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Senate Debating COVID Relief Bill Ahead of "Vote-a-Rama"; White House COVID Response Team Holds Briefing; U.S. Economy Adds More Jobs Than Expected in February. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2021 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining us.

At this hour, we're standing by to hear from President Biden's COVID response team. It is set to begin its latest briefing really any moment now.

[11:00:04]

And a big question today is will they be announcing guidance from the CDC on what people should and should not do after they are fully vaccinated. How far do they go, meaning the CDC guidelines? What are the considerations that are going on behind the scenes as they put this -- put this guidance together? We're going to bring that to you as soon as it begins.

We're also watching Capitol Hill at the very same time because the Senate is right now debating President Biden's COVID relief bill ahead of a vote-a-rama. It sounds funny but it is serious as it comes to billions and billions and a trillion dollars when you're talking about this COVID relief bill. Democrats want to get this bill passed this weekend to try and get final approval before the March -- before March 14th when federal unemployment benefits are set to expire.

But just this morning, the release of the February jobs report could stoke renewed debate about how big this bill needs to be right now, 379,000 jobs were added last month, evidence that the economic recovery in this country is picking up some steam.

Let's start on Capitol Hill right now. Joining me now is CNN's Manu Raju.

Manu, what is happening right now with this debate and the hours ahead of votes on possible changes to the COVID relief bill?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, very significant hours ahead, because if there are significant changes to the bill could upset the delicate balance, potentially affect its chances of passage. We'll see how it plays out as we get into this marathon series of amendment votes that are bound to begin in just within the next hour.

But we are also getting indications of changes that are being made at the last minute. Democrats have agreed behind the scenes for a change in the extended jobless benefits that were in this proposal. Initially, it was $400 a week extended through August. They have reduced that to $300 a week, now extended through September. And in addition to that, they're going to make the first $10,200 of the jobless benefits nontaxable income in order to spare people from a big tax bill.

So that is the last-minute change. How will that impact things? We'll see.

Also, Democrats are still planning to push forward an amendment that has very, very chance of passing in a matter of minutes, Bernie Sanders is trying to get the $15 minimum wage added to the bill. That is almost certainly to be rejected by the Senate. That was included in the House passed bill but not in the Senate bill. Republicans on the end are planning to push forward a wide array of amendments which they could do under the rules of Senate.

They could offer as many possible changes to the bill as they want, dozens and dozens per member if they want. They could extend this into the morning, potentially into Saturday, potentially into Sunday. Question is when will they run out of steam, when will they decide to move ahead and will any Democrat as agree to any changes to the bill because it only requires, Kate, is 51 senators to agree to amend the bill and in a 50/50 Senate, that means that every vote is going to be absolutely critical.

But at the end of the day, Democratic leaders are still confident they could keep their members in line, pass this by a 51-50 vote, even as Republicans say this bill is too big. It's unwieldy, Democrats still are united. We'll see how long that lasts.

BOLDUAN: I mean, just for everyone out there, just think what Manu just said. Dozens and dozens of amendments per member could be offered in the coming hours. Like this is something, this is when you want to turn on C-Span. I'm just telling you, you will want to see some of this play out. Maybe just Manu and I.

The February jobs report, Manu, out this morning. It was much stronger than expected with the 379,000 jobs added last month. Are you hearing that these signs of the recovery is gaining some speed, some steam and could that impact the urgency to move on this huge bill right now?

RAJU: Well, that's certainly going to add to the Republican argument against the bill. Democrats are saying however that there is still an economy that is reeling even though there are positive news on the job fronts, there are still so many people out of work and need help immediately. So, it is not going to expect -- to effect the Democratic White House push it will act someone like Joe Manchin, someone in the middle who may think that perhaps it could be whittled down in some way. We'll see.

We'll have a chance to talk to him hopefully soon about whether it impacts his thinking an the one Republican senator who could vote for this bill, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She voted against moving forward on this bill yesterday, but she has signaled an openness potentially --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Manu, I'm going to head over to the White House right now with the COVID response team is beginning their briefing today. Let's listen in.

ANDY SLAVITT, SENIOR ADVISER TO WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE TEAM: Together, we've recovered from a storm, kept vaccination sites open late, packed and shipped vaccines throughout the nice. Seen companies across America make major commitments to masking and vaccinations and to underserved communities.

[11:05:02]

And just this week, we went from a J&J authorization to shots in arms in three days.

