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Inside Politics

U.S. COVID Case Rate, State Hospitalizations Break Records as Omicron Spreads; Pediatric Hospital Admissions up more Than 58 Percent from Previous Week; Soon: Biden to Speak with Putin at Russian Leader's Request; This Afternoon: Biden Holds Call with Putin; How the Pandemic Changed the Economy in 2021. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 30, 2021 - 12:00   ET



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: --in Washington. A numbing pandemic first Omicron pushes the average U.S. daily COVID case count above 300,000 now the variant has some states re-thinking when and how kids will go back to school.

Just hours from now, President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin set to speak again. Biden wants to back Putin off Ukraine's border. So far, there's no indication he will and low unemployment stock market records the demise of hard paths in the Biden economy that looks very good on paper, but the everyday reality for some Americans feels very different.

First, the rapidly spreading Omicron variant is shattering pandemic records across the U.S., the daily case rate top 300,000 for the first time yesterday. In many states hospitals are filled with more COVID patients than ever before. In Maryland COVID hospitalizations are up more than 30 percent from just a week ago.

Ohio's hospitals are nearing record set at the end of last year, the National Guard activated there and in Georgia to help manage the surge. And we in 2021, much like we started with officials grappling with how to keep the public safe and keep critical institutions like schools open?

CNN's Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins me now. And Elizabeth the anxiety and trepidation I hear from fellow parents at this moment in time is palpable. What factors into the decision on sending kids back to the classroom after the holidays?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, the reason why the tension is palpable, Phil is that this is all happening. Schools are going to go you know reopen after the holidays next week and this is happening against the backdrop of rising hospitalizations for children in this country.

Unfortunately, this is a record we didn't want to be but we are on our way to beating it. If you take a look the week ending September 4th, Children's hospitalizations hit a peak a record for the pandemic with 342 new admissions every day in the U.S.

If we look at the week ending December 27th, it's 334. So we are getting very close to that record. And as the Omicron numbers get bigger and bigger and bigger, that 334 number unfortunately is going to get bigger as well.

So schools are thinking about all the different strategies they need to be doing masking social distancing. As well as in some cases doing a policy called test to stay in other words you need to test in order to stay in school in some circumstances. We CNN did an interview with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, here what she had to say.


MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER, (D) DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: We want to make sure that our commitment to having in person learning is honored with our families and we want to put ourselves in the best position to keep our - reopen our schools from winter and keep them open.


COLEN: So Mayor Bowser says to put the schools in the best position they are distributing tests to schools now the CDC has studied school districts that are have cited studies where they look at schools that have tried testing.

And they say that it really does work to keep down COVID spikes, but it's not perfect. It needs to be paired with masking with social distancing. And even then we will still see COVID cases in schools Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yes. And there's never been a spike like this before as your great reporting shows Elizabeth Cohen thanks so much. I want to bring in Dr. Jonathan Reiner to share his expertise. He's a Professor of Medicine and Surgery at George Washington University.

And Dr. Reiner, I kind of want to start there with kids, particularly younger children. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN this morning, about half of the kids hospitalized at Children's National here in Washington are under five and it's likely going to be several more months until vaccines will be available for that group.

What your message right now to parents, particularly those who are sending their kids back to preschool or daycare in the weeks ahead who want to keep their young children safe as they look at this moment in the pandemic.

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I feel I think the best advice for parents is to make sure that everyone else in the family is fully vaccinated and boosted. The United States has done a terrible job at vaccinating our population. And the biggest block of unvaccinated people in this country are kids.

The United States is 25th in the world and vaccinating kids five through 16. So if you have kids in your house who are not yet eligible for vaccination, the best thing you can do for them is make sure that their brothers and sisters who are older are vaccinated and are more likely to be protected. It's going to be a challenge.

And I think we need to hunker down for the next few weeks. I think that you know, particularly if you have vulnerable people in your house and kids, you know you need to limit your contact with crowds.

You need to go to the store, you know, once a week, not every single day. You can't eat out. You need to protect yourself in public when you wear very good mask wear N95 or KN95. We'll get through this but we need to protect our most vulnerable people. And right now that's our kids.

