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White House Racing to Prevent Another Potential Surge as Variants Spread; Moderna Vaccinates First Children in Pediatric Vaccine Trial; More Than a Dozen Countries Pause AstraZeneca Vaccine Rollout; Biden Administration Under Pressure As Migrants Strain Immigration System; DHS: Administration to Use Dallas Convention Center to Shelter Migrant Teen Boys. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 16, 2021 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


This morning the Biden administration is battling two crises. A year- long pandemic and what is fast becoming a humanitarian emergency at the southern border. Right now the White House is racing to prevent another potential COVID surge as variants spread across the U.S. The nation is averaging 2.5 million vaccine doses per day, though, and that's good news. It's a new record. Scenes, however, of spring break crowds in Florida have raised fears that Americans are just letting their guard down too early at a critical time that might lead to an upsurge.

HARLOW: So 2,000 miles to the west of those images, a very different scene. Migrant facilities filling up, many with unaccompanied children, and the White House is scrambling to find a place to house the surge of immigrants at the southern border. More than 4200 unaccompanied migrant children are in custody in the United States as pressure mounts on this administration.

We do have a lot more on that in a moment. But let's begin with the race to vaccinate. Our colleague Randi Kaye is at a mass vaccination site in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Randi, I mean, it's so interesting, you see so many people getting vaccinated in Florida at the exact same time as you see spring breakers acting like there never was a pandemic.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean, you -- it depends on where you go here. That's when you know you're in either 2021 or maybe even 2019 when the spring breakers seemed to be living in that year, before the pandemic even hit. But if you look at the numbers, Poppy and Jim, they are certainly going in the right direction for the vaccinations. Just take a look at how many have been fully vaccinated across the country.

More than 38 million people fully vaccinated with that COVID vaccine and even the partial numbers are impressive. More than 71 million have been partially vaccinated. But you mentioned those record highs. The CDC has been tracking those shots in arms and the seven-day average for the COVID vaccine doses has reached a record high of 2.4 million doses a day.

So I am at this South Florida Fairgrounds this morning. And they have now turned that into a vaccination site. It's appointment only. They're hoping to do about 500 vaccinations here today. But they are expecting a large crowd and that's because the governor is trying to ramp up more shots in arms. Get more shots in arms. It's now the age to get a vaccination. The eligibility age has now been dropped so you can come in if you're 60 years old now, 60 and above.

The vaccine is available, too. But we are seeing the crowds coming. The cars are slowly heading in here. It opens just at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time. But even in other states around the country they are looking to expand certainly even in Mississippi. They are looking to expand the vaccinations offering now, the vaccination to those 16 and above, just the second state to do so. Connecticut not far behind looking to do that as well the first week of April.

But certainly you mention the concern among the CDC and the spring breakers here in the state of Florida. We saw them in huge crowds on the beaches, at the bars, the restaurants. Big gatherings in Miami Beach. There were a hundred arrests over the weekend. Police trying to break up these crowds. In the state of Florida, there is no mask mandate and the governor has said these municipalities cannot fine anybody for not wearing a mask.

So we didn't see a lot of mask wearing, didn't see a lot of social distancing. The CDC chief is warning that we could see another surge like we saw in the spring and over the summer if they don't take this seriously -- Poppy, Jim.

HARLOW: The last thing we need. OK, Randi, thank you for that reporting for us in Florida.

While a big step in the push to get kids back into school, this morning, Moderna revealed that the first children have been vaccinated in the next phase of their pediatric vaccine trial.

SCIUTTO: CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has been following.

So, Elizabeth, what does this mean for the timeline as to when the trial will be complete and, therefore, it will be safe for children to get the vaccine as well?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, Moderna is not saying what their timeline will be, but we do know that they are very early on in this clinical trial. They still haven't figured out what dose is best to give children of various ages. And so we're -- it will be months. It will take months to do these clinical trials.

Let's take a look at what Moderna is doing. They have 6,700 participants ages 6 months to 11 years old. So that's the age group that they're testing it in. They're going to be testing it in those children, will be in Canada and the United States. And they are testing different doses to see what dose might be best for babies and toddlers essentially and then for children ages 2 to 11.

Now it's important to note, Pfizer will probably have its approval for a children's vaccine before Moderna. Pfizer fully enrolled its trial in January. So they are ahead of the game here -- Jim, Poppy.


