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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Frontline Workers Criticize Shortened Quarantine Guidelines; Less Federal Aid to Americans in Pandemic Year 3; Ghislaine Maxwell Guilty on Four Sex Trafficking Charges; COVID-19 Surging across Europe; Amazon's Alexa Endangers Child. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2021 - 05:00   ET




LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett. Christine has the day off. It is Thursday, December 30th. It's 5:00 am here in New York.

So as we get closer to bringing in a new year, the risk calculations that we all make every day, when it comes to COVID-19, are, frankly, getting more complicated and that's particularly true when it comes to front line workers.

There's been growing pushback from some about these new CDC guidelines, shortening the amount of time you should stay isolated at home if you test positive for COVID. The American Nurses Association says it is deeply concerned about the change, citing insufficient evidence and concern for health care workers safety.


DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, CENTER FOR DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Everything we're going to do right now is going to be imperfect. Just accept that right now.

We don't know a lot of the things we wish we'd know. But what we do know and what is emerging here is that this country is going to be in the soup just in the next few weeks, with so many cases in so many locations that we're going to see critical infrastructure as well as health care challenged.



JARRETT (voice-over): Take a look at this. For the first time since Omicron hit, an uptick in hospitalizations. That's something to watch, with data catching up from the holiday weekend. The number now almost doubling in the last eight weeks.

Michigan is one of several states to hit peak hospitalizations this month. The State Department of Health says it isn't following the new CDC isolation guidelines and it's sticking with its own rules while they wait for more information, specifically for people in high-risk settings.

Meantime, the flight attendants' union is also raising a red flag.


SARA NELSON, PRESIDENT, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: Let's not make a decision now that may provide some relief right now, that will have longer-term problems. What Director Walensky was saying there is that there's low chance.

That's cold comfort for the people who know that now we're going to be going to work, with more people who are infectious, because there will be people who are still infectious, who are coming to our workplace, either workers or who are being forced to come back to work, frankly, because there is pressure from the airlines or other companies to get them back on the job to cover those shifts.


JARRETT: So "The Washington Post" reports that that recommendation this week, to cut the isolation period from 10 to five days, was largely driven by concern that essential services might be hobbled.

But that's already happening in Cincinnati, where the mayor declared a state of emergency Wednesday, due to staffing shortages within the fire department, following an increase in COVID cases.

It also allows the city manager to take any steps necessary to make sure the fire department is adequately staffed, including cancelling vacations and implementing mandatory overtime.

In New York City, the fire department unless it is a real emergency, do not call 9-1-1. That may seem obvious but 30 percent -- 30 percent -- of EMS workers and 17 percent of firefighters in the city are out sick right now.

Around 17 percent of the NYPD's uniformed officers had already called out sick Tuesday. And the MTA was forced to suspend the entire W subway line that normally serves Queens, Midtown and lower Manhattan due to a coronavirus staffing shortage.

It -- also testing shortages are plaguing parts of the country. In Louisiana, hundreds of people wasting hours after virus testing lines there, spanning six blocks, got cut off when that site closed.


RICK BRIGHT, FORMER PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS CHIEF: There is no good excuse for not having the tests that we need in America to get in front of this virus. Americans are waiting too long. I described it as the "Hunger Games" and I really mean it. It's not where we should be going into year three of this pandemic. (END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: Lack of testing and slow results because of volume are slowing the return to school as well, including in Washington.


MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER (D-DC): Our parents, like us in D.C. government, value bringing our kids back to school in person.

And a safer way to do that, given the winter surge that we are experiencing, is to make sure that every student entering our building has had a antigen rapid test or a PCR test and can upload that result to us within 24 hours of coming back to school on the 5th.

We made the decision to delay by two days the return to school, so that that pickup and testing can occur.


JARRETT: Meantime, the Smithsonian says it's closing four of its smaller museums in Washington and reassigning staff to larger ones.

And the 2022 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has also been postponed due to the threat of coronavirus.

Well, we know the new year will bring more COVID-19.


JARRETT: But don't expect to see more federal relief in your bank account. There won't be any more stimulus checks; boosted unemployment benefits and guaranteed paid sick leave programs have expired.

The final round of that expanded child tax credit payment was sent out earlier this month. And the Paycheck Protection Program ran out of cash in May after providing nearly $800 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses.

Now there is some federal aid still available: a pause on student loan payments has been extended until May 1st; anyone with a federal student loan has not had to make payments since March 2020.

And Congress has authorized $47 billion for emergency home rental assistance over the past year. More than half of those funds remain available.

President Biden will speak with Russian president Vladimir Putin this afternoon. The call, requested by Putin, comes before a series of diplomatic talks in January over Russia's military buildup on the Ukraine border. CNN's Nic Robertson is on the ground for us in Moscow this morning.

Nic, this second call in just a month.

What can we expect from the talk today?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, the Kremlin hasn't said precisely why Vladimir Putin asked for this phone call.

The White House has said very clearly it doesn't see, at the moment, de-escalation of Russian troop tensions along the border with Ukraine.