All that was topped by an announcement from two rival drug companies Johnson & Johnson and Merck of an unprecedented attempt to increase our vaccination capacity along with the U.S. government. We've increased vaccine supply to states and tribes and territories by more than 77 percent, launched programs to get vaccines into thousands of additional convenience and trusted locations like pharmacies, community vaccination centers, community health centers and there are thousands of Americans from military service men and women to retired doctors and nurses to members of the National Guard, all vaccinating Americans across the country.

The nation is coming together on this pandemic response and we are throwing everything that we have at this virus. As much sacrifice as this is required from everyone, we are making progress. Six weeks ago only 8 percent of seniors, those most vulnerable to COVID, had received a vaccination. Today, nearly 55 percent of people aged 65 or older have received at least one shot.

Altogether, we've administered more than 82 million shots, more than any country in the world and we've opened or expanded more than 450 community vaccination sites.

Today, we're announcing the addition of two new FEMA supported high volume sites. Atlanta Falcons stadium in Georgia and the Wolstein Center in Cleveland, Ohio, will turn into FEMA-supported community vaccination sites with the capacity to deliver 6,000 shots per day each.

Both of these sites sit in neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic, and are well-known in the community. This brings the total to 18 FEMA supported sites across seven states with the ability to administer more than 60,000 shots per day.

But I want to be clear. We owe the public straight talk, whether the news is promising or challenging. Progress demonstrates we could defeat COVID-19 but it does not equal success. It may seem tempting in the face of all of this progress to try to rush back to normalcy as if the virus is in the rearview mirror, it's not. Now years of watching football on TV has shown me it is better to

spike the football once your safely in the end zone, not after you've made a couple of completions. The CDC and public health officials locally, at the state level and nationally are all clear, wear a mask. Not forever, but for now.

Wear a mask now, so we could get to a place where you don't have to. This is not just the voice of cautious public health experts. It is what businesses who want to remain open and many public officials of both parties who have lived through the last year are saying.

And as you will hear in a moment from Dr. Walensky, it is also what the data from the last year is telling us.

And with that, I'm going to turn it over to Dr. Walensky.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be back with you today. I know there have been many questions about when CDC is going to release its guidance for fully vaccinated persons and activities that could resume.

These are complex issues and the science is rapidly evolving. CDC is working to assure that the communication we release on this guidance are clear and that the American public can act on them. Our goal and what is most important is that people who have been vaccinated and those not yet vaccinated are able to understand the steps they could take to protect themselves and their loved ones. We are making sure and taking that time to get this right. And we will be releasing this guidance soon.

Now, let's shift to an overview of the pandemic. CDC's most recent data shows cases continue to fluctuate around 60,000 to 70,000 cases per day, with the most recent seven-day average of 62,000 cases per day. We also continue to see deaths hovering around 2,000 deaths per day, with the latest seven-day average of 1900 deaths per day.

The current numbers remain concerning.

[11:10:01]

Cases and deaths are still too high and have now plateaued more than a week at levels that we saw during the late summer surge following six weeks of steady declines. This is why I'm asking you to double down on our prevention measures. I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing but we're not there yet. And we have been seeing this movie before when prevent measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up.

An article published today in the CDC morbidity and mortality report highlights the importance of the prevention strategies and the real risks when prevention measures are eased. This study looked at the relationship between COVID-19 cases and deaths and both state issued mask mandates and restaurant resuming on premises dining from March to December of 2020.

The researchers found that increases in both daily death rates and COVID cases and deaths slowed significantly within 20 days of putting mask mandate news place and protective the mask mandates that was stronger over time.

In contrast, increases in daily death rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths grew more quickly, within 40 to 80 days following restaurants being allowed to resume on premises dining. This report is a critical reminder that with the current levels of COVID-19 in communities, and the continued spread of more transmissible virus variants, which have now been detected in 48 states, strictly following prevention measures remains essential for putting an end to this pandemic.

It also serves as a warning about prematurely lifting these prevention measures. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. But we must be prepared for the fact that the road ahead may not be smooth and that path is within our control. By continuing to wear a mask and following CDC's public health recommendations, while we get more people vaccinated, we could bring this pandemic to an end.

Thank you, I look forward to your questions but first I'll turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

Dr. Fauci?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.

I'd like to take up a bit on what Dr. Walensky just said. If I could have the first slide, I'm going to spend the next couple of minutes talking about the daily trends in the number of cases that have been reported and how this relates to both the evolution of variants and how you handle variants.

