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FDA Considering Emergency Use Authorization For Third Vaccine; Biden Calls On Senate To Quickly Pass $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill; Pfizer To Begin Vaccine Trials With Children As Young As 5; Anthony Blinken: Didn't Want Sanctions To "Rupture" Ties With Saudis; Biden Orders Strikes Targeting Iranian-Backed Militia; FBI Identifies Suspect In Death Of Capitol Police Officer; Conservative Conference Set To Indulge Lies About 2020 Election; CDC Issues New Ventilation Recommendations For Schools. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired February 27, 2021 - 12:00   ET




JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have no time to waste if we act now decisively, quickly and boldly we can finally get ahead of this virus we can finally get our economy moving again. The people of this country have suffered far too much for too long. We need to relieve that suffering. The American rescue plan does just that it relieves the suffering and it's time to act.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: The president's first major piece of legislation since taking office narrowly passing the House largely along party lines. This coming as a third Coronavirus vaccine could be authorized for emergency use in the U.S. at any moment now.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon grant emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine. The company says once it's given the green light, it could ship out nearly 4 million doses as early as next week.

All right. Let's begin with the so-called American rescue plan. Suzanne Malveaux is on Capitol Hill; Joe Johns is at the White House. So, Joe, let's go to you first, the president kept it pretty short and sweet in this address to the nation this morning. Tell us about his message.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Really was wasn't it just about two minutes long, maybe a little bit under very short and sweet. And one of the things that are pretty clear from that speech is that the president took just enough time to praise the bill, praise the Democrats in the House of Representatives for passing it and to push members of the United States Senate to do the very same thing.

Also, clear that the president has not given up hope on trying to cobble together at least a semblance of Republican support for this bill, as it makes its way through up on Capitol Hill, listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: We're one step closer to vaccinating the nation. We are one step closer to putting in $1,400 in the pockets of Americans. We are one step closer to extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who are shortly going to lose them.


JOHNS: So, the president is getting ready now to fly off to Delaware to spend the weekend. They're expected to come back on Monday. So, what's the point of giving such a short speech?

Well, pretty clear from speaking to people here at the White House, that what the president is trying to do is bypass the filter of the media and the politics up on Capitol Hill to try to go directly to the people out in the states and the localities who support this bill? And say you should tell your members of Congress to support it if they don't.

WHITFIELD: All right, Joe. Thanks so much. Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill so the bill now heads to the Senate where Democrats can't - they really can't afford to lose even one vote if it hopes to get the stimulus package signed by the president by mid-March. Tell us about the potential obstacles.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Fred. Well, this is happening at lightning speed when it comes to Congress. This bill that, at least on the House side, the legislation, passing just after two in the morning, 591 pages $1.9 trillion 219 votes to 212 with two Democrats defecting and moving over to the Republican side.

It is going to be a much more complicated process in the Senate. And this is the reason why the House included in this relief package was an increase to the minimum wage at $15 an hour, the Senate parliamentarian says that is just not allowed under the budget reconciliation rules, simply stated that if they want to pass this with a 51-vote majority, not the 60.

That is usually the way that things happen, that they've got to strip that out. And so, we'll see how that plays out on the Senate side? We know that there are at least two Senators as well, who don't want this minimum wage hike in there. That is a Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

There are a lot of House Democrats who say they're quite angry that this has to be included, somehow, in some form, perhaps fire the parliamentarian, remove the parliamentarian overrule the parliamentarian, there is no move afoot for that to actually happen.

What is much more likely is what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said is that the House wants receiving it from the Senate; we'll go ahead and approve this package without that minimum wage increase. Republicans say it is much too expensive. It is not targeted enough.

There are at least two Democrats who agreed with that argument. Those being Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Representative Jared golden of Maine, Golden saying this in a statement this bill addresses urgent needs and then buries them under a mountain of unnecessary or untimely spending. In reviewing the bill in its full scope less than 20 percent of the total spending addresses core COVID challenges.

