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Omicron Becoming Dominant Variant of COVID-19 in U.S.; FDA Approves Pfizer Pill for Treating COVID-19; Analyst Says President Biden Accomplishing a Lot as President Despite Low Poll Numbers. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 08:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Thursday, December 23rd. We're getting very much closer to Christmas morning. I'm John Berman. Brianna is off. Erica Hill joins me this morning. Great to see you.


BERMAN: So no one saw it coming, that is President Biden defending his administration's response to the rapid onslaught of the Omicron variant. Just three weeks after it was first identified in the U.S., Omicron is now in all 50 states and now accounts for 90 percent of the country's new cases. The president in a new interview says the nationwide shortage of COVID test kits is not a failure by the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How did you get it wrong?


JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How did we get it wrong? Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world. Who saw it coming?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the administration not expect that there could be moments like this one where you would have a highly transmissible variant that's possible around the corner?

BIDEN: Sure, it's possible. It's possible there could be other variants that come along. That's possible. But what do you plan for? You plan for what you think is available that is the most likely threat that exists at the time, and you respond to it. And I think that that's exactly what we've done. And, for example, Omicron is spreading rapidly. But the death rates are much, much lower than they were. This is not March of 2020.


BERMAN: So there is reason for optimism this morning on the COVID front, some really promising news. The FDA has authorized the first anti-viral coronavirus pill in the United States Pfizer's Paxlovid. It's a five day course of treatment that could significantly cut the risk of hospitalization or death for high risk Americans as young as 12.

HILL: Also, three new studies from overseas suggest there is a lower risk of hospitalization for those infected with Omicron compared to Delta. That's the good news. Meantime, we are watching these cases rise. Let's take a look at the latest from Congress, nine members testing positive for COVID in just the past week, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn. The 81-year-old who says he is fully vaccinated and boosted is asymptomatic, but you can add this to the lawmakers that are just like us category. Clyburn says it actually took more than 56 hours for him to get his test results.

BERMAN: Joining us now is Dr. Zeke Emanuel. He is the vice provost of Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former member of Biden's transition COVID-19 transition advisory board, and author of "Which Country Has the World's Best Health Care?" Doctor, thank you so much for being with us last night. I just want to play a little bit more of the interview with President Biden last night where he was asked directly if the current issues with testing in the United States was a failure. Listen.


JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think it's a failure. I think it's -- you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago. I've ordered half a billion of the pills, 500 million pills -- excuse me, 500 million test kits that are going to be available to be sent to every home in America if anybody wants them. But the answer is, yes, I wish I had thought about ordering half a billion pills two months ago before COVID hit here.


BERMAN: What do you think, Doctor?

DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL, FORMER MEMBER OF BIDEN'S TRANSITION COVID-19 ADVISORY BOARD: Well, I think on testing we never quite got it right from day one. The CDC made terrible mistakes about testing. We had a reasonable testing situation set up where you could walk into test sites and rapidly get a PCR. And when the vaccine came around, we kind of dismantled it. I think it was a series of bad choices starting with President Trump and extending. And I do think half-a-billion tests are a step in the right direction, but we're going to need 2 billion, 3 billion, 4 billion tests. And that's going to -- that's not where we're at.

BERMAN: Can I ask you, Doctor, about the series of what seem like promising developments over the last 24 hours. First, Pfizer's antiviral pill, Paxlovid, what's the promise there, especially in the shorter term where there's only a few days worth of this pill being available?

EMANUEL: Yes, it's a very complicated manufacturing process. The chemistry is really hard and takes a very long time. They have about under 200,000 pill cases ready to go. It takes months to prepare. So we're -- it's very promising, it's a very promising drug. But manufacturing is going to be a problem, and getting that 500 million or whatever number of pill cases is going to be very difficult. It's going to take more than a few months to get out there. So it's not going to have any impact on this surge.


And the second problem is you have to worry about resistance. And that's a problem when you have one drug against a virus. Viruses often mutate to make that drug not effective. That's why on HIV we use three drugs, and in this case we're probably going to have to develop additional drugs and combine them.

BERMAN: So we now have --

EMANUEL: So it's good.

BERMAN: Go ahead.

EMANUEL: I would summarize that it's good, but it's hardly a knockout punch.

BERMAN: Good but.

A series of promising studies, South Africa, Scotland, and England, not peer reviewed yet, but the data is out there for people at least to look at, which all suggest that the risk of hospitalization and severe illness from the Omicron variant is less, much less. They've seen much less hospitalization in some cases than in previous waves there. So can you extrapolate that to the United States? What should we be looking at?

EMANUEL: Yes, that's probably true. Remember, you've got to balance less hospitalizations with more cases, and hopefully they don't balance out in the favorable category. I think that's -- again, it's a positive sign, but it could be outweighed by just the avalanche of cases.

