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Workplaces, Businesses Grapple with CDC's New Mask Guidance; Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) Ally Pleads Guilty, Admits to Soliciting Sex from a Minor; Biden Speaks on White House COVID Response, Vaccinations. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired May 17, 2021 - 13:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From their lockdowns have done.



JOHN KING, CNN INSIDE POLITICS: Thanks for joining us today on Inside Politics. I hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage as President Biden is expected to speak any minute now. Stay with us. Have a good day.

ANA CABRERA, CNN NEWSROOM: Hello, and thanks for joining us on this Monday, I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

Any moment now, President Biden will speak on the administration's COVID-19 response as cases are going down and vaccinations going up. He'll announce that the U.S. will share millions more vaccines with other countries, at least 20 million more doses by the end of next month.

But he's also speaking at a time when we're seeing a lot of confusion over the CDC's new mask guidance for vaccinated Americans. So here's where we stand. About 37 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. So, the majority of Americans are not. And that's a dilemma for businesses and local leaders now grappling with whether to keep a mask mandate despite the new recommendations.

Some experts worry we are ditching the masks too soon, even as average daily COVID infections fall to their lowest point since June of last year.

CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us. Elizabeth, how are businesses and states now navigating this new CDC mask guidance?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Ana, it's interesting. Some of them are taking the guidance and saying, yes, let's go with that, if you're vaccinated, take your masks off. Others are saying, not so fast, for example, Costco and Trader Joe's would fall into the first categories. Certainly, there are plenty of employers that are telling their employees, hey, come in, you still need to wear your mask. Now, you were talking about the announcement last week, that sort of surprise announcement that some people felt came out of nowhere, where the CDC said, in most situations, you can take off your mask, if you're vaccinated. A lot of questions, where did that come from? So let's take a look at where the CDC says they got the science behind that decision.

First of all, recent studies have shown that the vaccine is effective against both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID. That last part is important because there had been a concern that people were getting vaccinated, then getting infected, and just weren't feeling anything, and might be running around and spreading it in large numbers. That turns out, it appears, not to be true.

However, there have been unusual cases, but it does happen, where you have breakthrough cases of COVID. However, I know I'm going back and forth here, but stay with me, when you swab the noses of people who got COVID after getting vaccinated, they don't have a really high viral load. There's not a lot in there, which makes it less likely that they'll spread it.

Also, Ana, you referenced the lower the case numbers going down, there's just less COVID out there. It's gone down about 48 percent in the past two weeks. Ana?

CABRERA: We love to hear that. Thank you, Elizabeth Cohen, for laying it all out there. Again, we're awaiting the president's remarks today.

Let's bring in the nation's largest union of registered nurses official here, after I read you the statement. That union is condemning the CDC's updated mask guidance. The executive director of the National Nurses United says in a statement, quote, this newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health and threatens the lives of patients, nurses and other frontline workers across the country. Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.

And joining us now is the co-president of the National Nurses United Union, Deborah Burger, and she is also a registered nurse. Thank you, Deborah, for being with us.

The CDC says the mask guidance was based on the science. You don't believe that?

DEBORAH BURGER, CO-PRESIDENT, NATIONAL NURSES UNION: Well, there's a number of articles and research out there indicating the contrary. And what we know is --

CABRERA: Really?

BURGER: -- as nurses, we use the precautionary principle, and because of the variants that are out there and the variants that are likely to still develop because, as you pointed, out a large portion of -- globally, are not immunized at this point. And even in the United States, only 37 percent relatively are vaccinated. So that leaves a lot of squishiness in the hard science at this point, and it's sort of like Swiss cheese when you have these different layers of protection, it's not just immunizations but it's barriers, the masks, the distancing, all of those things that go into protecting people.

And when you're asking frontline workers to be at work every single day and be exposed to the potential for coming down with the virus, we're concerned. And it doesn't even take into consideration that even if you get a mild case, you can still have lung, kidney, heart damage and long-term COVID sequela.


So we're still very --

CABRERA: I can understand your concern. I understand your concern. But based on the evidence that we have that the CDC is basing its guidance on, these vaccines are very effective against the variants at this point and there is very little evidence that these breakthrough cases are leading to any kind of long-term damage of these organs, as you just mentioned.

I know that is a worry of yours but there is no evidence to suggest that that is the case. In fact, there's evidence that is quite the contrary, that the breakthrough cases are primarily asymptomatic or mild with very few leading to hospitalization at this point.

I know because you're a registered nurse, what is your biggest fear, personally?

BURGER: Personally, we're also concerned about having to police this policy because it is voluntary, right? You can choose to wear a mask or not. They're asking people that are not immunized to wear a mask. But you can't look at somebody and say, you're vaccinated and you're not, so you need to wear a mask. And we already know that the honor system for wearing masks during this entire pandemic has been a failure. It has to be mandated in order for it to happen.