HARLOW: There is some really good news in a handful of states across the country. Really loosening up vaccine restrictions, opening up eligibility, some for anyone 16 and over. What do you know?

COHEN: Right. So states are getting much more flexible. We just heard that from Randi Kaye in Florida. Other states as well. You know some states are saying everybody 16 up. Some states are saying everybody 16 up if you have an underlying condition. Each state sort of has its own individual set of rules. And this is a good thing. It means there's more and more supply. And we're getting more out there.

I think there are two groups that health authorities are really worried about reaching. And that's minority communities, communities of color that have been very hesitant about this vaccine and also Republicans. We've seen in a CNN poll that almost half of Republicans don't have any intention to get this vaccine.

Now Dr. Brett Giroir, who's with the Department of Health and Human Services, he was asked about this earlier.


ADM. BRETT GIROIR, FORMER HHS ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH UNDER TRUMP: I think it's very important for former President Trump as well as the vice president, to actively encourage all the followers to get the vaccine. The people who follow former president are very committed to President Trump. And I think his leadership still matters a great deal.


COHEN: So this is a very hard to reach group. And you'll remember that former President Trump got a shot in January but didn't say anything. So what we're hearing now from health authorities is gee, wish he would get out and say something because then maybe his followers would do the same -- Jim, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Listen, all the questions about the seriousness of this outbreak for months has an effect and we're seeing it there in these partisan information bubbles. Goodness. Sad to see.

Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

Experts from the World Health Organization are set to meet today as a growing list of countries is now suspending the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.

HARLOW: That's right. More than half of European nations have halted their use of this vaccine after a small number of patients did experience blood clots.

Let's go to our Melissa Bell. She's in Rome this morning.

This is a huge blow to Europe's ability right now at least to try to get these surges under control. Do they know if there's a direct correlation between these blood clots and the vaccine or is that what they're looking at now?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is exactly what they are trying to look at now. And Poppy, this is the point the World Health Organization, the European Medicines Agency, AstraZeneca itself have come out and said, look, for the time being there's no evidence that there is any correlation between those handful of people, and we're talking about more than 30, just over 30 total of 17 million people who've been used -- using AstraZeneca vaccine in the United Kingdom and in the E.U. that have experienced these problems with blood clots.

For the time being no evidence that there's any correlation. AstraZeneca points out that that figure of just over 30 people, that size of a population, on that size of sample is really what you would get in any ordinary population. And yet, European National Health Agencies, one after another, and they've really kind of been falling like flies the last few days, have begun announcing the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Even those countries like France and like Germany that initially had defended its increased use.

Now what's happened? It isn't just about the numbers. What had happened yesterday, Poppy, is that Denmark, one of the first countries to announce the suspension, said that the reason it had done so is that one of the people who died after being inoculated as a result of blood clots was found to have unusual symptoms. And I think that is really what sent alarm bells going. So these are the subject of investigations, the European Medicine Agency should be delivering its verdict in the next couple of days.

For the time being, it is in favor of the continued rollout of the vaccination. The fact is, though, in so many countries it's stopped. And you're right, that is a massive blow to a rollout that had already been under pressure. It's a massive blow because it comes even as that third wave is sweeping across the European continent. Here in Italy we're under a new lockdown in half the country and, of course, it has ramifications way beyond Europe because we're talking about vaccine hesitancy and because the AstraZeneca vaccine itself was one that was really considered crucial in the global fight against this pandemic.

It is cheaper than other vaccines. The company is not making a profit on it. It is also easier to store, easier to roll out. Three billion doses had been purchased and it's considered crucial for trying to help the developing world to fight their own health emergency. And of course that's not just about a health emergency, it's about a pandemic. By definition, we have to get the whole world vaccinated.

HARLOW: Melissa, thank you very much.

Let's bring in Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital.

Let's just be very clear here. We don't know if there's any correlation here between the AstraZeneca vaccine and these blood clots, and it very well may be incredibly safe. It probably is. But they are pausing to study that and figure that out. What is your read on this? What is everyone who may be getting this vaccine need to know?


DR. COLLEEN KRAFT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, EMORY UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: Right. So any time that we give a lot of people a vaccine, we start to worry about if we can attribute certain side effects or things that happen to that vaccine. I think you've already said the numbers, Poppy. 17 million, 30 people. This would happen at a normal rate, probably in that population.

