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Omicron Variant of COVID-19 Spreading Rapidly Throughout U.S.; Long Lines at Coronavirus Testing Sites Seen across Country; Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Dies; Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) Interviewed on Working with Harry Reid in Senate. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired December 29, 2021 - 08:00   ET




AVLON: We are following three major stories this morning. The U.S. shattering its record average of daily coronavirus cases, and the CDC slashing estimates for how much Omicron is actually in the U.S. Plus, the political world and the sports world are mourning the death of two American giants, Harry Reid and John Madden.

But first, let's get to the pandemic. The U.S. hitting a record of more than 265,000 new COVID cases Tuesday alone as two highly contagious variants fuel surges across the country. But we need to note that the number of hospitalizations are not rising yet at the same rate.

Meanwhile, the CDC now lowering the estimate of the prevalence of the Omicron variant in the U.S. last week from 70 to 59 percent, a drop suggesting that while the new variant was on the rise, it is not infecting people at the rate that the CDC just projected.

COLLINS: Pediatric hospitalizations are also near their September peak, though. Nationwide hospitalizations of children with the virus have jumped on average nearly 50 percent in just one week. Parents are understandably concerned as vaccination rates, particularly among the pediatric population, continue to lag, leaving many children potentially vulnerable to infection.

President Biden says for now vaccine requirements for domestic travel could be imposed if his medical team recommends it, but Dr. Anthony Fauci says don't expect one in the immediate future, as health officials are also advising that we should be bracing for case numbers to skyrocket in the new year.

Let's get to CNN's Leyla Santiago who has been live at a testing site in Miami all week. And Leyla, how long are people waiting for a test this morning?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When we checked with the folks that made their way through the line behind me, they told us this morning it was about three hours. And listen, I've been telling you that all week. Not much has really changed when it comes to the volume of demand for testing here. This is a place where they have -- or the county, rather, Miami-Dade County, they have opened two new sites, extended hours at others, and they are still seeing that demand.

We talked to one of the workers who told us she felt like this was the beginning of the pandemic when a lot of people were coming out for testing. Here is what else she told us.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're looking at possibly this continuing maybe into, of course, the new year, maybe into mid-January, because families, you know, they want to get together, of course.


SANTIAGO: So they are planning for this to be the situation for quite a little while here.

As far as supplies go, for onsite testing here in Miami-Dade County, they tell us that they are doing OK with supplies, they have enough tests to go around. But when it comes to the take home kits, the county distributed 152,000 take-home kits between Friday and Monday. They are all out now, and they have put in a request for more. But at this point, there is really no telling on when they could get more of those supplies.

COLLINS: Leyla, thank you so much for your update.

AVLON: Omicron is sending cases across the United States through the roof. And pediatricians are bracing for a very busy January as hospitalizations among children are approaching levels not seen since September.

Joining us now, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo. She's the Director of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Doctor, I want to get your take on what Dr. Walensky from the CDC said just a few moments ago.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate. We really want to make sure that we had guidance in this moment where we would 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. So it really spoke to both behaviors as well as what people were able to do.


AVLON: Is that clear and consistent to you, Doctor?

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, DIRECTOR, DIVISION OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: I think it is not really either. And I say that feeling that, as always, the CDC is in an unenviable place, right, trying to walk this path between the science, which is really incomplete, particularly with Omicron, and the very challenging reality that we are facing as we try to keep business as usual, right?

We are really in a very difficult place in terms of the number of people who are infected with this variant. I can tell you that from a health care system that people are really struggling trying to keep things moving. Nobody wants to go back, right, to where we were where we had to cancel surgeries, we had to really streamline care.


So in many ways, it is very understandable that they want people to get back on their feet. The devil is in the details. What's really concerning is that if this is going to work without testing people to make sure they can come back, people, A, have to be really asymptomatic, and that is a really unclear component of the CDC's guidance, and we can about that. Second, they really have to mask up at five days, and they need to stay masked for the next five days with a good mask. That's asking a lot given what we know people's behaviors have been. And Dr. Walensky alluded to that.

COLLINS: And also it doesn't say what kind of mask. And when it says the symptoms, it doesn't say that you are completely asymptomatic and feeling nothing. It says that you are asymptomatic or symptoms are resolving. And so I think that has been the fine print that everyone is reading very closely. But it really stood out what she said to us about she said a lot of this decision had to do with what people are willing to tolerate. And I don't think that is something that we've heard from the CDC before about why they are making decisions on isolation and on quarantines.

