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President Biden Visits CDC. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 19, 2021 - 14:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It is the top of the hour. I am Brianna Keilar.

And in moments, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the CDC, as the agency sets its long-awaited recommendations for reopening schools safely. One big change is the six feet of social distancing is now becoming three, at least for elementary school students.

For middle school children and older and communities with higher transmission rates, six feet is still recommended.

And moments ago, the CDC director emphasized, masks are must, no matter the age of the student.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: I want to emphasize that these recommendations are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask-wearing. CDC continues to recommend at least six feet of distance between teachers and staff and other adults in the school buildings and between adults and students.


KEILAR: Let's go to Atlanta now, where CNN's Jeff Zeleny is.

We know, Jeff, that the president and vice president are using their time in Atlanta to meet with Asian American leaders following that devastating shooting spree that killed eight people, including six Asian women.

Who exactly are the president and vice president meeting?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, President Biden and Vice President Harris will be on the campus here of Emory University meeting with several Asian community leaders, several state legislators as well.

And that is a reflection of the rising political influence of the Asian population here in Georgia, which makes it about 3 percent of the population. They were very critical in the election. And they are speaking out very forcefully about those horrific shootings earlier this week. But the president and vice president will be sitting down with these community leaders to hear about the rising violent cases long before the shootings, and they are calling for the White House to draw more attention to this. There's been much discussion about, is this a hate crime, is this not a hate crime?

The White House has stopped short of saying it is. And officials tell me one reason they are doing that is, they do not want to interfere in the investigation of this case.

But the -- there are other officials saying this should be investigated as a hate crime. So that is one certainly point of discussion.

But, first and foremost, this White House just drawing attention to the rising episodes of violence really over the last year in the pandemic targeting Asian Americans. So, that is what President Biden and Vice President Harris are doing here, certainly interrupting their previously scheduled trip, really throwing out that schedule.

They were going to be here to talk about the COVID relief bill to tout the benefits of that. That rally for tonight was postponed, so they can have that meeting here on the campus of Emory University.

KEILAR: Jeff, I'm going to have you pause for just a moment so we can listen to the CDC director.


WALENSKY: ... reinvigorated our whole-of-government response.

It has reinvigorated me personally and this entire agency. Your support for CDC is so important to the hundreds of CDC staff and leaders listening today into this session.

CDC has a long history of leading our nation through unprecedented public health challenges. We are so grateful for your working so hard for fighting to provide the critical resources we need to end this pandemic.

As you know, CDC has provided substantial support for vaccination implementation, which is achieving increasing numbers of shots in arms week by week, and doing so in an equitable way.


And today, day 58...


WALENSKY: ... we hit our goal of 100 million vaccinations in arms.

I am so energized by the future. And yet we still have so much more work to do. While you're here, I'd like to give you a few updates regarding some of our other COVID-19 response activities, those you may be less familiar with. First, Dr. Henry Walke, the tireless and completely unflappable

incident manager, will give us a brief update on the state of the pandemic and the CDC response. And then Dr. Leandris Liburd, with CDC response chief health equity officer, will talk about some of our early community-based engagements supporting our response.

So, with that, thank you. And I will turn it over to Dr. Walke.


Thank you, Dr. Walensky.

And, wow, what a pleasure. Thank you for coming. And just really welcome to CDC.

And before I get started, I have the pleasure really to speak here. But there are responders in this room and thousands of responders on the phone who really have worked tirelessly, work hard, sacrificed, and their families have sacrificed as well. So I really want to acknowledge that.

I want to go over three slides with you. This one is looking at cases per 100,000 population. And it's in a pattern of the U.S. So, each box, small box, is a state or a jurisdiction. So, Maine is up here, Florida is here, Alaska is on the top left there, California on the top -- on the lower left, and then Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands here in the ocean somewhere.

So, on the X axis of each box is cases per 100,000. And on the Y axis cases per 100,000. On the X axis is time. So we're looking at cases over 30 days. So, in the colors, just to -- really indicating the level of transmission, so red and orange, high levels, alarming, of transmission. Yellow and blue are more reassuring.

So, a couple things to point out here. One is, there's a lot of red, there's a lot of orange, so still a lot of transmission throughout the country at the moment. But you will see, in the Northeast region, over time, really high elevation of case rates and sustained over time.

If we look at New York City or New York or Rhode Island, we have high case rates that are maintained over time, vs. this -- the Southeast, Georgia and South Carolina, have high rates. But in the last two weeks, we see a decline.

Oregon, over there is in the yellow. And then California, the rates are lower and continue to come down. So there's a lot of regional variability across the country. And so -- and we're tracking this, and we're reaching out to individual states as we see increases.