This is an adenovirus vector vaccine. It is safe. These types of vaccines have been given in humans. I myself have received the Ebola (INAUDIBLE) vaccine so this is a very safe vaccine. I think it's important to look into these safety concerns as they come along, but I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we really need to make sure that we're actually seeing a signal before we say we shouldn't give this vaccine.

SCIUTTO: And let's remember here for our audience here in the U.S., I mean, this is not the vaccine that people are receiving.

HARLOW: Right. That's right.

SCIUTTO: I mean, there are three other vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna and now Johnson & Johnson. And they have not shown anything like this. If you're listening at home and you're kind of making an association here, don't make that association.

HARLOW: Don't. Right.

SCIUTTO: There's no evidence of those kinds of problems.

We do, sadly, Dr. Kraft, have an issue here where, despite the enormous success rate of the three vaccines available now in the U.S. without safety issues, you've got this political problem, right? Half of Republicans aren't taking it. And again, you know, as I was saying earlier, it's been months of disinformation from Republican leaders and even going back to the president. It's not serious. You don't have to wear a mask. Blah, blah, blah.

What do we do about it? Right? Because you need -- you can't have it be a party line issue because you need to get the population vaccinated and stop the pandemic.

KRAFT: You're right. COVID-19 does not care whether you're Republican or Democrat or any other party. So it's really important, I think, that we have to eventually come -- I mean, this isn't surprising entirely, right, given sort of the year of misinformation we've had sort of under the previous president and all of the aspects of this that has been stoked. I mean, we're number one in the world for absolute number of cases.

The reason is because this has become a political issue in the United States. And so I think we really have to figure out, and this is something I think about all day, every day is how to just have individual conversations with people to understand what their concerns are, and then work towards, you know, enhancing that relationship so that they can make a good decision which would be getting the vaccination.

HARLOW: Moderna is trying out their vaccine on really little kids. Six months to 11 years old. That makes me smile because I think of my toddlers. So what does that mean for most parents of young kids?

KRAFT: I think it means a sense of freedom. I have my parents who are both vaccinated coming to visit me this week, and I'm so excited. I can hardly stand it. And I think it also makes me happy to think about my children also being around my parents and them all being vaccinated. And that concern about hospitalization or severe disease being gone. That is really, really exciting.

SCIUTTO: So -- and I've heard a lot of stories like this. Met a grandparent yesterday who for the first time in a year was able to meet and pick up their little grandchild from school. When do you see the country reaching a critical mass of vaccinations? You know, approaching herd immunity. We're at about 20 percent with one dose now. Summertime?

KRAFT: I am a little bit more pessimistic than that. I do think that we're in this race against this variant. If we can really still try to wear masks and do all of the things we should have been doing to prevent all of this transmission in the beginning, we can prevent that variant from taking hold in the United States. That will be in a much better place to get sort of herd immunity. I think if that variant rolls through and there's some issue with the vaccine, that's where I get concerned.

My prediction is sort of like maybe early fall, late fall in terms of sort of reaching that critical mass. Only because of thinking about the children getting vaccinated as well. And not really seeing if that's going to be completely finished by the time they start school in August.

SCIUTTO: Understood. We'll be watching closely. We'll hope for a little better.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, thanks so much.

KRAFT: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, a scramble to find a place to house a surge in migrant children, unaccompanied, coming over the border. A convention center in Dallas is now set to hold more than 2,000 migrant teenagers. We're going to speak to a Republican lawmaker who visited the border. That's next.

Plus dozens of new bills seek to limit early voting. Make it harder to get absentee ballots and more, all targeting efforts in Texas to expand voting access.

HARLOW: And the White House is looking to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations. We're going to speak ahead with a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers. Stay with us.



SCIUTTO: Well, this morning, the Biden administration is scrambling to get a grip on the growing surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as thousands in particular of unaccompanied migrant children are now in custody and overcrowding existing border patrol facilities.

HARLOW: The administration is planning to use a really huge convention center in Dallas to temporarily hold more than 2,000 migrant teenagers. Let's go to our colleague Priscilla Alvarez who has been covering this very closely. I mean, you've taken numerous trips abroad, you've been all over this story.


What do we know about the situation in this moment that would make the government house that many children in this new facility and have 4,200 unaccompanied minors right now in its custody?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: The administration is trying to keep up here with the sheer number of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone. And one of the steps they're taking to do that is using this convention center in Dallas to house children between the ages of 15 to 17 years old, boys specifically. Now this morning, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stressing the need to expand capacity while imploring migrants not to make the journey to the U.S. southern border. Take a listen.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We are building the capacity to address the needs of those children when they arrive, but we are also and critically sending an important message that now is not the time to come to the border. Do not take the dangerous journey now. Give us time to build an orderly, safe way to arrive in the United States and make the claims that the law permits you to make.


