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Dems Fight for Right to Vote; CDC Director: Up To 40 Percent of COVID Patients Admitted for Something Else; Omicron Surge Leading to Workers Shortages Across Nation; U.S., Russia Hold Critical Talks as Tensions Run High; 19 Killed, Including 9 Children, in Bronx Apartment Fire. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 10, 2022 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello and welcome to "Inside Politics". I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us all.

Omicron is making American sick at a record pace for disruption includes millions calling out of work, kids unable to go to school, and travel is stranded sometimes for days on end. Plus, United States and Russia meet for talks. The goal is clear, avoiding an invasion of Ukraine. But there is little insight into how to do it and even less confidence. Vladimir Putin is in the mood to listen.

And tomorrow President Biden heads to Georgia for key speech on voting rights over the weekend a full page ad in "The New York Times" on this issue from the most popular Democrat on the planet Former First Lady Michelle Obama.

We begin the hour though with the Coronavirus and it's staggering across the board disruption. The numbers are simply numbing the United States now averaging more than 700,000 new infections daily that leading workers to call out sick at record numbers.

One analysis estimates more than 5 million Americans could be stuck at home isolating over the coming days meaning of course, disruption across the economy. Today in Chicago some 340,000 students missing school for a fourth consecutive day as the teachers union and the city continue to fight over safety and reopening.

Airlines canceling thousands more flights over the weekend as COVID outbreaks among workers continue. And the health care system is teetering nearly one in four hospitals report critical staffing shortages. CNN's Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is live with more on that impact the stress on the health care system Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: John, you know we focus so much during the pandemic on Coronavirus, killing people or putting people in the hospital. And of course, that's the right focus. But I think we didn't think enough about what happens when you get a variant that is incredibly transmissible and maybe it doesn't kill people or put people in the hospital in huge numbers. But so many people calling out sick these headlines say it all.

For example, a hospital in Kansas saying nearly 900 staffers out sick hospital workforce is being depleted, exhausted hospitals having to scramble in order to take care of their patients. And these numbers, John, they say at all, take a look at the cases in this country going up, up, up, up and up since the end of December.

And you know, health care workers they're out in the community just like the rest of us. Now take a look at this map. John, you and I've talked about this map many times over the past two years. I don't think we've ever seen it this red. So many states, dark red 10 states are slightly lighter shade of red, but that still means very, very high case count storage is grayed out because they're having some data issues.

But when you have numbers like that, it is inevitable that you're going to have some staffing shortages at hospitals John.

KING: It's far too much red on that map. Elizabeth some important words today from the CEO both of Pfizer and Moderna, both CEOs saying they're working on Omicron specific vaccines. What does that mean?

COHEN: Right. So what that means is that Pfizer says that they should by March have an Omicron specific vaccine, and Moderna says that they will be going into clinical trials soon. So this is important, but it does beg the question, what if Omicron has already ripped through the country by then will this still be useful? And the answer is we don't know.

We don't know how long Omicron will stay around. We don't know if maybe it will come back. Also, this vaccine should be good against other variants as well, even though it's designed specifically for Omicron how useful it would be against those other variants would remain to be seen John?

KING: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you for the important updates stay in touch throughout this week. That map you just showed 50 states Georgia would be red if they had the data fixed 50 states heading in the wrong direction. With me now to share his insights and his expertise Dr. Jonathan Reiner Professor of Medicine and Surgery at George Washington University, Dr. Reiner grateful for your time!

Elizabeth Cohen goes through the number she shows the headlines. You're in the hospital most days. Tell us that personal toll you're seeing is here we see one in four hospitals reporting severe shortage of staffing issues.

DR. JONATHAN REINER, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE & SURGERY, GEORGIA WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Yeah, so it's -- it's a dual problem. First of all, hospitals throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are filled with COVID patients and not just filled with patient COVID patients. They're just filled with patients. In Maryland, just about every hospital in Maryland is at capacity. We heard over the weekend 40 hospitals in New York have been asked to cancel elective procedures. And this is happening at a time when staffing is being hit hard by absences.

Nearly every day I go to work another member of my team is out with COVID Now fortunately, everyone has done great but it -- this is happening in hospitals over the United States which have already been short of staff now they're being hit by people having to isolate at home appropriately and it makes taking care of non COVID patients also extremely difficult.


