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Dr. Fauci: "Should not be Complacent" as Omicron Spreads; CDC Defends Cutting Isolation Time as U.S Cases Hit Record High; Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid Dies at 82; Former Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer Remembers her Friend Harry Reid; Tomorrow: Biden to Hold Call with Putin. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 29, 2021 - 12:00   ET




PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to "Inside Politics". I'm Phil Mattingly in John King in Washington. Omicron fuels a global COVID spike. Today, an American COVID case record falls.

This morning the CDC Director explains why the agents changed its mind about what to do if you're asymptomatic then why left testing out of the equation? Plus, a boxer a gaming official who dodged death in a Senate dealmaker in states like Nevada to the most powerful Democrat in Washington today, remember Harry Reid's remarkable life.

And breaking news a big diplomatic follow up we're now learning President Biden plans a Thursday phone call with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Just moments ago at a White House Coronavirus briefing, the nation's top health officials warned against complacency in the face of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant as COVID cases are skyrocketing to record highs in the U.S.

Now they said data from overseas points to the new variant being less dangerous to vaccinated people. But its exact severity, especially for children is still to be determined. And a contract for billions of free home tests is expected to be completed next week.

Our health officials are also defending new guidance to allow people who test positive to leave isolation sooner if they don't have symptoms. The CDC Director told CNN they're following the science, but also human behavior.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate, we have seen relatively low rates of isolation for this entire pandemic. So we really want to make sure that we had guidance in this moment where we were going to have a lot of disease that could be adhered to that people were willing to adhere to. And that spoke specifically to when people were maximally infectious.


MATTINGLY: CNN's Elizabeth Cohen joins me now. And Elizabeth, walk us through what you're hearing in the CDC's reasoning now both on the science side, and I think the balancing of reality side to some degree.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A lot of questions about why the isolation time was cut from 10 days to five days and I should add here if you're asymptomatic, or if your symptoms are quickly resolving.

So let's take a look at what Dr. Walensky laid out today. She said that 85 to 90 percent of transmission occurs in the one to two days before you develop symptoms, or in the two to three days after you develop symptoms. So take a look focus on that second line there.

What she's saying is that beyond three days, your chances of transmitting COVID are very small, if you are asymptomatic, or if you've had symptoms, and you're getting better. And so what she didn't go on to say but I'll go on to say based on sort of what they did is you know people have - many people have essential jobs, they're doctors, they're nurses, they're airline pilots, they have jobs that they need to do.

So do we really want to be keeping them away from those jobs, if the chance of them giving COVID to anyone is so tiny? That's the basic underlying justification for this new policy Phil.

MATTINGLY: Elizabeth Cohen filling us in as always with details. I want to switch over to Dr. Ashish Jha right now who's here with me to share his expertise. He's the Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Dr. Jha thanks for your time as always.

I want to try and bring some clarity to this, because it's been a lot of questions over the course of the last 48 hours about this decision, and the kind of rationale for it. And I guess the main question I have is, is this guidance, a science based decision or is it a science plus cost benefit plus, this is the moment we're in as a society with this new variant decision?

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes Phil, thanks for having me back. A couple of things first of all, I've been calling for a shortening of isolation for some time now. So I do welcome a shortening of the isolation period.

And part of the reason is that, as Dr. Walensky lay out, 90 percent of people are not contagious beyond five days. And for a lot of them, it's really burdensome to their ability to see their families to provide childcare, to get back to their work, to ask all those people to isolate.

So I think that reality has been with us for a while. And then there is a practical reality here, of we've got a lot of people out, they want to get back to their lives. And if we allow, if we make it easier for them to do that, they're more likely to test and isolate in the first place. And we also shouldn't forget that the last part of the CDC guidance was wearing a mask for those additional five days. So it's not just you five days of isolation, and then you can go about your business, you should also be wearing a mask, which reduces that risk for that last 10 percent.

MATTINGLY: And one of the questions when this guidance came out, was the decision not to include testing here there's been some speculation that perhaps that wasn't being recommended for asymptomatic people when they leave isolation for five days because perhaps there's a testing shortage there is a testing shortage.


MATTINGLY: But Dr. Walensky said those two things are not connected and went further essentially saying at home rapid tests aren't a good way to gauge transmissibility. Can you explain for people who are at home and have rapid tests and are relying on rapid test? What should they be using those tests for right now?