MATTINGLY: Yes, there's no question about it. To broaden it out a little bit here in D.C. hospitalizations are up more than five times since the beginning of the month. Can you walk through kind of what you're seeing right now on the ground in your hospital?


DR. REINER: Yes. Well, fortunately, hospitalizations were very low before this surge, and D.C. still has a bit of surge capacity. Now, the good news about, you know, D.C., where, where you and I live, is that this is a very highly vaccinated area.

The Maryland D.C. Northern Virginia area has vaccinated you know, about 75 percent of its population, so significantly higher than the national average.

And although cases are surging, massively surging in D.C. there's no place in the United States with a higher positivity rate than D.C. right now. Many of these infections are in fully vaccinated people who are why I think our hospitals are going to hold in D.C.? So now at where I work at GW, COVID hospitalizations are up, but we still have capacity.

MATTINGLY: So that actually brings me right to my next question. You know, there are indications from both public health officials and kind of research that we've seen from overseas. This variant is less severe than past strains in particular Delta. What are you seeing in patients and how do patients who are unvaccinated compare with those who are vaccinated?

DR. REINER: Well, unvaccinated patients are going to get, you know, full on COVID infections. The good news for everyone is that the multiple lab studies now suggest that this particular variant is a bit less avid in terms of binding to lung tissue.

So it appears to cause more of an upper respiratory tract infection more like a cold than a lower respiratory tract infection, which is pneumonia. So that's - so that's good news. But this virus will kill unvaccinated people, particularly people who have other co morbidities that put them at risk for the infection.

So the unvaccinated should not look at this as basically just a cold or the bad flu. And when you look at ICUs, all over the country, the sickest people right now with Omicron, the people on ventilators or on heart lung machines to support them, are unvaccinated people. So again, that's the message if you are unvaccinated. OK, now it's time to wise up and start the process.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it's, just been this fascinating dichotomy of the last several months full year, almost. You know one thing, obviously, tomorrow's New Year's Eve; you've warned against big - I was watching yesterday, you're on our air warning about big indoor gatherings on New Year's Eve. Here's what New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said this morning about his city's iconic celebration in Times Square.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK: It going to be outdoors vaccination only masks required, socially distance. But we want to show that we're moving forward. And we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this.


MATTINGLY: Now there's a difference between kinds of what you were framing in terms of indoor gatherings versus outdoor gatherings, masks, vaccinated all of that. But how should Americans right now approach tomorrow in terms of assessing the risk of activities, you're talking about hunkering down in this moment for the next couple of weeks?

What should they be thinking in terms of having dinner outs out - hanging out with friends bringing people over? How is the dynamic shifted right now, in your view?

DR. REINER: Yes, I would get taken; I would not eat in a restaurant now without a mask. I would absolutely not go into a bar. If you go into a bar now you're very likely to get COVID whether you're vaccinated or not.

If you're unvaccinated, and you go into a bar, you will come out of it, infected. And look, this is all everyone needs to make their own risk benefit analyses. I think that right now we're in the public health crisis of our lifetimes.

And although I love a big celebration, and it's good for the nation spirit to celebrate New Year's Eve, you know, all those people have to get the Time Square via some way. They're all getting been on the public transportation.

They're going to be on the subways, they're going to pack the subways. And I think it's - I think, frankly, it should have been canceled the way most European cities have done. They've canceled their big New Year's Eve celebrations. It's optional.

And if we run out of hospital capacity, then we are in a different world of hurt. So I think that we can all celebrate at home and we'll get taken will support our restaurants by buying their food, but bringing but eating in our own homes, staying safe for the next few weeks.

And this surge is going to end and we're going to come out on the other side. We're going to learn our lessons. And we will go on with our lives. But my message for everyone is stay safe right now.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it's - I don't think anybody expected to be here this holiday season, this New Years, but we're here. Dr. Reiner thanks for sharing your expertise as always sir.

DR. REINER: My pleasure Phil.


MATTINGLY: All right. In just a few hours, President Biden will speak with Russian President Putin amid heightened tensions over Ukraine. We'll break down the critical conversation coming up next.


MATTINGLY: Just a couple of hours a diplomatic test for the president. President Biden will jump on a call with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and it will be their second conversation this month.

But that they are talking again is not necessarily a sign of progress. Western intelligence officials see no significant reduction of Russian troops on Ukraine's border and global fears of a Russian military incursion remain sky high.


