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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Interviewed on Spread of Omicron Variant in U.S. and CDC's New Guidance on Quarantines for COVID-19; Chicago Teachers Union to Vote on In-Person Classroom Teaching Due to Coronavirus Spread. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 04, 2022 - 08:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now more than 103,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with coronavirus. That's the first time the total has reached six figures in nearly four months. States are reporting surges in child hospitalizations, which are now the highest they have ever been, 500 children being admitted daily.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And so that is the scene, right, as the Omicron variant is complicating a return to school, with some of the largest districts actually shifting to remote learning, others relying on more robust testing. In the meantime, many students are now eligible for booster shots. The FDA has authorized Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine booster for children ages 12 to 15. And the agency also has shortened the timing of booster shots from at least six months to five months after the initial vaccine series for everyone 12 and older.

Today President Biden is set to speak about Omicron's spread, the rapid spread that we're seeing, and to discuss steps that his administration is taking to combat it. The White House still has not offered comprehensive details about its plan to distribute half-a- billion tests for free.

BERMAN: Joining me now is the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Dr. Murthy, thank you so much for being with us. So 103,000 hospitalizations as of this morning. How much higher do you think it will go, and when will it peak?

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, John, it is troubling to see these numbers, to see how high the cases are going, to know that our hospitalizations have increased like this. And unfortunately, this is the consequence of an extraordinary transmissible variant, the Omicron variant.

But as troubling as this is, and as tough as the next few weeks may be, there is something important that we have been learning during this experience, and that is that our vaccines, especially when combined with our boosters, have remained extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital and in saving their lives. That's why we have been encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted. When I talk to doctors in the emergency room and my colleagues who are in hospitals around the country, they continue to emphasize that the people they are seeing who are hospitalized are primarily those who are not vaccinated.

So, remember, these vaccines work. Those boosters are more important than ever before. And finally, there is another glimmer of hope here, which is as we look at the data from South Africa and the United Kingdom, we are seeing increasing signs that the severity to an individual of Omicron compared to prior variants may in fact be lower. We still at a population level, we're going to have a challenge because of so many people being infected. But we're also seeing a sharp rise and now a drop-off in those countries. Hopefully that will be our case as well.

BERMAN: When? When do you think that will drop off in the U.S.?

MURTHY: So that is difficult to predict. We have seen the rise and -- to the peak has been a couple of weeks, or several weeks, I should say, in South Africa and the United Kingdom. But we're always cautious about predicting what we will experience here in the United States. COVID has made many a prediction wrong.

What we can do, though, is focus on taking the mitigation measures and wearing our masks, which we know help reduce spread, getting vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible, and ensuring that, especially in settings like schools, we're using testing to help reduce risk.

BERMAN: OK, testing. The surgeon general of Florida now suggests limiting tests to high value subjects, to high value testing. Don't test everyone necessarily, test people who maybe are symptomatic or at greater risk. What do you think of that?

MURTHY: Well, I think we've actually studied testing a lot over recent months, and we know where it's useful. For example, take schools. We know that using testing, surveillance testing in schools can be a very important way to help reduce risk to our teachers and to our students. We know that tests to stay is an important policy that can be used.

When we're using -- making decisions, I should say, policy decisions on where to use testing, it's important these are driven by the evidence. We also know that people who are asymptomatic can also test positive. So limiting testing to just those who are symptomatic is not entirely consistent with the science that we've learned over the last several months.

BERMAN: Do you think testing is essential to keep schools open?

MURTHY: I think it's one of several layers that can help keep schools open. We learned in the fall, in fact, where we were able to kept 95 percent of kids back in school in person, that layers work, and those layers include surveillance testing but also universal mask, using the $10 billion that was provided in the American Rescue Plan to improve ventilation. And we know that getting our kids vaccinated makes a huge difference as well. That's why if you talk to pediatricians around the country, the vast majority of kids who are being hospitalized right now in fact are those who are not vaccinated. BERMAN: I know you have school-aged children. Do you think there is

this point -- and in Chicago, they're going to hold a vote today, the teachers are, to basically not go in and teach right now -- do you think there is a scientific justification to not have schools open at this point?


