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CDC Mask Guidance; Mystery Illness Near White House; Middle East Conflict. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 17, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: It is such a mystery. Bizarre.

Thank you, Natasha Bertrand, for that update.

Thank you all for joining me. I'll see you back here tomorrow. And you can follow me on Twitter at @AnaCabrera in the meantime.

The news continues right now with Alisyn and Victor.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

We begin this hour with the deadly conflict in the Middle East and Gaza, is now entering its second week and showing no signs of stopping, amid pressure to end the violence.

President Biden just announced that he will be speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within the next hour.

CAMEROTA: A senior Hamas leader tells CNN the negotiations for a truce are stalled.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS it will -- quote -- "take some time."

Today, Israeli warplanes bombarded Gaza. The military says they targeted homes of high-ranking members of Hamas in Gaza and nine miles of tunnels. On the other side of the conflict, Israelis in Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon, and Ashdod ran for shelter after dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza.

BLACKWELL: Senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman joins us now from Jerusalem.

Ben, the pressure to get a cease-fire is mounting. What is holding the Israelis and Hamas back from getting to that point?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it appears, at least from the Israeli side, that they have certain objectives they want to achieve, and they haven't achieved them yet.

Over the last 24 hours or so, they have been focusing on what they claim are a network of tunnels. They call it the metro under Gaza that they say Hamas is using to move troops and material and rockets around.

Hamas, for its part, continues to fire these rockets into Israel. Both sides are speaking with the Egyptians, with the Americans and others to try to perhaps work something out.

In the past, essentially, the fighting stops when both sides have reached their threshold of pain. And, certainly, there has been a lot of pain over the last eight days. But, until now, these attempts at trying to broker or mediate not necessarily a cease-fire, but just at least a few hours of calm, to allow humanitarian goods to get into Gaza, for instance, have simply failed.

CAMEROTA: Ben, the Israelis are trying to explain and defend hitting that building that housed press offices, the Associated Press and Al- Jazeera.

Have they presented any evidence that Hamas was there?

WEDEMAN: They have said a lot of words. An unnamed Israeli military officials spoke to the foreign media today to try to explain why this 12-story building was brought down.

He tried to differentiate between targeted strikes, the kind I have seen many times before, where a certain window is the target of a rocket and it goes right through it and kills whoever they're trying to kill, and, on other instances, they want to bring down an entire building because there are several targets within it.

But what is lacking, beyond words, is evidence. Even U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he has not actually seen the evidence or the reason why Israel brought it down.

I think the United States, as well as we, the media, would like to know exactly why it was done. But even beyond that, it still doesn't seem comprehensible, given the level of damage. The building was simply brought down to rubble and dust in the streets.

And on top of that, when you destroy an entire building, a 12-store building -- a 12-story building, there's a lot of damage to the areas around it. And, in fact, today, a building was hit in Gaza that Israel said housed Hamas military intelligence, but that building also included the Qatari Red Crescent Society across the street, was one of the Ministry of Health's main COVID testing centers, which was also severely damaged.

So, the Israelis may have specific targets, but there's a lot of damage that goes with it when they hit them.

BLACKWELL: Yes, and we're hearing some of that criticism from U.S. lawmakers as well.

Ben Wedeman for us.

Ben, thank you so much.

So, the White House says that it is working through quiet and intensive diplomacy -- their words -- and that those efforts are more effective than a public call for a cease-fire.


Let's bring in now senior White House correspondent Phil Mattingly.

Phil, the president at the end of his remarks today mentioned that he's going to be speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu this hour. What do we know about that call?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president was asked if he would personally call for a cease-fire, something the U.S. has not done up to this point. And that was his response, didn't weigh in directly, said he was going to be speaking to the Israeli prime minister within the hour.

It'll be interesting to see what they say in the wake of that phone call. But that phone call, guys, is a part of that quiet and intensive effort that the U.S. has just decided is their strategic best course at the moment. That effort has included more than 60 calls, not just from the president, but also from his senior advisers, not just to the parties that are involved, obviously, their counterparts in Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has spoke with President Biden. But, also, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has had a number of talks with his direct counterparts, including with the Egyptians, with the Qataris, with several key players in the region.