So Fred, most Republicans agreeing with that statement, just a few Democrats saying that that in fact is the case, but it looks like this would pass strictly along party lines the goal to make it happen by March 14th when millions of Americans run out of their unemployment insurance.

WHITFIELD: Right. Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so much on Capitol Hill. Joe John's at the White House. Appreciate it. All right, all this now with the U.S. possibly getting a boost in the race to protect the country against COVID-19 at any moment now, right now the FDA is considering an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's single dose vaccine.


WHITFIELD: If approved, federal officials say nearly 4 million doses will be available immediately. And that could increase vaccination for states by 25 percent. Joining me right now to discuss is Dr. Carlos del Rio an Infectious Disease Expert and the Executive Associate Dean at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta Dr, good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So how encouraged should Americans be about this possible third vaccine?

RIO: I think we're all very excited about this is a really a very different vaccine, I think will be a game changer to have a vaccine, that you only need one dose to get protection. We know how difficult it has been to give two doses and to vaccinate people and get rescheduled people to get a second dose of vaccine. So, having a single dose vaccine will make a big difference.

WHITFIELD: And so, what do you say? What's the message to Americans who still might be a little bit concerned because the Johnson & Johnson single dose has an efficacy raised rate that is lower than 90 percent? It's not, you know, as impressive of a rate as Pfizer and Moderna.

RIO: Well, the problem is that you can't really compare them because it's not comparing apples and apples, oranges and oranges. We're comparing different things because the inputs were done in a little bit different way.

I think the most important thing is to compare how effective both platforms are Pfizer/Moderna's MRNA and the Johnson & Johnson as adenovirus vector vaccine in preventing severe disease in preventing death and preventing severe disease and preventing death these vaccines are remarkably effective. It may be that you can still get infected with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; the efficacy to preventing mild disease is not as good. But on the other hand, if you can make a vaccine that prevents you from getting sick and dying, even though you may still get mild disease, I think we'll be all happy with that because really, our goal right now would be to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

WHITFIELD: CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky says we might be seeing the beginning effects of the spread of the new Coronavirus variants in the U.S. listen to this.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic. So, I want to be clear cases, hospital admissions and deaths all remain very high. And the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken extremely seriously.


WHITFIELD: So, what's your response when you see that there are areas that are starting to lift restrictions?

RIO: I'm not happy. And I agree with Dr. Walensky. But I would also say that if you look at the data that drop it, that dramatic drop we saw in cases and hospitalizations is not is beginning to plateau. And I said it's beginning to plateau, I'm getting worried that we're not going to be continuing to see that decline, I would like to see.

And we still are having about 60,000 new infections per day. We're still having over 2000 deaths per day. That is way too many. So, I am worried. And I'm worried that people are lifting restrictions saying this is silver when the reality is, we're not over yet. We're really right now in a race between variants and vaccines, and we have to do whatever we can to shut down this virus.

WHITFIELD: The CDC has also issued new guidance, emphasizing ventilation, encouraging schools to open windows doors, you know when it's safe to do so, in order to increase outdoor airflow and prevent infections. This is so many school districts grapple with the idea of you know, reopening in person learning.

But then of course, you've got the issue of so many schools that may not have the finances to upgrade ventilation system. So, what are your thoughts and concerns?

RIO: Well, we've known that for respiratory pathogens, ventilation is important. We've known this from tuberculosis, if you remember, you know, the Magic Mountain and all those, you know, the old tuberculosis sanitarians were all very open wards where you kept patients.

So, we know this is how you get you deal with respiratory pathogens, and having good ventilation is important. So open your windows, if you can, I mean, didn't know that winter is going away with having the spring calm, open your windows, open doors, create, you know, airflow, and that will help.

But at the end of the day, continue wearing your mask socially distance and do avoid crowded environments. And I know sometimes it's really hard in schools to keep six feet apart. But you know you're going to not be able to keep six feet apart, keep your mask and have good ventilation.