If you look at far left part of the slide, on the area between January and June, you remember many of us will recall very, very vividly in the end of the winter and the beginning of the spring, we had a surge that was dominated by the New York metropolitan area. After the surge, what we came down to was a baseline of about 20,000 cases per day. That is a very high baseline relatively speaking.

When we try to open up the country on the second peak in the middle of the slide, the same thing, after we peak, we started to come down but we plateaued again at a very high baseline. In this case, 40,000.

We just now recently experienced the worst surge on the right hand part of the slide, which now, as you see, is starting to come down in a very nice deflection curve. The issue is if you look on the very far right of the slide, as Dr. Walensky has said, we are starting to plateau. I've blown that up into a little section which is now sitting in the middle of the slide. That plateau is about 60,000 to 70,000 cases a day.

When you have that much viral activity in a plateau, it almost invariably means that you're at risk for another spike.

Next slide. In fact, as "The Washington Post" reported yesterday, many countries in Europe have seen just that. They had a decrease in cases over a six-week period, they plateaued and now over the past week, they saw an increase in cases by 9 percent. Something we desperately want to avoid.

Next slide. How does that relate to variants? Let me just go through this. I refer to it as virology 101, what it really is some fundamental tenants of virology.

Namely, RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2, tend to mutate. They have poor proofreading mechanisms.

[11:15:02]

A virus can not mutate if it doesn't replicate, and it replicates in infected individuals. A high baseline level of community spread of virus favors mutations and the evolution of variants. Now, variants get evolved because of selection pressures. Namely, just fundamental pressure to enhance its own replication and propagate itself as well as pressure to evade neutralizing antibodies.

This has important implications for vaccines as well as the potential role of immuno-suppressed people who get infected, don't clear the virus very rapidly and allow it to mutate in the individual. So, a suboptimal immune response favors the generation of variants. That's very, very clear when you're dealing with RNA viruses.

Next slide. In fact, I have showed you in a previous press briefing what the issue was when you have a first dose of, let's say for example, Pfizer vaccine, very similar to the Moderna, you get a response that is protective. In this case it would be about 52 percent. However, the second dose brings that level of antibodies quite high, which gives it redundancy to prevent the evolution as well as to protect against viral variants.

Next slide. Said in just plain and simple way, suboptimal immune responses to wild type virus promotes the generation of variants and the lack of potency or redundancy of an immune response to protect and suppress variants is another issue of concern.

Next slide. And so how do you address these threat which we clearly are facing of a number of viral variants. On the one hand, vaccination. Maximize the immune response against the wild type virus. You could do that by the proper adherence to the regimens shown on the clinical trial or even plan as some companies are doing of in the distance giving a booster to the wild type.

Also, as I mentioned in a prior conference, perhaps plan as we are doing with Moderna to boost with a variant specific vaccine. But importantly, there is another tool in our armamentarium, and that is what was emphasized by Dr. Walensky, namely adherence to the public health measures in an arena of a high baseline of infections, with masks, distance, avoiding congregate settings and washing hands.

And on the next and final slide, just yesterday evening in JAMA, John Moore, a very accomplished virologist, actually gave a new description and hit upon many of the things that I just described to you. So if you want to look at it in some detail, I recommend you take a look at this article that came out yesterday.

I'll stop there and back to Andy.

SLAVITT: Thank you. Okay, let's go to Q&A.

BOLDUAN: All right. So we've been listening into the White House COVID response team and their update.

Let me bring in medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. She's a former health commissioner of the city of Baltimore.

Doctor, a couple of important things that I would love to go through with you on. When Dr. Walensky was talking about clearly the long kind after waited guidance from CDC about what people who are fully vaccinated should and shouldn't do, can do now that they -- they have the double dose or single dose if it's J&J. She said that they're not releasing the guidance right now and the reason being is she said these are complex issues, the science is evolving and it seemed that she said the goal is that people both vaccinated and not vaccinated are clear on the steps that they can take to protect their families.

I know you've said it's time so see this guidance. What do you think about what she said?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, perfect cannot be the enemy of the good here. Because we already have 8.5 percent of the population fully vaccinated. They are asking questions every single day, I know that we as clinicians are being bombarded with questions. We try to give them the best advice that we have at the moment given what we know. It would be really helpful for the CDC to come out with their recommendations, too.

[11:20:01]

Because like it or not, people are going to be resuming some of their pre-pandemic lives after getting vaccinated. Why don't we provide them with the best guidance that we can.

