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U.S. Set to Ring in New Year Amid Virus Surge; FDA Expected to Allow Pfizer Booster for Ages 12-15; Thousands Forced to Evacuate as Fast-Moving Fires Burn Hundreds of Homes in Colorado; South Africa: Omicron Wave Has Passed with No Big Spike in Deaths; White House: Biden Urges Putin to De-Escalate Tensions with Ukraine. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 06:00   ET


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Friday, December 31.



I'm Kaitlan Collins in with John Avlon. John, happy New Year's Eve.

AVLON: Happy New Year's Eve to you. Let's make it a great one. Go out in style.

COLLINS: It is going to be a great one. I can already tell.

Look at New Zealand. They're already ringing in the new year, as the country is leading the world in welcoming 2022 with a light show. You notice there, there are no fireworks this year.

We are approaching a new year but still dealing with the same pandemic. 2021 is coming to a close with an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases, fueled by the Omicron variant.

Health officials are urging New Year's Eve revelers to keep their parties small, outdoors, or maybe just have a nice glass of champagne at home.

AVLON: A number of them. For everyone (ph).

COLLINS: The surge is crashing hospitals, with doctors describing packed emergency rooms, John. And Dr. Anthony Fauci is predicting, though, that the Omicron wave could peak by the end of January.

The U.S. is hitting a seven-day average of more than 355,000 new cases with record cases in New Jersey, New York, Arkansas, and Chicago.

Meanwhile, pediatric hospitalization -- admissions are soaring to a record high, with on average, 378 children being admitted daily to the hospital with COVID-19.

AVLON: And when it comes to travel, the CDC is warning vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers alike to stay away from cruise ships. The agency has elevated cruise ship travel risk to its highest level.

This amid a growing number of outbreaks on ships in recent weeks that's causing some ports to even turn them away.

And this morning, airline disruptions surging, with more than 3,000 flight delays and more than 2,300 cancellations. The spate of cancellations mean weekend flights home for holiday travelers are also in jeopardy, as thousands are now attempting to rebook.

The TSA also expects 10 million more people to pass through airport screening between now and the end of day Monday.

COLLINS: We're also following another big story out of Colorado, where there is a state of emergency this morning. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes, and hundreds of structures have burned to the ground because of at least two wind-fueled wildfires outside of Denver. Officials say that at least 1,600 acres have been scorched.

AVLON: But first, let's get to CNN's Polo Sandoval, live in Times Square, where it's all going down tonight at midnight -- Polo.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And John, despite soaring COVID numbers throughout New York state and, of course, New York City no exception, Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration will be ending with this year, says the show will go on despite those numbers.

The high vaccination rate in New York state making that feasible, according to that mayor.

Now, in terms of what we can expect later tonight here in Times Squarer, it might look perhaps just a little bit more normal when you compare it to what we saw last year. But nonetheless, expect a lot of not only security measures but also some of the safety measures that we -- that we have seen before.

And here's a rundown. The crowd has been greatly reduced, from some 58,000 to now roughly 15,000. Those people won't be allowed until later this afternoon to actually head into Times Square and prepare to ring in the new year.

Also, even before folks get to security checkpoints, they will have to show proof of vaccination once inside, once the events start, masks will be to be worn outdoors here as a precaution.

Of course, there is still a big concern that we could potentially see those numbers continue to rise. But for now, again, authorities say that they're able to put on this massive party because of those vaccination rates that remain high in New York.

AVLON: Always a lot of safety concerns, now public health. But the show will go on. Polo Sandoval, thank you very much.

COLLINS: Yes. Might just look a little bit different.

New this morning, we also are told by sources that any day now, the FDA is set to authorize booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for children age 12 to 15. Children have been eligible to get the Pfizer vaccine since May. And now, about four million in that group would be able to get the booster shot, as well.