WHITFIELD: And where are you on vaccine trials involving kids? You know, Pfizer says it's ready to begin its clinical trials for its virus with kids as young as five hopes the data will be available that by the end of the year, how should families be planning knowing that that is taking place?

RIO: You know, I think it's going to be effective. I think we're going to see very good results from the vaccine trials in kids. I think kids' vaccine trials are going to be a little bit more complicated in the sense that remember, you cannot have being sick and death as one of the endpoints because those are not very common.

You're really going to have to look at - did the kid get affected? And therefore, you're going to have to do frequent, you know swabbing of kids coming in to see if they get infected or not. But I think the vaccines are going to be effective.


RIO: We already starting some trials with younger kids and I think at the end of the day, probably by the end of the year, we'll have vaccine available for children.

WHITFIELD: A new preprint study from researchers at Cambridge, a finding that a single dose of Pfizer's Coronavirus vaccine may actually protect against asymptomatic infection, bolstering calls for the U.S. to delay second doses. So, should U.S. officials seriously consider moving to a single dose regime on vaccine that's already been tested with two doses?

RIO: I am not in favor of that. I think that vaccines were tested giving two doses, you know, I go by the principle is, is use as prescribed. That's what you do with medications. I worry that as we're having variants, and when we look at the neutralizing antibody titers against some of the variants, you really don't have a lot of margin.

And I think getting that second vaccine is going to be important. Having said that, we also have seen data then people who already have COVID when they get the first dose, it's almost like if they got into second dose, so a better approach may be to actually find out who has had COVID before and when you vaccinate those individuals just give those individuals one dose.

WHITFIELD: All right, Dr. Carlos del Rio, thank you so much always good to see you.

RIO: Glad to be with you.

WHITFIELD: All right, coming up the Biden Administration cracking down on Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But does the punishment go far enough new fallout over a report that accuses the Saudi Prince of approving the journalist's death.

Plus, the FBI singles out a suspect in the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick surveillance video shining light on the suspects' actions and the officer's injuries.



WHITFIELD: The Biden Administration is issuing sanctions against dozens of Saudi officials and departments for their role in the murder of Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The sanctions followed the release of a declassified U.S. intelligence report about the 2018 killing. As CNN's Alex Marquardt explains the report singles out the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In black and white, the United States is saying that the de facto ruler of a close ally is responsible for murder. The intelligence community, including Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The long-awaited unclassified report is barely three pages long and doesn't offer any new hard evidence of an order from MBS as the Prince is known. It's based on MBS's control of decision making in the Kingdom since 2017. And support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.

The report describes MBS as having absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations. The team of assassins the report says includes people associated with top MBS Lieutenant Saudi Al Qahtani and MBS's bodyguards, including Maher Mutreb, who traveled with MBS to United States.

This public intelligence report comes more than two years after the brutal murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of "The Washington Post" Columnist who was long critical of MBS. The Crown Prince took responsibility but denied any personal involvement.

And the Trump Administration, despite having access to all the classified details, ignored the law requiring a public intelligence report and instead provided cover for MBS.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And the fact is, maybe he did. Maybe he did.

MIKE POMPEO, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no direct evidence linking him to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

MARQUARDT (voice over): Now, the Biden Administration has said that MBS is responsible, but it's not sanctioning him. Instead, the Treasury Department on Friday announced sanctions against a former senior Saudi intelligence official and an entity known as the Tiger Squad, several of whose members were allegedly among the assassins. Failing to immediately punish MBS comes as a major disappointment to Khashoggi's family and supporters.

HATICE CENGIZ, KHASHOGGI'S FIANCEE: I'm devastated than ever before. Now, I believe he will never come back.


MARQUARDT: I asked the White House why MBS isn't being punished despite the fact that the report clearly says that he is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the senior administration official tells me that they are fulfilling their requirement to the law, and that the goal here is to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.

The CNN team at the White House is also being told that sanctions against MBS were "Too complicated and could jeopardize U.S. military interests in Saudi Arabia". Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.

WHITFIELD: All right. We're also hearing from the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who defended the limited extent of the sanctions.


ANTHONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: So, what we've done by the actions that we've taken is really not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values.


WHITFIELD: I want to bring in now Jason Rezaian. He is a CNN Global Affairs Analyst. He is also an Editorial Writer for "The Washington Post" and was jailed in Iran for 544 days. And of course, Khashoggi was a Columnist for "The Washington Post" at the time of his killing so Jason, so good to see you.

So, you know, A, I guess I want your response on now this report is being made public. It was a report that many have said has been suppressed for almost two years in the Trump Administration. So your thoughts on the report now, adding credence to what suspicions were, you know, across the across the world, about Saudi Arabia's involvement in Khashoggi's keys death.


JASON REZAIAN, JOURNALIST WHO SPENT 544 DAYS IN IRANIAN PRISON: Fred, I think it's really important to acknowledge just that that we have this information available to us. The government has for the past two and a half years. And you know Trump Administration, President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo consistently gave cover to MBS knowing full well, what had happened.

So I think it is a step forward that the Biden Administration has released this report, although I am disappointed that the measures against Mohammed bin Salman aren't harsher. I believe that, that he is an autocrat that is, is kind of out of control and has been for several years.

He was allowed green-lit essentially by the Trump Administration, not only to repress people in a society, but to undertake the war on Yemen, that has led to the death of tens of thousands of people and famine for many millions more.

So, you know, I would like to see more serious ramifications for him personally, I would hope that in the call that President Biden had with, with King Salman MBS's his father earlier this week, there was made clear to him that, that this sort of action is not only reprehensible, but it is unacceptable. But I just don't know if that's the case.

WHITFIELD: So, then you said MBS, has been out of control for a long time. But then I wonder now about the timing, President Biden would have this conversation with the King, and then not very long afterwards, this report would be made public.

And I wonder do you feel like the Biden Administration feels like its hands are tied to an extent, in terms of how far it can go to penalizing the country or all those involved?

REZAIAN: Let's just be really clear about this. Fred, we have a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and that goes back decades. But it's a marriage of convenience. This is not the kind of alliance that we have with, say, the UK or France, Germany, Canada, or Israel. This is not a country that we have any shared values with.

It's a strategic partnership, that, you know, that we've kind of relied on for a very long time but time and again, especially in the last quarter century or so we've been, you know, we've been played by the Saudis. We've had situations where, you know, from dating back to pre-911 and, of course, the 911 bombers, most of them came from Saudi Arabia.

So, you know, this is not a country that necessarily is our good and dear friend. And I think the administration has probably made clear to King Salman that the relationship has to change.

WHITFIELD: This military relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is pretty, pretty huge. You know, and it would seem that the U.S. would have its leverage there. But do you see the U.S. moving in that direction to - in any way makes a point to Saudi Arabia?

REZAIAN: I think that we could, and we should, and that's the exact opposite of what President Trump did. If you remember, when we were having similar conversations about holding MBS to account 2.5 years ago, his response was, well, they buy hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weaponry from us, that's more important than the life of one individual.

I think that's not true. And as a journalist who has been suppressed, as you mentioned, and imprisoned, I think it's important and essential for the U.S. government to stand up for the rule of law, free expression, and all the other values that we hold so dear here in this country. And if we don't, I'm not really sure what it is that we stand for.

WHTIFIELD: Let me also ask you about your take on the U.S. airstrikes that were carried out this week against Iran backed militias in Syria, the U.S. says it was, you know, meant to be proportionate, but not to provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran.

How do you see that being received? And how might it also interfere, impair with the Biden Administration's commitment of, you know, reviving that Iran nuclear deal?

REZAIAN: I don't think that these strikes will get in the way of renewed talks between Iran, the U.S. and our allies over nuclear issue for one very specific reason. Iran needs that deal and the U.S. and our allies, along with China and Russia, have made a commitment to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.

So those talks will happen. I believe that it was as they've said a proportional response to Iran militia Iranian-backed militia activities in Syria and Iraq.