So, we're extremely concerned that they've taken one tool in the arsenal from spreading this pandemic away from us. And we're just now getting some kind of relief as health care workers that have been on the frontline for over a year with this pandemic raging, and we would like to not see another surge because people have let down their guard. And we're extremely concerned because there're still 600 people a day dying from this disease and there's over 3,500 new cases -- 35,000 new cases a day.

So it's not gone and we are worried.

CABRERA: At what point would you be comfortable then for the masks to go bye-bye for people who are fully vaccinated?

BURGER: When we have a policy in place that makes sure that all communities of color have the vaccine available to them, when we have clear guidance that has been worked out with the states so they're not scrambling, like they have been in the last few days to come up with their plan and make sure that everybody that needs the vaccine has gotten it.

CABRERA: Are you fully vaccinated, and what percentage --


CABRERA: -- of nurses who are part of your union are fully vaccinated?

BURGER: The nurses in our union are largely vaccinated and because we know that it's going to save lives. So, yes, we're taking all the precautions that we can and we want to make sure that everybody else also gets the vaccine that is needed to protect them and their families.

CABRERA: I hear you. Deborah Burger, thank you for being with us, and thank you for all you do. We really appreciate it.

BURGER: Okay, thanks you.

CABRERA: Joining us is Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, an internal medicine specialist, viral researcher and a CNN Medical Analyst.

Dr. Rodriguez, good to see you. You tweeted about the CDC's updated mask guidance, without a precise and clear way of knowing who is fully vaccinated, this is all the CDC just gave private businesses, and we can see this nasty can of worms. What more were you hoping for from the CDC?

DR. JORGE RODRIGUEZ, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I think, unlike what you just spoke about, I think that there is science. There are three basic studies that say that in real world, you know, the spread of virus by those that are vaccinated is super low and the infection rate for those that are vaccinated is very low. What I think was very abrupt was how the news was released, which basically stated, like in that tweet, that it's businesses that are sort of shocked and don't know what to do.

I would have preferred that there was a heads-up that said, look, things are going so well that perhaps by July 1st, or, you know, July 4th, we are going to not recommend mask mandates, which would have given people time to review their policies and to see what worked for them. That is what I most objected to.

Yes. I think that, right now, cases are still high, even though Sunday, it was the lowest number of cases, I think, only 17,000 new cases, the lowest since June. So we're definitely improving, drastically and quickly, but I think this mandate came about too quickly, too abruptly.


CABRERA: Do you think it had to do with all the pressure the CDC was facing prior to this new announcement, saying that they were being too conservative on masks? RODRIGUEZ: I was not a fly on the wall in the room, but my cynical suspicion thinks that, yes, that there's a certainly amount of political pressure that unfortunately has been influencing scientific decisions since the beginning of the pandemic.

Listen, don't get me wrong, I think that the Biden administration and the new CDC director are head and shoulders above what we had prior to this administration. But, you know, there's pressure from everybody. They want to just rip off the masks and live life normally.

And I have a big, you know, surprise for everybody, it's going to be a long time before things can be absolutely normal.

CABRERA: Is it too late to, I guess, close that can of worms? I mean, could the president come out today and do some clarification and help smooth out this situation?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it is because people have taken the news that benefits them, and they're running with it. As you know, there are people that are going into grocery stores without wearing masks, people even in airplanes, you know, where there are mandates that you still have to wear it.

The nurse who just spoke, God bless her, because they really are in the front line, the CDC did say that hospital and medical saying -- hospital and medical settings, all people still, whether vaccinated or not, have to wear masks. And that should be some sort of solace, I think, for health care workers.

CABRERA: And this new mask guidance essentially is creating an honor system for people, right, but even prior to this update, the polling has shown that Americans who weren't vaccinated were also more likely to go without a mask when leaving their house, compared to vaccinated Americans. So who should be most concerned about this?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, again, you know, I said this before and people are like you are no mask shaming, no, I'm not. What I'm saying basically is that the people at greatest risk are the people that are not wearing masks who have not been vaccinated.

The virus is bouncing around. It is going to land on people. And it's not going to infect people that are vaccinated. It is going to infect people that are unvaccinated. So now, to be quite honest, the people that are unvaccinated that are not wearing masks are probably at higher risk than they were months ago, because now the population for the virus to infect has gotten smaller and it is slanting toward people that are not vaccinated.

CABRERA: Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, thank you, and, again, we're awaiting the president's remarks in moments, we'll bring that to you live.

Breaking just hours ago, an ex-Florida tax collector officially pleading guilty to sex trafficking and other charges, why that's a problem for his friend, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz.

