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Millions More Eligible This Week for COVID-19 Vaccine; House Republicans Slam Biden on Immigration, Head to Border; Brazil's Hospitals Pushed to Limit as Virus Deaths Soar. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 15, 2021 - 10:00   ET

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


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

The race to vaccinate Americans, it's moving along pretty fast. You can see the numbers there up above 107 million now, but it is reaching a critical time. Eligibility is opening up for millions of people in new groups across the country today. That is promising news.

It does come as experts are warning about scenes like this one.

HARLOW: Huge crowds, huge of spring breakers gathered on Florida beaches prompting major concerns at another avoidable surge could be on the way. We'll have more on that in a moment.

And the Biden administration kicking off its nationwide tour to sell its $1.9 trillion economic relief plan. That is just moments away.

Let's begin though with our Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen on the state's opening up morning eligibility for vaccines today.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, Poppy. It is getting easier and easier to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Many states are changing their eligibility requirements, widening them. Let's take a look at a smattering of states and see what they're doing.

For example, in Alaska, they're saying you just have to be over the age of 16 in order to get a vaccine. In California, they say anyone 16-plus that has certain health conditions and so on and so forth, just getting easier and easier.

So because there is more vaccine out there, the federal government and the next few weeks tells me that they -- sources tell me that they will be releasing a new ad campaign aimed in part at getting foam take the vaccine.

So let's take a look at this campaign. It's $250 million. That is a lot. I am told that can add -- that can buy a lot of ad time. And the ads will be on television, as well as radio, billboard, print and digital. There will be a podcast by a well-known figure. They haven't announced who yet. The focus will be on wearing masks, practicing social distancing, avoiding crowds and getting the vaccine.

Now, you might wonder, people are fighting to get the vaccine. Why do we need ads? The thinking is that as the weeks go by, people who want the vaccine will be able to get it. And we'll be left with the people who don't want the vaccine that they will need convincing. And this is not a small group of people and it goes along party lines, unfortunately.

Let's take a recent look at a CNN poll done earlier this month. What the poll found was that when you break it down by party, and you look at who is not going to take the vaccine, only 7 percent of Democrats said they won't try to get the vaccine but a third of independents almost, a third of independents say they will not try to get a coronavirus vaccine and almost half of Republicans say that they won't try to get a vaccine.

So as you can see, there is a lot of work to be done here. And sources that I'm talking to that are close to this campaign say the messages will be very much targeted to individual groups hoping to get the word out that the vaccine is safe and effective and, really, our ticket out of this mess. Poppy? Jim?

SCIUTTO: It's remarkable, because it's a decision that hurts your own health, right? I mean, the data is clear much, keeps you out of the hospital, keeps you alive. Boy, it's a hill to get over. Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

Now to the concern that packed beaches, particularly in Florida, could become super-spreader events, spring break is coming.

HARLOW: Yes, it is and it's here for some of those folks. Take a look at MiamI Beach over the weekend. Natasha Chen, our colleague is there. What's it like being there, seeing this? I mean, are most people masked at least when they're this close?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, it's still early for the spring breakers who are likely still asleep. But later in the day when we see people walking along Ocean Drive, not a lot of people are wearing masks. In fact, a lot of spring breakers tell me that they are visiting here from places that not only have colder weather but perhaps tougher COVID-19 restrictions. They feel more free here in Florida. And that is an interesting debate to see how Florida faired and to see whether their approach worked.

If we look at statistics comparing how Florida has done compared to the rest of the country, especially in comparison to, for example, California, which is taking a much stricter approach, the two states have a similar death rate and both are faring slightly lower than the U.S. average death rate of 1.8 percent. When you look at cases per capita, however, Florida's case rate per 100,000 people, is 8 percent higher than the national rate.

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Still, Florida ranks 16th best for low case rates out of all 50 states. In this situation, California is doing better. It has the sixth lowest case rate per 100,000 people.

Now, this is not a perfect comparison. Obviously, the two states have very different populations, different density, different poverty levels, but it is an interesting conversation especially when you consider there is some local tension from local leaders versus each state's governor.