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen joins us live. So Elizabeth, when are we expecting this to come down from the FDA?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We're expecting this just within days. And it makes sense, as you said, Kaitlan. That first group of children were allowed, 12 to 15, to start getting vaccinated in May. So really, it's time for them to get booster shots.

And let's talk a little bit about why there's such concern about children right now.

As you mentioned, we have broken a record and not in a good way. The peak of pediatric hospitalizations, the highest number of children in the hospital was, until now, back in September.

In early September, there was a daily average of 342 children in the hospital in the U.S. per day with COVID-19. That was 342. Now it's 378.


And that number is just going to get bigger, because Omicron cases are going up, up, up.

Now, as for the boosters, right now, if they right now will allow 12- to 15-year-olds to get boosters, that's four million children, 12 to 15, who are at least six months past their second shot.

And then in the coming weeks and months, another 4.7 million children will be eligible, because they've had their first and second shots.

But those are actually the less important numbers. I want to show you the most important number. The most important number is that 39 percent of children ages 12 to 15 have not even gotten a single shot.

So while boosters are crucial, this -- the original vaccination, the first round, that's even more important. So it's so important that the U.S. government figure out some way to message this group of parents. Thirty-nine percent, 12 to 15, not even had a single shot -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes. That certainly is something that we've seen the White House has been highlighting ever since we've seen these pediatric hospitalizations going up.

So Elizabeth Cohen, thank you for that update.

AVLON: And a state of emergency in Colorado, with thousands of people fleeing their homes as two fast-growing wildfires, fueled by hurricane-force winds, destroyed hundreds of homes. More than 17,000 people are still without power across the state.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov, live in Denver with more -- Lucy. LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, this has been absolutely

catastrophic and devastating for Colorado. This is already being described as the most disruptive wildfire in Colorado history, with more than 500 homes burned.

The expectation, unfortunately, is as day breaks, those numbers may rise.


KAFANOV (voice-over): Two wind-fueled wildfires sweeping through parts of Boulder County, Colorado, on Thursday.

GOV. JARED POLIS (D-CO): This fire is frankly a force of nature. Gusts of 100, 110 miles an hour can and have moved this fire down a football field in a matter of seconds.

KAFANOV: Prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I trying to load up my car, you could hear cars going through, like police cars, fire trucks, something like that going through the neighborhood on a bullhorn, telling everyone to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I grew up in Louisiana. I've seen hurricanes. Nothing like this.

KAFANOV: Dry air, drought conditions, and hurricane-like winds from 80 to 100 miles per hour, with gusts reported up to 115 miles per hour, fed the quickly-spreading wildfires, unusual for this time of year in Colorado.

TONY LAUBAUCH, METEOROLOGIST: This has been very uncharacteristic for December. We've been talking about -- I mean, everybody has been talking about just the crazy weather, the lack of snow, the lack of moisture. Unfortunately, this is one of the results that you see from this, the dry conditions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God. On my God.

KAFANOV: Videos posted to social media show horrifying scenes. In Superior, customers flee a windy Costco parking lot, heavy smoke making visibility difficult.

And inside a Chuck E. Cheese, parents grab their children and head toward the exits.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go, go, go, go, go, go!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the kind of fire you can't fight head-on.

KAFANOV: Local officials estimate as many as 580 homes and other structures in and around Superior destroyed. The real number likely to be much higher. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that there are structures, both homes and

businesses, that have been burned and lost. I'm speaking about hundreds of structures.

KAFANOV: The governor offering support to those communities that have had their lives uprooted.

POLIS: For those who are directly affected, know that you don't stand alone. The people of Colorado stand with you.

For those who don't know if they have a home to return to, our prayers are with you for a safe return. For those who have lost everything that they've had, know that we will be there for you to help rebuild your lives.


KAFANOV: We are just hours away from New Year's Eve as this devastating wildfire, these series of wildfires continue to rage. Thousands of people, hundreds of families eagerly awaiting word about whether they have homes to go back to. We are expecting snow later this afternoon, but for many families, it might be too late -- John.