Plus, no end in sight, fighting intensifies between Israel and the Palestinians and the pressure is rising on the White House to help stop the violence.

And the mystery deepens, CNN learns of a new case of a strange illness impacting U.S. intelligence officials and it happened at the White House gates.



CABRERA: An ally of Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Joel Greenberg, has now pleaded guilty to six federal charges, admitting to a judge he knowingly solicited and paid for sex with a minor and claims he knows of other adult men who did too. Greenberg plea is part of a deal with prosecutors in which he promised to give them substantial assistance with other investigations.

CNN's Paula Reid is live in Orlando for us. We just heard from Greenberg's lawyer. What did he say?

PAULRA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, he was asked the question that everyone is wondering, did his client, Joel Greenberg, implicate Congressman Gaetz in this investigation?

Now, we know from the plea agreement that Greenberg has told investigators that not only did he have sex with a minor at least seven times, that he then introduced that same minor to other men who paid her for sex. And the question has been, who are those other men? But when Greenberg's defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, was asked just moments ago, he wouldn't say. He wouldn't give any details about who those other men are or whether they should be worried.

But Fritz Scheller has previously said that the congressman should not be feeling too comfortable given the fact that one of his closest associates, Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector down here in Florida, in Seminole County, is cooperating.

Greenberg is in jail. He will remain in jail until later this summer when finds out how long his prison sentence will be. And in today's hearing, the judge noted that a lot of his sentence will really depend on how much and the extent to which he cooperates with the federal government.

So, for the next two months, a close associate of Congressman Gaetz has every incentive to provide all the information he has to investigators. But Congressman Gaetz has not been charged. Of course, he's denied any wrongdoing. And his team has really attacked Joel Greenberg's credibility, pointing out correctly that Greenberg has admitted to falsely accusing other people of being pedophiles.

Look, Ana, Greenberg is not a perfect witness, certainly it would be easy to undermine his credibility, but we know from talking to sources that this case, the investigation into Congressman Gaetz, it isn't solely based on what Joel Greenberg says, it's based on hundreds of documents and other witnesses. And right now, we know prosecutors are looking at all of this evidence and deciding whether they have enough to charge the congressman. CABRERA: All right, Paula Reid, thank you.

Now former Federal Prosecutor and CNN Legal Analyst Jennifer Rodgers is joining us. Jennifer, Greenberg went from 33 federal charges to pleading guilty to six.


That's a lot he was able to kind of push aside. So what does that tell you about the cooperation prosecutors expect from him?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Ana, it's not just the fact that he got out of so many charges but that he will get a letter at the end of his cooperation that the judge will consider an imposing sentence. And what it tells me is this, they plan to use him in prosecuting at least one other person and maybe more.

It also tells me that they think he'll be an effective cooperator, meaning that they believe him, and that's for the reasons that Paula laid out. It's not just the evidence of what Greenberg is actually telling them, it's all the corroborating evidence, some of which was described in the cooperation agreement, text messages, other communications, other documentation, backing up what Greenberg is telling investigators.

CABRERA: What stood out most to you in this plea agreement?

RODGERS: Probably the level of detail. It's not common, actually, in these agreements to have that level of detail. Usually, you just have more of a bare bones recitation of the allegations, and then in court, during the plea, the defendant might give a little bit more color. But the level of detail including dates of all of these communications that prosecutors have suggests to me that they're really sending a message about the strength of the case that they are almost certain to bring against other people, potentially including Congressman Gaetz.

CABRERA: Now, Congressman Gaetz has not been charged, he has denied any wrongdoing. His name is not mentioned in the 86 pages of this plea deal. What do you read into that?

RODGERS: Nothing at all. Department of Justice regulations say that you do not include the name of someone who hasn't been charged in any public filing. That's to protect their reputation. So, until Matt Gaetz is charged, I would not expect to see his name in any papers filed by the Department of Justice.

CABRERA: Here is what we heard from Gaetz just this weekend.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): And just imagine the irony here. I'm being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors ,yet Congress has reinstituted a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors through earmarks.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CABRERA: Could that kind of talk hurt the congressman at all if he ends up being charged?

RODGERS: Well, listen, any statement of any defendant is admissible for what it's worth if he went to trial in a criminal case, but you expect that any potential criminal defendant would defend themselves by saying they didn't do it. That's kind of what everyone would think would happen. So, you know, I don't think this sort of talk will hurt him. I actually think he's finally being a little bit smart by just giving general allegations, like it didn't happen, I didn't do it, as opposed to some of the details he was offering up earlier.

So, you know, I think we'll hear more of that as this goes on certainly if he is charged. Once he's charged, I expect him to be very vocal in his denials but it will all come down to what the proof is and what we see in court.

