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Tokyo 2020 Officially Underway; U.K. Government under Fire for Lifting Restrictions; New South Wales Likely to Extend Restrictions past July 30; Delta Variant Challenges Israel's Success; Florida State Has Most COVID-19 in U.S.; Wildfires across the U.S. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired July 24, 2021 - 04:00   ET




ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The first medals of the Tokyo Olympics have been awarded and there are more to be won today. We're live in Japan.

Plus, this:


KOSIK (voice-over): Anti-lockdown protesters clashed with police in Australia as the virus surges in hot spots like the U.S. and the U.K.


KOSIK (voice-over): And raging wildfires in the western U.S. It's just one part of the world that's fighting the flames.

Welcome to all of you watching here in the United States and around the world. I'm Alison Kosik in New York and this is CNN NEWSROOM.


KOSIK: Olympic competitions are in full swing in Tokyo with the long- awaited start of the 2020 Summer Games. China has claimed the first two gold medals in women's 10-meter air rifle and women's weightlifting.

Even as fireworks opened the games, the virus that stopped them a year ago remains as dangerous as ever. Officials have documented 127 cases connected to the games, including 17 in the past day. A Dutch rower and a Portuguese surfer are latest forced out by a positive test.

CNN's Blake Essig is live in Japan and "WORLD SPORT's" Patrick Snell is with us from Atlanta.

Hello, let's start with you, Blake. I know that you are at one of the few places Japanese people can actually go to watch. Talk about what they're saying.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's not what anyone was hoping for but some people want to experience the Olympic atmosphere any way possible. For the people behind me, it means sitting in an auditorium on a beautiful day here to watch the games on a big screen and experience that Olympic spirit as a community.

And while they can't vocalize their excitement, it hasn't stopped them from making a lot of noise by using paper and this wood instrument to cheer on competitors. They're also holding up signs like this, says, "Go, Japan," when the competitors have been on the screen going up a big hill, people holding signs, banging those wood clappers.

The atmosphere here is honestly pretty exciting. This is one of the only live viewing public sites in the country; 2,000 people applied. But given social distancing requirements, only 500 received tickets to be here.

With COVID-19 cases surging in Tokyo and rising nationwide, public viewings are incredibly rare. Spectators have also been banned from 88 percent of Olympic venues and 97 percent of all competitions.

One of the few events that fans can watch in person is the cycling road race, which is happening right now. And it will finish here near the base of Mt. Fuji. That's what people are watching on the big screen.

While it isn't perfect, finally, after one year of a delay and months of uncertainty whether the games would actually happen, the Tokyo Olympics are under way and it started with Naomi Osaka and a watershed moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I think Naomi Osaka was the best choice to be the last torchbearer because she is one of the world's top athletes. She is also mixed race and has faced a lot of challenges. It is amazing she can represent Japan like this. It sends out a great message from here to the world.


ESSIG: And the fact that Naomi Osaka, a mixed race person, was the one to light the Olympic flame is incredibly significant here in Japan. Japan is considered one of the most racially homogenous countries in the world.

But the country is slowly shifting views on identity. And a moment like this, what we saw last night, shows how the society is adapting to changing times.

KOSIK: All right, Blake, thanks.



KOSIK: New coronavirus infections are rising at an alarming rate in the U.S.. Cases are on the rise in all 50 states. Look at all the states in deep red on this map. Less than 50 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. And health experts say the rapid spread of the Delta variant is making vaccinations even more important.

CNN's Athena Jones reports.


ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the biggest public health crisis in a century threatens to get a lot worse, the warnings to the unvaccinated are getting stronger. In Alabama, the state with the lowest vaccination rate in the country, 34 percent.

GOV. KAY IVEY (R-AL): The new cases in COVID are because of unvaccinated folks. But it's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.

JONES: Republican Governor Kay Ivey is fed up.

IVEY: These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain.

QUESTION: What is it going to take to get people to get shots in arms?

IVEY: I don't know. You tell me. Folks are supposed to have common sense.

JONES: As the more contagious delta variant supercharges COVID-19's spread, especially in places with low vaccination rates, the country is now averaging more new coronavirus infections a day than during the first surge in spring 2020.

Cases up 65 percent over just last week and almost four times higher than a month ago. COVID hospitalizations rising nearly 30 percent nationwide in just the past seven days, almost all among the unvaccinated.

