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CDC to Change School Distancing Guidance, From Six to Three Feet; Biden Orders Flags at Half-Staff in Tribute to Rampage Victims; U.S. on Cusp of New COVID Surge as Variant Spreads Fast. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2021 - 13:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Don't go anywhere, a very busy news day. Brianna Keilar picks up right now. Have a good day.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Brianna Keilar, and I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

Just in, a major development in America's fight against the pandemic, we're now learning the CDC is expected to change its social distancing guidance for schools, recommending separation of three feet instead of six.

So let's go now to Elizabeth Cohen on this. Elizabeth, what impact is this going to have on reopenings?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think there are several components that will fast track, that will make it easier for schools to reopen, and this is one of them, telling teachers and staff, hey, you don't have to keep the children six feet apart, you can do three feet apart. It sounds like it's not much of a difference but I imagine that it will be, that it's sort of less of a burden. But, of course, schools still have to make sure the children still wear masks.

And perhaps the most challenging part of this is they need to come up with testing strategies. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, has said that this week, that she wants to see more robust, sort of better testing systems in every school in the United States. Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes. It's been impossible actually, I think, to keep kids six feet apart in some cases considering the confinement of the classrooms, so perhaps this is going to make people feel like they are actually operating within the guidelines.

Elizabeth, thank you so much, Elizabeth Cohen.

Just two days after the shooting rampage that killed eight, six of them Asian, another minority group is being forced to demand a reckoning in America. A short time ago, the president ordered flags at half staff for the victims killed in the Atlanta area shootings. And tomorrow, he and his vice president plan to meet with Asian-American leaders when they visit the city.

And today, the House is holding a hearing on anti-Asian hate in the country after months of reports of bigoted attacks, increasing during the pandemic, fueled by bigoted rhetoric, based on the virus originating in China.

Investigators in Georgia say it's still not clear whether racist hate was behind the murders. They say the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, they say that he acted out of distress over a sexual addiction, according to him. Long's court appearance today was canceled. We will get the latest on the investigation.

First, though, to the House hearing on anti-Asian attacks in which a Texas congressman spewed the exact rhetoric that is blamed for inciting the racism while also invoking terms tied to lynching. It forced one Asian-American congresswoman to respond. Let's watch.


REP. CHIP ROY (R-TX): The victims of race-based violence, and their families deserve justice, and that's the case what we're talking about here with the tragedy, what we just saw occur in Atlanta, Georgia.

I would also suggest that the victims of cartels moving illegal aliens deserve justice, the American citizens in south Texas. They are getting absolutely decimated by what's happening. Our southern border deserve justice. The victims of rioting and looting in the streets last week, businesses closed, burned -- I'm sorry, last summer, deserve justice.

We believe in justice. There's old sayings in Texas about, you know, find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. We take justice very seriously and we ought to do that, round up the bad guys. That's what we believe.

My concern about this hearing is that it seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society, free speech, and away from the rule of law and taking out bad guys.

Now we're talking about whether talking about China, the Chinese Communist Party, whatever phrasing we want to use, and if some people are saying, hey, we think those guys are the bad guys, for whatever reason, and let me just state clearly, I do. I think the Chinese Communist Party running the country of China, I think they're the bad guys.

I'm not going to be ashamed of saying I oppose the Chicomms, I oppose the Chinese Communist Party. And when we say things like that and we're talking about that, we shouldn't be worried about having a committee of members of Congress policing our rhetoric, because some evil doers go engage in some evil activity, as occurred in Atlanta, Georgia.

Who decides what is hate? Who decides what is the kind of speech that deserves policing? REP. GRACE MENG (D-NY): I want to go back to something that Mr. Roy said earlier. Your president, and your party, and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want but you don't have to do it by putting a bull's eye on the back of Asian-Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids.


This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions and we will not let you take our voice away from us.


KEILAR: Joining me now is Rachel Kuo, who is co-founder of the Asian- American Feminist Collective, she's also a researcher at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life, and CNN's Abby Philip is with us as well, she, of course, anchors Inside Politics on Sunday.

Rachel, what was your reaction to this exchange that we just witnessed?

RACHEL KUO, CO-FOUNDER, ASIAN-AMERICAN FEMINIST COLLECTIVE: Yes, this exchange, we're seeing this moment where the U.S. -- the rhetoric, right, around free speech, which has long been used to perpetuate racism and also kind of point out that the ways that the access to so- called freedom of rights and the rights of expression are not evenly experienced.