ALVAREZ: Now Jim and Poppy, the administration again facing a steep challenge on the U.S.-Mexico border as we continue to see a surge of migrants. Mayorkas also saying in a statement this morning that they are expecting and on pace for encounters not seen in the last 20 years. HARLOW: Wow.

SCIUTTO: Priscilla Alvarez with the latest, thanks very much. Joining me now to discuss is Republican Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, she's on the Homeland Security Committee and she was also part of a delegation of house Republicans who toured a detention facility at the border in Texas yesterday. Congresswoman, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

REP. MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS (R-IA): It's my pleasure, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, tell us what you saw down there.

MILLER-MEEKS: Well, we first went into a processing facility. This is a new facility that's just over a little over a year old. They thought that they would never see capacity to the numbers that they're seeing now. So their capacity is about 1,040, and they've already -- yesterday, they had already exceeded that capacity. Typically, the surge or the biggest volume of people coming across the border is in April and May, and this is in February. So, they saw the biggest number of both unaccompanied minors, families and then single adults coming across the border. And those are just the ones that they know that came through the facility.

They processed them outdoors because of COVID-19, but they're not tested for COVID-19. They have, you know, facilities for them to sleep. They provide food, clothing, diapers. They have a screening questionnaire for medical and temperature checks, but other than that, they're not testing for COVID-19.

SCIUTTO: I wonder, under the Trump administration, a number of mechanisms and systems that previously handled influxes of migrants, for instance, the asylum system, the Central American Minors Program which reunites children from Central American countries with legal guardians or parents here in the states. You know, they were dismantled. And I wonder, as you watch this now, do you believe it was a mistake to dismantle those systems?

MILLER-MEEKS: Yes, that's a great question. I can tell you that the border patrol agents that we met with, all of them were very supportive of the previous administration's policies, and they think ending them has created this surge. They also told us that at midnight, these were their words, at midnight on January 20th, the wall stopped being built, including that portion of the wall that was already funded. So they have gaps, a 17-mile gap, and that with that new wall was also technology and all of that has stopped. They're very supportive of the wall. The technology that went with the wall, so that was video sensors, that was sensors to detect motion and also underground sensors that would detect tremors. All of those things were extraordinarily important.

The Sangre de Cristo area of crossing that goes into the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a very important part. They think the wall needs to be extended up into the mountains. And what they see is there's a road that's right on the other side of the fence, and that they have large caravans and buses of people dropped off. They rush the fence and then you see the cartels use that as a diversionary --


MILLER-MEEKS: Tactic to bring other things across the border. So, they think those policies worked and should have remained in place. And they're very concerned about Title 42 going away especially during a pandemic and COVID-19.

SCIUTTO: I do want to get to the wall for a moment because I've also spoken to border experts, security officials who say that the wall, you know, throughout the Trump administration was not the solution. But specifically to the issue of minors here because the real change under the Biden administration, right is to say, we're no longer going to turn around unaccompanied minors, that we're going to put them through a legal process here rather than turn them around unaccompanied to go back home. I wonder, do you support reinstating that policy, in other words turning unaccompanied minors away at the border again?

MILLER-MEEKS: Well, I think if you look at it, there -- we heard stories from the border patrol agents of one-year-old children being --



MILLER-MEEKS: Dropped off at the border with a sign or written on the back of their clothing a phone number for someone to call. A one-year- old child unaccompanied --

SCIUTTO: I know --

MILLER-MEEKS: No adult, not knowing who is with them. And this is a huge money-making scheme --

SCIUTTO: So, what do you do with that child?

MILLER-MEEKS: For the cartels. Well, one --


MILLER-MEEKS: I think is, you send the message that the border is not open to anybody to cross, we shouldn't be encouraging minors to come across unaccompanied, families to send them. The border patrol agents we met with and the border union -- border patrol union members had indicated to us the amount of money that the cartels make in human trafficking --


MILLER-MEEKS: We don't know where these children go, we assume, you know, HHS tries to do a good job of making sure that they're going to go to a community where there's a sponsor, but you don't know who that sponsor is. There's human trafficking. There's sexual abuse, there's sex trafficking. It is a huge -- SCIUTTO: Yes --

MILLER-MEEKS: Problem at the border. And our border patrol agents are doing a phenomenal job in trying to take care of all of these individuals, but then they go to communities and the communities don't even know that these individuals are arriving. They have no preparation. They don't know that they're there. They have communities who have lost revenue through the pandemic, and they're already struggling and then you get an influx of minors or families.

