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Daily COVID Cases Setting Records in U.S. as Omicron Variant Spreads across Country; CDC Draws Criticism for Cutting Quarantine Time for Asymptomatic COVID Infections from 10 Days to Five Days; Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Interviewed on Testing Requirements for Public Schools. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2021 - 08:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Thursday, December 30th. I'm Kaitlan Collins in with John Avlon this morning while John and Brianna are off. Good morning, John.


COLLINS: This morning, we have the U.S. shattering its record of daily new coronavirus cases as the highly contagious Omicron variant is spreading rapidly throughout the country ahead of the New Year. Nationwide, daily new cases have hit a seven day average of more than 300,000 cases. The last time the number of cases hit a peak close to that was in January. Dr. Fauci says it's time to RSVP no to those giant New Year's Eve bashes you had planned.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER: If your plans are to go to a 40 to 50-person New Year's Eve party, with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy new year, I would strongly recommend that this year we do not do that.


AVLON: Yes, so if that were your plans, sorry about that. There's also been growing pushback from frontline workers to new CDC guidelines cutting the amount of suggested days to isolate and quarantine in half. The American Nurses Association isn't on board, saying it's deeply concerned about the changes, citing insufficient evidence and concern for healthcare workers safety, while the flight attendant union is also raising a red flag. Now, Michigan is one of several states hitting pandemic peak

hospitalizations this month. The State Department's help now says it will not be adopting the shorter isolation quarantine guidelines until it reviews the evidence while it waits for more information from the CDC, specifically for special populations, and high risk settings. Michigan's health officials say this is not the time to relax.

COLLINS: So let's get to CNN's Polo Sandoval on what we are seeing nationwide because these numbers sure are alarming, Polo.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Kaitlan. Here in New York state alone the state obliterating its daily record with some 67,000 new COVID cases just yesterday. Nationally we have heard even from the World Health Organization also, by the way, who is describing this as a COVID tsunami and something that many health officials have never seen before.


SANDOVAL: A wave of new COVID cases hitting the U.S.


SANDOVAL: As the CDC predicts more than 44,000 people could die of can COVID in the next f weeks. Hospitalizations are predicted to increase for the sixth straight week as the pandemic rages on.

PHILLIPS: What we're experiencing now is an absolute overwhelming of the emergency departments.

SANDOVAL: Data shows the Omicron variant may cause less severe illness than Delta, but hospitals are still being inundated with new patients, and many of them unvaccinated.

DR. CATHERINE O'NEAL, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, OUR LADY OF THE LAKE REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER IN BATON ROUGE: Inside the hospital we're seeing an increase in admissions that is startling, so to hear that Omicron is different and is not causing immense illness in people is not what we're seeing on the ground.

SANDOVAL: As the number of new cases skyrocketed to another record high on Wednesday, some health officials scramble to defend the CDC's decision to cut its recommended isolation and quarantine times in half for asymptomatic people.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER: The judgment that the CDC made was all things considered, what people would be able to implement. There is risk in everything when it comes to SARS-CoV-2. That's just the reality.

SANDOVAL: The CDC tied the new timeline to transmissibility.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: The vast majority of the transmissible time is in those first five days. SANDOVAL: But it provided no data to back that claim. Another key

criticism leveled at the CDC director, why additional testing was not a requirement to come out of isolation?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: If we had a massive amount of tests in our communities now, would you have included testing in your algorithm? And I'd be shocked if she said no.

SANDOVAL: The CDC says it is not clear at home tests can tell whether a person is likely to transmit the virus to others.

FAUCI: There is no evidence that it has any predictive value.

SANDOVAL: Most experts concede the guidance is not perfect, but it's an acceptable compromise to allow the country to function.

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY AT UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: So what the CDC, in part, was trying to do was not somehow play to the economy. It was to play to the very safety of our everyday lives.

SANDOVAL: And the situation is only expected to get more critical, with New Year's Eve only a day away.


SANDOVAL (on camera): And COVID impact here in New York City still being felt with roughly 30 percent of EMS workers calling in sick, about 17 percent of firefighters according to an FDNY spokesperson. The list includes confirmed COVID cases, some experiencing flu-like symptoms, and then those who are just generally sick here, John.

AVLON: But we did hear in the last hour from outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio on another network saying that they do -- they are confident they will weather this, they have ways of making sure that no calls go unanswered.


And they're calling on the public to not dial 911 unless it is an absolute emergency. Some people have actually been dialing 911 to try to get a ride to get a COVID test.

AVLON: New York's a resilient city. Polo Sandoval, thank you very much.

SANDOVAL: Thanks, John.

