that return will have to wear masks at all time for another five days. That's in line with the guidance the CDC put out on Monday.

The NFL has seen a surge in COVID cases, Laura, with just two weeks remaining here in the regular season.

Now, the NHL was back last night after a weeklong break due to COVID concerns and Christmas holiday. And, Laura, 33 goals were scored in three games, including that game-winner there in overtime for the two- time defending champion Lightning over the Canadiens. Tampa owns the league's best record on 46 points.

However, the league still postponed 10 more games yesterday, many of them due to attendance restrictions in Canada. Eighty games have been impacted so far this season.

Now, another college football bowl game was called off yesterday; this one just hours before kickoff. The Holiday Bowl in San Diego was canceled after COVID issues forced UCLA to withdraw from its game against North Carolina State. It's the fifth game now canceled this bowl season.

Meanwhile, in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, perhaps, the biggest big-man touchdown ever. Six-foot-nine, 380-pound Daniel Faalele scoring a two- yard touchdown for Minnesota. The 22-year-old, originally from Australia, didn't even start playing football until he was a junior in high school. Now, he's an All-Conference player for the Golden Gophers, helping them get a big win over West Virginia.

And memories being made and bowl traditions continuing -- some fun for those playing in the bowl games that are still going on. Look at these moves. Oregon and Oklahoma players having some fun before their Alamo Bowl matchup. That's tonight. They're going to toe to toe on the dance floor here. This is what bowl games are all about -- rewarding kids with some fun after working hard all season long. And you feel for those seniors who are missing out on some of these

moments amid the bowl games being canceled. It's something that so many around the world can relate to, though, in just trying to find a bit of light here amidst all the madness.

JARRETT: Trying to find a little bit of joy. A little bit of hype music goes a long way.

WIRE: Yes, you've got it.

JARRETT: Thank you, Coy. Appreciate it.

WIRE: You got it.

REID: And a FedEx driver from Maine got to go home to Jamaica for Christmas thanks to the kindness of strangers. A few months ago, siblings Vivian and Chase Murphy gave their FedEx driver Roger Ingram a bottle of water. Now the family is elated every time they hear his truck coming up the driveway.


JARRETT: But then they took it a step further. For Christmas, the family collaborated with other families on Ingram's route to buy him a flight home. The $700-plus ticket was paid in full.


ROGER INGRAM, FEDEX DELIVERY DRIVER: It was kind of emotional because I didn't expect it. So, an act of kindness can go a long way. Yes, they're my buddy now. They're my buddy.



JARRETT: This is Ingram's first time visiting his family in Jamaica in just a couple of years. Look how happy they are to see him.

REID: That's really, really lovely.

Thank you for joining us. I'm Paula Reid.

JARRETT: Paula, it's so nice to have you the past couple of days. Hope you get a little bit of a break.

I'm Laura Jarrett. "NEW DAY" is next.


JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Wednesday, December 29th. I'm John Avlon in with Kaitlan Collins as we hit mid-week. Kaitlan, how are you doing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: I feel like we're doing pretty well, so far. This new wake-up call is pretty early but I think I'm getting used to it, which is what's the scary part of this.

AVLON: I think you're getting in the groove.

All right, we are following three big news stories this morning.

The U.S. shattering its record average of daily COVID cases, and the CDC slashing estimates of the Omicron variant's prevalence.

Plus, the political world and the sports world are mourning the death of two American giants, Harry Reid and John Madden.

But first, to the pandemic. The U.S. hitting a record seven-day average of more than 265,000 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday as two highly contagious variants fuel surges across the country. But we should note that the number of hospitalizations are not rising at the same rate to date.

Meanwhile, the CDC now lowering its estimate of the prevalence of the Omicron variant in the U.S. last week from 70 to 59 percent.