REZAIAN: You know, I think that we're in a much less tense situation than we might have been three months ago towards the end of the Trump Administration, when the Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran.

You know, I think we've kind of stepped it back a bit. It's still a very tense time. But I think that, that the prospects of talks are pretty good.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jason Rezaian, always good to see you. Thank you so much.

REZAIAN: Thanks Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, still ahead. Inside the attack new information on the death of a Capitol Police Officer during the Insurrection plus humbled and humiliated and alleged leader of the Oath Keepers breaks her silence about the riot.



WHITFIELD: The FBI has identified a suspect and the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Law enforcement officials are telling CNN that information. Investigators are still waiting on the report from the medical examiner and a full toxicology report. With me now reporter Marshall Cohen and CNN law enforcement analyst Charles Ramsay, formerly police chief for D.C. Metropolitan Police. So Marshall, you first, you know, what are you learning about the investigation? MARSHALL COHEN, CNN REPORTER: Fred, there's a possible breakthrough in that investigation into the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Now we've previously reported about the Justice Department scrambling to find footage of the moment that Sicknick was attacked. Sources now tell CNN that the FBI now does have video of the main suspect using chemical irritants against Sicknick, possibly bear spray, which all may have contributed to his death.

But they still don't know the suspects name. So prosecutors clearly have more work to do as they try to build that federal murder case, which is not an easy task. And of course, if they don't think that they could bring a murder charge, they could always look at lesser charges, like assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon, things like that. So we'll just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, in a statement, the U.S. Capitol Police said, as you mentioned, that the medical examiner is still finishing up their job and waiting for critical toxicology results to come back. So Fred, the DOJ, they've charged more than 300 people in connection with a Capitol insurrection. But clearly this part of the investigation, which is really, really important, it's been an uphill climb.

WHITFIELD: So, Chief, while it sounds like it may be a difficult case to prosecute, what will investigators, you know, be doing to try and gather evidence to try to get the name of that person to try to fully prosecute?

CHARLES RAMSEY, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I'm starting with 300 people arrested. Somebody is working with him and talking to him. So perhaps someone who's been arrested will, you know, if they know that individual might give them a name. But this whole thing hinges on the results of the toxicology report.

Apparently, the medical examiner asked to determine the cause of death. The tissue samples and blood samples that were sent for analysis will be critical. And knowing whether or not a chemical irritant was responsible for him having some kind of having a fatal reaction that caused his death, we just don't know. And until you get that you really don't have anything beyond just assault, which quite a few of the 300 were charged with assault on a federal officer.

But if it isn't fact, bear spray, it wouldn't be surprising. You can only imagine something strong enough to cause a bear to run away. The impact that could have on a human being is something obviously could in fact be fatal.

WHITFIELD: Yes, it's a horrible, horrible imagery and horrible nonetheless, the video that all of us witnessed. So Marshall, a review of U.S. Capitol security, it set to call for sweeping changes. What are we expecting?

COHEN: Yes, so our colleagues, Whitney Wild and Zachary Cohen reported yesterday that there are some interesting recommendations that are going to be put forward in the coming weeks. Firstly, they want to add 1,000 members to the U.S. Capitol Police force, which would really dramatically expand that force. One of the things that they really want to focus on is making sure that police officers can continue providing security when members go home to their home district, which has been seen as a kind of a vulnerable point.

They also want to take a hard look at permanent fencing and walls that can go around the complex. Obviously, that's been a very heated debate. Some lawmakers say they don't want that. They don't want to have the people's house behind all these barriers. But the recommendations are, you know, you might need to do that.

And finally, something along the lines of a rapid response team with the National Guard that would be in D.C., always ready to go whenever they get the call. Because as, you know, as we all saw on January 6th, that was a huge failure, just how long it took for the troops to come in. So they're trying to see what they can do to make sure that something like this could never even happen again.

WHITFIELD: Chief, what do you think about those recommendations, those possible changes, feasible?

