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Hospitals Brace For Second COVID Christmas Amid Omicron Surge; Tips For Traveling And Celebrating The Holidays Amid Omicron Surge; How We Can Come Together During Such Polarizing Times. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired December 24, 2021 - 07:30   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: The surge of COVID cases in China raising questions about the safety of the upcoming Winter Olympics.

CNN is tracking developments all around the world.


JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST (on camera): I'm John Allen in Rome.

Pope Francis will lead a subdued Christmas Eve. Attendance at his mass inside St. Peter's Basilica limited due to COVID.

This week, the Vatican issued updated rules requiring all visitors and employees to have a Green Pass. Employees without one may face a loss of pay. Also this week, the Vatican repeating its strong moral support for vaccination campaigns, with Pope Francis calling getting the jab an act of love.

SCOTT MCCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): I'm Scott McLean in London where the Omicron variant continues to surge. Thursday was another record high of new COVID infections in the U.K. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his Christmas message to appeal to people to get vaccinated for the sake of others, saying that is the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Johnson got an early Christmas present from researchers who found that you are less than half as likely to be hospitalized with the Omicron variant than with Delta, reaffirming his decision not to put new restrictions in place ahead of the holiday.


SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): I'm Selina Wang in Tokyo.

China's government has punished 26 officials in X'ian for their handling of the city's COVID-19 outbreak. X'ian City, which has recorded more than 200 COVID cases since December ninth, has put its 13 million residents under strict lockdown. Authorities punished 10 of the officials for their, quote, "sloppy execution and chaotic management" that caused an outbreak in a quarantine hotel for overseas travelers.

With the Winter Olympics now less than 45 days away, local authorities are under immense pressure to keep COVID cases out. Cities across China have been locking down and mass testing in response to just a handful of new cases.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Here in the U.S., healthcare workers are bracing for their second COVID Christmas. The hopes and promise of vaccinations -- even booster shots -- seems to not have come through entirely for ICU staff at hospitals large and small.

CNN's Sara Sidner spoke with exhausted workers at a hospital in Santa Fe.


SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Erica and Jim, the staff at the biggest local hospital here in Santa Fe thought they had finally gotten relief because of the vaccines and the boosters. Unfortunately, too many people aren't taking the vaccine and they're ending up filling up their COVID-19 ICU.

SIDNER (voice-over): In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the annual holiday light display dazzles the eye and lifts the spirit, but these are the lights grabbing all the attention just down the road. This is a COVID ICU, suddenly as busy as it ever was.

SCOTTY SILVA, RESPIRATORY CARE DIRECTOR, CHRISTUS ST. VINCENT MEDICAL CENTER: It is clinically psychologically impossible to keep doing this day in and day out, especially for the past year or two. Even the strongest respiratory therapists that I have, have broken down at times.

SIDNER (voice-over): The staff is resilient but despondent some days, and plain old exhausted most. Suffering and death greet them every day.

SILVA: They come to me and they say I do need a break -- help me.

SIDNER (on camera): You know, when you talk about things like pulling them out and people breaking down, it sounds like a war zone. That's the same language that soldiers sometimes use.


SIDNER (on camera): Is that what it feels like?

SILVA: Yes, to the point of it being almost unbearable (crying) to see that. These are very good people, good respiratory therapists, good clinicians who want to do the best possible job and they just can't. They can't do it.

SIDNER (voice-over): There was a moment of light and hope.


SIDNER (voice-over): Critical nurse manager Dominic Armijo was filled with hope when the vaccines were approved. He was one of the first in New Mexico to get the shot.

ARMIJO: It was just that light at the end of the tunnel. And then all of a sudden, it was like wham, bam, here we are again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) where everybody was here today.

SIDNER (voice-over): He couldn't have possibly accounted for the number of people who would refuse the vaccine.

ANGELA BYRES, COVID ICU PATIENT: I, in the beginning, was an anti- vaxxer only because of my immune system. But not anymore.

SIDNER (on camera): What was it that sort of kept you from going to get vaccinated?

BYRES: I did not have a very good immune system.

SIDNER (on camera): A lot of times, the doctors will tell you if your immune system is compromised, go get vaccinated. What were your concerns?

BYRES: My heart issues. I know there was a lot of clotting in the first few. And I did have an example of not a good reaction to a friend who did get vaccinated.

SIDNER (voice-over): Byres never got the vaccine. Instead, she got a bad case of COVID and was unable to breathe.

SIDNER (on camera): Do you regret it now?

BYRES: Do I regret it? Yes and no. I wish I had gotten vaccinated sooner. I wouldn't be here. That's the regret.

SIDNER (on camera): I've talked to a lot of doctors and nurses and I've heard a lot of people say I don't want to retire, I don't want to leave, but I don't know if I can do it. Where are you on that?