MATTINGLY: Joining our conversation now David Sanger "The New York Times" and David, were talking about this during the break, you really covered it well, this morning and your story. No one seems to know exactly what President Putin wants with this call that he requested. What are your sources theories at this moment?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Phil, you're absolutely right. It's at this point, all theories about what it is that Putin has in mind? There are sort of three main lines of speculation.

The first is that he's finally looking to de-escalate. That's possible, but it seems too early for it. He hasn't gotten any of the things that he requested. And what he really wants, mostly at this point is to make sure that Ukraine does not move further into the orbit of the West.

And that NATO doesn't keep its forces that mostly its weapons in countries that he considers part of the Russian sphere of influence. It's mostly the former Soviet state, some of which are now of course, members of NATO.

The second theory is that he really just wants to push and test President Biden figure out whether or not the sanctions that President Biden is threatening to impose if he invades would really be that crushing? And whether or not he can sort of push back and say to President Biden, you know, you've sanctioned me before, and it hasn't made as big a difference to my life as you think.

The third is that he's simply trying to set the president up and create a pretext by saying we tried diplomacy; it didn't work, and then would go ahead with some kind of military action, or cyber action. And so this is a tricky call for President Biden and a big moment because the crisis, as you point out, is really unabated.

MATTINGLY: And I think, look, this is all leading into the January 10th security talks between the U.S. and Russia, in Geneva. I think one of the interesting elements here is you don't get a sense from U.S. officials that they have any sense of what President Putin is going to do, right? They know what he wants. In fact, he said it himself. Take a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA PRESIDENT: We've made it clear that NATO's further eastward movement is unacceptable. Well, what's not clear here? Are we deploying missiles near the U.S. borders? No, we're not. It was the U.S.A who you came with missiles to our house. They are already at the doorstep of our house. Is this a redundant requirement not to install any more missile systems near our home?


MATTINGLY: So eastward expansion of NATO and NATO weapon systems in kind of eastern flank countries, the Russians have laid out a draft treaty that I think most of which would be considered a non-starter by the U.S. and NATO allies. How does President Biden thread this needle, given the red lines that Putin seems to have already laid out?

SANGER: Well, I think the first thing we have to note is that not all of what President Putin said there is exactly true a big shock there. The Russians had been placing intermediate range missiles closer and closer to European borders that are the reason that President Trump used for pulling out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement a few years ago.

So the Russians also have missiles pointed toward Europe. They do suddenly seem to be focused, though, on the American capabilities in Europe. The second interesting question for Biden and what to your good question is how does Biden do this without saying that NATO will withdraw its weapons from the region?

So first of all, that's not completely within President Biden's authority to give. NATO is a multi-nation alliance and the president wants the largest but not the only member of the NATO alliance.

And thirdly, there really hasn't been much change of the NATO posture very much other than to respond to Russian provocations. So the President Biden doesn't want to seem to be giving in here, simply because Putin created or manufacture crisis. MATTINGLY: Yes, you've seen the words of appeasement kind of pop up every once in a while. So clearly, the administration wants to avoid that. Can I ask you in the short time we have left, which isn't enough time to answer this question?

But, you know, this administration has made very clear their focus in terms of their national security strategy is China and they've made any bones about that. I think some officials I spoke to back and when President Putin and Biden met in Geneva view that as a way to kind of put a marker down and then maybe put Russia on the backburner to really focus on China for the months ahead.

We're now heading into an extraordinarily important Q1 in the China U.S. relationship. And yet the U.S. is still grappling with President Putin and provocations. Where does that leave the broader Biden foreign policy?

SANGER: Well, you're absolutely right. President Biden has made it clear that one of the reasons he wanted to pull out of Afghanistan reduce America forces in the Middle East is to focus on China.


SANGER: This whole incident has been a reminder of that great phrase that Russia is a hurricane and China is climate change right? So they're creating a hurricane and we've got to go respond to that right away to keep Ukraine from being invaded.

This is all good news for the Chinese who would rather have us not focus on the climate change portion of this, which is that their competitor with the U.S. militarily, technologically, economically, things that Russia couldn't even dream of doing right now.