RAMSEY: Well, some of those recommendations I'm certain are not the first time they've been made. There have been security reports before that weren't acted upon. Hopefully this time it will be. I do believe that there needs to be some serious consideration for physical security around the Capitol, certainly personnel and equipment is an issue. But they also have to cut through the bureaucracy, if there is an emergency that police chief needs to be able to activate those resources, without going through the layers that they have to go through now.


I mean, if they if they can't trust that person to make those kinds of decisions in an emergency, and quite frankly, they have the wrong person serving as police chief. And I think that was part of the problem. I don't think any police chief would have been able to perform a whole lot better in terms of being able to get additional resources in a hurry considering the bureaucracy that they have to go through. But that's not to say that they weren't properly prepared because they weren't, but still process is part of the problem.

WHITFIELD: Chief Charles Ramsey, Marshall Cohen, thanks to both of you appreciate it.

All right straight ahead, is it CPAC or TPAC, a golden statue will likely give you quite the hint. We're live in Florida with the look inside this year's conference.



WHITFIELD: All right, Republicans are in Florida this weekend for the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC. Former President Trump is scheduled to address the annual meeting of right wing politicians and activists tomorrow. A source confirmed to CNN that Trump will repeat the big lie in his CPAC speech that the election was stolen from him. CPAC isn't so much a Republican gathering this year, it's more of a gathering of Trump loyalists just look at this gold statue that was rolled out of the conference right there, that's Trump.

For more let's bring in CNN's Michael Warren in Orlando. So Mike, if Donald Trump no longer the president, however, he looms large there, he is certainly front and center at this conference.

MICHAEL WARREN, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely, he looms large in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement. And you can see that in the paraphernalia and the clothing that people are wearing here in Orlando, MAGA hats, t-shirts that say slogans like Trump won and Joe Biden is not my President. You can hear it talking to attendees here at the conference. And you can hear it when anyone on stage mentions Trump's big speech tomorrow afternoon, everyone gets really excited.

And you could hear it from those speakers on the stage Republican politicians hitting some key themes that the Republican Party is united around Trump that the old guard of the party is no more and not MAGA and make America Great Again is the future of the party. And of course, as you mentioned, the big lie about election fraud that is certainly a theme that's being hit on by these Republican politicians. Take a listen to what some of the speakers had to say yesterday.


SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): President Trump did something that has never been done in our lifetime. He stood up to all of establishment Washington and said, no. No, I will not accept business as usual.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): You know, on January the 6th, I objected during the Electoral College certification. Maybe you heard about it? I did. I stood up. I stood up. And I said, I said, we ought to have a debate about election integrity.

DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF FORMER PRESIDENT TRUMP: I'm looking forward to Sunday. I imagine, I imagine it will not be what we call a low energy speech. And I assure you that it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the MAGA movement as the future of the Republican Party.


WARREN: Now, Fred, we expect to hear from a couple of more Republican politicians who may throw their hat in the ring in 2024 for president, Mike Pompeo and Kristi Noem, the South Dakota governor will speak later this afternoon. But it's all really a run up and opening act here at CPAC for the big event with the main star Donald Trump tomorrow afternoon, Fred.

WHITFIELD: OK. Well, it's indeed an unpredictable weekend thus far. Mike Warren, thank you so much.

[12:43:42] All right, still to come, new guidance on reducing coronavirus infections in the classroom. The CEO of Baltimore public schools joining me live to talk about that and the return of in-person learning.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. The CDC has issued new guidance emphasizing the role air ventilation plays in reducing coronavirus spread in classrooms. The agency is encouraging schools to open windows and doors when it's safe to do so in order to increase outdoor air flow and prevent infections. New recommendations also called for using portable air cleaners and improving building wide filtration.

Joining me now is Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools which announced there will be new weekly screenings for students and teachers as an added detection measure for kids participating in in person learning. Dr. Santelises, good to see you.

SONJA BROOKINS SANTELISES, CEO, BALTIMORE CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Good to see you too, Fredricka. Thanks for having me.