ARMIJO: I'm probably at that end of that spectrum as well. It's trying but I just -- this is my family and this is my community. We're the city of holy faith (crying). It's just been a lot.

SIDNER (voice-over): The unending pandemic surges have taken a toll.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have lost 110 nurses this year.

SIDNER (voice-over): That's 25 percent of the hospital's nurses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's across the board. I mean, most definitely, nursing, respiratory. But it's also food and nutrition, and custodial support, and techs, and medical office assistants, and registration. It is across the board.

SIDNER (voice-over): The remaining staff are fighting back death alongside their patients. There is no respite -- not even for Christmas.

SIDNER (on camera): Unfortunately, what everyone has realized, including the exhausted staff, is that COVID is here to stay -- Erica, Jim.



HILL: That's for sure, unfortunately. Sara, thank you.

Just ahead, counting down the hours until your Christmas celebration. How you and your loved ones can stay healthy over the holidays.

SCIUTTO: And Christmas with The Beatles. More on "Get Back" and the other big movies to see this weekend.


THE BEATLES, ROCK BAND: Singing "Don't Let Me Down."



HILL: President Biden says vaccinated Americans can go ahead with holiday plans, but if you're wondering how to make those plans safer, let's talk to an expert. Erin Bromage teaches about infection and immunology at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Nice to see you back this morning.

So we're going to go rapid-fire here because I know people have a lot of questions, the first one being if you're getting together with friends or family what should you do? When do you test?


ERIN BROMAGE, BIOLOGY PROFESSOR, UMASS-DARTMOUTH (via Webex by Cisco): Yes, so good morning, Erica.

So if you're getting together with friends and family testing is really about getting those rapid tests and doing it immediately before actually getting together. The day before doesn't really work the rate at which this virus goes from nondetectable to detectable and infectious. So, testing immediately before if you can get your hands on rapid tests; the day before if you can only do PCR and they're turning them around in 24 hours.

HILL: What if you're getting together with people who are not vaccinated? And let's talk specifically first about kids -- children under five who aren't even eligible for a vaccine. Should you change the way you interact with those kids even if you're -- even if you are vaccinated and even boosted?

BROMAGE: You know, I mean, everyone's had the choice now to decide what they're going to do. Are you going to get vaccinated, not vaccinated? Are you going to get boosted, are you going to get -- or not get boosted?

So, those people that have gone out and gotten vaccinated and those people that have got vaccinated and boosted have really tilted the odds way in their favor that they may end up getting infected from this but one of the key things is not sickness. And so, keeping out of the hospital. Keeping out of having days and days and days off work because you're so sick.

So, yes, there will be unvaccinated people at Christmas, especially those that are zero through five years old. But the ones that are most at risk have now had a chance of defining what risk looks like for them and what they're going to do.

So, when we're looking at Christmas gatherings it's about what your risk tolerance is right now. And yes, unvaccinated people are going to be there but you've chosen your path in regards to vaccine and how you're going to be protected.

HILL: So there -- but is there anything specific we should do, especially for those who can't be vaccinated? I mean, kids under five can't choose whether or not they want to be vaccinated. They don't have the option.

BROMAGE: Yes. Well, I'm not dismissing the risks to those under five, but the risks are very low of any poor outcome to them at all. You're getting together with people being primarily vaccinated (audio gap) the risk of it coming in, and then the testing that comes together. So if you put a buffer around those people that are actually vulnerable you can actually protect them through you being that firewall of it coming in.

HILL: What about going back to school? We're seeing a lot of different approaches from different schools. What do you think would be the smartest protocol before kids go back in January?

BROMAGE: Yes. So, schools absolutely have to go back in person in January, but you've got to go in with your eyes open based on the data that's actually happening or what's happening in your community in regards to infections. So children and teachers, and staff all need to be tested immediately prior to going to school. In states like Massachusetts, we rolled out the Test and Stay.

But again, testing on the morning you're coming in or the week leading up to it will help lower it down. But then being hypervigilant about protocols in that first week so that you can adjust and capture the risk from the week -- from the holiday break and get back to school safely.

HILL: For people who are traveling, and some folks may be traveling for Christmas this weekend -- but then after that you've got, for a lot of people, a whole week off. They may have had trips planned. What should you take into account as you assess that risk? What do you need to do before you travel?

BROMAGE: Before you travel, you do owe a responsibility to society. We are not just little objects moving around by ourself. We actually affect what actually happens in the society -- in society. So if you are going to travel it makes sense to test before you jump on a plane.

When you're actually traveling just make sure that you're looking at the risks, and the risks are face-to-face interactions and shared air. So you can actually travel safely -- and defining safely as not ending up in the hospital but maybe being infected. But you can travel safely as long you mind the risks, which are well-masked, avoid indoor spaces that are crowded -- those type of things -- sorry.

