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Health Experts Predict Omicron Variant Infection Levels to Peak towards End of January, 2022; New York City Limiting Numbers Celebrating New Year's Eve at Times Square; Schools Reopening in Texas without Mask Mandates; Large Wind Gusts Spreading Wildfires Rapidly in Colorado; Key Issues for Democrats in the New Year. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 08:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Should people actually be expecting something from the attorney general on this?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I'm not seen much from Merrick Garland that leads me to believe he is looking at Donald Trump in any serious way, Kaitlan. And people want and deserve accountability here. And I think if DOJ doesn't at least open an investigation of Donald Trump and others behind this, I think it's really a miscarriage of prosecutorial responsibility there.

COLLINS: Well, we'll wait to see what they do. Elie Honig, thank you, and I hope you have a great 2022 New Year.


HONIG: Thanks, Kaitlan and John, happy New Year to both of you.

COLLINS: Happy New Year to you. And NEW DAY continues right now.

Good morning to our viewers here in the U.S. and in Sydney, Australia, where you can see, moments ago, celebrating the New Year with a massive fireworks show. Of course, this is live right now. You are seeing as they are ringing in the New Year, a little bit ahead of us here in the United States. But John, look how great that fireworks show looks. A lot of places have canceled their fireworks shows. We saw New Zealand made a light show instead. But I think this makes the case for keeping them going.

AVLON: I love fireworks. And those are absolutely beautiful. Sydney is a great city despite their continued fixation on electronica. And that is really just great to see. Fireworks bringing in the New Year already happening down under in Aussie.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, here in the United States, it is still December 31st. I'm Kaitlan Collins in with John Avlon for one more time this morning. Thank you for joining us this whole week as we have been in here.

And of course, John, back home in 2021, it is coming to a close with an unprecedented spike in COVID cases fueled by that Omicron variant. Health officials are urging New Year's Eve revelers tonight here in the United States to keep their parties small, maybe outdoors, just have one glass of champagne, bourbon, or beer, or however many you want, maybe at home, though, is what they're saying. The surge is crushing hospitals, and doctors are d-escribing packed emergency rooms already.

Dr. Anthony Fauci does predict that the Omicron wave could peak in the United States by the end of January. The U.S. is hitting a seven-day average of more than 355,000 new cases, with record case counts in New Jersey, New York, Arkansas, and Chicago. Meanwhile, pediatric hospital admissions, a big concern for parents everywhere, are soaring to a record high with on average 378 children being admitted 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 the cruise ships, people. 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. That means those weekend flights home for holiday travelers could be in jeopardy as thousands are now attempting to rebook furiously online. The TSA also expects 10 million people to pass through airport screening by the end of the 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 that are outside of Denver.

AVLON: But first, let's get to CNN's Polo Sandoval live in Times Square as it's starting to get daylight. Polo, what are you seeing? What can we expect?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's going to be a little later before we actually get some of the crowds, though, John. On any given pre-pandemic New Year's Eve here, you would typically see about maybe, what, 58,000 people. This year, though, it's going to be considerably scaled back with organizers only allowing no more than 15,000 people, as we mentioned, a lot later in the day here.

Also, these individuals are going to have to be screened, not only through the security checkpoints but also will have to provide proof of full vaccination and also their I.D. And so this really does speak to the measures that are in place right now, including having to wear masks once the event actually gets started.

Now, this does come amid those growing calls for the event to be canceled because of that sharp rise in COVID numbers across the country, and specifically here in New York, where we continue to see those daily COVID numbers, those records shattered for the last 48 hours already there, about, 80 percent increase in test positivity in just the last five days. But at the same time, organi-zers here, including, of course, the head

of Times Square alliance, who you had a conversation just a few minutes ago on air, insisting that they are speaking to the health experts and they do believe that they can proceed and that the show can go on as planned. This is, after all, going to be an outdoor event for the fully vaccinated, wearing masks.


And at the end of the day, those who perhaps now feel comfortable or safe then should perhaps watch at home, including here on CNN.

AVLON: Which the vast majority of people will. The countdown clock has already begun. The show will go on. The change in year will go on. And Polo Sandoval, thank you for previewing all of it for us. Happy New Year.

SANDOVAL: Thanks, John. Happy New Year.

COLLINS: Pediatric hospital admissions are hitting a record high, more than any other time during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the FDA, though, is expected in the coming days to broaden the eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine booster shot to kids age 12 to 15 in the coming days.

CNN's Miguel Marquez joins us live from Houston. And I know, Miguel, schools are set to reopen next week. So many kids are getting sick. So what should parents know right now about what you're hearing on everything?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, we are going to see with those schools reopening, and keep in mind here in Texas the governor has mandated that public schools cannot mandate masks in those public schools. So you can expect a lot more sickness, a lot more hospitalizations, and possibly a lot more deaths in the weeks to come.