And it has said very clearly as well, that if Russia wants to achieve its goals and get some clarity on NATO's engagement with Ukraine, then Russia needs to sort of do -- have these conversations that it wants to have in an atmosphere of reduction of tension.

So the message from the White House seems to be that Russia is doing nothing to make these talks work and doing nothing to achieve its goals.

We do know, however, that President Putin has sent a New Year's message to President Biden, saying that he does think that the two countries can have a mutually respectful conversations and talks.

The narrative from the Russian side is they still expect to be able to get what they want. We have heard Russia now that Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, will be heading the U.S. delegation to the talks in Geneva on January the 10th.

And the deputy foreign minister on the Russian side will be heading their delegation. They are saying that there will be support from the Russian ministry of defense at those negotiations as well.

But you know, to that phone call today, it's very unclear why President Putin wants to, you know, speak again, just a few weeks after having already spoken to President Biden. And both of them agreeing, there should be sort of another track of diplomacy lower than them.

But President Biden has said that he believes in leader to leader conversations and is quite happy to have this conversation with President Putin. What Putin gets out of it, the takeaways, what he tries to sell to the public here in Russia, we'll see that over the next couple of days, I believe.

JARRETT: Nic, we are also learning that the U.S. flew a reconnaissance plane over Eastern Ukraine this week, to gather intel about the situation on the ground.

What more can you tell us about that?

ROBERTSON: Yes, I mean, this came two days after Russia said that it withdrew 10,000 troops to their military bases that were on their territory in Russia. These were preplanned routine regular exercises.

Russia said they withdrew 10,000 of those troops. And it's very hard to get an analysis of -- to verify that kind of claim, because Russia didn't put out any evidence about it. So it does appear as if these flights were aimed at trying to sort of figure out what Russia was saying and match it up against the reality on the ground.

And did those troops, if they actually left, did they leave behind military hardware? That's always a concern. You know -- and I think what we saw in the past 24 hours after learning about that surveillance flight that, you know, the White House is still concerned that Russia is doing nothing to de-escalate the tension, that it still has those troops on the border, I think, speaks to the information that was provided from that surveillance flight.

Russia might have pulled back 10,000 troops; it doesn't change much on the border with Ukraine.

JARRETT: Great point. We'll see how these talks go today. Nic, thank you so much.

The Biden administration is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on whether it must keep a Trump-era immigration policy in place. This controversial program, it's known as the Remain in Mexico policy, forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings.

Advocates say that's more dangerous, of course. The Biden administration tried to end the program but a federal judge in Texas ordered it to restart back in August. That ruling was upheld by the court. Now the Biden administration is trying again to get the high court to rule in its favor.

Still ahead for you, Ghislaine Maxwell could spend the rest of her life in prison, convicted of helping Jeffrey Epstein abuse teenage girls for years. Hear what some of the victims had to say next.






DAMIAN WILLIAMS, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR SDNY: The road to justice has been far too long. But today justice has been done. I want to commend the bravery of the girls, now grown women, who stepped out of the shadows and into the courtroom. Their courage and willingness to face their abuser made today's result and this case possible.


JARRETT: Ghislaine Maxwell, the former companion of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, was convicted by a federal jury Wednesday of conspiring with him for at least 10 years to recruit, groom and sexually abuse teenage girls.

The 60-year-old daughter of a British media mogul showed little emotion as the verdicts were read. She now faces up to decades in prison. CNN's Sonia Moghe has more.

SONIA MOGHE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Laura, it was a momentous day for survivors of abuse by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell after she was found guilty of five of the six counts that she faced, including the most serious count, sex trafficking a minor.

Many of these survivors felt a devastating blow after Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide shortly after he was arrested on the federal sex trafficking charges. And this trial was a second chance for them to try to seek some sort of justice.

One woman who testified at the trial against Maxwell, named Annie Farmer, said that she was relieved and grateful to the jurors for finding her guilty of five of these counts, saying in a statement, quote, "She has caused hurt to many more women than the few of us who had the chance to testify in the courtroom.

"I hope that this verdict brings solace to all who need it and demonstrates that no one is above the law. Even those with great power and privilege will be held accountable when they sexually abuse and exploit the young."

Meanwhile, Maxwell's family released a statement of their own, saying that they are already working on an appeal and believe that she will ultimately be vindicated.


MOGHE: Maxwell's attorney spoke shortly after the verdict.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We firmly believe in Ghislaine's innocence. Obviously we are very disappointed with the verdict. We have already started working on the appeal and we are confident that she will be vindicated.


MOGHE: Maxwell faces up to 65 years in prison for these counts and she'll be sentenced at a later date. She also faces two separate perjury charges in a separate case -- Laura.

JARRETT: Sonia, thank you for that.

And chilling new details are emerging about a man who went on a shooting spree in Denver earlier this week, killing four people. A series of books published by the gunman in the last few years foreshadowed that attack and even named two of the eventual victims. CNN's Lucy Kafanov has more on this story.


LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Laura, good morning; chilly new details emerging about the suspected gunman, who has been identified by police as 47-year-old Linden McLeod, who seems to have foreshadowed the murderous rampage in books he wrote under the pseudonym Roman McClay. In the books he writes about a character named Linden McLeod, who

kills another character by the name of Michael Swinyard at a building located at 1300 William (ph) Street.

The Denver County medical examiner's office has named Michael Swinyard as one of the five victims. Police say he was killed at that same address.

In another book he writes about killing a woman named Alicia Cardenas. That victim's name was also released by the Denver County medical examiner's office. She was 44 years old, the owner of Sol Tribe Tattoo and Body Piercing.

Police say investigators believe the gunman targeted some of his victims but that the motive is still unclear. He was shot and killed by a Lakewood, Colorado, police officer, who was wounded but is expected to recover from her injuries.

Social media accounts published under that pseudonym contain various musings about and extreme views about violence, murder, what he saw as the decline of masculinity, the role of women in society, guns as well as the nature of war -- Laura.

JARRETT: Lucy, thank you. Really disturbing there.

Well, Amazon forced to reprogram its Alexa devices. We'll tell you the truly shocking advice it gave to a 10-year-old child that forced the change.





JARRETT: Welcome back.

New Year's Eve won't have its usual sizzle in parts of Europe. COVID infections are soaring across the continent. You see those lines on the right, all heading up, no sign of the drop off South Africa experienced one month after Omicron first started to spread. CNN's Melissa Bell is in Paris for us.

Melissa, good morning. France just set a new record for cases in a single day.

And now outdoor mask mandates are coming?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They're coming back. We haven't had them for several months. And again we are going to have to wear masks when we're out in the streets here in France once again.

That is how fast these figures are rising. Now here in France, it is still the Delta variant, the one that is in the majority and causing the most trouble, according to the health ministry speaking to parliament yesterday.

Omicron is hot on its heels and doubling. We're seeing a doubling of the cases every two to three days, he said. That's how fast it's spreading. As you say, the records being shattered day after day in terms of new cases.

That, of course, means a lot quieter New Year's celebrations than we've had. The typical Champs-Elysees gathering, the fireworks display canceled. In other countries, Germany, the Netherlands, focused on limiting the number of the size of gatherings that can happen inside people's homes.

Greece, Italy and Austria really looking at closing down the hospitality sector on New Year's Eve to prevent people from being out late.

The United Kingdom is bucking the trend. It has not announced any New Year's Eve restrictions. It has avoided restrictions seen elsewhere, instead focusing on the idea we heard, creating emergency hubs outside of hospitals, sort of dealing with the consequence rather than trying, as elsewhere, to prevent the spread.

Special tents will be set outside of eight hospitals, so fast do they expect the hospitalizations to rise as a result of the spread of Omicron.

Here in France, we're not far behind that, with the entire continent right now looking at these record rises. What the health ministry says is you can expect the health care systems in the next few weeks to come under severe strain and even face potential difficulties coping, given how fast this Omicron variant is spreading.

JARRETT: Obviously facing the same thing here in the U.S., everyone sorting through the best way they can what to do next. Melissa, thank you.


JARRETT (voice-over): And you thought U.S. politics was ugly, those are members of the Jordanian parliament. They were discussing more rights for women, when fists started flying on Tuesday.

Gender equity has long been a contentious topic among conservatives in Jordan. The proposed changes are part of a comprehensive reform process backed by King Abdullah.


JARRETT: Well, it might be scaled back but it is special nonetheless. Join Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen for CNN's New Year's Eve live. The party starts at 8:00 pm tomorrow, right here on CNN.





JARRETT: Alexa, what's some terrible advice for a child?

One mother was horrified to find her Amazon virtual assistant advised her 10-year-old daughter to risk electric shock. According to a tweet posted by this mother, the girl asked Alexa for a challenge. The two were doing fitness challenges at home.

And the response from Alexa was, quote, "Plug in a phone charger halfway into a wall outlet and then touch a penny to the exposed prongs."

The so-called penny challenge began on, you guess it, TikTok some time last year and got picked up by Alexa. Thankfully, the daughter did not follow that recommendation. Amazon says it has now fixed the error.

Well, New Year's Eve is almost here.

Wondering what the holiday weather might look like?


JARRETT: Now to a story we brought you yesterday, about champagne accounting for 20 percent of all wine sales in December. Champagne may be the latest casualty of the global supply chain problem.

According to "Wine Spectator," the cage that goes on top of your bottle, the labels and the boxes to put wine in are all in short supply. You may have problems finding your favorite brand between now and tomorrow night, which just seems unfair in a pandemic.

EARLY START continues right now.


JARRETT: Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett. It's about 29 minutes past the hour here in New York.

State and local health officials say they're struggling to make sense of the new recommendations from the CDC about what to do if you test positive for COVID. They say the agency cut the isolation time in half with little consultation or preparation.

The White House says it is working to ramp up the COVID response but, really here, it's playing catch up; more federally run testing sites after nearly a year in office and additional medical teams to states with higher caseloads, while hospitals are already overwhelmed.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our message to governors around the country is simple. If you need something, say something.