MURTHY: Well, John, look, I know these are tough, tough times for parents and for educators. As you mentioned, I'm a dad of two kids. One of them is old enough to be vaccinated. My son is five and he is now fully vaccinated. But my daughter is under five, and so she is not eligible yet for a vaccine. My wife and I are planning to send her to school because our school has the appropriate layers of precaution. It is a public school in Washington, D.C., and we feel proud of what they're doing.

But in the next few weeks, schools are going to have to make some challenging decisions here. We hope that they use the mitigation measures that we know work to keep our kids safe. But I recognize in some cases schools may have to make temporary emergency decisions if they have large number of staff, for example, who are out sick or if they feel they can't take these measures. But the goal is, keep our kids in school, that is our top priority. We just need to do it safely. Our mitigation measures can help us do that.

BERMAN: So the CDC changed its guidance for an isolation period after you test positive from 10 days to five days. And there is no testing requirement to get out of it. You don't have to test negative to go back and join the workforce. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that it was being discussed to now add a testing requirement. What's the status of that?

MURTHY: Well, John, as you mentioned, that guidance on shortening the isolation period, it was one that the CDC issued last week. They have certainly received feedback and questions about the role of testing in shortening that quarantine period, and they're actually working right now on issuing a clarification on that. I would expect that any day now.

BERMAN: What kind of clarification, what do you mean?

MURTHY: Well, they're going to speak to the role that testing can play in a situation like reducing isolation. What they're trying to do, it's important to say more broadly, is recognize and incorporate both the evolving science on Omicron and on prior variants in terms of how long somebody remains contagious with the critical need to maintain essential services. That means making sure that people can see a doctor if they're sick, that there is a fireperson to show up if their house is on fire, and that means we have to balance those. Those are all part of public safety.

So that clarification, as I mentioned, will come out in the next couple of days.

BERMAN: Just what is the science, though, behind the decision not to initially require a negative test? Is there science that says a negative test doesn't matter?

MURTHY: Well, I believe if you look at the science, and again, the CDC is going to comment on that science, so I don't want to speak for them. But we have seen that there is utility for antigen tests in a variety of situations. We recommended them to people before they get together at holiday gatherings. We certainly have seen many schools and businesses use them to screen people out. So I believe that there will be a role for antigen testing here to help reduce risk as well.

BERMAN: I've got to let you go, but the record pediatric hospitalizations at this point, part of this is just this virus is everywhere at this point and more people are getting it. But is there something particularly that makes children more susceptible to Omicron?

MURTHY: It's a really good question, John, and it's one that we have been speaking not only internally about, but with our colleagues around the world to understand is there something that they're seeing in their data that makes them worry in particular about children?

I would say at this point it is still not clear that kids are more susceptible to Omicron compared to adults. But we do know that in many parts of the world, that kids have had a lower vaccination rate, which may be one of the operative elements here that is driving kids to not only get sick, but to have some kids end up in the hospital. It's why I think we have even more work to do here to get more children vaccinated. We've had more than 200 million people vaccinated, full vaccinated in our country, millions who are boosted. But kids had vaccines authorized later for them because the studies took longer to do, and that was important to do thoroughly. But now we have got to really put our foot on the accelerator, get our kids who are five and above vaccinated. It is more critical than ever.

BERMAN: Dr. Vivek Murthy, thanks you for being with us this morning. Appreciate it.

MURTHY: Of course. Thanks so much, John.

KEILAR: So as Berman mentioned there, happening today, the Chicago teachers' union is set to hold an emergency vote on whether to walk out of the classroom and move to virtual learning amid a spike in COVID cases, even as the city's mayor insists that schools are safe and will remain open.

Joining us now to discuss is the Chicago teachers' union vice president Stacy Davis Gates. Stacy, I know you were just listening to that interview that John Berman did with the surgeon general. And what he was talking about there when it came to schools and COVID was really more of a reactive than a -- more of a reactive approach perhaps than a proactive approach. He was talking about temporary emergency decisions, meaning possible closures or downsizing if staff are out sick. What is your reaction to what he is talking about there?

STACY DAVIS GATES, VICE PRESIDENT, CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION: My reaction is that I wished our mayor would listen to the surgeon general and plan for all contingencies, meaning that testing, contact tracing and vaccination efforts by her administration have been an abject failure.