COLLINS: And new this morning, Johnson & Johnson says that two new reports show people who get booster doses of the company's vaccine are well protected against severe disease and hospitalization from the Omicron variant. Let's get to CNN's Elizabeth Cohen right now with more. And so Elizabeth, you're looking at this data. And of course, this is a vaccine that has had some issues. There have been some -- also issues with the public perception of it. And so with this new data from these reports, what are you seeing? ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kaitlan, I think

the new data adds to the argument that J&J should be a two-shot, a two-dose vaccine, like Pfizer and Moderna. So let's take a look at what this Johnson & Johnson study found. This came out of a press release. This has not been peer reviewed or published in any way. So folks who got a Johnson & Johnson shot and booster six months or more after that first shot, it was 85 percent effective against hospitalization, compared to people who were completely unvaccinated.

And interestingly, the two shots didn't just increase antibodies, they also increased other parts of the immune system. But, and this is a big but, the CDC still recommends Moderna or Pfizer over Johnson & Johnson for both the original vaccination as well as for the booster. There is some safety concerns with Johnson & Johnson, so the CDC says, except in unusual circumstances get Moderna or Pfizer. Kaitlan?

COLLINS: It's a big question of how the CDC responds to these new reports as well. Elizabeth, thank you for the update.

Meanwhile, Maryland and the District of Columbia are among the regions to see an all-time high number of COVID cases. In D.C., starting next week, all public school students must show a negative COVID test result within 24 hours of returning to school.

Joining us now to discuss this new policy is the D.C. mayor. Mayor Bowser, thank you for joining us this morning. And of course, in D.C., I live here, you live here, this is a big epicenter now of these Omicron cases in the United States. And you announced yesterday that all public schools and staff will need to provide proof of a negative test to get back to school next week. So I'm curious what drove this new policy, besides, I guess, the obvious with the case count.

MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER, (D) WASHINGTON D.C.: Well, 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 -- to reopen our schools from winter and keep them open. And the way to do that is to ensure that every child and every adult that enters the building next week can produce a negative COVID test within 24 hours. And we will continue to be vigilant and conduct our surveillance testing throughout the school year.

AVLON: Mayor, look, I commend your commitment to in person learning, and the plan sounds good. The problem, of course, is going to be in the follow through. It's tough to imagine that every single person is going to get their child tested. So what are you going to do to enforce this rule if people don't follow through? Do you block the kids at the door, kick them out of school?

BOWSER: We actually are providing on Monday and Tuesday every family with an at-home test. And there's a simple way for them to upload that test. And we will certainly work with families who need assistance to get that done and uploaded by Wednesday. But we have to ensure the safety of the buildings, and every family who is committed to producing that negative test.

COLLINS: So could this become a regular thing where they are regularly submitting these test results? Or is this a one-time policy?

BOWSER: It is a one-time policy for the break. We anticipate that we can use it in future breaks. We have another February winter break, and we have a break for spring obviously. And we're thinking as long as we have the testing capability, which we do, I'm very proud of my team for producing and sending out over 100,000 at-home tests just last week, and we will have 6 million that we're going to deploy in our schools for our frontline workers.

COLLINS: So I want to commend you for sending out the free tests. That's something critical. The Biden administration has been a bit behind the eight ball, but it's good to see local leaders do that. That could make a big difference.

But if this -- if we see this wave continue to rise, with increased childhood hospitalizations, it seems to be the case, is there any scenario where you would consider closing schools, even though that's not your first choice?

BOWSER: I have to tell you, and I'm glad you raised hospitalizations, because there is a lot being said about cases, and certainly we're concerned about cases. We want people who have been infected to isolate.


But our experience in our hospitals has been extremely good. One of the last numbers I saw was two days old now, I think, I think, 104 D.C. -- or 104 residents in D.C. hospitals with COVID. And while that is 104 too many, certainly, we know that our hospitals are withstanding the new cases.

And the reason that we're in this position this year and not like we were last year is because of vaccination. And so we have to continue to focus on vaccination as our first line of defense, get people getting boosted. And a big thank you to all of our nurses and doctors who are operating our hospitals and our residents who are only using the hospital when they need to.


AVLON: I want to clarify, by the way, the overall hospitalizations are indeed down. But pediatric hospitalizations are up. We just spoke to someone who works at the National Children's Hospital in D.C. who said pediatric hospitalizations are up. You see that data, I assume, right?

BOWSER: No, absolutely. And we are looking at that closely, but even in the raw numbers of children in the hospital, while that increased in the last two weeks in December, it's still a relatively low number and well within their capacity.

COLLINS: Yes, I definitely think you've got to mention the hospitalization number when we are talking about these new case counts, given the big questions about them. Mayor Bowser, I do want to also ask you about another announcement

that you made recently that proof of vaccine will now be required at restaurants, bars, nightclubs, indoor entertainment facilities, gyms, indoor meeting establishments. This starts January 15th. And so I'm curious why you made this policy decision now given we have seen other cities take this step before this, and now this say decision you are making come January.