Also, lately, in the past week-and-a-half, Michigan and Minnesota start to have a slight increase in their case rates. And so we're reaching out to those states, trying to understand what's happening and see if we can help them more.

Let's move to this one, the community transmission levels. So that's by state and territory. This is by county. So on the Y axis, we have over 3,000 counties in the country. So that's a count of counties.

And then, on the X axis, we have time, from January 2020 to March of 2021. And the colors here similar to the other slide, red and orange are alarming, yellow and blue are reassuring. And so you will see, in terms of counties, low transmission.

And this community transmission, I should say, also includes cases per 100,000, but also percent positivity, so, in each county, of all the tests that are done, what percent of them are positive, 10 percent, 5 percent, 2 percent. So we connect those two together and come up with this transmission level.

So the good news is that it's going down over here. Here's where we are now. But you see, if you let your eyes follow the contour of the red, you will see the three peaks of the epidemic in the U.S.

Now we have about 27 percent of counties in the U.S. are moderate or low. And that continues to increase every week. This is important to us, because we connect these community transmission levels through our guidance.

So, we released today or updated our K-12 guidance and allowing at least three feet in the classroom for children. But, as community transmission levels increase, we have additional recommendations, more testing of teachers and staff and students, as well as more restrictions around extracurricular activities, because we have seen a lot of outbreaks basically with sports in schools.


The last slide I wanted to talk about is this one. And you may have heard a lot about variants. And the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to mutate. And some of these mutations are worrisome.

And so, we have been following these mutations over time. And some of these mutations may affect our vaccine efficacy or effectiveness, our therapeutics, whether they're effective or not, our drugs, and also our tests. Are they useful or not?

And so, we're tracking using whole genome sequencing these variants across the whole country. And we're trying to escalate and expand that capacity now and hope to have a lot more capacity in the future.

So, just looking, this is nationwide. We're looking at variants nationwide. So, this is -- we're looking -- on the Y axis is the variant share. On the X axis is week. This is time zero, today. So, we're looking back six weeks, 12 weeks. So, this is three months ago.

So, three months ago, this variant in teal, let's call it, B1.2, was wild type, so been circulating in the U.S. for a long time. But you see it's being replaced with this variant in olive here, B117. This is the one that we're concerned about in the U.K. and Europe and is more transmissible, more infectious.

So, we're in a race with our vaccination rates, our mitigation, continuing to mask and distance, as we get this type of emerging variant, like B117. We think B117 will be the predominant variant in the U.S. probably by the end of March, of this month.

Now, here, in region two, I want to show you there's variability in the regions. Region two includes New York and New Jersey primarily. In region two, we see a pattern where this is wild type being replaced by B117. But here in orange, there's another variant that's emerging, B526, 1526. And why is this important?

Because -- so, you see, and it's actually a pretty substantial proportion now. This particular variant is resistant against one of our monoclonals, one of our drugs that we're using for therapeutics to treat.

So, right now, we're discussing within the U.S. government, big U.S. government, around...

BIDEN: Make it clear, it's therapeutics, not the vaccine.

WALKE: Correct?

BIDEN: Because these guys are picking that up.

WALKE: Yes, that's right.

BIDEN: Very important.

WALKE: So it's a drug. It's a drug. It's a drug that's used early, but even before you go into a hospital, one of these drugs that kind of prevent hospitalization, or might prevent death.

BIDEN: Please understand, I wasn't correcting you. I just know, from experience, that...


WALKE: No, thank you.




WALKE: No. No, thank you very much.

So, anyway, this one -- this 526 is resistant against one of these monoclonal drugs. And we're going to give recommendations around changing to separate drugs, maybe combination drugs, that are -- that will be effective against this particular variant.

So, I just -- I want to end there. And we can talk more if you have questions. Do you have any questions? OK, thank you.

So, let me turn it over to Dr. Liburd.

DR. LEANDRIS LIBURD, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: Thanks, Henry. And let me add my welcome to you, President Biden and Vice President

Harris, for being with us in this historic moment in public health. It is such an honor, so, it will in our history forever. So thank you for your presence.

We observed early in the pandemic that racial and ethnic minority populations were experiencing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19, not only infection, but also severe illness and death.

And so within the initial focus on testing and educating communities about COVID-19 and the mitigation measures, last summer, we funded three national organizations to accelerate the dissemination of prevention messages in communities of color.

And if you look at the first slide, the organizations were the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, Proceed (ph), Incorporated, which is a national Hispanic and Latino serving organization, and the CDC Foundation, which allowed us to reach historically black colleges and universities and other academic institutions.

These organizations were uniquely situated to connect with other national minority organizations with easy access to local community groups that were trusted and that were longstanding institutions, and African American, Hispanic and Latino, and Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian communities.


So, by partnering with just three national organizations and tapping into their networks, we were able to reach early on in the pandemic racial and ethnic minority communities in 14 states.