Only 30 percent of our elementary school students are vaccinated. Only 50 percent of our high school students are vaccinated. Added to that, we've had the worst debacle with respect to testing that the district has seen in December. So the layers of mitigation that we need to keep our schools open and to keep our students inside of the school buildings have not happened here in Chicago.

KEILAR: You have this vote today, so we'll be waiting for that result. But I know you've been hearing from a lot of members of your union. What is your read on what is going to happen today?

GATES: Well, our members and parents, quite frankly, are experiencing severe staffing shortages. We have members who are doubled up in auditoriums, with their class and with their colleague's classrooms as well because they're home sick. We're also seeing parents say that mitigations have not been implement implemented, contact tracing and notifications are slow, and that they are reluctant to send their children back to school.

Yesterday I stood with black mothers on the south side of Chicago, basically demanding testing, testing that they need because 80 percent of their school community was in quarantine right before Christmas. I stood with another school right before Christmas who lost a colleague to COVID, and that school was just flipped back to remote today because several members of that school community came to school yesterday and were positive with COVID-19. The mitigations are not in place here. The communication is not in place here. Our mayor, quite frankly, is failing our students, and we want a plan that looks like, that sounds like safety, much like the surgeon general just provided.

KEILAR: You mentioned mitigation factors, among them vaccines for students. What about vaccines for teachers, though, because you have unvaccinated teachers as well?

GATES: Actually, we have a 95 percent vaccination rate with our teachers, and they're boosted.

KEILAR: You fought a requirement, right, just to be clear?

GATES: No. We did not fight a requirement. In fact, we urged a requirement.

KEILAR: You urged a vaccine requirement. I had seen that there was a -- that the teachers' union, because city workers had been allowed a testing protocol -- not in Chicago. All right, so --

GATES: Not with our union.

KEILAR: You said that you -- I was reading this, you said you were pissed off. I know you feel very strongly about this because there are not these mitigation measures. What do you want to see with testing?

GATES: I'm a mother. I have three children that attended Chicago public schools. I have a seventh grader, a fifth grader, and a second grader. Their lives have been disrupted. My son doesn't have a science, reading, or math teacher because those teachers resigned because it was too much and a lack of support. Our lives have been turned upside down and our mayor is tone deaf, and she doesn't connect well with the people who need her leadership the most.

So yes, I'm very angry that once again we're being placed in a situation as parents, as educators, that we have to make it make sense because we don't have leadership.

KEILAR: But you -- what would you like to see for testing, for potentially coming back into class? Specifically, if you can speak to testing, if you can speak to ventilation, if you can speak to those specific mitigation factors?

GATES: Absolutely. We want testing in all of our school communities. We believe that testing is the way that we keep them the safest. Number two, we want vaccination clinics anchored, especially in the zip codes where families have been slow to get vaccinated.

Beyond that, we want regular reporting on ventilation mitigations in our buildings. Right now, members are going back into their school communities and finding that their air filters have not been changed over break and that their classrooms are still filthy. Again, the basic mitigations, the same things we fought for last January are the same things that we're fighting for this January. Our mayor has failed us repeatedly.

KEILAR: All right, Stacy Davis Gates, thank you. We'll be keeping an eye on this vote today, obviously pivotal for so many teachers, tens of thousands of teachers, in Chicago as well as the students that they serve.

Drivers in Virginia stranded in their cars overnight, some stuck in the cold for more than 12 hours. We'll have the latest on what is quite the traffic jam. That is not a still picture there.

Plus, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will push a vote on changing the filibuster, but does it actually stand a chance? He's going to join us next.


And Janet Jackson telling her side of the story, what she said about that Super Bowl performance and about her brother's scandals.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he will hold a vote on changing the Senate's filibuster rules by January 17th in order to pass voting rights legislation.

In a letter to his colleagues, he writes, January 6th was a symptom of a broader illness, an effort to delegitimize our election process and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or the events of that day will not be an aberration, it will be the norm.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joins me now.

Senator, thank you so much for being with us.

What specific reforms are you proposing to change the filibuster?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, we're proposing a broad measure of reforms. First, let me say this, let me just make it clear what you said at the beginning, John. And that is that the big lie that Donald Trump perpetrated, that the election that he actually won the election, which has no basis in fact, is insidious and spreading throughout our democracy.