And I think what you're hearing from administration officials behind the scenes is, yes, there is certain -- certainly a growing concern about the scale of the violence and that there doesn't seem to be any stop to it anytime soon.

But they believe, at least at this point in time, their best course of action is to work quietly with regional players, and hope that that can push the two sides towards some type of agreement over the course of the next several days, if not longer.

I think one of the key things to keep in mind is, back in 2014, the Egyptian government played a crucial role in securing a cease-fire and halting that conflict. And perhaps that is something the U.S. is attempting to replicate in some way, shape, or form this time around.

Now, obviously, guys, every single one of these is different. The dynamics are very different right now. So it'll be very interesting to see what the president says or what the White House says about the president's conversation.

Keep in mind, the pressure is growing, not just from Republicans, who want the president to say more in support of Israel, but also from inside his own party. More than two dozen Senate Democrats have put out a joint statement calling for a cease-fire. Progressive Democrats are saying the president is not going nearly far enough to condemn some of the actions from the Israelis, so the president dealing with a lot of internal domestic crosswinds here, as well as a very complicated international problem.

CAMEROTA: OK, Phil Mattingly, thank you very much for all of your reporting.

So, President Biden heads to Dearborn, Michigan, tomorrow, and he may see scenes like this one, protesters in Dearborn over the weekend condemning the Israeli airstrikes and calling for them to end.

BLACKWELL: Now, there were also protests in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, other cities across the country.

Let's bring in now CNN global affairs analyst Kimberly Dozier.

Kimberly, thanks for being with us.

First to this question of calling for a cease-fire. As Phil pointed out, there are domestic lawmakers. There's an effort in the U.N. to call for a cease-fire. But the president, secretary of state have not gone that far. What are the politics around that, considering that they can call for the cease-fire and continue that quiet, intense diplomacy work that Jake Sullivan has talked about?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, and the U.S. at the U.N. also blocked a U.N. Security Council statement calling for a cease-fire.

Part of this might be the fact that the Biden administration knows they don't have a lot of leverage over Benjamin Netanyahu's government and that, basically, they're likely going to follow the pattern they have done in the past.

When the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, gets an opportunity to attack the militants that they have been studying for years, they want to make sure, as they explained in a security briefing over the weekend, that they have taken out enough of the infrastructure that they don't have to face a resurgence of strikes in a few (AUDIO GAP)

CAMEROTA: Kim, in terms of that briefing that I believe you were on over the weekend, what's -- what does the IDF say? I mean, what is their endgame?

When will they have taken out enough infrastructure to stop?

DOZIER: You know, they don't exactly lay that out. But they say that they have taken out more than two dozen senior Hamas military leaders.

And they have been attacking the nodes, the connecting network of what Ben Wedeman mentioned, those miles and miles of tunnels that the IDF says the militants use to get from location to location, from civilian areas to the rocket launch sites.

So, they're not going to take all of them out, they have said. But they're working on it. They're also working on stores of rockets. They have said to organizations like the AP that they believe that the militants have something like 12,000 rockets stored up, and they have only fired about 3,000 of those.

So, that means there are a lot more stockpiles that the IDF wants to take out, so that, when they finally call a halt to this, answering the pleas of diplomats and international leaders, they will have crippled the militant organization for at least a couple of years to come.


BLACKWELL: Kimberly Dozier, on the topic of U.S. influence, President Trump was a full-throated lockstep supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, no protest over Israeli expansion in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.

How does the residue of that relationship impact how this president can approach, has the credibility to approach Netanyahu in this moment?

DOZIER: Well, it gave Netanyahu the green light to expand settlements, to also do the outreach to Arab nations who had grown somewhat disenchanted with the Palestinian leadership, and to move ahead with the Abraham Accords.

It also gave them I think, a sense of -- an unreal sense of how the Palestinian people and the Arab world felt about this situation. I had Trump administration officials tell me, the Palestinian people, they hate their leadership, they're ready for a one-state solution, they're fine being under the Israeli government, because it's better for them to get jobs, et cetera.