DR. JHA: Yes. Look, I obviously don't know what motivated CDC to not include rapid test, I believe strongly that they should have and have said that before their guidance came out and after? I don't - I find that comment that it's somehow not as good at picking up transmissibility puzzling all the data that I'm aware of, for Omicron for prior variants, all suggested rapid tests are really good at picking up people who are contagious.

So I do wish that they had used it. Look, if we don't have enough right now, having a mask is a reasonable alternative. Those tests will become more widely available. And I hope the CDC considers updating its guidelines to include a negative rapid test as a part of ending isolation.

MATTINGLY: So do you think it's because there aren't enough tests? And they're just not willing to say that right now?

DR. JHA: You know, look, I really don't question people's motivations. And I don't know what the explanation is. But I believe that the tests are working just fine for picking up contagiousness, and I believe that the test should have been included. They chose not to I don't understand, I don't know their motivation.

They chose not to. And I believe it would have been helpful if they had, but they did pick up, you know, asking people to mask up for five days as an alternative, which is a reasonable alternative at this moment.

MATTINGLY: Can I ask you more on a macro level? Now we've reached a new record of average number of daily cases, but hospitalization rates are still lower. So you made clear the U.S. is in for a tough month ahead, particularly in hospitals across the nation. What do you expect in the weeks ahead, given what we're seeing on the case side of things right now?

DR. JHA: Yes. So cases we have more infections right now than we've had at any point in the pandemic. We're hitting those records, and we're going to see case numbers really explode over the next two, three weeks, my guess is peaking sometime around mid-January.

The question is, how much will hospitals rise - hospitalizations, rise? They will clearly raise some; my hope is it'll rise less than it would have with prior variants. But hospital capacity is in pretty tough spot right now. So I'm worried we're going to see a lot of hospitals that are going to struggle to take care of people, both with COVID and with other conditions.

MATTINGLY: Yes. We've seen the administration move to try and address some of that on the federal level. One of the questions right now, in terms of hospitalizations, we've seen more kids be admitted to the hospitals now pretty much at any time since the Delta surge in early September, based on where we are now, with testing and vaccination rates and kids, what's your sense of what parents should be thinking right now as they prepare to return to school after the holidays?

DR. JHA: Yes, I think the number one thing you can do to keep your kids safe is make sure they're vaccinated. The hospitalizations we're seeing among children is pretty much only in unvaccinated kids. So we absolutely should be vaccinating all of our kids that I think is the biggest thing to do.

We do know how to get kids back to school safely with good ventilation mask wearing testing. That should continue. We can get kids back to school and keep them safe.

MATTINGLY: Let me ask Dr. Fauci in the briefing a short while ago said everything they're reading right now, since the severity is certainly less with Omicron than it was with Delta. There'd been some sense. Perhaps that's good news. Not that case levels are good news. Hospitalizations are good news.

But maybe this is what people had been waiting for to kind of change the trajectory of the pandemic, if it is less severe. Is that how you view this is Omicron potentially a positive in the long term?

DR. JHA: Well, I mean, we never want to see it spread of infection kind of across society. I do think if this ends up being a dramatically lower severity of disease, it will be helpful in terms of building up more population immunity. Again, I'd much prefer to have population immunity built up through vaccines. But I do think we're going to see a lot of spread of this virus.

MATTINGLY: Yes, absolutely. Dr. Ashish Jha thank you, as always, sure, sir, for sharing your expertise.

DR. JHA: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: All right. Breaking this hour President Biden plans a follow up phone call with Vladimir Putin tomorrow. The call will be the second direct contact between the American President and the Russian leader this month.

U.S. official tell CNN the call came at - will come at Putin's request and that Biden accepted because he believes that there is no substitute for direct leader to leader dialogue. And the urgent back and forth diplomacy follows a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's border.

Coming up next, from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power in Washington longtime Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid has died at the age of 82. He spent three decades in Congress serving with President Biden for 20 years the president calling the Nevada lawmaker a giant of history, one of the Senators who served with him coming up next.