It, of course, led to January 6th and the people who created violence in the Capitol, killed -- deaths resulted.


And -- but it's also resulting in the same thing happening across the country, with the taking away of voting rights, particularly aimed at certain groups of people, people of color, poor people, people who live in big cities, young people, people who are disabled, elderly people. It's created the same kinds of threats of violence.

We have seen officials -- these are officials whose only job is to count the vote accurately being threatened by some of these same forces.

So we have an obligation to stand up for our democracy, because the democracies at stake here. If people believe the elections can be rigged, if people believe that the elections aren't fair, and legislation throughout the state legislatures is allowed to pass our democracy, and we have strong legislation to deal with those issues, two bills, one of which is called the Freedom to Vote Act, the second which is called the John Lewis Voter Rights Restoration Act, which is supported by all 50 Democrats.

Unfortunately, John, not a single Republican is supporting them. And this is a change of the Republican Party. Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue. Ronald Reagan supported voting rights. George H.W. Bush supported voting rights. George W. Bush supported voting rights.

And whenever there were voting rights legislation, Voting Rights Act, it was renewed with large bipartisan majorities, but Donald Trump has infected, and that's the appropriate word, the Republican Party, with his big lie and this desire to stop democracy.

And so we have no choice but to move forward. And rules have been changed in the past. And that's an important point we're making to Senators Manchin and Senator Sinema.

Robert C. Byrd, who is a defender of the Senate way, the Senate rules, I believe changed the rules nine times, and he said, when circumstances changed, the rules must change. Well, wow, circumstances have sure changed with this new Republican Party. So we're exploring a variety of ways to change the rules, and -- but

allow us to pass these too important pieces of legislation. There are different proposals out there and --

BERMAN: Senator, the specifics matter here. The specifics --

SCHUMER: Yeah, I'm not going to -- I am not going to -- there are a variety of different proposals. We're discussing them. We have a discussion today, seven or eight senators and me are meeting with Senator Manchin to discuss the different types of proposals, but there are a variety of them.

The bottom line is this: they must allow us to pass these two vital pieces of legislation, even if not a single Republican joins us.

BERMAN: I will note that you are the one who raised Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to me. I didn't bring up their names first. You brought them up before I did.

SCHUMER: It's okay. Has their names ever been in the newspapers?

BERMAN: Never before appeared on television or a newspaper, Senator.

SCHUER: No, no, no --

BERMAN: But it does indicate to me you don't have their votes as of this morning.

SCHUMER: Look --

BERMAN: If you still have yet to convince them, it means you haven't convinced them yet.

SCHUMER: We are in a -- we are in a 24/7 process. There have been constant discussions over the break on the phone. There have been constant and just about every senator has been talking to both senator -- to Senator Manchin and to Senator Sinema about how important these issues are, not only to our caucus, to our country. Senators are going up to them and saying, I'll lose my election if they -- you allow these changes to occur.

So, there is lots of discussions going on right now. And we're going to keep fighting because it is very, very important. Is it a certainty we're going to win? Absolutely not.

This is an uphill fight. But it is too important to abandon. It is too important to ignore. It is too important to let Republicans block us because certain rules which have strangled and paralyzed the Senate are in effect.

BERMAN: Has Senator Manchin given you any indication on which reform he would support if any?

SCHUMER: There's a variety of reforms we're talking to Senator Manchin about and Senator Sinema about. There are a variety of different reforms. And, look, they are -- they are discussing it with us. You know, Joe

Manchin gets lots of calls each day from senators, from civil rights community, from so many others across the country. And to his credit he's not taking those calls. He's talking.

But it's a -- it's a fight. It's an uphill fight as you know. We have seen the reports in the papers. But we're going to keep at it because it is too important to abandon.

BERMAN: You do note it is an uphill fight, though, which is interesting to me this morning. As we get closer to the 17th, that's not that many days away.

Listen, I do want to ask, some Democrats argue that if you give away this reform, that's the type of language they use, then Republicans will use it against you if they take the majority. What do you say?