AVLON: It's just a heartbreaker during a holiday week, but these hurricane-force winds. Lucy Kafanov, thank you very much.

COLLINS: More on that massive wildfire in suburban Denver. Joining us now is Sam Weaver, the former mayor of Boulder, Colorado, a former fire chief of Sugarloaf, Colorado, which is about six miles from Boulder.

And thank you for joining us this morning, just given this tragic news. But I do want to know what -- based on what Lucy was just laying out there, how are people being evacuated yesterday? Where are they being taken? You know, what does that effort look like right now?

SAM WEAVER, FORMER MAYOR OF BOULDER, COLORADO: Well, people are going to three evacuation centers nearby. I believe one of them is North Boulder rec center. And there's one at a YMCA. I'm not sure where the third is. [06:10:05]

But it sure looked like it was fairly orderly yesterday as people were leaving. Hopefully, everyone got out OK. Initial reports seem good on injuries.

AVLON: But Sam, you know, this is personal for you, I understand. Your brother's house was affected. Tell us what -- what you saw and -- and how your brother is doing and other people in the community you know.

WEAVER: My brother and his family are out of the country right now, traveling for the holiday. And so my wife and I went over to join a couple of friends at his place yesterday about 2:30 in the afternoon. And the winds were going crazy strong. And we saw two different flame fronts near their house, about half a mile away. We spent a couple hours loading the animals into trailers and trucks

and taking them away, pulling out the computer and photo albums as the flames got closer and closer.

And by the time we left, say around 4 p.m., the flames were a few hundred yards away, maybe 300, 400 yards away. And so we had to leave. We hope the house is OK but have no word yet today.

COLLINS: Have you been able to speak to any neighbors or anything about what it looks like, or is it really just a situation where no one knows?

WEAVER: Well, we went back last night after we dropped animals off. And we were able to see flames near the house after dark but not necessarily directly on the house.

So we have no direct word. I've heard that we think the house is standing, as of last night at midnight. But that is unconfirmed. We're going out soon this morning.

AVLON: I know what that horrific uncertainty is like. We had family lose their home in a Colorado wildfire almost a decade ago. And in those hours after, you don't know about the neighbors.

But tell us what's going on on the ground right now. Because these hurricane-force winds -- these fires can move quickly. But these hurricane-force winds seem to make them rocket through these communities.

WEAVER: Yes. It's unbelievable. I would never have imagined the neighborhoods that were struck, being struck as hard as they were. Yes, the wind drove the flame fronts really quickly to the east.

When you talk about what's going on on the ground, you know, it was really about trying to stay away from the front of the fire that was being pushed forward and get everything out that we could.

And the focus was on life safety, of course. And the response was overwhelming and very quick.

The way it works around here, as it is everywhere, is many, many neighboring fire departments sent mutual aid out. And so, you know, it is a waiting game a little bit for people to see if their -- their home is OK.

But the good news is that, as far as we know, no lives have been lost, and that's the first and most important thing.

COLLINS: That is the most important thing, and we're grateful to hear that news.

I know that on the ground it must have been terrifying. Because the wind was so strong it was blowing over 18-wheelers like they were nothing. And they had to call -- they had to tell people to stop calling 911 to report those toppled vehicles, because they were getting so many calls. But is this a situation where you can confront this head-on? Or do you

kind of just have to wait until the wind subsides to be able to properly respond?

WEAVER: There's no way to be in front of a flame front like this. There's no way to attack it unless you have bulldozers that can -- that can dig a line that's really wide.

Because the really high wind speeds were driving embers and -- and other flames forward so quickly that you had things like -- the grass fire was moving really fast. They got into the trees near homes. You'd see crowning. So it -- There's no way to attack it head-on. That's absolutely true.

And even from the sides, you have to be careful with the swirling winds that are nearby.

AVLON: And Sam, just to clarify, has the fire been completely contained? Have the winds died down?