We were lucky to get a look at the largest pediatric hospital in the country yesterday. Texas Children's Hospital showed us around. And here's the concerning number for them. In the last week, one week, their hospitalization rate has gone up fourfold. These are the youngest kids under five that cannot get vaccinated, up to about 18 years old. They are vaccinated, some unvaccinated, but they are also getting very sick. The concern is in the next couple of weeks this is going to be crunch time. They are right now on the defensive mode, preparing for whatever the Omicron variant will bring. Here's what the chief pathologist says at that hospital says Omicron is doing.


DR. JIM VERSALOVIC, PATHOLOGIST IN CHIEF, TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: This Omicron variant has now reached a new level in terms of infectivity, in terms of contagiousness. It is in the category of measles, the most highly transmissible virus, one of the most highly transmissible viruses known to mankind. We have been vaccinating against measles for a long time. We need to do the same thing with SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.


MARQUEZ: Look, the positivity rate here in Texas is up over 20 percent, about 22 percent on a seven-day average. It needs to be below five percent to keep it corralled and keep that virus from getting worse. It is rising right now. Case numbers are rising, positivity rate is rising. People are getting tested here, but the cases are rising very rapidly. Doctors do not know where the top of the curve is here in Texas or for children across the country. They do know that in the next couple of weeks, mid-January into February is going to be the worst of it. There is concern once the schools open, that is going to be another vector for this virus. And at this point, hospitals are just getting ready for whatever it brings. Back to you.

COLLINS: And we should note, Dr. Fauci did do an interview yesterday, said some of these kids that are being admitted, maybe they have a broken leg or a appendicitis, and they also are testing positive for COVID because they're being tested when they're admitted to the hospital. But still, Miguel, a big question for parents as their kids are set to go back to school after the holiday break. Thank you for the latest on that.

AVLON: All right, with more on all of this, let's bring in Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Doctor, it's good to see you. We know -- he's also author of "The Deadliest Enemy," we should say, "Our War against Killer Germs."

This Omicron Variant does seem to be unbelievably contagious. However, it does seem, at least for vaccinated populations, to be less serious. We're not seeing hospitalizations keep rate with cases. What I want to ask you about is when the -- it is spreading through wildfire through cities like New York and D.C. right now, places that are comparatively highly vaccinated with many cases mask mandates. As it gets to places like Texas, where mask mandates are not allowed, places that don't have as high rates of vaccinations, is this going to become a much more, even more serious disease in your estimation?

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY AT UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Well, first of all, we are clearly in a national viral blizzard right now. Actually, if you look almost in every location, case numbers are rising quickly. Clearly New York and Washington, D.C., are ahead of the curve, but not by much. And so expect that in the next three to four weeks we're going to see everyone really hit with this.

And we are in unchartered territories. We don't yet know what the combination of this very highly transmissible virus within terms of just what kind of seriousness of illness it will cause will result in. Will it be similar to Delta in terms of number of very serious ill cases, or will it be like we have seen in South Africa where actually there has been fewer very severe cases and deaths? And we just don't know that yet.

[08:10:01] COLLINS: One question that I also have for you, Doctor, is whether or not we're counting the number of cases accurately, because we talk about these record-breaking numbers, but I do wonder if because so many people are testing at home with the rapid tests, or a lot of people can't get their hands on a rapid test if they're not reporting those cases, the ones who can get a test, do you think we're undercounting how many cases are actually in the United States right now?

OSTERHOLM: Yes, this is very important point. And we're going to continue to hear over the course of the next several weeks these very large numbers. In fact, they're quite unreliable. And I say that for several reasons. Just as you pointed out appropriately, many people are not getting reported. We're going to see major challenges of getting people tested by PCR. You're already hearing, for example, in New York, the number of testing sites that had to be shut down because they didn't have enough well workers to actually work at them. We're seeing the same thing even among the people who work in the lab.

And then the state and local health departments where these case numbers come through, from the healthcare facilities to the state public health departments and on to the national level, right now are literally overrun. They're backlogged by many, many weeks.

So I say at this point, these numbers are surely important in the sense that, yes, we have a lot of cases, but we don't really have an understanding of how many. What is going to be important to follow is how many people are hospitalized, and how many are on oxygen. That's going to be a lagging indicator, meaning it will be a week or more behind what is happening. But that's going to be the reliable number that the media and everyone else should really focus on, hospitalizations on oxygen.

AVLON: That's very helpful. Look, we discussed and keep reiterating, if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, get boosted. That should be the new baseline. But one of the things that we have seen since delta is the breakthrough cases, and some people treating them perhaps kind of casually. But behind all that is the specter of long COVID. And I want to know what your take is on long COVID and whether it is affecting some people who have been vaccinated who get a breakthrough case.