Well, it has taken one series of violent confrontations at the end of Ramadan to galvanize not just the Palestinian people within the country, but we're seeing protests in Baghdad, across the Middle East.

That kind of protest can pick up the momentum that's going to make it really hard for Gulf and other Arab leaders to keep working with Israel. And down the line, that's going to make it harder for a number of things Biden and his team had hoped to do, knitting together some of these fissures across the Middle East.

CAMEROTA: And, Kim, what about here in the U.S.? What about in Congress, say? Are you hearing more criticism of Netanyahu and Israel's actions this time around?

DOZIER: I'm hearing people go further, like Senator Bob Menendez, that shocked people by actually criticizing the attack on the building that housed the AP and Al-Jazeera.

And I'm also hearing from people not ready to go public that they're getting messages from people who were previously staunch supporters of Israel who are now seeing things through social media that they weren't really able to see in such graphic detail before.

And it's in their face. It's in their feed. And that's going to make it a lot harder for the Biden administration to just ignore this and keep it at the low priority that it had previously been. Remember, the Biden administration knows it might lose the House in the elections in a couple years.

So it doesn't want to do anything too anti-Israel or that was perceived as anti-Israel, because that could be a real weapon against the Democrats.

BLACKWELL: Multifaceted challenge for this administration.

Kimberly Dozier, always appreciate your insight. Thank you.

DOZIER: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: So, a big announcement from President Biden in the global fight against coronavirus, says plans to send additional millions of additional doses to other countries, sharing the vaccine -- up next.

CAMEROTA: Plus, the Arizona Republicans trying to separate themselves from Donald Trump. We have a CNN reality check still ahead.



CAMEROTA: Moments ago, President Biden announced the U.S. will share more COVID vaccines with other countries, the president promising an additional 20 million doses, on top of the supply from the nation's AstraZeneca stockpile.

In total, the U.S. will provide other countries with 80 million vaccines.

BLACKWELL: Now, President Biden also applauded vaccination efforts across the country. He says that, by this time tomorrow, 60 percent of American adults will have received at least one dose.

But when it comes to clearing up the confusion about what fully vaccinated people can do, the president did not add any further guidelines, beyond what the CDC issued last week. It advised, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most situations.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some people may want to continue to wear masks even if they're fully vaccinated. That's a decision they can make.

Some businesses may want to continue to require wearing masks. Let's all be kind and respectful to one another as we come out of this pandemic and respect those who want to continue to wear a mask, even if they have been vaccinated.


CAMEROTA: OK, joining us now is E.R. Dr. Leana Wen. She's the former City of Baltimore health commissioner.

Dr. Wen, great to see you.

Could we just start with the good news first? I think that Biden often likes to lead with the good news. And he was saying that 60 percent of American adults have at least one shot, OK, so that's a good level of protection for 60 percent of adults so far.

And we're still averaging more than a million shots, a million vaccinations per day. So, I mean, I know that we're always quick to say, uh-oh, we're not at herd immunity yet, but we're getting there.


And we have come a really long way, Alisyn. I think it is important for us to celebrate that, the fact that we went up to at some point more than three million vaccinations given every day, the fact that we now have 90 percent of Americans living within five miles of being able to access a vaccine.

I think this is really huge. And the Biden administration deserves so much credit for expediting getting the supply of vaccines, increasing the distribution of vaccines. And I think, at this point, we have to acknowledge that there are still a lot of people who want to get vaccinated, have not yet, and making vaccination easy and convenient for them, getting paid time off of work, having the vaccinations easily available in their community, that's really important.

BLACKWELL: So, let me ask the uh-oh question, then, as it's been branded by Alisyn.

You have got a...


CAMEROTA: I leave that for you.


BLACKWELL: Thank you. I will take it.

You have got a piece in "The Washington Post," Dr. Wen. It's -- the headline here, "The CDC mask guideline is a mess. Biden needs to clean it up."

And you wrote that the president needs to course-correct now. He did not do that. What's the consequence of that having not happened today?

WEN: Yes, I mean, I think what the CDC did, on the one hand, was really good, because they provided individual level guidance and said, great news. If you're vaccinated, you're now very well protected.