I think the comments where there's advocating for vigilante justice and invoking a really horrific symbol of racial violence, which is a white supremacist tool used to police and discipline racialized populations is something we're seeing right now. And I think this is really both counterproductive and also detracts away from ongoing racism that is impacting multiple communities of color.

And I think specifically speaking to violence against Asians right now, the rhetorical use and reference to the Chinese Communist Party is also linking to the U.S.'s permanent war and military engagement with Asia, which is not unrelated to the violence we're seeing against Asians right now, and specifically to this moment where we're seeing violence against Asian women that this hypersexualization and co- modification that has been happening in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding what's happened in Atlanta is also tied to the legacy of U.S. or an occupation in Asia and this way that Asia seems to be presented as a dangerous threat, and as like a foreign enemy. So I think that's where I would start and land.

KEILAR: And, Abby, when he was talking about Texans valuing justice, he brought up lynching, which is not justice. Vigilante justice is not American justice. And the history of lynching in Texas is a dark chapter that spanned many, many, many decades.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, there's so much going on there. First of all, the false equivalency between racialized violence and, you know, his reference to rioting and burning down of buildings is just what I said, a false equivalency. They have really -- they are not on the same level of things, frankly.

Eight people were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, and that's not the same thing as burning down a building. A life is not the same thing as a building. And I think that by conflating the two things, he's trying to imply that we should treat them with the same degree of outrage.

But then the other part of this, as you said, is that invoking lynching, the people who say that saying in Texas, they're not black people. They are not people of color, who might have been on the receiving end of lynching. And it just shows how narrow the focus is of people like that congressman, where they can't even see the perspective of other people who are not like them. They're not even aware of the invocations of what that means.

And I think it really is part of what made Congresswoman Grace Meng so outraged was just the ignoring of the reality of the pain for the Asian-American community and just why even bring up the Chinese Communist Party? Just the fact that he would bring that up seems to imply that he thinks there's a connection to the between the geopolitical disputes between the United States and the Chinese government and what individual Asian-Americans and Asian people in this country face every day, and that, in and of itself, that is the problem.

KEILAR: And today, Rachel, a state representative in Georgia, Bee Nguyen, talked about the shooting spree that did kill the six Asian women. Let's listen.


BEE NGUYEN (D), GEORGIA STATE HOUSE: We do know that there were four women who were ethnically Korean who were killed, their ages ranging from 50 years old to 70 years old. And at least two of them lived and worked in those spas. This one fact alone highlights the vulnerability, the invisibility and the isolation of working class Asian women in our country and we know that vulnerability makes them targets.


Because when they go missing or when they die, the loss of their lives will not incite the same kind of rage and they won't even be treated with the same humanity.

And in this case they've been characterized as a problem that needed to be eliminated.


KEILAR: It feels like this is a moment, Rachel, where, I mean, this has clearly been on the minds of so many Asian-American women and it's like an outpouring -- it's this moment where finally, I think, something that a lot of people have not heard, now they're hearing it.

KUO: Yes. I think the kind of -- this particular moment, right, is really how we're also being faced with exposure to violence also that happens at the everyday level that is less spectacular and also fatal, right? So this particular moment, there have been multiple moments where Asian women and fems have been killed and attacked and murdered because the ways that men have felt, right, like scorned, rejected or tempted by women that they felt entitled to. So this is not new and it has happened before and often, right, that there hasn't been adequate attention on this.

And I think one of the things that this also really points to, again, about the multiple scales of violence that this particular moment is spectacular but at the same time like the ways that these forms of economic violence, economic procurity and vulnerability at the intersections of gender, class, immigration is all compounding and creating different forms of neglect, procurity and exposure to harm. And all of those vectors are something that we're seeing right now.

And I think from the conversation earlier, I think what also needs to be conceived of is what are broader ways that we're thinking about justice in this moment, right, so what are our responses to violence that don't replicate more forms of racialized and gendered violence. And I think that's important to think about.

And I think the comment where women were living at their place of work points to a tension of like how our inadequate social safety nets around housing, around like where people have access to forms of social support are also rendering further exposure to forms of violence and, again, inadequate responses to when violence occurs.

KEILAR: Rachel Kuo and Abby Phillip, thank you so much to both of you for joining me in this conversation.

Fear is spreading through Asian-American communities. There is a new study that shows anti-Asia hate crimes are up nearly 150 percent since the pandemic began. In San Francisco, Police say a man and a woman, both of Asian descent, were assaulted within minutes of each other in separate attacks by the same person, Wednesday. Separately, three men were arrested yesterday for their alleged involvement in an assault and robbery of an Asian man inside of a San Francisco laundromat last month.