And with the daily pace of vaccinations at the lowest point since January, doctors and government officials are begging the unvaccinated to protect themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It just seems like we're just fighting a losing battle here.

JONES: As experts warn the more the virus circulates among the unvaccinated, the greater the chance of so-called breakthrough infections among those who are fully vaccinated. Still, doctors stress.

DR. TANYA ALTMANN, PEDIATRICIAN, SPOKESPERSON FOR THE AMERICAN ACADEMY PEDIATRICS: There are some breakthrough infections. I've seen them in my practice but it's mild illness. So that's a huge difference. And that's what vaccines do.

JONES: And with millions of children set to head back to school, a CNN analysis finds less than a third of eligible kids are on track to be fully vaccinated against COVID in the next two weeks. And while public schools in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are mandating masks for everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We parents should have the right to choose whether or not our kids are suffocated by these masks all day.

JONES: Debates over masking in schools becoming heated from Virginia to Illinois.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are simply making decisions based on your own fears.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The experts have spoken. I would like the school board to continue universal masking.

JONES: Experts argue.

DR. RICHARD BESSERR, FORMER ACTING CDC DIRECTOR: We have to be honest that we're asking people who are fully vaccinated basically to sacrifice because it's so hard to enforce vaccination -- mask wearing based on vaccination status.

JONES (on camera): Now along with Alabama, Mississippi is the only other state to have fully vaccinated less than 35 percent of its population. And Alabama has also seen an additional roughly 500 people hospitalized with COVID over the past week, up 60 percent from last week.

That's according to the latest community profile report published by the White House COVID-19 response team -- Athena Jones, CNN, New York.


KOSIK: Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM, the U.K. government is taking a major gamble by lifting COVID restrictions across the country. Why some are calling it unethical and dangerous -- coming up.


KOSIK: Plus, 29 athletes in Tokyo aren't trying to win honor and medals for their countries but for the millions of refugees around the world. Their stories ahead.




KOSIK: The U.K. government is once again coming under fire for how it's handled the coronavirus pandemic. Some scientists are calling the decision to lift COVID restrictions, despite high infection rates, dangerous and unethical. Now prime minister Boris Johnson is pleading with citizens to stay safe.

CNN's Scott McLean has the latest from London.


SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed up in parliament remotely. He's self-isolating after meeting with his health secretary who tested positive for COVID-19.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer was forced to quarantine too after a separate possible exposure not long after he stood in parliament to say this.

KEIR STARMER, U.K. OPPOSITION LEADER: I can't believe that the prime minister doesn't see the irony of him spending Freedom Day locked in isolation. Mr. Speaker, when it comes to creating confusion, the prime minister is a super-spreader.

MCLEAN: The prime minister also managed to spread anger and outrage.


MCLEAN: Thousands of doctors and scientists from the UK and abroad signed a letter calling him to lift almost all restrictions in England a dangerous and unethical experiment. That experiment involved ditching masks, limits on social gatherings and even letting festivals restart.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of us have had at least our first dose of the vaccine. So, we're ready to get back to life.

MCLEAN: Yet hours after it began, Johnson was pleading with people to be careful.

BORIS JOHNSON, U.K. PRIME MINISTER: Please, please, please, be cautious.

MCLEAN: And for good reason. The U.K. has the most new confirmed daily infections on earth, despite two-thirds of the adult population being fully vaccinated and almost 90 percent having at least one shot.

Hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to self-isolate and some British industries are warning that staff shortages could lead to food and fuel shortages. Shoppers are already finding empty store shelves in several parts of the country. The U.S. State Department is even warning Americans to stay away.

GABRIEL SCALLY, VISITING PROFESSOR, PUBLIC HEALTH AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL: The U.S. was entirely right. More countries should be more cautious about their citizens coming to the U.K.

MCLEAN: Virtually all new cases in the U.K. are the faster spreading delta variant which was first spotted in India. Back in early April, mandatory hotel quarantine was imposed on travelers coming in from neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan. But those coming in from India didn't face the same restrictions until two weeks later. Critics say it was too little too late. SCALLY: A very major mistake. And one they should've avoided because they had been warned about it repeatedly. Britain has an island advantage, but it didn't choose to take advantage of that.

MCLEAN: For weeks Johnson's government has defended its plan to lift remaining restrictions by asking --

JOHNSON: If not now, when?

MCLEAN: While cases are high, the vaccine has helped keep deaths and hospitalizations relatively low compared to the January peak. According to government data, most people ending up in hospital are under 50. A staggering 93 percent of them are not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.