If they had just stopped there, that would have been one thing, but because they also went on to say, if you're vaccinated, take off your mask. A lot of that was understood as a policy recommendation for businesses, for local and state governments to just lift mask mandates.

And I think this has really devolved into a lot of confusion, into a patchwork of laws around the country. And what I was really hoping that President Biden would do is to say something more specific about the policy aspect, to saying, we're now going to be engaging local and state governments, businesses, union leaders, other stakeholders to figure this out.

And one thing that would have been really important to hear is about vaccine verification, because that's ultimately what we need. If we can be assured that whoever is taking off their mask also has been vaccinated, not just counting on the honor system, but having some kind of vaccination checkpoints or verification, I think that would have been huge.

And I wish that we had heard that from President Biden today.

CAMEROTA: Starbucks and the grocery store Publix are making their face coverings optional for vaccinated customers starting today.

But, as you point out, it is, of course, the honor system. This worries you. What do you think's going to happen?

WEN: I think that some vaccinated people are going to take off their masks, and that's fine. They are well-protected. Other people are not in danger from them. But they're also going to be a lot of unvaccinated people who are going to say, I never really wanted to wear masks in the first place. I still don't want to be vaccinated, and I'm not going to be wearing my mask.

They're going to go into these spaces. And what I fear is that we have just made life much harder and much riskier for people who are unvaccinated. Yes, some people are by choice, but a lot of people maybe haven't gotten around to getting vaccinated. Maybe they have gotten vaccinated, but are immunocompromised and have not mounted the full immunity to the vaccine, or parents of young children.

Am I going to be bringing my kids down into a Starbucks? Probably not, because I don't want them, who are unvaccinated, to be surrounded by a bunch of unvaccinated, unmasked people who are breathing on them.

And so I think that, now that we're seeing younger and younger people being the proportion of individuals affected by COVID-19, I am concerned about -- with the impact of this on our children and on those who just cannot be vaccinated yet.

BLACKWELL: Is herd immunity, especially by this timeline that the president has set, again, this vignette of Fourth of July and the backyard, hoping to reach 70 percent of adults with at least that first shot, is that still attainable in the near term?

WEN: Well, I think 80 to 70 percent is definitely attainable.

We're already at 60 percent of adults. I actually wish that President Biden had set that 70 percent as a target for when we can be lifting indoor mask mandates. That was, in fact, what the governor of Maryland had done, saying that when 70 percent of adults reach at least one shot, that's when we will lift indoor mask mandates.

I think something like that with a metric tied to it could have been a very good incentive for getting the country to be vaccinated. So I think that's possible. I think reaching herd immunity, though, is going to be further and further away from what is likely, especially now that we have taken away a really powerful incentive to get people vaccinated.

CAMEROTA: Dr. Leana Wen, as always, thank you.

WEN: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: So, there's a lot of mystery about an upcoming report on UFOs. OK, this is happening more and more often. People are seeing them. Navy pilots are seeing them.

We're going to talk to a man who helped expose a secret government program about them.



CAMEROTA: For five years, investigators have struggled to explain a mysterious illness that's affected more than 100 U.S. diplomats and intelligence and military personnel around the world.

The symptoms include migraines, dizziness, and even memory loss. Now CNN has learned that two U.S. officials were struck by this illness late last year, including one stationed right by the White House.

BLACKWELL: CNN's Natasha Bertrand is following the story. She's with us now from Washington.

Natasha, what do you know about these latest -- these two cases?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, so what we know is that two National Security Council staffers were struck with these symptoms outside of the White House in November of 2020.

One of them was struck with these symptoms just a day after the election. And another was struck several weeks later. Now, we don't know whether these are attacks, per se. What we do know is that the symptoms are consistent with what has been called Havana Syndrome, which has impacted spies and diplomats and U.S. officials worldwide at this point.

The concern now, obviously, is that it's happening increasingly on U.S. soil and, of course, at the president's front door.

BLACKWELL: All right, Natasha Bertrand with the latest on something quite mysterious, thank you so much.