In this case in Miami Beach, frustration over their inability to fine anyone for not wearing a mask because the Florida governor has not allowed that, there is no statewide mask mandate, versus in California where certain counties are only now able to start relaxing some of the restrictions as their conditions improve. And, of course, there also some tension against their governor, Gavin Newsom. Poppy and Jim?

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Natasha, thank you for that reporting for us from Miami.

Let's bring in Dr. Megan Ranney, Emergency Physician at Brown University. Good morning. It's good to have you.

You use the analogy of a Buffalo Bills fan, which you are a big one, like our Wolf Blitzer. And I wonder, as a Buffalo Bills fan who has seen lots of losses in the fourth quarter, what do you think when you see those images in Florida?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I think of all the games where I thought that we were about to win and then lost it in the last minute of the game. You know, we know that we have not yet conquered this virus. We are doing an unbelievable job in this country of getting vaccines in arms faster than any of us had hoped. But, really, right now, only about 10 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

There are these novel variants out there which spread more quickly and are potentially more deadly. Our best protection about them is either not getting infected, so wearing a mask and maintaining some distancing, or getting a shot in the arm. And when we open these restrictions up so quickly, we are setting ourselves up for the virus to win.

SCIUTTO: Well, first of all, sorry about your Bills fandom. My thoughts go out to you.

RANNEY: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: On -- and I'm kidding there because they're way better than my team right now. So that's the concern, right? Folks are, you know, basically throwing off pandemic guidelines too early. There is some interesting data from South Africa that, you know, one of the sources of these new concerning variants has seen a drop-off, a really dramatic drop-off in its own infection rate. And I wonder what that is teaching us. Are we learning anything about that? I mean, is it less communicative than we thought it might be, this other variant? What do we know?

RANNEY: Jim, we still know so little. I mean, this is yet again during this the pandemic when we are trying to draw conclusions with very limited data. The South African -- the variant first identified in South Africa, like that in Brazil, like that in the U.K., we had some preliminary data saying it's more transmissible, it's more deadly. And then as time progresses and as we gather more data, we're able to make more precise predictions.

It does seem like the infection rate has dropped off. It's not sure if that's because people have some natural immunity or whether it just got contained in pockets. We really don't have answers yet for that one. But that would be great news if it's true because we do know that that South African variant, the vaccines are not quite as effective against that one, while they do work really well against the B117 variant first identified in the U.K.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: What about to schools and the new study that suggests three feet of difference is fine, distance between children versus the six feet that has been required? Our Jake Tapper asked Dr. Anthony Fauci yesterday about it, and Dr. Fauci said the findings do indicate to him that three feet of distance is good enough. But he said, look, the CDC is looking at this. We'll be back to you soon on that. What do you think as a medical professional?

RANNEY: So, to me, it goes along with what we do know, the accumulated knowledge about COVID-19. How does COVID-19 spread? It spreads through droplets and through aerosols, through that little spray of teeny, teeny little pieces of virus that masks prevent. So this study that showed that three feet was as good as six feet, that was done in schools with universal masking. And it backs up that if you have universal masks on kids and teachers, it's okay. It's not the distance per se that matters, it's the mask and keeping from you being exposed to those aerosols.

I'll add that ventilation certainly also makes a difference. To me, again, this is an argument for why masks matter and that we can get our kids back to school safely with some minimal precautions like masks and ventilation.

SCIUTTO: So, again, talking about the good news, I mean, the rate of vaccinations is increasing. One day this weekend, in 24 hours, they did something like 4.5 million doses, right, I mean, well above the previous record, close to 3 million.

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Now it's 11.3 fully vaccinated, about 20 percent has gotten their first shot.

Do you see this accelerating, right, the rate of vaccination in this country, and does that move up your timeline for when the country might hit herd immunity? RANNEY: So, yes, I see it accelerating. We're going to have greater supply. Our logistics are getting better. The new COVID-19 relief bill included a lot of money to help rollout local vaccine centers to get FEMA involved. Those are all really good signs. But as Elizabeth Cohen just talked about, there is some hesitancy to get vaccines among certain groups.