BOWSER: Like I said, Kaitlan, the evidence is very clear about people who are vaccinated and their experience with COVID, even with Omicron, and people who are not, not just for hospitalizations, but also case counts. People who are unvaccinated are getting COVID. I think the number is 10 times more than people who are not. And they're going to the hospital 20 times more.

So our path out of this with this variant, and God forbid if there is another one, is to make sure that people are vaccinated and boosted. So we have upped our mandate for our own employees. We had a test out option. That is no longer. So the 37,000 D.C. government employees must be fully vaccinated and boosted. And we're requiring it, as you said, in those gathering spots that we know are at high risk for COVID transmission. So people can comply simply by showing their vaccination card and a government-issued I.D.

COLLINS: Yes. And one other question I do have is some news that we're seeing out of Michigan this morning where the Michigan Department of Health and Health Services says they're sticking with the old isolation guidelines from the CDC while they wait for more information. Of course, that shortens the isolation period from 10 days to five days if you're asymptomatic or your symptoms are resolving according to the CDC website. So is D.C. going to adopt the new guidelines when it comes to isolation or stick with the old ones?

BOWSER: Well, I know that our D.C. health officials are reviewing those closely. We have typically followed the CDC's guidance and issued our own D.C. health guidance. We haven't issued the new guidance yet, but we are following it closely. We do think it's very important that we give the public some easy to follow recommendations so that they can keep themselves safe and their families safe. So confusion with the CDC and D.C. health, we don't think supports the public health. So we're looking at it very closely, and we'll update our guidance accordingly.

COLLINS: OK, but you haven't made a decision whether or not to also adopt that shortened isolation period yet?

BOWSER: We have not updated our D.C. health guidance yet.

COLLINS: OK, Mayor Muriel Bowser, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

AVLON: Thank you, Mayor.

BOWSER: Thank you.

COLLINS: Just ahead, a jury finds that Ghislaine Maxwell is guilty of sex trafficking a minor for Jeffrey Epstein.

COLLINS: Plus, today's crucial call between President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. And former first lady Melania Trump stepping back into the public eye.



AVLON: For the second time in less than a month, President Biden will speak to President Putin today. The phone call, requested by the Russian leader, comes ahead of a series of January talks over Russia's month's long troop buildup on the Ukrainian border. CNN's John Harwood joins us live from the White House to explain. John?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, this is a challenging moment for President Biden at a time he's dealing with a COVID resurgence, economic challenges, inflation, legislative challenges and now Vladimir Putin is testing him by the potential for an invasion of Ukraine, another invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, he seized Crimea in 2014. President Biden has been trying to deter him. In the earlier call, he indicated that there would be sanctions the likes of which President Putin has not seen before should he invade again. That includes unplugging Russia from the international financial system, perhaps more severe sanctions on Russian oligarchs or even Vladimir Putin himself.

The question of Putin's intention is a little bit murky. He is, of course, is claiming that the United States and NATO are aggressing against Ukraine - excuse me, against Russia by moving closer and invading its sphere of influence. The Ukraine is trying to move closer to the west.

The -- there is a potential for some sort of diplomatic off ramp with a - if not a promise that Ukraine will not join NATO, which is what Russia is demanding, perhaps some sort of neutral arbiter that would establish a zone where Russia - between Russia and NATO. We don't know.

We do know that President Biden is trying to foster diplomatic talks. Putin initiated this call. The United States senior administration officials yesterday weren't reading too much into that, saying when they asked for a call, we say yes, when we ask for a call, they say yes. They - we do have the talks next week in Geneva, which are potentially for continuing that - talks toward a diplomatic solution.

But we just simply don't know whether Vladimir Putin's trying to create a pretext for invasion saying well, I asked again for them to meet our demands and they didn't and therefore we're moving in, or whether he legitimately wants a diplomatic off ramp. That's something that we'll find out a little bit more about today and a lot more next week.

AVLON: High stakes call later today. John Harwood from the White House, thank you very much. COLLINS: And with more on this, let's go to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who is now Vice President of Strategic Stability and Security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Good morning, Mr. Ambassador, and thank you so much for joining us because you are someone who knows this area best. And so I wonder what you make of the Russian president wanting to talk to President Biden again so soon?

BILL TAYLOR, VICE PRESIDENT OF STRATEGIC STABILITY AND SECUITY AT THE U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: You're right, Kait, and I think it's very interesting that President Putin asked for this call. He asked for it before his holidays, you know, he asked for it during President Biden's holidays. The United States, of course, and a lot of the western world celebrate the time between our Christmas and New Year's.