CNN's Dan Simon is covering this for us from nearby Oakland. Dan, what more can you tell us about these horrific attacks?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Brianna. The Bay Area, of course, has a very large Asian-American population, and the area has seen a wave of attacks in recent months. The most disturbing one actually taking place in January, where you had an 84-year-old man, Vichar Ratanapakdee, minding his own business, going for a morning stroll where he was brutally assaulted and he subsequently died. And just yesterday, two more elderly Asians attacked in downtown San Francisco. You can see the aftermath of one of those attacks of a 73- year-old. You can see the woman. She is terribly distraught. You can she has some injuries to her face.

Police announced they did make an arrest in connection with those assaults and they also announced they made three more arrests in connection with just an absolutely despicable act at that laundromat where you see an elderly man who is robbed and beaten as he's simply trying to do his laundry. San Francisco Police and the mayor announced that they are stepping up patrols in Asian neighborhoods.

And, Brianna, here in Oakland, Chinatown has seen just a tremendous amount of activity with regards to assaults of Asians and the district attorney here announcing that a special task force has been set up to deal with those kinds of attacks. Brianna?

KEILAR: Dan Simon live from Oakland, thank you.

A man arrested outside of Kamala Harris' residence had a rifle and ammunition. What we know about this threat.

Plus, the U.S. is verifiably on the cusp of another coronavirus surge as the new and potentially more deadly variant spreads very quickly.

And CNN heads to Oklahoma, where some there say they won't get the vaccine.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Are you going to take the vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Tell me why.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't trust the government and I don't trust Biden.


KEILAR: I'll speak live with a doctor in Oklahoma to get his response.


KEILAR: President Biden is preparing to speak about the state of vaccinations in the U.S. His address next hour will focus on his administration's progress on the goal of immunizing 100 million people in his first 100 days. Biden has not even hit 60 days in office and appears to be very on track to make the goal.

New CDC data shows one in eight Americans have been fully vaccinated but the news doesn't hide the fact that the country is still in danger of another case surge.


Several states starting to see steady upticks in new cases week to week, health experts say some of these infections may be linked to new variants circulating across the U.S. And as more states and mask mandates and reopen, Dr. Anthony Fauci warns states are pulling back prematurely. Movie chain AMC just announced nearly all of its theaters will be open tomorrow. And as schools also open under strict safety guidelines, the nation's education secretary says schools in the fall will look more like what it was pre-COVID.

In Oklahoma's Boise City, where most of the town voted for former President Donald Trump, some people there say they will absolutely not get immunized against COVID. Very few are confident about the vaccines. One person even said he thought the vaccine would give him the coronavirus.

CNN National Correspondent Gary Tuchman finds out why.


TUCHMAN (voice over): It's breakfast time in Boise City, Oklahoma, and I have this question.

Does anybody in this restaurant think it's a good idea to take the vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Raise your hand if you think it's a good idea. Anyone here, it's a good idea to take the vaccine? Raise your hand if you think it's a good idea?

Not one person here thinks it's a good idea? Complete quiet.

Boise City is the county seat of sparsely populated Cimarron County, Oklahoma, where 92 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump on Election Day, the highest percentage in a state where all 77 counties went for Trump.

What do you think about the vaccine? Are you going to take the vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Tell me why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't trust the government and I don't trust Biden.

TUCHMAN: Chad and Misty Hughes are husband and wife, neither of them plan to get the vaccine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just don't want to.

TUCHMAN: Why don't you want to, if you don't mind me asking?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because, when I take the flu shot, I usually get the flu. So there's no reason to take it.

TUCHMAN: So are you saying you think you'll get COVID by taking the COVID vaccine?


TUCHMAN: Are you -- why are you thinking that? The research doesn't show that at all. It shows it keeps people safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just my choice.

TUCHMAN: These women are sisters, and they too are doubters.

Why are you doubtful?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just started rolling them out.

TUCHMAN: Well, yes, but this has been a worldwide effort.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you implying that the flu can be cured, but still hundreds of thousands of people die from the flu?

TUCHMAN: Well, yes, a lot of people die from the flu but not nearly as much as COVID. This is a horrible pandemic and this is like an amazing vaccine, these vaccines have come out, they're saving lives.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would just agree to disagree on this subject, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just -- I'm just not. I'm not going to take it.

TUCHMAN: What if President Trump came out and was very robust, and said take the vaccine, I took it even though I didn't tell anybody about it, it was done secretly but I think you should take it. He's said it a little bit. But he hasn't been robust. If he was robust, and said, take it. Would you?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump's a liberal New Yorker. Why would we listen to him either?

TUCHMAN: Did you vote for him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was the best option.