The second thing I would say is if you look at the hospitalization data between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, you're talking about a 35 times higher rate of hospitalizations with the unvaccinated than the vaccinated. That's true from Delta. Probably a big gap like that is probably going to be true for Omicron. So again, the unvaccinated face much higher risks. So again, this is good news but.

BERMAN: Good news but. And look, we have to just lay it out so people can see what's going on. In South Africa, one more piece that I know people are looking at is that the surge of new cases there from Omicron as quickly as it rose, it now seems to be dropping off. Again, why would that be happening there? And is that something we can at least hope for here?

EMANUEL: Well, you can certainly hope for it. I don't think you plan for it. You have to plan for a bad scenario, not the most hopeful scenario you can get. And I think that every one of these situations where people keep saying appears to be peaking. Yes, it appears to be peaking. We will have to see. In Britain, where we tend to follow Britain by about three or four weeks, you know, there's been a persistently high rate of cases. They have the highest rate of cases. They've seen a record number of cases per day, over 100,000. So yes, it may be that in -- you get a rise in six weeks and then a decline. But if that's true, we still have many weeks to go, at least nine or 10. So I think it could be good news that it goes up fast and comes down fast, but that's still will leave us with a lot of battling of Omicron.

BERMAN: The solutions are all the same no matter what you think, which is vaccination, masking, and testing. Those are the tools available, and those are the things that will make a difference.

EMANUEL: So let me just say a couple things to people who are going to go to holiday parties. Tests if you can get the tests before going with people. Wear a good quality mask, N95, KN95, and made sure they're made in America and NIOSH approved. And third, I would say the other thing you can add is ventilation. You can open the windows. I know it's cold, you can also get HEPA filters and filter out the air. Not everyone can afford those. But ventilation is a very important and hitherto underutilized intervention here to decrease the spread.

BERMAN: Dr. Zeke Emanuel, important advice. Important advice. Thank you so much for being with us. Have a happy holiday.

EMANUEL: You, should. Too. Be safe.

BERMAN: Democrats are sounding the alarm bells. President Joe Biden's job approval rating hasn't climbed above 43 percent in a single Gallup poll in the past four months. That is bad news for the president, but it's an especially bleak sign for Congressional Democrats facing midterm elections next year.

But are those numbers deserved? A new piece in "The Atlantic" says, quote, "Relative to its strength of Congress, the Biden administration has proved outstandingly successful." Joining us now is the author of that piece, David Frum, staff writer at "The Atlantic." David, good to see you this morning. You also wrote "Anybody can win a poker game with a good hand. It takes a real good maestro to play with a bad one." So you think Biden is actually doing a great job, but he doesn't seem to be convincing the public of that, the American people. So why do you make the case that he's so outstandingly successful?


DAVID FRUM, STAFF WRITER, "THE ATLANTIC": I served in the Bush administration, the W. Bush administration, and I remember that we faced a very similar situation. President Trump started with a majority in the Senate. President Obama started with a big majority in the Senate. Back in 2000, President George W. Bush started, like Biden, with a 50-50 Senate, and started, like Biden with a wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives. I remember what it was like to worry all the time about those senators. By June of his first year in office, President Bush lost his majority

in the Senate because one of the less committed members of the Senate had crossed the floor to the other party. Biden with 50 votes in the Senate, needing a tiebreaker from his vice president, has driven through ambitious piece of legislation after ambitious piece of legislation. And whether you favor those pieces of legislation or not, you have to say those are some big wins he's put on the board for his team.

And one more thing. I know a lot of Democrats are enraged at Joe Manchin for not doing everything that President Biden has wanted him to do. But look at the show of loyalty that Joe Manchin has given to President Biden. Again, that's more than George Bush was able to get from James Jeffords, who walked the floor in June of 2001.

HILL: So you're very glass half full as you look at all of this. Why do you think, right, that some of these accomplishments have not seemed to register with the public?

FRUM: I think they have. We are seeing a booming economy, seven percent growth. But look, what --

HILL: Polling, though. If we look specifically at polling is more what I'm referencing.

FRUM: Polls ask the question, midterm elections ask the question, have you gotten any complaints? And guess what, people will have complaints. They don't ask the question compared to what as we do in presidential elections. So Biden did very well in 2020 on the question compared to what? But right now he's having trouble with the question, got any complaints, because people do.

But it's important to remember, the situation, the objective political situation he faces, and to use fingers to count instead of point fingers. Biden won a tremendous personal mandate beating Donald Trump by almost 8 million votes. But Biden's party did not do as well. And when you just start with 50 votes in the Senate, with a wafer thin majority in the House, how much are you able to accomplish? George Bush was able to do a tax cut and a bipartisan education bill. He didn't advance his own partisan goals. Biden has pushed through this gigantic COVID relief bill, almost $2 trillion, pushed through this giant infrastructure bill. Again, whatever you think of those bills, those are colossal wins for his team.