In Russia, they have an orthodox Christmas, so they haven't had theirs yet. So they're - President Putin asked for this call during President Biden's holidays and before his start. So it's very interesting that he would make this call so quickly. So I think he's got something to ask for, something to say, and it - it might be just season's greetings. I bet it is more than that. I bet it's something more on the discussions that are going to take place on the 10th of January.

AVLON: Somehow, I suspect it is not season's greetings. So, I mean, look, with your deep expertise, what are - would you expect Vladimir Putin to put forward today and who's in the stronger position fundamentally?

TAYLOR: The stronger position in the bigger term is clearly on the side of the United States. The United States has strong allies, the United States has strong economy that gives us strong ability to, as you indicated earlier, John indicated earlier, the ability to put serious sanctions on Russia if they were to invade Ukraine again, and the alliance that the United States has with NATO and other allies around the world gives it the stronger strategic position.

It is clear, however, that the Russians have a strong tactical position. The Russians are clearly militarily stronger in their own neighborhood, there's no doubt about that. And that may lead President Putin to overplay his hand.

It may lead President Putin to do something that's ill advised, that does generate this response from the west, not just from the United States, but from Europe, from NATO, from other allies around the world, that will impose great costs on him to do this.

So this is - this call today, this afternoon, is an opportunity for President Biden to remind President Putin of the consequences of a bad decision on President Putin's part.

COLLINS: Well, I wonder what you make, ambassador, then of Ukrainian President Zelensky saying that these sanctions that President Biden has threatened to impose on Russia if they do go forward with this invasion, he has said he's not sure it's enough to deter Putin from going forward with this. And, you know, we have seen in the past sanctions have not always deterred the very combative Russian leader. And so what is the option here for the White House?

TAYLOR: Option for the White House is to make it clear that sanctions are one strong component of deterrence, but there are others. The White House has made it clear that there will be additional military equipment and assistance to Ukraine to try to help them defend themselves against the Russian attack. That is part of deterrence.

There's also the understanding that the United States and NATO will support the Ukrainian people if - as they resist. If the Russians were to invade and come into Ukraine, they would have a very hard fight against not just the Ukrainian military, but the Ukrainian people. There are a lot of veterans, Ukrainian veterans, who have fought against the Russians on the eastern front in Donbas who will take up arms again.

This is a potent force that the Russians are going to have to deal with if they're thinking about invading. So that's part of the deterrence as well. And the White House has also indicated that if the Russian tanks come in - come - moving west, start moving west into Ukraine, that we will reinforce our allies on the eastern flank of NATO. So there - it's more than just economic sanctions, it's also military support to Ukraine and boosting our force posture in NATO.

AVLON: What you're talking about here, ambassador, is the U.S. getting involved in directly, albeit with its allies, in a kinetic war should Russia invade? And against - this is all, of course, against the backdrop of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin's clear ambitions to reconstitute that foreign - that fallen nation.

So, I mean, really, what is the off ramp that you think the United States could diplomatically steer the situation towards because, you know, the NATO is not going to abandon the former Baltic Republics, for example, and I can't imagine we'd fundamentally let Ukraine be invaded?

TAYLOR: We're certainly not going to abandon any NATO ally. That is absolutely true.

AVLON: Right.

TAYLOR: We're not going to abandon an independent sovereign Ukraine. Whether we're going to actually put forces, U.S. Forces or NATO forces, into Ukraine, that's the - other than for training, which they already are, of course, that's another question. That is another question.

But there is this off ramp that you talked about, and there are four different areas of conversation that are going to take place in the coming months, starting on the 10th of January, but continuing out for the next couple of weeks, and they are with the United States and Russia on - on those - on certain issues having to do, for example, with placement of missiles, a kind of strategic discussions.

[08:25:00] And that's what's been going on so far, and that will - that will - that's one of them as well. But then there are Russia/NATO conversations to be had about deconflicting military actions. There are Russia/OEC - OSCE, that is Organization Security In Europe, where all the European nations sit down, including Ukraine, sit down with the Russians, and have a conversation about European security.

Then there is the last bit of where the United States has indicated it will try to help with the negotiations to solve the problem in Donbas. So there are these diplomatic activities that are coming up that give the opportunity to Mr. Putin, if he wants it, to go down the diplomatic route rather than the invasion route.

AVLON: Well, we'll be watching closely and relying on your insight and analysis. Ambassador William Taylor, thank you very much.

TAYLOR: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

AVLON: Up next, Ghislaine Maxwell found guilty of five of six counts related to Jeffrey Epstein's sexual abuse of minor girls. We'll speak to the attorney for the accusers.

COLLINS: And another sign of a pandemic economy. We break down the new weekly jobless claims next.


COLLINS: This morning, one of four accusers who testified against Jeffrey Epstein's associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, and her sex trafficking trial is speaking out on the guilty verdicts that came down yesterday.