And you can see that in the second slide. So, the leadership from local organizations, including HBCUs, we were able to increase access to testing, help community members understand contact tracing, make available more isolation options, and increase access to health care, particularly through federally qualified community health centers, for persons without a regular source of care.

These community partners were able to reach persons -- if you look at our third slide, they were able to reach persons with underlying medical conditions, essential and front-line workers, in addition to health care workers, with restaurant and grocery store workers, construction workers, farmworkers.

And they were able to reach immigrants and migrants and also to be able to engage early on faith-based organizations. So, because of the level of community engagement, there was increased language access by translating materials. And we have translated our prevention messages into dozens of languages at this point, and also by using methods and spokespersons who were known and trusted.

And then the national organizations and the academic partners were there to ensure that the information was both medically and scientifically sound. I'm sure you're aware that CDC just announced that we will be awarding

$2.25 billion to address COVID-19 health disparities and communities at high risk for infection and severe illness. And the lessons that we have learned through these projects can be applied to both enhance and accelerate reducing these disparities and achieving health equity in underserved populations.


BIDEN: One of the things that caught my attention, I think we talked about this very early on, within the first six weeks of the virus becoming aware to everybody and people starting to get sick, and some of them die, was I got a call from a mayor, a really great guy, real hardworking fellow in Detroit, saying to me: Mr. President, you don't understand."

This was even before -- I wasn't president, then, actually, called Mr. Vice President. He said: "I don't think people understand. My community is now about 80 percent African-American, and we're dying and getting sick at a much higher rate than the white community here or any other community."

And I brought that up initially, before I put together a group that you're leading, helping lead. And no one wanted to hear it. And, remember, we had trouble getting your predecessors to track it. But what you're doing really makes a difference. It makes a gigantic difference, as the vice president knows as well or better than anybody.

It really, really makes a difference. So, thank you.

LIBURD: Thank you.

BIDEN: You're welcome.

LIBURD: Dr. Walensky.


WALENSKY: ... questions for us?

BIDEN: No, but why are you all standing?


BIDEN: That's the first one. You don't have to stand for us.

Why don't you sit down, for real? Get comfortable. No, they have chairs. They have chairs.

But that's the first question. And the second question is, why did only one person clap? I don't know.


(CROSSTALK) BIDEN: You know what I mean?

We can do this -- as the doc knows, you are all too serious here. We owe you a gigantic debt of gratitude. And we will for a long, long, long time, because I hope this is the beginning of the end of not paying attention to what's going to come again and again and again and again.

We can go build the walls. We can have the most powerful armies in the world. We can -- but we cannot stop, we cannot stop we cannot stop these viruses, other than be aware where they are and move quickly on them when we find them.

And the one thing that I -- the reason I am so happy to have been able to -- anyway, to have the doc here, is that science is back. No, all kidding aside, think about it.


For the longest time, not just as it relates the CDC, but science, science was viewed as sort of an appendage to anything else we were talking about. But it's back.

And I just want you to have some confidence that it's not only are the vice president and I and the whole team and the whole COVID team, writ large, committed, but the American people have moved. The American people have moved.

This is a bipartisan effort now. Now, it isn't showing itself in the way senators and congressman vote, but the public, the public -- we were talking about it on the helicopter, on the airplane.


BIDEN: The public, in a bipartisan way, when I came up with this $1.9 billion for this whole COVID and the economic relief side of it as well, we were told that it could never pass, we would never get any help.

Well, we didn't get any help in the Senate or the House. But you have 55 percent of the Republicans in America supporting it. You have 90- some percent of the Democrats, 80-some -- the point is, the public is thankful to you, because it's about science. That's what they understand. They understand.

And we're not going back to the old days. Even if tomorrow, the whole administration changed, I think things have -- you have changed things. You have changed them in a way that are going to make everybody healthier in this country. And when we have a crisis, you're prepared to meet it, because you speak truth and science to power. And that is the power.

So, all the folks listening, I guess you said there's hundreds, or if not thousands of people listening.

WALKE: Thousands, yes. BIDEN: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

There's an entire generation coming up that is learning from what you have done. I don't just mean learning about how to deal with the virus, learning about it makes a difference to tell the truth, to follow the science, and just wherever it takes you, and just be honest about it.

And that's what you have all done. So, we owe you a debt of gratitude at all the lives you have saved.

I carry in my pocket, as doc knows, a -- my schedule. On the back of my schedule, I have listed every single day with the exact number of people who have died from COVID the day before, I mean, cumulative. We're at 535,217 dead as of yesterday, last night.

It's got to stop. But you're slowing it. It's stopping.


BIDEN: And it really, really matters. That's more people than have died in all of World War -- Americans -- all of World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11 combined, combined in a year, in a year.