WHITFIELD: So wonderful. So this was a pilot program that you're now expanding to get kids and teachers safely back into the classroom. Tell us how it's working.

SANTELISES: So we -- it's working really well within our pilot schools. We have two tests. One is pooled testing. We've partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo for our elementary schools. And then we've partnered with American University and the Consortium of Universities to bring the T3 saliva tests for high school.

And so in the early days, I was with a group of pre K students this past week, who helped mentor me and how to do a nasal swab very easy. They were able to do it. Not, you know, not an invasive procedure just quick four swipes on each side, each nostril deposited in a collective tube and then you can move along. We'll be introducing the saliva testing at the high school level.


This is major for us because this is testing for no symptoms. We've had symptomatic testing through University of Maryland, this will now add to that, so we're excited about it.

WHITFIELD: So while you're excited and optimistic, you've also gotten, you know, some pushback from the cities at school teachers union, they've called for teachers to be fully vaccinated and other measures to be implemented before they are to return to the classroom. So how do you address their concerns? How do you get them at the same kind of comfort level that you're already seeing exhibited in some of the kids?

SANTELISES: So I think one of the things that we've done, Fredricka, is we acknowledge that it's multiple mitigation strategies, it's not just one. Two, we have partnered with Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, as well as University of Maryland, where we've had prioritized vaccination access for city schools, employees.

And so what we are seeing now is that we have close to 7,000 of our 10,000 school employees that have actually received invitation for the vaccine, including our teachers that we are having back in a phased approach. So part of what we're looking at is how do we make sure that within that phased approach where we are offering vaccines to everyone returning, who would like one. And so as supply comes that's, that's another reassurance in addition to all of the other measures we've had in place, frankly, since September.

WHITFIELD: And so what about the CDC guidelines about ventilation? How has that formula factored into your reopening plans?

SANTELISES: Well, we were very fortunate in that our planning, we started bringing back small groups of families as early as the summer into September and November. And our Medical Advisory Group here in Baltimore City, along with our health department flagged very early the ventilation issue for us. So we have purchased close to 8,600 HEPA air filters, to help in space -- where frankly, windows don't open because the buildings in Baltimore City Schools are very old, they're some of the oldest in the state.

We've been advocating, you know, for newer schools for quite some time. So we have been purchasing those ahead of time, as well as HEPA air filters, which are recommended for the level of filtration that you want to make the air quality safe. So that's what we've been doing for quite some time to get ready for the ventilation.

WHITFIELD: OK. And then you also recently wrote an op-ed for Education Week. And I'm going to quote a portion of it where you say, you know, our actions in this unprecedented moment could do much more to dismantle inequity than to exacerbate it. So what is the message that you are trying to convey there about the importance of getting kids back in school as possible, as fast as possible, particularly for equitable, you know, opportunities?

SANTELISES: Well, one of the things that we've acknowledged from the beginning that is true, is that we serve a population and a community that, frankly, has reason for historical distrust of many institutions, be the educational institutions, health institutions. And so from the beginning, what we have said is we want to offer families a high quality choice. We want to make sure we have all the mitigation, you know, strategies in place.

And frankly, we've been doing it slow and steady. So we've had small groups of students and teachers that we brought back. We've had absolutely no in school transmission, because of those steps that we've put in place. And we recognize that there are large numbers of families of color, who actually want an in person option for their children. They just want that option to be safe.

And so we know I've communicated to our principals, our team that this is about trust building, because there have been decades and generations of mistrust. And so we've been going slow and steady and really investing and making sure that the safety precautions are in place. WHITFIELD: All right, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, thank you so much, all the best, and best of luck to all the families and students in your district.

SANTELISES: Thanks so much.


WHITFIELD: All right, coming up next, Johnson & Johnson could receive emergency use authorization for its coronavirus vaccine at any moment now. So what's next in the approval process and when will distribution begin?


WHITFIELD: Hello again everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.


A third coronavirus vaccine could be authorized for emergency use here in the U.S. at any moment.