TUCHMAN: No matter where we went, enthusiasm for the vaccine wasn't easy to find, despite this front page pronouncement.

This is the Boise City News, your newspaper, and here's an article, COVID vaccines are available in your hospital. They want people to get them. Are you going to get one?


TUCHMAN: How come?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really don't ever get vaccines.

TUCHMAN: We did find the boss in the grocery store though who gave us a different answer but with a caveat.

Are you going to take the vaccine?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have taken it.

TUCHMAN: And what made you decide to take it?


TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN, Boise City, Oklahoma.


KEILAR: His wife. Joining me now to talk more about the town's resistance and its effect on keeping new cases -- new case numbers down, Dr. Noel Williams. He is the director of Oklahoma City's COVID- 19 task force.

I love that man's answer, it was his wife who talked him into it, but I wonder if you were at all surprised by what we saw in that piece, that many Oklahomans, at least in that town, feel this way.

DR. NOEL WILLIAMS, DIRECTOR, OKLAHOMA CITY'S COVID-19 TASK FORCE: Well, Brianna, thanks, first of all, for having me on. The answer is I'm not that surprised because people are very afraid about any kind of change and any kind of vaccine.

But the positive is, we actually are making tremendous progress in Oklahoma, we've administered 1.5 million injections with over -- almost a million people have gotten both of their injections, and that's thanks to our state health department and the undersecretary of health, Keith Reed, and the whole governor's team.

The thing we're encountering though is there's just resistance and I think you'd find that there's probably resistance in a lot of small communities across the United States and there's resistance in even in a practice like mine in Oklahoma City, because people are just afraid of the vaccine, they have auto immune disease, they've had flu shots that haven't worked, and that's what we've really focused on as a task force with the state is what do we do next?


That's the big question.

And so what we feel like we have to do is we have to get the vaccine to provider offices. And so now that the federal government approved Johnson & Johnson, that vaccine is so much easier to give, and it's a one-time dose, it's highly effective.

And I just want to emphasize too is you already know probably quite well, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are probably the two greatest scientific events practically in medical history. I mean, they're phenomenally effective vaccines, they're phenomenally safe. But, again, you have to take two, and they're -- it's new so they're scary.

But our goal is to get that last mile, to quote the undersecretary of health here, and get those vaccines into doctor's offices. Because you heard those people say, I don't trust the government. Well, you know who they'll still trust? They'll trust their nurse practitioner. They'll trust their P.A. They'll trust their doctor.

KEILAR: And that is why the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as you point out, is so important because it can go -- it doesn't take this deep freeze, it's just easier and this is something that could go to a doctor's office without there being waste because the conditions are not, perhaps, ideal for those other vaccines.

So I wonder, so then when you listen to people who said what they said in that piece that my colleague, Gary, did, are these folks -- do you see them as like, look, these people are just not going to be persuadable when they hold this kind of opinion, or do you think, yes, these are people who can be persuadable but maybe only by their family doctor or by the nurse practitioner that they've known for 20 years?

WILLIAMS: And just for my personal experience, talking to my patients about it, and members of our task force who are all very strong clinicians, I think it's going to take the personal touch. I think it's -- that's the key step because some of these people, because I've done this, you just have to sit down and go through the data with them and explain that these are really safe, and you may have heard this over here, and this over there, but no, it really is a good idea, and you explain it in detail that, in a nonthreatening way, you're trying to incorporate them into the process versus telling them what to do. Because in Oklahoma, I mean, people don't like being told what to do anyway because we're all kind of strong minded, so educate them.

And I think we're going to get the vast -- I would bet the vast majority of those people, once they're with their provider will get the vaccine, but it needs to be done -- everything is about compassion and understanding and empathy and letting them know that you consider their fears and can address them and make them feel comfortable with the choice to get the vaccines. And I think once we get it into the smaller communities, which -- a big shout-out to the Coast Guard, which is helping our state of all things to get the data stuff done in these small offices, we're going to have hopefully between 500 and 700 physician offices up and running by April, or, again, provider offices, nurse practitioners. So we'll hopefully get there.

But, no, it's -- you're -- that's a great story because that's what people feel and they're scared. And we have -- it's not just -- we have to talk with them, and not at them.

KEILAR: Such a good point, Dr. Williams, this is where the nation's doctors and nurse practitioners come in, and we really, really appreciate your perspective on this.

WILLIAMS: Oh, well thank you very much for having me and thanks for doing the story.

KEILAR: Of course, and thank you for being with us. President Biden confronting both Russia and China as Vladimir Putin responds to Biden calling him a killer.