The CDC at this point, what their continuing to delays, they are making themselves more irrelevant because people are doing what they're going to do any way. We as clinicians are issuing recommendations to our patients any way, and I think the CDC can come out with interim guidance and say, based on what we know thus far, here's what you could do. For example, fully vaccinated people can get together with one another. You can travel, but make sure you wear masks when you're traveling.

You can also, I think, go to indoor dining and other things that you were putting off before you became fully vaccinated. Now you could do those things, although don't do it all. So don't go bar-hopping and go to a different bar every night. But going to an indoor restaurant is probably okay. That's the kind of clear guidance that we desperately need from the CDC, and I'm very disappointed that they did not issue the guidance today.

BOLDUAN: Now, I mean, they do say it is coming soon. And it is obviously they feel the pressure because Dr. Walensky felt the need to come out and say, this is why we're not coming out with it yet. It's very clear that they hear what you're saying, Dr. Wen.

Also, it did seem that they were responding to governors like many places like Texas and Mississippi who have lifted, are lifting all of their statewide mask restrictions, opening up businesses 100 percent, laying out what they say is the science that they've really learned over the past year of why masking is so important still.

WEN: I found this to be very compelling. Because they're explaining about what are the steps that we still need to be taking. Dr. Fauci, for example, explaining that we're at a very high level of infection. And that other countries that started reopening against this back drop of high infection is especially with the variants that are more transmissible, they saw an immediate uptick,

And so urging people to just be careful, and especially with mask mandates. That is something that I find to be truly incomprehensible because we want businesses to open. We want churches and schools to come back for in-person service and instruction.

So leave the mask mandates in place that allows everything else to occur.

BOLDUAN: And Dr. Fauci has answered the question that we've heard like from Texas Governor Abbott, like when is the good time to lift the restrictions if not now. And Dr. Fauci said when the daily case rate is below 10,000. We're now hovering still at 60,000 new cases a day. So there is an answer if people want to know.

Finally, you were a volunteer and took part in the J&J study. I'm curious as to your thoughts on the comments and actions by Detroit's Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan. He said this week that he is rejecting, not accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

And you see what he said right here on your screen. He says: The Johnson & Johnson is very good. Moderna and Pfizer are best. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that the residents of the city of Detroit get the best. He was rejecting shipments from the J&J vaccine.

That is not what we hear from you as well as so many health experts about the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. What do you think of he's -- what he's doing?

WEN: It's wrong. I mean, there are residents in a city who are being offered a life jacket and he's saying, I'm not going to take these life jackets because I don't like the color. I mean, that's essentially what is happening because these are all safe and highly effective vaccines. I think right now the message should be: take the life jacket that you're offered. If we find out later that another life jacket is even better, take that life jacket then. But why do you let people drown in the meantime?

Give people the option to survive now and that means getting the vaccine that we have access to right now. Johnson & Johnson has many distinct advances, too, including being one shot and so, people who don't like needles, people who don't want the convenience of coming back for a second shot, people who want to be fully vaccinated sooner, there is a real advantage for them. And so, it's really inexplicably and I think irresponsible for Mayor Duggan and for others who are making that kind of decision to turn down a safe and highly effective vaccine.

BOLDUAN: And on the indicators that matter most, right, deaths, protecting against death and hospitalization, they are all equal. It's none. You stay out of the hospital and you live. Those are the most important indicators in the midst of this pandemic and Johnson & Johnson hits that mark.

It's good to see you. Thank you.

Coming up for us, the new jobs report brings a sign of hope, but the economy isn't out of the woods yet. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:28:58]

BOLDUAN: New signs this morning that the U.S. economy is on a slow but possibly hopeful path to recovery. We mentioned earlier how the Labor Department says 379,000 new jobs were added last month. That is better than many economists expected.

The unemployment rate ticked down to -- ticked down to 6.2 percent.

Joining me right now is CNN chief business correspondent Christine Romans.

Christine, what do you see behind these numbers?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You know, I see restaurant reopening, slow reopening meant low wage bar and restaurant workers were pulled back into the market. These aren't new jobs. These are adding back jobs from the deep, deep hole.

When you look at a chart of what we've lost here, you could see exactly where we are. This is crawling out of that hole, we are still down 9.5 million jobs and even those leisure and hospitality jobs that were drivers that were the driver of job gain this is month, they're still down about 3.5 million jobs overall. You saw some weakness in construction, Kate, think that was that cold weather in the Midwest and the end of the survey period. You saw the real cold weather way down in Texas and Oklahoma.

So that's probably holding that back. I expect that could bounce back later.