OSTERHOLM: John, this is, again, another very important question. And if there is anything we come into this surge with, it better be a large dose of humility because we don't understand a lot of these issues. We're learning, we're learning every day, but we don't know at this point how Omicron is going to overlay with long COVID. And we are concerned about that. So this is a very important issue.

The other point I want to make, though, is that as you pointed out about vaccinations, we need to get people vaccinated, but we are basically in the place we are right now for which vaccines are going to only have limited impact in terms of new vaccinations. It takes 10 to 14 days even for someone with a third dose of vaccine to actually see that protection rise. And so, by the time the surge rises and falls, I think in the next four to five weeks, only a limited number of people are going to have additional protection. Still, get your vaccine, COVID will not be done at the end of this surge. But at the same time, we're kind of stuck where we're at right now in terms of level of protection we have, and we just have to know that.

COLLINS: It's not the news everyone wants to hear going into the New Year, but that is the reality that we're dealing with. Michael Osterholm, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We hope you have a great 2022.

OSTERHOLM: You, too. Thank you very much.

AVLON: Take care.

All right, a state of emergency, in Colorado with sending thousands of people fleeing their homes as two fast moving wildfires driven by historically powerful winds, hurricane force winds, destroying hundreds of homes. Most people had little warning, and little time to escape. CNN's Lucy Kafanov live in Denver with the details. Lucy?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, it has been absolutely catastrophic for the state of Colorado, the most destructive wildfires in state history, burning more than 500 homes so far, 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts spreading this blaze. It is moving faster than firefighters could even drive at some points.


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

GOV. JARED POLIS, (D) COLORADO: 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 was 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 150 miles per hour set the quickly spreading wildfires, unusual for this time of year in Colorado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has been very uncharacteristic for December. We have been talking about -- everybody has been talking about just the crazy weather, the lack of snow, lack of moisture. Unfortunately, this is one of the results that you see from this, the dry conditions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my god. Oh, my god. [08:15:04]

KAFANOV: Videos posted to social media show horrifying scenes. In Superior, customers flee a Costco parking lot. Heavy smoke making visibility difficult. Inside a Chuck E. Cheese, parents grab their children and head to the exits.


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 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 have had, know that we will be there for you, to help rebuild your lives.


KAFANOV (on camera): Now, officials are expected to update the public in a couple of hours, 10:00 a.m. local time. I've been texting with friends who have been evacuated, still waiting to find out if their homes are still standing, but there is a small sliver of good news, the national weather service reports that a cold front has moved into northern Colorado.

That means a band of snowfall is now moving across the northern foothills which should mean some relief for firefighters battling this blaze -- John.

AVLON: That should help. But our hearts go out to all of those and help is on the way in one form or another. Lucy Kafanov, thank you very much.

All right. Up next, we're going to hear more from Colorado, from a reporter who says he's covered countless wildfires and has never seen anything like this one.

COLLINS: Also, is President Biden's build back better plan all but dead? Or going to be brought back to life? A key Democrat will give us his prediction for the New Year.

And happy new year in New Zealand where it is already 2022. This light show moments ago over the harbor bridge took place at the annual fireworks display that was canceled because of COVID. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Developing overnight, Colorado Governor Jared Polis declaring a state of emergency in Boulder County, after two wildfires propelled by high winds burned through hundreds of homes, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate and burning structures to the ground.

Joining us now is Jesse Aaron Paul, a reporter with "The Colorado Sun", who is in Boulder yesterday covering these fires.

I guess, let's just start with what were you seeing on the ground there?

JESSE AARON PAUL, REPORTER, COLORADO SUN: You know, it was very devastating.


You know, driving up to Boulder, you can see this massive smoke plume, you saw smoke as far as 25 miles away in Denver, it was ash was covering I-25, people trying to get out, just a really devastating scene all around.

AVLON: I mean, it's apocalyptic. Colorado wildfires, western wildfires can be horrible, but in this kind of a densely populated suburban community, with 115-mile-an-hour winds, I don't think I've seen anything like it, have you?

PAUL: No, this is the nightmare scenario. People have talked about something like this happening in Evergreen, Colorado, which is equally as densely populated but in the mountains. We don't see wildfires that come through a suburban type neighborhood. This is -- I grew up in the Philadelphia area, it is like if a wildfire went through there and destroyed everything around it, it is unbelievable. I think this isn't something anybody could have imagined that would even have happened.

COLLINS: So we have seen the response that is happening. We know FEMA has already been used here. They're going to start helping with the response here.