MATTINGLY: The Capitol flag is at half-staff today honoring the loss of a Senate giant Harry Reid, the skinny, scrappy former Democratic leader from Searchlight Nevada, died at age 82 yesterday from pancreatic cancer. His wife of more than six decades his closest Advisor Landra was by his side. Born in a house without running water; his father worked as a miner while his mother earned money doing laundry for a local brothel.

An amateur boxer in his youth, Reid put himself through law school by working as a U.S. Capitol Police Officer before embarking on a political career that spanned nearly a half century. Reid's rise from poverty to power is a "Quintessential American Story" said Mitch McConnell. President Biden called Reid a dear friend who never gave up a fight.

President Obama shared this letter he wrote to Reid shortly before he died. "I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouraged and support and I wouldn't have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination. Now you are loved by a lot of people including me the world is better because of what you've done".


MATTINGLY: I want to bring in one of Senator Reid's colleagues and I think one of his closest colleagues, Former Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, they're both elected to the House in 1982 and served together until 2016. And Senator thanks so much for your time. I want to play something before I get to a question that kind of underscores your guy's relationship. Take a listen.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): In that letter, I told him a number of things that here's something I said in this "Barbara, I have three brothers. I've never had a sister. You're the sister I've never But Barbara remember; you are and always will be my sister.


MATTINGLY: Senator, if you could just describe that relationship and how you guys form that relationship over the years? BARBARA BOXER, FORMER CALIFORNIA SENATOR: Well, you took me aback with that? Yes, Harry has always said he never had a sister. And if he had one, he, he might need to be the sister. So I feel like I've lost a brother and I have, but it's not about me, his family, just the center of his universe. But your - say your question again? I'm sorry.

MATTINGLY: No, I think you're - one of the things look, he was such a towering political figure in his own kind of understated realism way. He wielded power with the best of them, perhaps the best relentless in his defense of Nevada, always. But what was he like, as a colleague as a friend as to you call a brother?

BOXER: Yes. Well, he was a great leader of the Democrats in the Senate. And, he was a great opponent to the Republicans, always respectful but tough. But you know, he knew each of us very well, he did. He knew the issues that moved us. He knew what we could do well, and what we couldn't do well.

He knew when to call on us when he needed help. And you know that's what makes a great leader. It wasn't about him. It was about all of us. And, you know, he comes from the same school of politics that I come from, which is your word is your bond. And who cares what anyone else says, as long as in your heart, you're doing what you think is right, for the people.

But Harry was a man of few words. I mean, he couldn't stand small talkie, but he would hang up on you if you veered off in the conversation. I wonder is Harry - because after he talked the business he called me about I was chatting about something irrelevant to him. And that's what Harry would do.

So it was a man of a very few words, and many, many, many deeds, and what a fighter? I mean, he literally was in the ring. He was a boxer at one point. But he fought so hard for what he thought was right, and his personal fight to get out of the deepest, darkest poverty family with alcoholism and violence. This is a one of a kind of human being.

And you know, I think for him, it was, he knew what it was to live in poverty to - for things to be really tough. He walked miles to get to school. He had to even physically fight to win over his, his love of his life Landra, which is a heck of a story.

And he didn't want other people to have to struggle so much. So when he stood up and fought for "The Dreamers", he meant it when he stood up and talk for families that needed jobs. He meant it. So what a beautiful human being is all I could say.

MATTINGLY: I was always struck with Senator Reid, you know, you mentioned his family, his wife, who I think everybody would acknowledge was his best political adviser, his best friend, his best ally, his best everything is his children - his grandchildren. That's what he cared about.

He didn't care about what I wrote, or what my colleagues wrote, or what we said on TV or what Mitch McConnell said on the floor. He cared about his family, and I think he cared about Nevada. And I think one of the interesting elements in terms of how he operated within your caucus, you know, there were no posters with Harry Reid and the word hope underneath them, right? Like he wasn't a political giant, in terms of being an excellent orator we all had to stand very close to him with our tape recorders just to hear him during press conferences. And yet he commanded such respect inside the caucus. Why?

BOXER: Because of his honesty, because of his frankness, because he was real and because he was a person of his word. And you know, in politics, that's all it is. And I have to tell you a story I don't know how much time we have to take me a minute.