WEAVER: The winds have died down quite a bit. As we looked out this morning, they're clearly down, you know, from the 100-mile-an-hour winds that were yesterday, down into the more 10-mile-an-hour, 20- miles-an-hour.

And I have no idea about containment. When we went to bed last night around midnight, we could see still multiple flame fronts from our balcony here in Boulder. So I have no idea about containment.

But the winds have definitely died down. And we expect moisture in three or four hours. And the moisture, of course, will help stop the advance of the flames.

But for some people that's going to be a problem for trying to retrieve belongings from any burned home. If the snow falls too quickly, it can do further damage to property.

AVLON: Well, Sam, thank you very much. And our thoughts and prayers for everyone who's been affected and lost their home in this fire yesterday.

WEAVER: Thank you all very much.

AVLON: Be well.

COLLINS: As these wildfires are spreading, officials are feeling hopeful, because forecasters are predicting snow, like you heard Sam say that. That could obviously help ease some of their struggles that they're facing.


Of course, if you live in the Midwest, that snow could affect your New Year's Eve plans if you're out traveling, driving. So we do have CNN's meteorologist, Jennifer Gray, joining us now.

And so Jennifer, what are you seeing and what should people be expecting?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Kaitlan, we are going to see snow, and that is going to fall across the front range. We could see anywhere from eight inches to more than a foot, depending on the elevation across Colorado.

This is a very dry state. Denver has received less than an inch of rain in the past six months.

So the snow is going to be welcomed as far as helping the drought and helping relieve the fire. But it is going to be bad, like he mentioned, as far as retrieval for belongings.

This storm system is going to exit the Rockies. And it is going to continue to build throughout the day. We're going to see quite a bit of rain across the lower Mississippi River Valley, all the way through Texas.

The snow and even ice is going to begin to set up. You can see those areas in pink. That is going to make travel very difficult.

And you can see on Saturday all of the rain across the Tennessee Valley. This is going to possibly result in some flooding across this region as the storm system pushes to the east, not to mention the severe threat that we're going to see not only today but tomorrow -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Some crazy weather out there. Thank you for the update, Jennifer Gray.

GRAY: Yes.

COLLINS: Up next, South Africa says it is past the fourth wave of cases, offering maybe some cautious hope to other nations that are still battling the virus with the Omicron variant. We'll tell you what the data is now showing.


COLLINS: As the Omicron-fueled surge rips through the United States, there is some hopeful news. South Africa, where the new variant was first detected and those scientists there alerted the world, says that they may have passed the peak of the Omicron variant without a major spike in deaths.

According to data from the South African Department of Health, the overall case counts have plummeted nearly 30 percent just in the last week.

So joining us now to talk about this and whether this is going to happen in the United States is Erin Bromage, the biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

And Erin, thank you so much for being with us again this week. We really enjoyed having you on earlier. And so I want to talk to you about this news coming out of South

Africa. Because we did hear Dr. Fauci saying that he believes this peak could happen in the United States by late January. So I'm wondering if that's something that you think, as well.



Yes, I do think as that is where we're going to be, as well, especially in places like New York where it's burning so brightly right now. And they'll only come up, peak in about three weeks or so, and be on the other way down, you know, coming towards the end of January, early February.

AVLON: Well, obviously, I mean, that is great news looking to South Africa's experience. Because as hot as this burns, it does seem that the deaths and hospitalizations were comparatively contained; highly contagious but less of the worst-case outcomes.

But now comes the questions of how you ease back and that is too soon. South Africa's government is announcing they're going to be easing restrictions due to the decline, ending curfew, limiting gatherings to 1,000 people indoors, 2,000 people outdoors. Face coverings still mandatory, though.

What do you think of the timing of this operationally? Is it too soon?

BROMAGE: Yes. It is a little too soon. I mean, we've got to be really cautious about using the data from South Africa. The average age of their population is 28. They've gone through three very large waves of infections already.