FRUM: I wonder, do you think, though, collectively we as a society look at things differently now? That the scorecard is a little bit different and perhaps sometimes lean toward the negative than it did, for example, during the George W. Bush administration?

FRUM: Maybe. It's also true, we have this objective fact of COVID. And it's frustrating. And it's trapping us in our homes. Here I am talking to you through a computer screen. Do I enjoy that? I do not enjoy that. So we have complaints. There are real problems. And some of the problems reflect successes that we don't understand. Why are we having problems with supply chains? And the answer is because American consumers have so much money to spend that they are outbidding what the world can deliver as it recovers from COVID, that the supply chain problems are the result of massive, massive wealth in this country meeting difficulties in producing goods to serve that wealth around the world.

And so we are frustrated by that. But compared to other kinds of problems that we've had in the past, these are -- this is a pretty first-world set of problems we're facing today.

HILL: As the administration looks into 2022 and begins to prioritize, we know there's a renewed push to get something done on voting rights. The president telling ABC last night that they should do whatever it takes and that he supports an exception here for voting rights for the filibuster. If voting rights were made a bigger priority, were there some movement there, do you think that would resonate? How much of an impact would that have?

FRUM: I just think whatever President Biden accomplishes, he's going to run into the 22 factor. It's a vote on the question, have you got complains, and people will have them. But there is time in the year ahead to make progress not just on voting rights, but securing -- shutting off the able of state legislators to substitute their own -- voting rights are no good if the state leadership can say we're setting aside the vote and imposing our preferences. Make it clear that votes matter and state legislatures have to respect the voters just as everybody else does.

There's also opportunity to make some progress on climate. I think that's got to be a top priority. There are things the president can do with slim majorities in both houses. But as I say, as a veteran of the last time there was a 50-50 Senate, I've got to say, he is getting a lot done.

HILL: David Frum, with a very glass half full look at thing, nice to see you this morning. Thank you. Happy holidays.

FRUM: Thank you.


HILL: Up next, we were just talking about this, the supply -- let me try that again. The supply chain issue in this country. So, where are we now with just two shopping days left before Christmas?

We'll ask the commerce secretary live.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Glass half full of what, Erica Hill? That's my question to you.

Plus, the January 6th committee wants to talk to Trump ally Jim Jordan. How will he respond?

And a blast from the ancient past. I'm talking pre-ancient past. A baby dinosaur egg perfectly preserved for the ages. Oh, my goodness. Look at that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: So, industry experts were sounding the alarm just as the holiday season got under way with dire warnings about potentially crippling pandemic related supply chain issues leading to empty store shelves and long waits for package deliveries, empty stockings. But no.

Now, by most measures, it appears a major crisis was averted with poor congestion easing and manufacturing backlogs dropping. But what happens now as the highly transmissible omicron variant surges? Is the global supply chain prepared to handle that?

Joining me now to answer, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Madam Secretary, thank you so much for being with us.

Look, you were at the White House yesterday for the supply chain meeting. There was an article in the "New York Times" about this. By and large, what are you seeing in terms of the Christmas demand being met?

GINA RAIMONDO, COMMERCE SECRETARY: Good morning. Nice to be here.

By in large, it's a good news story. As you said, yesterday, the president convened some of us in his cabinet and CEOs -- CEOs of The Gap, and FedEx, and other logistics companies.

And it was good news. Packages will be arriving in time, by the way, in record numbers. You know, folks are buying for the holidays, and as the president has said, the gifts will be on the shelves. Your packages will be arriving on time in the mail, and it's really a fantastic story.

If you look, last time I was talking to you, John, on the show, there was a real problem at the ports. And the president took swift action, got ahead of it, and, you know, the logjam is down. Packages are moving. Containers are moving faster.

So the congestion is down by 50 percent since you and I last spoke. So, it's really smooth sailing and Santa will arrive on time.

BERMAN: Yeah, I was going to say, there's only one shopping day left. So, if you're still waiting on a package that has not arrived yet, what would you say to people?

RAIMONDO: I'd say if you were told by the post office or FedEx that it would be here by today, I think it will be. They're operating at 99 percent on time. So -- and at record numbers.


They're shipping more packages than ever before and able to do it on time.

And as you say, the logjam in the ports and the congestion in the ports is way down. So, it just goes to show, you know, the president convened everybody three days before Christmas, the president was still working the issue. It matters.

And, by the way, we heard this yesterday from the private sector CEOs. They were telling us that our action made a difference. So I think that everybody can feel good. Now, what I can't account for is folks who waited until today to do their ordering. That, I'm not sure.