BOXER: We were at the end of putting together Obamacare and it was very late at night and it looked like it was a lost cause because abortion came up as an issue. And it had to do with the fact that the exchanges were offering abortion coverage, because that's the law.

And people who don't want a woman's right to choose tried to take that out. And of course, there was a huge standoff. Harry calls me it's snowing out; I find my staff I get there. And Harry becomes the shuttle diplomat between me and you know the pro-choice groups.

And Ben Nelson, who was a colleague who was on the other side of this particular issue. And we finally did it and we worked all night and, and it was a compromise that not everyone loved. Ben came over, we hugged on it. And Harry was responsible for making sure that we got it done.

But these things are in - about but these are the things that I hope will come out about Harry. He fought hard. And even though his own personal views because he was a Mormon, and he had certain views. It did not color, the fact that he understood that people have a right to make their own decisions.

I mean, he was spectacular. I wrote to him, texted him just a few days ago, and congratulated him because an airport was named after him. He never led on that he was sick. He just wrote back and said thank you left to do. And that was the last time we wrote.

MATTINGLY: I think one of the most amazing things people were still making pilgrimages to visit him to talk to him constantly until the final days. He was always I think everybody's leader inside the Democratic Party. Senator thanks so much for taking the time and sharing your thoughts on this. I really appreciate it.

BOXER: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: All right. Coming up, more details on a just announced call between President Biden and Russian Leader Vladimir Putin the breaking developments coming up after this.



MATTINGLY: More now on the breaking news; this hour President Biden plans to hold a phone call tomorrow with Russian Leader Vladimir Putin. Now the call comes as tensions on Ukraine's border remain extremely high. CNN's Natasha Bertrand has the details. And Natasha, the White House says the Russian President asked for this call.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE & NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That's right. Also, this call was actually made at Vladimir Putin's request and Biden agreed to it because according to an administration official, he believes that there is no substitute, especially when it comes to Russia for direct leader to leader dialogue.

That's especially important because the Russians and Americans are going to be meeting a week from Monday at a meeting of the U.S. and Russian Strategic Security Dialogue in which they're going to kind of hash out the disagreements that exist between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to Ukraine and NATO.

And so this is a way for Biden and Putin to kind of get on the same page about what their teams are going to be discussing with each other. Not only at that - at that dialogue, but also in multilateral conversations between Russia and NATO countries and between Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, which will follow in the days afterward.

So this will be the second phone call the second direct engagement between Biden and Putin this month alone. And it just shows the level of tension that there is right now in the region with the U.S. trying to get Russia to scale things back but the talks coming a week from Monday between U.S. and Russian officials.

They're not going to be contingent upon Russia drawing down. That is because the administration says they believe that diplomacy is the best path forward, regardless of whether they get "Everything that they want" out of those discussions, Phil.

MATTINGLY: Natasha, you cover this extremely closely, it seemed like after the virtual call and the situation room that the U.S. kind of outlines on this where Russia will have to de-escalate for things to continue to progress on the diplomatic side that seems to have shifted and why?

BERTRAND: So they continue to say that they believe that the talks would be more productive in an environment of de-escalation. But at the same time, they say that there's really no other path in their minds other than diplomacy and to try to work this out diplomatically. And that is why they believe that it's the most responsible way to engage with Russia at this point, especially since Russia is not showing any signs of letting up.

And to be clear, the Biden Administration has been weighing sending new lethal aid and military equipment to Ukraine; Ukrainians are waiting eagerly for that. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken did have a phone call today with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to preview that Biden Putin call tomorrow. But the administration is still hoping that there is a window here where they can deter a potential plan by Russian President Putin to launch that invasion into Ukraine.

MATTINGLY: Great reporting as always, Natasha Bertrand, thanks you. Alright, I want to bring in our panel now Managing Editor of AXIOS Margaret Talev, CNN White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond and Washington Correspondent for "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution" Tia Mitchell.

Jeremy, I want to start with you. This has been simmering, right? This has not gone away, even if maybe the news has shifted a little bit since that call between Presidents Putin and Biden. Where does the White House see things in this moment given the build-up on the border?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think this is a moment of extraordinary tension for the White House for the world really. And you can see that in the fact that President Biden will now be having a second call with Vladimir Putin in a matter of just several weeks. The president clearly feeling the need to accept this--