SCIUTTO: I get that. And by the way, we've done a lot of reporting on this program about, you know, smugglers taking advantage of that. I'm just asking you specifically, what do you do with those children today? It's happening today. Do you shelter them? Give them some health support as it's happening now, granted, overwhelming those facilities and they're building more and adding more? Are you saying you want to turn them around from today? Is that the solution in your view?

MILLER-MEEKS: Right now, what they're doing is to process these children to try to process them through within the 72 hours. And then to, you know, contact either their sponsor or an NGO in order to help facilitate these children getting to whoever it is that's on --


MILLER-MEEKS: The phone number that's being called. So --

SCIUTTO: Understood --

MILLER-MEEKS: They're being processed in a humane manner. But let me also let you know that the border patrol agents we spoke with told us that they're using their operational budget for food, clothing, supplies for all of these children and families. That's coming out of their operational budget.


MILLER-MEEKS: They don't have funding for this, and so that's eating into their budget going into this year. So, there's not funding, so we need to fund --

SCIUTTO: I hear you --

MILLER-MEEKS: The border patrol to be able to handle these families and these unaccompanied minors to be able to take care of them, to be able to get them medical care when they need medical care. They're really doing the best that they can under, you know, situations that are extreme to them.

SCIUTTO: Doesn't that --

MILLER-MEEKS: Remember --

SCIUTTO: I get it -- MILLER-MEEKS: Hundred and twenty border patrol agents are pulled off

of monitoring the border, and so now, you have people coming across on the watch terrorist list --

SCIUTTO: I hear you --

MILLER-MEEKS: They apprehended huge load --

SCIUTTO: Well, the terror watch list actually -- that point, let's set that aside for a moment, that's been debunked for years even by internal documents from the DHS. But I do want to ask you what do you do now --

MILLER-MEEKS: That's what the agents told us when we were there.

SCIUTTO: Well, members of the relevant committees on the Hill have said they have not been briefed on that, and the president's claims during his administration were previously debunked on that issue, but for a moment, just set that aside --

MILLER-MEEKS: I can't say what the president claims. I can tell you what the border agents told us. That they had just apprehended and taken into possession a large load of fentanyl, and so you have those coming across --

SCIUTTO: Fentanyl, yes, and from countries like Iran, but not known terrorists. I do want to ask you this, what happens now then --

MILLER-MEEKS: They said they were on the terror watch-list, sir, I'm sorry.


MILLER-MEEKS: I'm just reporting to you what I was told at the border --

SCIUTTO: There in the previous administration -- understood and we'll check it out again. I'm just saying DHS under the previous administration admitted that was not true. But I do want to ask you about what happens now then. Are you willing to sit down at the table with Democrats who still control the house to trade on this? Would you trade, for instance, more border security for protections, say, for dreamers, which is a proposal Lindsey Graham has suggested. You know, is there a deal to be made here or is it just going to be accusations going back and forth?

MILLER-MEEKS: No, I think certainly, there needs -- you know, the immigration system has been broken for decades. This is not a new problem or new issue. And I think certainly there's a willingness to enhance border security and also look at immigration. And as you mentioned, looking at the dreamers or DACA and how do we do that? You know, one of the issues with DACA in my view was that it was through executive order, not through legislation. So, certainly, I am more than willing to sit down with members of both parties in order to hammer out how we can address border security, how we can help our Customs and Border Patrol agents there at the border now doing a tremendous task of --


MILLER-MEEKS: Processing and protecting us and protecting our national security. And then also addressing people who came here when they were young through no fault --


MILLER-MEEKS: Of their own. And I think that certainly, that there is, you know -- you know, a willingness to work in a bipartisan --

SCIUTTO: Potential there --

MILLER-MEEKS: Fashion to address this --

SCIUTTO: Hey, that's great. Let's keep up that conversation. Because that -- you may have identified a path right there and we're always trying to highlight on this program and elsewhere, ways where maybe the two sides can get together. Congresswoman, we do appreciate you joining the broadcast this morning.

MILLER-MEEKS: And thank you for having me on and have a great day.