And you can see, if you look at the map vaccine distribution across the country, Jim, you can see that there are some states that are doing much worse than others. The northeast, the west are doing better than states along the south or kind of along the rocky mountains, and that's partly because of vaccine hesitancy. I'm hearing from folks there that you can show up at a pharmacy and just get a vaccine. It's not the long waits that those of us on the east coast are expecting.

So I think that one of our big determinants of how quickly we get vaccinated is going to be how much we can convince folks that, yes, this is safe and, as you said, before this is your best bet for getting back to normal. It protects you and your family to get it.

SCIUTTO: Listen, they're gold, right? I mean, if you got the opportunity, take that opportunity, all I can say. Dr. Megan Ranney, thanks very much.

RANNEY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, this morning, the Biden administration is gearing up to hit the roadm, soon kicking off a tour across the country, the intention to sell support in its $1.9 trillion so-called American rescue plan, the stimulus package.

HARLOW: Let's go to John Harwood. He joins us at the White House. Good Monday morning to you, John. It's good to have you.

Everyone, I mean, all the key players from the administration are going to be all across the country. You might have some people scratching their heads and saying, but you already got it, like it already passed and the checks are already rolling out. Is this to prevent against or fight off what will be are the Republican attacks on it?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sure, that's part of it, to promote the plan, but also to explain what's in the plan. Some of it, of course, explains itself, because those $1,400 checks per person, Poppy, started landing in people's bank accounts over the weekend.

But what you've got is First Lady Jill Biden going to New Hampshire and New Jersey, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff going to Colorado and Nevada. President Biden himself is going to make some remarks today at the White House, that he's going to go to Pennsylvania and to Georgia later in the week. Those are, of course, pivotal swing states not only in the past election but also in Senate races next year, where Democrats are going to try to keep control. So what they're trying to do is explain, yes, direct stimulus checks but there is also expanded child tax credits. There is expanded health care subsidies. There is more aid to small business that didn't qualify before. There is aid to state and local governments in order to speed vaccines and also to prevent layoffs, because some of those especially local governments are down in revenue.

And one of the things the president is doing today is going to do is name Gene Sperling, a former top economy official under both Presidents Clinton and Obama, to oversee the rollout. So that's part of making sure the program works properly, the aid gets to the right people.

Also, there is a provision in the COVID relief bill to prevent state governments from simply turning around and taking this new money and cutting taxes. They want to preserve those public services, prevent layoffs. So that will be another element of the oversight that the Biden administration is going to try to stay on top of.

Joe Biden, of course, remembers that oversight role, because that's what he did for President Obama with the stimulus plan in 2009. Gene Sperling, who was on hand for that plan, is going to help him with this this time.

HARLOW: John, Harwood, thank you for all of that at the White House this morning.

Still to come, the emerging crisis at the southern border, thousands of children are in custody now after crossing into the United States alone. We're talking about little kids, six, seven years old there. We have new details on that. And also why FEMA is now being brought in to help.

SCIUTTO: Plus, President Biden is breaking silence on the growing scandal around New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, this as the governor is facing new calls from Democrats to resign.

And women making history at the Grammy Awards, highlights from the music's biggest night. There is a big one just ahead.

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SCIUTTO: Some House Republicans are headed to the southern border today amid the massive surge in migrants there, particularly unaccompanied children. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will lead the congressional delegation touring the El Paso Central Processing Center.

The increase in migrants crossing the border has drawn criticism from several GOP lawmakers. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy pin the situation entirely on President Biden, citing administration changes. Democrats say there are a whole host of reasons behind this, including natural disasters in Central America. More than 4,000 unaccompanied children are currently in U.S. Border Patrol custody that has prompted the administration to call in FEMA to help care for and shelter those children, like this little one.

I'm joined now by Craig Fugate. He's the -- he once served as FEMA administrator under President Obama, also as Florida's Emergency Management Agency head under Governor Jeb Bush.

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Good to have you on, sir. Thanks for taking the time this morning.