MARRAZZO: Right. Kaitlan, you may recall that Dr. Francis Collins on one of his exit interviews I think last week said something like, well, maybe we should have paid more attention to the behavioral science around vaccine hesitancy. And many people, including many health care providers, basically rolled their eyes, with all respect to Dr. Collins, who has been an incredible leader, because we face this challenge constantly, right? It is all about asking people and expecting people and hoping that people hold up their end of the bargain. And that just isn't always the case.

AVLON: It certainly isn't. Look, part of the conventional wisdom I think rooted in experience is that kids, thank God, have been less affected by covid up to this point. Now we've got kids, many of them vaccinated, not at the rate they should be. But what is so troubling to parents like me is seeing this rate of childhood hospitalizations really spike in many places. Are you seeing that as an indication that Omicron is not only far more contagious but more affecting children than previous variants we've dealt with?

MARRAZZO: John, I think that's a great question. I'm hesitant to really say definitively. I can tell you that from what I've read and from what my pediatrician colleagues say that it doesn't seem to be a case of the virus -- or this variant being more pathogenic, more harmful in kids, that it is just a matter of so many more infections in a group that is under-vaccinated. In Alabama, only eight percent of eligible young kids are vaccinated fully in that age group, and that is really scary.

So you have more vulnerable people, a very infectious virus, and the denominator is just such that you will see more kids get hospitalized. I really, really hope and pray that this is not going to go into more of the inflammatory syndromes and more of the really bad outcomes that we saw with Delta when kids were in the pre-vaccination era.

COLLINS: Yes, that data in Alabama is especially troubling. My mom is a fourth-grade teacher there, and to see how few children have gotten vaccinated there, much less just overall population, adults also not getting vaccinated in Alabama.

I do wonder what you think of what Dr. Walensky said when it comes to what parents do really want to know, those who want to get their kids vaccinated, is that those under 15 -- or under 16 still can't get a booster shot. Even though that they can get the other two shots, they are not yet able to get a booster shot. And then those kids under five cannot get vaccinated at all. And Dr. Walensky said don't expect that to change in the next month at least.

MARRAZZO: I'm not really clear on why the booster shot is so controversial. I think part of it, and again, this is conjecture because it's educated, I guess, speculation, because again, there is not a lot of really rationale that has been shown behind this. I think part of it is that there is this lingering risk about particularly myocarditis in younger men, although it is not being seen in higher numbers as age declines. It's probably more related to elevated androgen levels as you get into your 20s. So we shouldn't theoretically expect that that would be an issue. I think that they are being very cautious given that these are young people. On the other hand, they desperately need some protection that I think a booster shot would provide. The younger kids, that's really a question, the under five-year-olds, I think we do need more data on efficacy in that group.

AVLON: All right, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, thank you very much for joining us on NEW DAY. Appreciate it.

MARRAZZO: It's my pleasure. Stay safe.

AVLON: You, too.

One of America's most consequential political figures has died. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid passed away yesterday in his home state Nevada after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 82.

Joining me now to discuss Harry Reid's life and legacy, his friend and former colleague, senator Dick Durbin of the great state of Illinois who currently as Democratic Whip.


Senator Durbin, first, I am so sorry for your loss. You were friends with Harry Reid for decades. Tell us about the character of the man. SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL) SENATE MAJORITY WHIP: Most politicians spend

a lifetime trying to hide their flaws. Harry would announce them publicly.


DURBIN: Seriously. And a lot of politicians like to talk about their log cabin childhood. He wrote a book about growing up in degrading poverty and a troubled family in Searchlight, Nevada. Harry didn't run away from who he really was. And I think that that authenticity is what made him such a powerful and effective leader.

AVLON: And he did have this extraordinary rise. And he was not a charismatic, telegenic figure necessarily, but he was tenacious, he was tough, he was hardworking. What were the secrets to his success in rising up the Senate as a matter of interpersonal politics?

DURBIN: I tell you, he was a Boxer, a fighter in the ring when he was growing up. He had a caring heart, but he was a tough guy when he needed to be. And one out of every 10 Americans today have health insurance because of Obamacare and because Harry Reid along with Nancy Pelosi made it the law of the land. Think about that as a legacy, that you helped 10 percent of the people living in America have the peace of mind to know that they have affordable, quality health insurance. That alone was an amazing achievement, and Harry was tough enough to get it done.

AVLON: And was attacked and hated by many for that achievement.


AVLON: I want to talk about that toughness though, because I noticed a tweet from former attorney general Eric Holder who, in paying tribute to Senator Reid's passing, said that the Senate today, Democrats in the Senate could use more of that Harry Reid toughness. What do you make of that advice, what do you take from that advice?