KING: And so let's listen to Dr. Walensky for a bit. We're at this moment where, you know, yes, the blessing if you will, is it Omicron appears to produce less severe infections. But the curse is the overwhelming numbers of cases is just overwhelming. They may be more or less severe cases, but they're everywhere.

Dr. Walensky makes the distinction, though, that this is bad everywhere, but especially among one community you and I've talked about before, listen.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: In some hospitals that we've talked to up to 40 percent of the patients who are coming in with COVID are coming in, not because they're sick with COVID but because they're coming in with something else.

We do know that people who are vaccinated are still protected about 70 percent against infection, especially if they're boosted. So the people who are ending up in the hospital the people who are ending up very sick with Omicron are the ones who are unvaccinated.


KING: You heard that point at the end, Dr. Reiner, we've discussed it many times before the unvaccinated are at higher risk of more severe disease and the like. And yet, if you look at the data, the percentage of Americans who are fully vaccinated has been hovering around 62 percent forever.

I mean, it's just been a stagnant flat line. Why is it not breaking through that getting a vaccine and getting boosted at least protects you from severe illness?

DR. REINER: Well, a large part of the media, the conservative media has not promoted vaccines. The Former President of the United States, who has taken credit for inventing the vaccine, has not promoted the vaccines.

Another big problem in this country is that relatively few people have been boosted. Only about a third of people who are vaccinated and eligible for boosters have actually gotten boosters. And I think we've done a very, very poor job at messaging that. So we don't have a fully immunized country.

We have, you know, maybe 50 million people who are vaccine naive right now. And this is an incredibly contagious virus. If you are unvaccinated now, you will acquire this virus. It's just a matter of time. This is not just sort of hoping for the best and you're likely to be able to avoid it.

If you are unvaccinated, you will get COVID and the people who are dying right now, and there are 1500 people a day are dying from this infection are almost entirely unvaccinated. And it's a completely avoidable death.

KING: So you just talked about the stress you see every day at your piece of the healthcare system, we can show you some headlines Chicago Public schools cancel classes for a fourth day Los Angeles Unified School District, requiring all students and employees to test negative so far 50,000 tests or 600,000 students in that system 640,000 and 50,000 tests come back positive.

New York City schools so far, haven't had to close. That schools you talked about health care, you see this in any business now people calling in sick or people short staffed when you go to the grocery store, no matter where you go. Where are we heading in the sense that some projections do believe by the end of the month, early next month Omicron will have peaked? Are we supposed to just ride it out? Or what should we be doing?

DR. REINER: We're going to have to write it out. But what I, what I would love to see are leaders in our hard hit places like New York and like D.C. and all across the country, I'd like to hear our leaders basically level with the country and say, look, this virus is very hot right now. We've never seen numbers of cases like this in the entire two years of this pandemic.

And if you can work from home, work from home, work from home for the next few weeks, until the viral load in your city goes down; it'll be safer for you to go out. And it'll help protect your healthcare system so that if you're having a heart attack, or if you're having a stroke, your hospitals will have the capacity to take care of you or somebody you love.

You know, let's not have force lockdowns, but let's ask the public to participate in trying to trying to keep these numbers down. And when I walk out of my hospital every evening and walk to my garage, I walk past a packed bar. And it's just this incredible sort of cognitive dissonance in our society.

On the one hand, we're struggling to put down this historic once in a lifetime pandemic while at the same time, people aren't you know, are telling you that, you know, we're open for business. I heard the Mayor of New York this weekend say, look, New York is open for business. We want meetings. We want our schools open, which is all great.

And that's our entire goal. But we have to acknowledge that we live in the real world and the real world now is there are a million over a million cases a day in the United States if you look at the cases from home tests that are detected by home test, but so we can't have life that is normal now.

We will get through this and I do expect that probably over the next few days we'll start to see some hints of cases dropping in places like D.C.


DR. REINER: I think we already see the beginning of that but it's going to take hunkering down for the next month for us all to get through this. So let's have our leaders' level with the country and tell them that we have to do some difficult things for the next several weeks.

KING: Dr. Reiner, as always sober thoughts. But as always, I'm grateful for your participants. I thank you, sir. We're just talking about angst at American workplace for a little slice of that look no further than Congress. Both chambers returned to Washington this week, two dozen or so lawmakers have already disclosed breakthrough cases, including a few just today.