CABRERA: And, quickly, if you will, we heard from Paula there that is part of this plea deal Greenberg actually admitted to falsely accusing somebody else of sexual misconduct in 2019. So what does that mean for his credibility and how strong of a witness he could be for prosecutors?

Forgive me, hold that thought, Jennifer. Hold that thought. We have the president speaking. Let's listen.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: A new milestone in our progress against COVID-19 here at home, steps were taken to fight COVID internationally and an important tax cut for families with children under the age of 18, and that's where I'm going to start.

Today is tax day, when everyone's taxes are due. No one likes to pay taxes, I know, but my dad used to say, it's a small price to live in this country. But I want to tell everyone, with children, why as they're filling their taxes -- filing their taxes today, they should know that a new tax cut will be coming their way for work class and middle class folks and very soon.

As everyone knows, I firmly believe, we firmly believe, the need to make our tax system work for the middle class. That's why I think we should ask corporations in the top 1 percent to start paying their fair share, and why we should crack down on millionaires and billionaires who escape taxes by cheating.

But I also think we need to give ordinary families a break, a tax break, to help them with the cost of raising their kids. Most people don't know it but for families with children, we put that tax cut into the American rescue plan, which was signed not long ago. And I signed the tax cut into law in March.

90 percent of the families, all middle class and working class families, will get this tax cut. It's a one-year cut that reduces your taxes by $3,000 a year for each child you have under the age of 18.


Two kids, it's a $6,000 tax cut. And if those kids are under the age of six, you'll actually get $3,600 per child.

So, as you file your taxes today, know that your tax cut is coming. But this -- here's the great news. You won't have to wait until your next year's tax return to get that break. I'm announcing today that on July 15th, on the 15th of every month thereafter throughout the year, you will get deposited in your bank account half of your tax cut at least, $250 per child each month, a direct deposit into your account. So if you're a working family with two kids, you're going to get $500 a month into your bank account on the 15th of every month starting in July. We're getting -- and we are getting you a tax cut this year, now, when you need it, and not have to wait.

And if you get your tax cut refund deposited in your bank account automatically, this tax cut will be put into your account automatically. If not, it will be mailed to you.

In addition to helping Americans hard pressed and working families, experts have told us this will cut child poverty in America in half. This tax cut sends a clear and powerful message to American working families with children, help is here.

Now, let me talk to another milestone in the long battle with COVID. Today, for the first time since the pandemic began, cases, pandemic cases are down in all 50 states, first time. That's right. Thanks a lot to the hard work of so many people, COVID cases are down in all 50 states.

Now, I can't promise that will continue this way. We know there will be advances and setbacks. And we know that there are many flare-ups that could occur. But if the unvaccinated get vaccinated, they will protect themselves and other unvaccinated people around them. If they do not, states with low vaccination rates may see those rates go up, may see this progress reversed.

Ultimately, those who are not vaccinated will end up paying the price. The vaccinated will continue to be protected against severe illnesses but others may not be if you're not vaccinated. But given that the vaccination is convenient and free, it will be a tragedy, and a needless one, to see COVID cases among those who do not get vaccinated go up.

We're not done fighting this virus. We still have tens of millions left to vaccinate. But we are making significant progress. In fact, when tomorrow's vaccination numbers come out, they'll show that 60 percent, 60 percent of the Americans have received at least one shot.

Every day, the light at the end of that tunnel has grown brighter. This vaccination effort has been historic logistical achievement for our nation. And I want to thank the scientists and the researchers, the companies manufacturing the vaccines, the National Guard, the U.S. military, FEMA, the nation's governors, doctors, nurses, pharmacists. I want to thank the American people who have stepped up and done their patriotic duty and gotten vaccinated.

In less than four months, we've gone from less than 6 percent to 60 percent of adults in America with at least one shot. We're seeing the results in live -- we're seeing the results in people's lives and in their livelihoods. Deaths are down from COVID by 81 percent, and also at their lowest level since April of 2020.

As a result of our prompt action to roll out the vaccine and boost the economy, we've gone from stagnation to an economy that is growing faster than it has in nearly 40 years. We've gone from anemic job creation to a record of creation for more -- for a new administration, none has ever created this many jobs in this timeframe.

Progress is undeniable but we're not done yet. And some of the hardest work is ahead. We're still losing too many Americans, and we still have too many unvaccinated people in America.

Last week, the CDC announced that if you're fully vaccinated, you no longer have to wear a mask. It reported that the science now shows that your vaccination protects you as well as being masked or better than being masked. So you can protect yourself from serious illness from COVID by getting vaccinated, or wearing a mask until you're fully vaccinated. Either way, you're protected.


As I said last week, some people may want to continue to wear a mask even if they are fully vaccinated. That's a decision they can make.