DURBIN: Well, let me tell you, I was his whip, and a whip counts votes, and I can't tell you how many times Harry and I sat down and talked about needing one more vote. Right now, we're at a 50-50 Senate, 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. We have a working majority when the vice president shows up and votes. Harry would be the first to know that political reality is a tough one to get anything serious done. But the fact is that we're working toward that goal, and Harry inspired me and a lot of people who work in the Senate today to keep focused on what the prize is, and the prize is get health insurance for as many Americans as possible. He did it.

AVLON: Speaking of the eyes on the prize, Harry Reid's role in really encouraging Barack Obama, your former Illinois Senate colleague, to run for president was pivotal. And former President Obama shared a letter he penned to Harry Reid and his wife, and it says in part "I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn't have gotten most of what I got done without your skill and determination." Tell us what it was like serving in the Senate from Illinois during that time with the Obama presidency, Harry Reid as majority leader, your chief whip, a big margin up front, but a lot of headwinds and resistance that were just a harbinger of things to come.

DURBIN: We needed 60 votes. We have exactly 60 votes to pass the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Harry knew that. And then our friend, dear friend, Teddy Kennedy comes down with cancer and is dying, and we realize we're going to fall one vote short. Those were times when Harry was just doing his darnedest to figure out exactly how to get the 60 votes on the board and keep them there. It was a death-defying act in political terms, and he got it done. It took focus on every single individual senator. He knew them, he knew their strengths and their weaknesses, and he wasn't afraid to call them and tell them how much he was depending on them. That kind of situation, that kind of leadership made a difference in the future of this country.

AVLON: I'm glad you mentioned the 60 votes because it leads, of course, to the question of the filibuster. And fewer leaders after leaving the Senate in 2019, Harry Reid penned an op-ed in "The Times" that advocated for doing away with the filibuster. He wrote "The Senate is a living thing, and for it to survive, it must change as it has done throughout the history of our country. The American people elect leaders to address issues facing our country, not to cower behind arcane parliamentary procedures."

What do you think about that? And what did you think there might be towards a path if not ending the filibuster, then mending it, reforming to return to, for example, a talking filibuster as President Biden has advocated?

DURBIN: I can tell you, it has to be done for the good of this country. The United States Senate --

AVLON: How can that get done?

DURBIN: It can get done if we get enough, all of the Democrats to stand behind the change and maybe even a few Republicans to realize under the current Republican leadership, we've seen more filibusters, more obstruction than ever in the history of the Senate, nothing even close to it. And if we don't change the rules to go back to a Senate that truly debates and legislates and responds to the needs of America --



SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Nothing even close to it. And that we -- if we don't change the rules to go back to a Senate that truly debates and legislates an responds to the needs of America, then it's going to be a great misfortune for this country.

Harry understood that.

JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: I hear you on that, but I want to press you on what the outlines of that kind of an agreement could look like, because famously, Senator Manchin, Senator Sinema are resistant to ending the filibuster certainly. I spoke to one of your colleagues, Senator Ben Cardin a few days ago and he suggested that possibly there might be a possibility to returning the talking filibuster but allowing the minority to offer amendments.

Are you in active conversations with those two senators and your Republican colleagues about some kind of grand bargain to reform the filibuster, return to what it once was?

DURBIN: Yes. And frankly, we realize that if we don't do it soon, it will be too late. There are critical issues. The voting rights of every American are at stake here.

And if you want to stop legislation to guarantee every eligible voter has an opportunity to vote, then for goodness' sakes do more than just phone in your opposition. Stand at your desk and defend your position. And be prepared to do that as long as necessary.

If you want to do this by absentee ballot, you are on your own situation as a senator, that's wrong. We have a talking filibuster which says if you believe it, stand up and defend it. Otherwise, don't stop the progress of the body.

AVLON: It's important to remember that that is Senate tradition, not what we have today.

Senator Dick Durbin, thank you so much for joining us on your holiday to pay tribute to your friend, Harry Reid. We appreciate it.

DURBIN: My honor.

AVLON: All right. Up next, more on the life and legacy of the legend John Madden. We'll talk to a man who worked closely with him through seven Super Bowls.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And President Biden now dogged by a COVID testing shortage he vowed to fix. How he plans to do that by next month.


COLLINS: There has been a major loss overnight in the sports world. John Madden, the energetic legendary Hall of Fame coach and mainstay in the broadcasting booth, has died at the age of 85.

Joining us now to talk about his loss and his legacy is Ted Shaker, who was John Madden's producer at CBS for 14 years and was with him during the coverage of seven Super Bowls.

Thank you so much for joining us this morning to talk about just so much of his career from player to coach to broadcaster.

And I love something you said about how when he was becoming a broadcaster learning what it is like being in the booth and you said he doesn't know anything about the routine other than what he learned from getting interviewed as a coach. He got up in the booth and said, what is this? I'm a mile away from the field. I got to be down on the field, saying it was just so foreign to him to be up in the booth and not down on the field.