The fear is those numbers will soar once Congress is back in session, and there's already remember a sharp partisan divide over masking and other COVID precautions. CNN's Melanie Zanona covers Capitol Hill, so Melanie, this health debate is back up new proposals on the table. Give us more.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: That's right. There's a lot of concern right now on Capitol Hill about spike in cases as lawmakers and staff returned to Washington this week. We've already seen a number of cases increase, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, John Katko, Ben Klein have all recently announced that they had positive COVID diagnoses.

And so Congress is really stepping up its health protocols. One of the things that they're doing is providing K-95 masks instead of surgical mask to offices. There's also an effort to get rapid at home tests available for officers and officers are also being encouraged to telework as much as possible.

But the challenge for Congress John is you know, is that each office is its own sort of little fiefdom. And they are under no obligation to adhere to a lot of this guidance. They can set their own policies. And we've seen a lot of Republican lawmakers who have been really resistant to some of these rules, including the masking which is required on the House floor, but is not required anywhere else in the entire Capitol Complex.

And one other point that I want to bring up here is that Republicans have also been a lot less transparent about their vaccine status, and their COVID diagnosis. We reported in our story today that Bill Posey, a Republican from Florida, who's been critical of proxy voting and has spread vaccine misinformation.

He actually has been using that proxy voting system in the last few years, a few weeks of last year and told GOP colleagues it's because he himself had COVID but he did not publicly disclose that. So it just goes to show that the cases in Congress could be even greater than we know John.

KING: And it also goes to show we could use say a unified example from the Congress but getting that I think is a pipe dream. Melanie Zanona I appreciate fresh reporting. Up next for us, the United States and Russia sit down for day long talks the goal prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine.



KING: Today an important meeting between U.S. and Russian diplomats in Geneva at stake global stability and the American President's credibility on the world stage. 100,000 Russian troops have surrounded Ukraine. Vladimir Putin says he won't invade if the West makes new security guarantees.

The United States and Europe they won't negotiate with a gun held to their head, the American Secretary of State on Sunday outlined in the U.S. plan to give Putin an off ramp and to punish him if he chooses not to take it.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The two paths before us there's a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid confrontation. The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine.


KING: Let's get some important insights now from Leon Panetta, the Former Defense Secretary, Former CIA Director, also Former White House Chief of Staff. Leon Panetta, grateful for your time today!

One of the biggest questions on the table here and you has more experience than most of trying to read this is Vladimir Putin there to listen. Is he truly looking for an off ramp? Or is he looking there just to have some talks and then he can start into a provocation? Do we know what does he want?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I think that Vladimir Putin is trying to decide what exactly he wants from all of this as well. I don't think there's any question that as Secretary Blinken said there are two paths here.

This is a dangerous moment between Russia, the United States and our allies. And we can either work out a negotiated settlement here over the next few days. Or it can wind up in military confrontation with all the consequences that will result from that.

So it's very difficult, I think, at this point, to even begin to anticipate which direction Putin is going to take.

KING: So you look at Secretary Blinken, he says, number one, the United States will be in lockstep with its NATO allies across Europe, and is already keeping in constant touch with Ukraine about security assurances and the like.

There are a lot of people who say they go back to the Obama Administration; they say Obama was not tough enough on Putin. Back when Putin went into Ukraine when Putin did other bad actions on the global stage. Donald Trump, of course, for four years pretty much gave Vladimir Putin a path.

Do you see from this administration, at least the right approach? We don't know what Putin will do. But are they taking, in your view, the right tougher approach?

PANETTA: I think they are taking a much tougher approach in trying to make sure that we're united with our allies, in what steps will follow if they do, in fact, invade, which is a series of very tough sanctions that could virtually cut Russia off from the rest of the world, and really harm their economy.

Secondly, that we have the capability of using cyber to screw up their infrastructure and impact on their economy, that we're continuing to reinforce forces in NATO, continuing to build up our forces there, which is important. And then lastly, we're providing defensive weapons to the Ukraine.

We provided Javelin missiles, we provided their grenades and we've provided machine guns. Hopefully we could provide some stinger missiles as well those missiles that were used to fight Russia in Afghanistan.


PANETTA: We need to show that we are committed to making clear that they will pay a price if they decide to invade. And I think we've done a good job at that.