So their population looks very different to what it does in the United States. So it's a good indication that it's not going to be severe here. But the U.S. side of things, we look different. We have very different levels of immunity, and we have very different levels of health.

So what is happening in South Africa is not necessarily relatable to what's happening here. Good signal, but we need to be cautious.

COLLINS: Yes. And I think it's --

BROMAGE: But there's a lot going -- what you're saying is so important. Because there's some big caveats here that, you know, people in the most affected area, they had some measure of immunity, whether that's from vaccination or, like you said, prior infection, maybe both, that it could have protected them from serious illness.

So how much should people be taking this with a note of caution?

BROMAGE: Yes. And that's the important part. Like, we always are looking for the good news, and so am I all the time with this. South Africa up, down, very few -- very low peak in sort of hospitalizations and death. That's great.

The U.K., it's showing a similar signal. Hospitalizations are going up, but mechanical ventilation is staying stubbornly low, which is fantastic.

But they've had a two-month Delta wave before we have. We look different. So we do need to be cautious. Like, be optimistic that this may be a big wave without a lot of suffering, without a lot of, you know, morbidity and mortality.

But be cautious that, you know, if -- even if it is only 25 percent as severe as Delta, that we're already seeing cases that are four or five times higher than what we were with Delta. We could be in for the same stress/strain on our hospital system as what we saw, you know, right through the Delta wave or the wave that happened last winter.

AVLON: Important to put all those caveats and cautions, even as we look at that cautious optimism.

That said, I want to pivot to a new report. Because this may be on the other side of that equation.

Researchers in New Zealand reporting a traveler isolated for COVID-19 at a facility in New Zealand managed to infect -- get this -- three other people across a hallway.

Now, this is the other fascinating point. One person out of these four escaped infection, and that was the one person who was vaccinated.

Here's the deal. Closed-circuit camera footage, genetic testing, careful contact tracing shows that the only conceivable way the virus could have passed from one room to the other was in the air that leaked out when both doors were briefly opened.

This says, potentially, an enormous amount about just how communicable this variant is. What's your reaction to this study?

BROMAGE: Yes. It's a beautiful study. It was very elegantly done. And they looked at every little piece of, you know, could it have been, you know, via s surface; could it have been different methods.

And it very clearly demonstrates that the virus holds up in the air. And that, given an opportunity to move, as in diffuse across the space, or be blown across the space, it can move quite far distances and infect people that you've not been in contact with.

So I think this is rare in the sense of, like, hotel rooms and moving across. But it is a very clear demonstration that the primary mode of transmission is shared air. It is in the air that we breathe out and somebody else breathes in.

AVLON: Man. Just crazy. And the fact that the one vaccinated person out of the four, despite sharing rooms and airspace, he was the one who walked away fine. That's the other thing to take away from that.

BROMAGE: Yes. AVLON: Thanks so much, Erin. Really appreciate it.

BROMAGE: Thank you.

AVLON: Coming up, a 50-minute phone call. The White House saying Biden urged Russia's Putin to ease its military buildup near the Ukraine. What came out of that call? That's next.


AVLON: A strong message from President Joe Biden to Vladimir Putin as tensions are running high over Russia's military buildup along the border with Ukraine.

In a 50-minute phone call, the White House says Biden urged the Russian president to deescalate tensions with Ukraine, making it clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.

Joining us now, CNN political analyst and managing editor at "Axios," Margaret Talev, and CNN White House correspondent John Harwood. It is good to see you both. Happy New Year's Eve.

John, let -- Margaret, let me start with you. This was a phone call that Putin requested, despite the fact the two leaders had spoken earlier in the month. So what was the urgency? What was the motivation for the call now that it's over? What do we know?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, John, there are kind of two factors here. And one is that there is a series of meetings coming up starting January 10, between Russia and the U.S. and different western organizations. And this was sort of a setting of the table, a setting of expectations or taking a pulse where those negotiations are going beforehand.

But the other is the calendar.