And I think within the White House is some frustration because they really want to go focus on the bigger, long term existential threat. And yet Russia is still has the great capacity to be a disrupter.

MATTINGLY: Yes, best laid plans and all that. David Sanger, I look forward to trying to match your reporting in a couple of hours based on this phone call. Thanks so much, my friend.

SANGER: Thank you, Phil.

MATTINGLY: All right. New numbers show the U.S. a 52 year low with unemployment claims but Americans remain skeptical about the economy. We try to break down that disconnect up next.



MATTINGLY: Initial jobless claims fell again last week, the four year week average hitting a 50 years low. President Biden tries to play up such encouraging data amid low approval ratings overall and on the economy. But persistent supply chain issues inflation stubbornly high gas prices those have been overshadowing some of these other economic bright spots.

And I want to break down exactly why with CNN Business Reporter Matt Egan and "The New York Times Jeanna Smialek. Matt, I want to start with you because let's I want to pull up a chart of the unemployment claims over the course of this year, where you see just a straight line down in particular over the course of the last three or four months.

You add that in with robust job gains, and roughly about 500,000 a month, on average over the course of the last 11 months. Overall economic growth is outpacing every other country in the world in the wake of an economic crisis, wage gains that are pretty much consistently ticking higher right now.

And yet, I want to pull up another chart on consumer confidence, which has been steadily dropping to some degree maybe ebbing up and down a little bit, but am lower than it was just five, six months ago despite that data. Explain to me the dissonance between every major indicator seeming to be positive except for maybe one or two and the U.S. consumer view right now.

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS REPORTER: Well, so I do think the jobs market is a slam dunk positive right now. Because 198,000 the jobless claims in the latest week, that's holding near a 52 years low the last one we saw something like this, Richard Nixon was in the White House.

But there is this disconnect. Because normally when you see jobs numbers like this, you would expect consumer confidence would be higher. And you also wouldn't expect the nearly two thirds of Americans in the latest CNN poll to say the economy's in poor shape. And I think there's really two big factors are there related COVID and inflation.

On the COVID front, it makes sense a lot of people feel very anxious right now because this virus continues to disrupt the way we live and kill countless people every day. And this shortage of testing is not helping the matter at all.

And then on inflation I mean, look at the cost of living is very high right now consumers prices are going up at the fastest pace we've seen in nearly 40 years. That means paychecks are not going as far and clearly Phil people are not happy about it.

MATTINGLY: Yes, eating into and overcoming some of those wage gains. You know, I want to dig in on inflation with you if you bring up kind of the obviously nearly four decades high year over year.

You know, you've got new cars and trucks, furniture and bedding ports, steak obviously used cars and cars have been a big driver.

As Matt noted gasoline, eggs. These are everyday items that Americans are using and noticing when the prices go up. You cover the Federal Reserve very; very closely transitory has been thrown into the trash can.

Tell me what you're seeing when you talk to your sources. When you talk to people about what the kind of next couple months next couple quarters even mean for inflation.

JEANNA SMIALEK, FEDEAL RESERVE AND ECONOMICS REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right, I think there is a lot of apprehension around what the next couple of quarters mean for inflation. I think the most important thing to know is that pretty much everyone expects inflation to slow down. That's definitely the general direction of travel.

But they're really big questions around how quickly that's going to happen and to what extent it's going to happen. You know, we are above 6 percent right now on the consumer price index inflation measure. And so getting below that is not necessarily a victory if we're still at, you know, 3 percent 4 percent, something considerably higher than the Feds goal, which is 2 percent.

And so I think there's a real question there. And one reason folks are so worried is that we have seen some broadening those inflation pressures, as you mentioned. And they're getting into things like rent and when you start seeing inflation in rents, it tends to be a little bit stickier, it lasts a lot longer. And so folks are very concerned about that.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's been the biggest concern I think on net for everybody who expects it to decelerate consistently in the months ahead. Jeanna you have this great piece today in terms of social trends and what they told us about their service yesterday about the economy things like the internet lost its hive mind over America's cream cheese shortage?

Many professionals began to question the utility of high heels and slacks known derisively as hard pants I did not know - that was they're known as obviously the QR codes that have become dominant and physical menus everywhere. But I think the crux of the piece is kind of the --