BERMAN: That's what I was looking for. Like if you're recalcitrant shopper like me --


BERMAN: -- you can't blame the administration anymore.

RAIMONDO: Like my husband -- exactly. If my husband is listening to this and probably hasn't placed his orders, you cannot blame the Biden administration if they don't arrive on time.

BERMAN: You might try.

Listen, omicron is something that everyone is dealing with at this point. How do you think omicron will affect manufacturing, supply chain issues the coming weeks and months?

RAIMONDO: Yeah. You know, if we said it once, we'll say it a thousand times again. Get vaccinated. We know these vaccines work. If you have been vaccinated, get boosted.

It really depends on whether people do what needs to be done and get vaccinated. You saw yesterday the president took action with more testing. That will help. We will get through it.

You know, I don't think that omicron will have long-term disruptive significant disruption in supply chains. I think the next, you know, period of time here will be a challenge. But if folks go out, get tested, wear masks, be careful, get vaccinated, we will get through it. You know, just like we have delta, just like we have COVID.

BERMAN: One of the issues might be with positive tests rising, people may have to move off the manufacturing line. It might just be that people are missing work at a larger rate. I do wonder, this is not going to be your decision, this would be a CDC decision, the guidance on isolation after a positive test is ten days right now.

Ten days out of work, that might be something that affects manufacturing supply chain issues.

RAIMONDO: It is possible. However, we've been living with this now for a couple of years. I have talked to many manufacturers as recently as a couple days ago asking the question you just asked me.

And, by and large, they think they'll be able to manage it. They've been managing it. They learned how to change their operations in order to manage this.

It's certainly a factor. There will be some disruption, but we're all a lot smarter now about how to run our businesses and run our lives with COVID than we were a year ago. And so, I am hopeful that it won't be massively disruptive.

BERMAN: We had a conversation with David Frum and we looked at the polling numbers last hour here. And the president's under water on the economy. Which is interesting given that unemployment -- the unemployment rate is so low right now, GDP is high. The annual growth rate will be very high right now.

You've got an experience both in the political world and in the world of finance and the economic world. Why the disconnect between what people may be feeling and what the numbers are showing?

RAIMONDO: Yeah. So, I would say it's what you just said. People maybe are not feeling great at the moment because there's still so much uncertainty especially as it relates to COVID. I think we're all sick of it, quite frankly.

I mean, people have been dealing with masks, tests and COVID for a long time. And so, it doesn't feel great.

On the flip side, as you say, the economy, you know, under this president's leadership, he has overseen the greatest resurgence in an economy in the first year in office, you know, greater than any other president that we know of. So what I believe is we just have to stay at it and continue to create good jobs, continue to un-stick the supply chain, continue to get folks vaccinated.

And over time, the people will start to feel better about that. I can't speak for the president but I think that's how he feels. Like he spends much less time looking at polling numbers than he does looking at unemployment, wages, supply chains. You know, he spent his day yesterday talking to CEOs, grilling them on questions of what more can we do to move packages?

So, you know, folks want to feel it in their lives. And I think 6, 12 months from now, they will, right? We'll move past COVID, wages will continue to rise. And I think we just have to stick with the program. And so, folks will start to feel better.

BERMAN: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Hope your husband got out there maybe before this morning.


RAIMONDO: Let's hope he's listening to this and got the message.

BERMAN: Thanks very much.

RAIMONDO: Bye-bye.

BERMAN: So, emergency room doctors trying to head off COVID by handing out free masks. One of these front-line physicians joins us next.

HILL: And what does Jim Jordan know about January 6th? The new turn in the House committee's investigation.


HILL: Texas is starting to see an increase in the number of new COVID cases, and that's causing concern among health care workers about the impact the omicron variant could have on hospitals. That's why doctors at Baylor College of Medicine have been handing out thousands of masks to folks in Houston.

Joining me now is Dr. Cedric Dark. He's an emergency physician at Baylor College of Medicine and an assistant professor there.

It's great to have you with us this morning. So, you had the stockpile of masks on hand that have been sent to the hospital. What made you decide that you should start handing them out to passersby?

DR. CEDRIC DARK, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN & ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Thanks for having me on, Erica. First of all, I wanted to thank the Texas College of emergency physicians for donating these masks to our department, to our staff. One of the things we wanted to do was actually distribute them out to members of our community because if we can put a mask and specifically N95 masks in peoples hands, which is the most effective type of protection they can have, we can hopefully prevent them from catching COVID and prevent them from coming to the ER in the first place.

HILL: What's the reaction when you hand them out?

DARK: People were really overjoyed and thankful to receive these. A lot of people have been using either cloth masks, or gators, sometimes surgical masks. To upgrade your mask, especially in light of the increased contagiousness of omicron, people were happy to receive them.