TED SHAKER, JOHN MADDEN'S LONGTIME PRODUCER AT CBS: Exactly right. I'm honored to be able to talk about him and I thank you for the invitation. This guy --


COLLINS: Of course. And so talk about what that was like when he became a broadcaster, learning what that was like and just seeing the game from a very different view.

SHAKER: John, first and foremost, was about as curious a person as I've ever met. If he spent time with you, he is just peppering you with questions because he is trying to learn, who is this guy, how does he work, what is the situation, et cetera. He did that with everyone. And he cared about people.

I think, you know, when we talk about great communicators over the years, you know, and we talk about, you know, Churchill and other people, John Madden was one of the most articulate -- he was one of the great communicators of our time. He was able to -- even though he appeared to be the regular guy, the boom, bam, boom, all that stuff, but he was always the smartest guy in the room, and he was able to communicate his thoughts so that everyone would understand them.

When it came to football, if you were -- someone who did not play, did not watch a lot, did not read a lot about it, you could be, you know, man, woman, child, when John explained what was going on in a game, or with someone on the field, or in someone's life, he began to basically teach everyone the art of football, and the art of life. And he was just unique that way.

He would pick up -- grab guys that he liked along the way. There is a guy named Sandy Montag. He was a $50 a day stats guy in the graphics department of the games John did. He became pals with him to the point where Sandy would always be with him. He'd be on the train, then he'd be on the bus, then he became his agent and now is one of the biggest agents in the sports industry. That is the kind of guy John was.

AVLON: I love it. And you are so right about him being a great communicator. Maybe the first time he's been compared to Churchill. But he deserves it because there was that enthusiasm and the accessibility.

I just wonder, given your close proximity, what are some of your favorite Madden moments, the stories that really sum up the man?

SHAKER: Boy. Well, I mean, one of the things that he said to me, I was at the Masters in Augusta, it was in the spring, it was in April. And he was at home in California.

And we wanted to talk about how we were going to try to improve our coverage of the NFL the following fall. And he used this metaphor which I've never forgotten and I've used countless times. He said -- for him it was a metaphor that didn't make any sense. He was talking about climbing a rock, the surface of a rock, something that he wouldn't do to save his life.

Anyway, he said when you climb up a rock, you can't all of a sudden stop and say I'm good, this is where I want to be. You know, I'm fine. This is status quo.

He said, there is no status quo. He said you either always have to be pushing to get better, always pushing to get better, tweak here, tweak there, try to make this better, that better, because if you don't always push forward, if you aren't always trying to get better, you are going to slide backward. And when you slide backward, you're going to fail.

That to me was advice that I've used every day of my life.

COLLINS: It is amazing advice.

And I do want to ask you one last question, something that is on the more humorous aspect of him is that he was terrified of flying and so he always rode around in this bus.

Were you on the bus with him, what was that like?

SHAKER: Yeah, I mean, my wife has been on the bus. It was just -- it was fun.

He was always fun to be around, you know. He was always fun. He was hilarious.

When we had our first child, we had a daughter, and I was like off the charts happy, et cetera. And he called and wished me congratulations. And he said what kind of a baby is it? And I said it is a woman. And he said a woman?

And from that moment on, every time I saw him or he saw my wife, he would always say, how is the little woman?

You know, that is John Madden. He is just the best. I'm really going to miss him. But we are so fortunate to have him in our lives.


And he had the most wonderful life with his wife, Virginia, and mike and Joe. Just a wonderful, wonderful man.

COLLINS: Well, and, Ted, you are obviously such a big part of that. So, thank you for joining us this morning just to remember his life and his legacy that he is going to leave going forward.

And if you haven't watched some of that old tape, I recommend everyone to do so because it is so, so good, John.

AVLON: He will not be forgotten.

SHAKER: Fox has a documentary out about him which aired on Christmas day. He got a chance to see it and hear all these people talk about what a valuable person he was in their lives. Thank God he saw it. AVLON: Thank you, Ted. Thank you for joining us. Be well.

SHAKER: Thank you.

AVLON: Could President Biden take executive action to revive his Build Back Better plan?

We're going to talk to a key progressive about just that, next.


AVLON: The fate of President Biden's domestic agenda, a nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better plan still hanging by a thread. And now progressive testimonies are Democrats are telling the president it is time to do whatever it takes to get will done including executive action and continued pressure on the Senate.

Joining us now is Illinios Congresswoman Marie Newman who penned that tweet. She's vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Congresswoman Newman, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to ask you about this executive action piece. You know, this past weekend, your colleague Jayapal wrote that the CPC would soon release a plan for executive action, specifics.

So, you can tell us more about this plan and what it will entail?