But right now in the aftermath, what are people doing, because a lot of thousands of people were told are without power, a lot of people have been evacuated, so where are people going and what are they expected to do because we know some people don't even know if their home is still standing.

PAUL: Right. Right now they have said that certain subdivisions are almost completely gone. But the big question mark is this town of Lewisville, which I think has a population of 20,000 people, you know, there are a lot of people who are going to wake up.

The sun hasn't come up in Colorado yet today. When it does, it's going to be a tough day. People knew where their homes were and they were in the fire's path yesterday, but as the sun comes up and more images start to come out, this is going to be really hard today. AVLON: There are going to be hundreds of people bringing in the new

year without a home. What is extraordinary to me, I mean, again, 115- mile-an-hour winds, you heard Governor Polis say the fire was moving the distance of a football field in seconds.

I think it is extraordinary that apparently as of now, at least, this don't seem to be any fatalities. Now, that may change. But it is amazing to me that evacuation was able to take place so effectively.

Tell me what you saw on that end.

PAUL: It was really frantic and chaotic. These things just moved so quickly and it is hard to kind of comprehend, 115-mile-per-hour winds, I was standing out in boulder yesterday and it was pushing me over. I never experienced anything quite that bad in Colorado. We get high winds, but nothing like that.

It was moving so quickly. I was texting a family friend who lived in the area, you need to get out now, it was moving miles really quickly, just didn't seem like such a bad fire and then it was just kind of upon people in a matter of minutes.

COLLINS: It is terrifying. We saw they were telling people to stop calling 911 to report that trucks were toppled over because they had so many calls about them and 18 wheelers toppled over like they were made out of paper.

Jesse Aaron Paul, we're grateful you were on the ground to cover this and you'll continue covering it and we'll make sure we're covering it here at CNN as well. Thank you.

AVLON: Absolutely.

All right, next, how can Congress hit the ground running in 2022 before midterm battles completely consume Washington? We got a key Democrat standing by to talk to us live.

COLLINS: And the first big political development of 2022 is set it take place after the ball drops tonight.



AVLON: The next few months in the nation's Capitol could impact Americans' wallets for years to come. So the race is on for Democrats to get their job done before the 2022 midterms, which traditionally benefit the party out of power.

Joining us now to discuss the key issues that Dems will face in 2022 and how to win back the swing voters they seem to have lost over the past year is Democrat from Ohio's 13th District, Representative Tim Ryan from Youngstown, Ohio.

Congressman, good to see you. Happy New Year. Thank you for joining us. REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): Great to be here.

AVLON: As you know, one of the key political stories of the past year was the shellacking Democrats took in rural areas, in swing districts, Virginia, New Jersey in particular over the last year. Now, your home state of Ohio has swung pretty hard toward Republicans in recent years, as has your home district Mahoning County.

So, what do you think Democrats need to do to win back some of those disaffected voters?

RYAN: Well, we have Sherrod Brown who's a statewide U.S. senator here who won in '18. We won a couple of Supreme Court races in the last couple of years.

Look, if we focus on the pocketbook issues, rebuilding the middle class, rebuilding the United States and beating China, that's the competition we have, John. The relationship with China, the investments they're making, they're rebuild, putting 7 percent to 9 percent of their GDP in infrastructure. We have a big fight here to do 1 percent of our GDP in infrastructure rebuilding communities.

If we stay focused on tax cuts for working families, infrastructure, bread and butter issues, bringing the supply chain back, we can win here while the Republicans are off starting culture wars.

COLLINS: I guess a big question for you also is for the president's agenda and the Build Back Better plan, this expansive economic and climate bill that Senator Manchin, of course, seemed to say was all but dead when he said he could not support it just a few days ago. And so, what are the plans to revive it?

RYAN: Well, I think we got to continue to push. I think, you know, that bill in my estimation was about putting money in people's pockets. Limiting how much a couple would have, parents would have to spend on child care, capping that at 7 percent of your income, extending the child tax credit, hearing aids and glasses for seniors and the Medicare program they don't have to come out of pocket. That was about money in their pockets, working class people, whether they're white or black or brown, money in their pockets.

So we got to revive it, but if we got to pare it down, we got to pare it down. I mean, let's get this tax cut done. People have experienced it, they have had money in their bank accounts over the last six months, we want to keep that tax cut for families in place, and maybe one or two other things.

Let's get something done and I think we can find some consensus around that, and then go into the election with a hell of a lot to talk about for, you know, cutting workers in on the deal.

COLLINS: So you're saying you could support a scaled back version of build back better?

RYAN: Oh, absolutely. We've got -- this tax cut is critical. I mean, we have, for the first time in a long time, decades, finally cut taxes for working people, a significant boost for them. And I think we've got to keep that rolling, no matter what else happens here in the coming years.