KING: As you know, often when two such high level delegations sit down, there's often weeks of work in advance. And there's a general framework of what will be discussed, even if they don't expect big progress. There's maybe some agreement on a modest CBM, the diplomats call it confidence building measure or something.

In this case, I want to read you from "The New York Times", it seems like both sides are going in with a lot of uncertainty. The senior Russian official dispatched to the talks warned the United States had, "A lack of understanding of the Kremlin security demands".

And the United States voiced doubts over whether Russia was "Serious about de-escalating the Ukraine crisis". Just talk about the context of that essentially, in an incredibly dicey situation of sitting down really not knowing where the other side's line is.

PANETTA: Yeah. No, it's a situation where, frankly, both sides are going to test each other, and determine how serious they are about what they're threatening to do. Russia will prod the United States and our allies as to just how serious we are about implementing these tough sanctions and taking the steps against them.

And we're going to be testing whether or not Russia is serious about a military invasion. So there's going to be a lot of words exchanged. There's going to be a lot of threats exchange. But the clear thing is whether or not in that room, there is an effort to try to see if there aren't areas where we can find agreement that can deal with some of the concerns of Russia and also deal with some of the concerns of the United States.

I think that opportunity is there. But the real question is whether or not Putin is going to allow his negotiators to find that that consensus.

KING: That is the question of the moment. Leon Panetta grateful for your time and your insights will stay on top of these conversations the talks have broken up today. We will see get readout and see where we go from here? Leon thank you very much for your time appreciate it very much.

19 dead, including nine children 19 dead including nine children standing by now for a live update from New York City's Mayor on that horrific Brock's apartment building fire, that's next.



KING: In just a few minutes the New York Mayor Eric Adams will give an update on what he says will be one of the deadliest fires in modern times. 19 people were killed including nine children as fire smoke tore through that 19 Storey Bronx Apartment building you see right there on Sunday.

63 people were injured. And the Mayor says many of them are in life threatening condition. A space heater is being blamed for that fire. CNN's Brynn Gingras is live for us in the Bronx with the very latest Brynn.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, John. You know, we've been seeing so many residents who survived this fire coming back to the scene this morning and just taking a minute and looking up at this building here behind me and just honestly saying a prayer and thinking about many family members, neighbors who have lost their loved ones. And they are heartbroken.

In addition to that there are people who are just feeling lucky to be alive at this moment, saying they're coming back to the building because they need to get inside and get medications, get anything else they can grab from their homes, even though they know full well that their homes are likely destroyed from this fire that just swept through the entire building.

I'm going to pan over here just a little bit because you can see here the Commissioner -- Fire Commissioner Daniel Nibro, as well as the Fire Marshal here on the scene, of course waiting for the Mayor to join in. So likely we're going to get a very big update from what we learned yesterday.

And there's still so many questions that are being asked right now about those doors, the one that was kept open when this fire was going and really allowed the smoke to circulate throughout the entire building causing so many of these deaths. A lot of people want to know is there a mechanical malfunction that caused that door to stay open not only the one to the apartment, but also to one to the stairwell.

Of course, remember the fire was contained to that apartment, the smoke went up and a lot of people tried to escape and became suffocated and blinded by that heavy fire. So that's one of the questions the fire code. Also we're fire the fire alarms.

We are told by many residents who've been coming to the scene today that they've always heard the fire alarms always going off. And they said it's sort of like second nature. They don't even think about it. A lot of people didn't respond to this fire because they heard those fire alarms going off again and didn't think it was an actual fire.

One person actually telling me they saw smoke coming underneath our door. And that's when they realized that this was a serious deal. So a lot of these questions are likely going to be asked by the Mayor. And we hope to get a lot answers that we haven't been able to get just yet about this fire but of course devastating for everyone in this community including the top leaders who we'll hear from shortly when he gets started at about 12:30.

KING: Brynn Gingras I appreciate the live reporting from the scene. We will go back to the officers, the Mayor and the fire officials begin to speak. Thank you very much. In the meantime, let's move on to important story here in Washington, the Trump ally and Republican Congressman Jim Jordan now defined the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection.

In a four page letter to the Committee on Sunday, Congressman Jordan said he had "No relevant information and he raised questions about the panel's fairness". The letter was a response to a committee request for cooperation. With me now to share their reporting and their insights CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN's Melanie Zanona and Jackie Kucinich from "The Daily Beast". Nia-Malika we'll start with you I know --