CRAIG FUGATE, FORMER FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, good morning, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, first, simplest question is why, what's behind this surge? You have Republicans saying straight up it's all Biden, you have others working down at the border saying that this is a collection of pressures right now, including a misperception now that they're all going to be allowed in. I mean, What do you find?

FUGATE: Well, you know, from FEMA's perspective, and this is what we faced when we were dealing with surge on the border, is we're not going to talk about or focus on why. Our real job is to focus on the factor here in the situations they're in are not what we want. We need to make sure that these children are being cared for, that they are processed and placed into Health and Human Services facilities while the outcome of their process is determined.

And, again, for FEMA, this is really about the humanitarian aspect of the children that are now in custom and border protection custody and need to be cared for.

SCIUTTO: I understand you don't want to be drown into the politics here, but the reason I'm asking this is because causes get to solutions here, right, in terms of how you handle this. And I want to compare the current situation to what we saw in 2019 under the Trump administration. In terms of total numbers, that gold line is the surge in immigrants in 2019. You can see it goes up to nearly 150,000. The blue one is where we are under Biden, not to that level but at least outpacing in the February-March time period.

In 2019, you said the surge was not a crisis, in your view. Is the current one a crisis, in your view?

FUGATE: Well, again, it's getting the system where these children are not being kept in detention facilities and are moved rapidly through the system. The law states 72 hours and they've exceeded that. So this is really about making sure the needs of the children are being met, that there is growing capacity on the side of Health and Human Services to provide for the longer term care of these children as is required.

But I think this is the other part of this that you're bringing up is, unless you're going to address the underlying issue of why parents are making an extremely hard choice to send their children north on a very dangerous trip, you know, that's going to continue to see pressure on the system as children head north.

SCIUTTO: So how is the Biden administration handling this? We know that under the Trump administration, there was a deliberate policy of family separation. Biden administration has reversed that. But the fact is the facilities themselves are just overwhelmed by these numbers here. And that's why FEMA is being called in. Are they doing anything right here, right? I mean, are they taking the steps necessary to handle this?

FUGATE: Well, in the beginning of the first couple of months, the system actually was working. But with COVID-19, the requirements for social distancing, reduced capacity of facilities, the numbers started creeping up and now they reached the point where the system isn't moving these children fast enough.

So FEMA has been asked to help, one, work with HHS to expand the number of facilities but also bring services to the children as they are going through this process.

SCIUTTO: Understood, and you're right that the focus has to be on getting those children what they need. Craig Fugate, we appreciate you sharing your experience.

FUGATE: Thank you.

HARLOW: Well, there is a growing crisis right now, a COVID-19 crisis in Brazil. There is a new wave of cases there threatening to overwhelm hospitals across that country again. We'll take you there, next.

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HARLOW: Well, a second wave of COVID-19 is pushing hospitals across Brazil to the limit. The country has been averaging more than 65,000 new cases a day for the past week. ICUs there are near capacity.

SCIUTTO: Yes, you're not seeing any downtick there, at least not significant one. And the surge comes amid a shortage of vaccines there as a new virus variant spreads rapidly across the country.

CNN's Matt Rivers, went to Sao Paulo and has more.

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MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Pamela Rivippi can only look at the photos of her grandmother. She says watching the videos is too painful.

The world didn't deserve my grandma, she says. She was too good.

Admitted March 3rd with COVID-19 at this small hospital outside Sao Paulo, she died just two days later. the facility quickly overrun by a new wave of COVID-19.

This doctor who works there says, we think about the families that are suffering and we can't sleep. It is unbelievable.

This hospital just doesn't have the facilities to care for those who are really sick. Those patients would usually get transferred somewhere else. But right now, there is nowhere else to go. So instead of getting transferred, they're dying.

In just five days last week, 12 patients died waiting for an open bed somewhere else, according to hospital officials. Pamela's grandmother was one of them. She thinks that she would have survived if treated in an ICU.

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But right now, access to those facilities is nearly impossible. Albert Einstein Hospital is one of Brazil's best.