SCHUMER: Well, look, the bottom line is that this is so, so important that if it passes, it won't even matter in the sense that it will make it so much harder to have fair elections. It will so slant the table, that they might not even need to change rules if this goes forward.


This is not just an ordinary piece of legislation. This is one of -- it's about one -- it's about the most serious thing Americans have, the right to vote and a free and fair election. There has been a long, long history in America about this, you know, 1789, you had to be in many states a white male protestant property owner to vote. Most of us couldn't vote.

But there has been an inexorable march towards expanding voting rights. There have been setbacks for sure. Each case -- in each case, John, the federal government stepped in.

And, you know, the Republicans make these false arguments. This should not be federalized. It's in the Constitution that the federal government should control federal elections, and the Voting Rights Acts throughout history, 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were amendments passed by the federal government.

BERMAN: How much --

SCHUMER: -- to ensure voting rights.

BERMAN: I've always wondered, how much of a calculation it is on your part that if the Republican takes control again, they might just change the rules anyway?

SCHUMER: Well, that's possible.

Look. The bottom line is this issue is so important. It transcends so many other issues.

And even we are making the argument to the senators that even if you wouldn't change the rules on other things, you should on this. And three of the leading senators who are leading our discussions with Senator Manchin, Senators King and Kaine and Tester, when the year started, they were not for changing the rules and then saw the importance of this and now they are, at least in regard to voting rights.

BERMAN: I want to ask you, something about one of your colleagues, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. He said that if Republicans take control of the House, he thinks it's likely they could instigate impeachment proceedings on Joe Biden. What do you think about that?

SCHUMER: Look, Ted Cruz says a whole lot of things and I don't think many of them should be dignified with comments. Okay?

BERMAN: That's fair.

Build Back Better -- we talked about Joe Manchin a little bit. We know that as of now, there are still discussions under way, but, you know, nothing certain. The child tax credit, is that a red line for you? Would you be willing to talk to Joe Manchin and say, OK, we'll take the child tax credit out of this if you will support the larger plan? Or is that a red line?

SCHUMER: Look, we are continuing to fight for a good solution on BBB. There are discussions with Senator Manchin on that -- on all of these issues, including the child tax credit. I'm not going to get into a public debate.

To many of us, myself included, the child tax credit is so important and has done so much getting taking half of the kids in America out of poverty that we're going to do everything we can to retain it.

BERMAN: We're to speak with New York City Mayor Eric Adams in just a moment, your new mayor.

He wants to keep the schools open here. He says the schools will stay open here.

Do you support his decision to keep New York City schools open?

SCHUMER: Well, look, I think Mayor Adams is off to a very good start in his last few days. I'm not going to second-guess him on these issues. He has the facts. He's starting off on a very strong foot and I think he's going to be a very good mayor.

BERMAN: I want to let you go. But I want to reflect on January 6th.


BERMAN: Obviously, the voting rights legislation is part of that. The anniversary is coming up.

Where do you think the country moved in the last year?

SCHUMER: Well, you know, unfortunately, we have never had a president like Donald Trump who is willing to just lie for his own good and then having so many people in the media and acolytes repeat that lie. So, now, we're in the awful situation where a third of America, majority of registered Republicans, believe that he actually won the election even though there is zero evidence to that effect. Zero. Zero. Zero. And Republicans themselves admit that privately.

And so I am worried about the future of this country. When you let people who want to erode the roots of democracy, who want to rig elections, take hold and not fight them, the democracy is in danger. History has shown in this great country when you fight back, there is a long torturous path, no one can predict where it ends, but it ends the right way.

Our country has inexorably marched to greater voting rights and greater freedom to strengthen our democracy. You just got to keep fighting.

But am I worried about it? Absolutely, very much so.

BERMAN: In ten seconds or less, Liz Cheney over the House Select Committee has talked about dereliction of duty. There's idea there could be criminal referrals from that committee. Do you think anything will come of that?

SCHUMER: I can't tell. I don't know the details of the committee. I just hope they pursue every angle.

And if Congresspeople violated the law or did bad things, they should pursue it.

BERMAN: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, we appreciate your time. Happy New Year.

SCHUMER: Same to you. Same to you. Thank you.

BERMAN: So, standoff brewing between New York City's mayor and the city's largest teachers union.