And you are the Army. You're the Navy, you're the Marines. You're the Coast Guard. I really mean it. This is a war. And you are the front- line troops. It sounds silly to say it that way. It sounds sort of grand but think about it.

And, finally, we got the vaccines, we got the companies together, and then they didn't have the wherewithal to be able to produce all the vaccines. So, there is this thing called the Defense Production Act. As president, I'm allowed to enforce it.

So, I had people saying, stop making that and start making these. We finally put together -- did you ever think you would see the day, because you're involved with medicine, see two major drug companies cooperate for the good of the country? One invents -- one come up with a drug and the other one say, well, we will manufacture it for you?

So, what you're doing really, really, really matters, not only -- I will end with this -- not only in saving lives, but changing the mind- set of the country, changing the mind-set of the country.

And it's affected everything, not just affected people's health. It's affected their attitude, the attitude about what we can do as a country.

Everybody thought that I was -- they didn't quite understand when I announced that we were going to -- we had over 100 million shots in less than -- you remember, when I said we're going to -- my goal was to have 100 million shots in people's 100 arms in first 100 days as president, and everybody said, that sounds -- yes, right.

Now it's, he should been more...


BIDEN: Why didn't they say more? You know what I mean?

But here's the point. The point is that it is changing the way we look at a whole range of things.


And when I announced it, everybody but the vice president wondered why I also pointed out that we landed a rover on Mars at the same time, because this is the United States of America, for God's sake. There is nothing, nothing, nothing we cannot do when we do it together.

And that's what you're showing everybody.

So, I came to say thank you. I really mean it.

I have a whole lot of nice notes on here about the science, but I came here to say thank you.


BIDEN: Because you're not only -- you're changing the psyche of the country. You're saving lives. You're saving lives. But you're changing the psyche of the country.

And this, as I said, it's not being -- I don't think we're being chauvinistic about our country, but this is -- think about it. We're the only country in the world that has, every time we have gone into a crisis, have come out stronger immediately after the crisis than when we went in before the crisis.

Think about it. That's who we are.

Closing comment. I was with Xi Jinping in China. I spent more time with him, I'm told, than any world leader, because he was vice president, I was vice president. His president and mine wanted us to get to know each other because it was clear he was going to become the president.

I spent -- traveled 17,000 miles with him in China and the United States and in Asia generally, and met with him, I guess, they tell me, 24, 25 hours alone, just me and an interpreter, and he and an interpreter.

And, by the way, I handed in all my notes.


BIDEN: Minor point.

But all kidding aside, he asked me on the Tibetan plateau, and actually said to me: "Can you define America for me?"

And I said: "Yes, in one word." And I mean it, one word, possibilities, possibilities. That's what you guys believe in, possibilities, based on science and hard data.

And so, I just thank you for not only your intellectual skills, but your heart, your heart, your determination. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

And I shouldn't have done that, because I wanted to yield to my vice president, who's smarter than I am.


HARRIS: Well, there's not much to add to that, Mr. President.



HARRIS: No, I -- but I will say that I do believe that this administration, with the leadership of our president, is without any question about science.

And everyone here, knows before the president was president, he was dedicated to science, the Moonshot, the -- and so -- and my mother was a scientist, I grew up -- the first job I had, little known fact, was cleaning pipettes in her lab.

I was awful. She fired me.


HARRIS: And then there was this moment of global crisis. And the president takes calls with leaders around the world. We talk with people around the world.

And they have named their centers of disease control after this center of disease control. They put their -- the name of their country and they call it CDC. You all are a model for the world around what can be done, based on a pursuit of that which will uplift and improve human condition and life. And you guys do this work around the clock.

And so we are here to say thank you, because it's not easy. You're making difficult decisions right now, some of the most difficult, but you're making those decisions, based on science, based on hard work and based on a commitment to the public health.

And therein lies part of the nobility of your work. You do this work on behalf of people you will never meet, on behalf of people who will never know your names, because you care about our country and their well-being.

So, we are here to thank you. Thank you.

BIDEN: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you so very much.

WALENSKY: Thank you. Thank you for your visit. Thank you for reinvigorating us.

I can promise you, as long as this team of people are here, as long as I am here, we will bake into the cake of everything we do our commitment to equity, to science, and to bring back the health to the American people.

BIDEN: And if you all don't learn to sit, you're never going to make it.


BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Bye-bye.

HARRIS: Thank you.


KEILAR: All right, I want to bring in -- I want to bring in Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I want to bring in Dr. Sanjay Gupta to talk about some of what we just heard.

First off, just what stood out? I know there's one thing that stood out to me, but I want to know what stood out to you.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first off, I have been in this -- this sort of command center room many times at the CDC.