HILL: No, it's all right. And keep that mask on, right? As long as you're on the plane and you're masked, right, maybe minimize eating and drinking on the plane?

BROMAGE: Yes. So, planes are not no-risk but they are low-risk for infection due to the high-quality air and filtration that they have inside that. So a good quality mask on you.

And then it really comes down to the neighbor on the plane. If it's a family member you have an added extra risk. The most risk is that person sitting beside you. So if you've got a really chatty person or a person that's eating beside you that can't stop talking, then maybe keep your mask up for a little bit longer.

HILL: It's the excuse people have always looked for when they didn't want to talk to their chatty neighbor, right? Sorry, it's COVID. I'm going to stay quiet.


HILL: I'm sure you're getting asked this question a lot because as an expert, people want to know what are the experts doing. What are you doing this holiday? Have you changed your plans?


BROMAGE: We haven't changed our plans too much. We have a fairly small family. I do have an elderly grandparent that is actually coming. So what we have done as a family is just lowered the risk this week before she arrives to make sure that she's not walking into an infected household. Because if she gets infected she's the one most at risk for poor outcomes.

We've also got rapid tests. I bought them weeks ago. I've got them here just, again, to make sure. Because it's not so much about myself and my family that have very good health, it's those that may not have the better health, such as her, that we are trying to protect from our gatherings.

HILL: Erin Bromage, great to see you again. Appreciate the guidance. Thank you, and happy holidays. BROMAGE: Happy holidays to you, Erica.

HILL: Coming up, late for Christmas. Hundreds of flights canceled just hours before the holiday.

SCIUTTO: And next, faith leaders tell us how they try to bring people together in these divided times. It will be nice to have their advice.



SCIUTTO: It has not been an easy couple of years for so many across the country and around the world. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. Between the pandemic, many natural disasters, political polarization, many might be finding it difficult to come together and celebrate the holiday season, even within their own family.

So we've asked Father Edward Beck and Rabbi Anne Brener to share some of their reflections on what the holiday season means and how to find joy and togetherness even in these times. We do want to note we also asked Imam Shamshi Ali to join us but sadly, he wasn't feeling well this morning. So we do wish him a speedy recovery. Good to have both of you.


SCIUTTO: Father Beck, I wonder if I could start with you. You say Christmas has a theme of light and darkness. Tell us what that means and how folks at home could relate to that.

FATHER EDWARD BECK, CNN RELIGION COMMENTATOR (via Webex by Cisco): Well, Jim, for those who will be going to midnight mass tonight, the first reading is from the prophet Isaiah, and it's such a well-known reading to people. And it says that people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. A child is born to us.

Those words, I think, speak so well to what we're going through right now. I mean, we seem to be in darkness. The world seems, once again, thrown into darkness.

And yet, the message that Christians will gather to celebrate this evening and tomorrow is that God is born into diminishment and struggle, right? So you have a poor refugee homeless family -- and that's the Christmas story here. And I think God chooses to enter into those circumstances so that it's accessible to all.

And that's the light part that we're not alone in it despite the fact that external circumstances often let us think or be perceived that we're alone in it -- that God is with us and that God wants to be more a part of our lives. And I think that's the central message today.

HILL: Rabbi, I know you've noted that in this season, right -- this is the season of giving -- it is a season of miracles. You know, the miracle of Hanukkah. The hope that came for Christians when Jesus was born. This is supposed to be a season of giving.

You've noted it's also a great time for reflection about what it means to really be a human, especially these days, and to look at how we're caring for one another. How we're giving of ourselves.

BRENER: Well, that is a wonderful question because how are we caring for each other? How are we giving to each other?

I think that this is a time of collective mourning and the darkness of which -- that was just spoken of really is a call for us to sit in the darkness and to examine what it means to be human. What it means to be on a planet with other human beings. It's a time, as I said, of collective mourning.

And mourning is a process. The Jewish mourning rituals ensure that first, there is -- we are -- we are cared for by the community. We are held tightly for a while and then as time goes on the tightness relaxes a little bit.

We know that in mourning there is -- there is despair and there is anger, but those are things that are part of the process. They're not to be acted on until we come to the end of the mourning period.

And the end of the mourning period is a time where we reach shalom. Shalom is a lot more nuanced than the word peace. It really is a word that means inclusivity. Shalom is related to the word shleimut, which means wholeness. And in wholeness, every voice is included.

And that sense that we are all in this together and that we need to look and see ourselves in the eyes of other people and feel the -- one of the flaws in our assumptions is the idea that rugged individualism is the way that people should behave. And rugged individualism causes us to not care about other people and to not be compassionate. The end of grief is peace, compassion, and then action -- action grounded in compassion.