For some, it wasn't by choice. While the U.K.'s vaccine rollout was once the envy of the world, it's been very slow to vaccinate young people currently fueling the surge in cases. The government is still imposing a 12-week gap between doses.

Some clinics offering people the second dose earlier were told by national health authorities to turn people away instead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was just refused to get my second shot -- primarily because I'm three days short of reaching the eight weeks.

MCLEAN: This just as a recent study in the journal "Nature" found a single dose gives precious little protection against the delta variant, leaving millions of young people exposed. While the U.S., Canada and Europe have allowed vaccinations of kids over 12 regardless of their circumstances. The U.K. so far does not plan to following suit.

Since the pandemic began, Johnson's decision-making has been marked by a dizzying series of U-turns on lockdowns, masks and mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers.

Just last week the government promised fully vaccinated Brits could return from all countries on its amber list without quarantine before announcing different rules just for France.

SCALLY: The most serious problem I have with this government is their complete absence of a plan, of a strategy and an inability to explain what they are trying to do and where they're trying to get to. They are making it up as they go along.

MCLEAN: Perhaps worst of all government scientists have also warned that the combination of high prevalence and high levels of vaccination creates the conditions in which the immune-escaped variant is most likely to emerge. How likely is that? Scientists don't know.

Brits who are just starting to get back to normal life are hoping they never have to find out -- Scott McLean, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KOSIK: COVID cases are surging in many Southeast Asian nations as

well, also driven by the more transmissible Delta variant. Our Anna Coren is tracking developments across the region and has more from Hong Kong.

Anna, great to see you. You look at how the first year of the pandemic and how the region did, it seemed to do better than the rest of the world. But now that's changed because of the Delta variant.

ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right. There's been an explosion of cases here in Asia and governments are really scrambling. Let's look at what's happening in Australia right now.

There have been thousands protesting on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne against lockdown. There have been dozens of arrests. This happening as New South Wales reports a daily record of 163 cases, 136 yesterday. There's no denying that the Delta variant is taking hold in Australia.


COREN: But look at the vaccination rate. It is just over 11 percent and the government admits that the vaccine rollout has been woeful. But this has been a problem for many countries in this region.


COREN (voice-over): A taxi graveyard, the colorful cars that once zipped tourists around Bangkok, now sit idle in a field. There are fewer customers these days, as new cases of coronavirus in Thailand reach record highs. But for those lucky enough to pick up a fare, it's no longer a routine ride.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We had passengers getting on and off our cars every day. And we don't know if they are at risk or not. We need to protect ourselves and the passengers also need to protect themselves. Both sides are just scared.

COREN (voice-over): Those fears keeping more people at home. Volunteers bring food to those isolated along Bangkok's canals. The government says there is a shortage of vaccines along with the surge of infections, though supply is just one of the obstacles preventing people from getting shots.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I can't go. I only stay like this because, if I go for a vaccination, I'd have to take a boat, walk and commute by car. I have no money to spend for that.

COREN (voice-over): Experts say vaccines are a critical weapon in fighting this outbreak that has spread across Asia. Some health care workers in India hiking into the remote countryside to dole out the doses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They moved to door to door in my village, collected swabs for testing and gave vaccines to the villagers. Our village is a tribal village and no one visits here.

COREN (voice-over): Vietnam is also trying to accelerate its vaccination program, as cases sharply rise there, too. The outbreak in Ho Chi Minh city is so bad that soldiers in hazmat suits hose down the streets with disinfectant.

But even as countries across Southeast Asia tighten their COVID-19 restrictions, the virus still seems to be a step ahead. In one of the hardest hit nations, Indonesia, the death toll crossed 1,500 a day for the first time during the pandemic.

Singapore says even the vaccinated are impacted. Government data over the past 4 weeks shows vaccinated people made up three quarters of new infections, though they did not become seriously ill.

The empty streets of Sydney, Australia, a sign a lockdown is in effect but with cases still rising, some officials say it's not enough.

DANIEL ANDREWS, VICTORIA PREMIER: We need a ring of steel around Sydney, so that this virus is not spreading into other parts of our nation.

COREN (voice-over): But spreading is what this virus does very efficiently, so much so, the state of New South Wales asked the federal government for more vaccines, a request that was denied. Prime minister Scott Morrison saying it would disrupt the vaccination program for the rest of the country.


COREN: So without doubt, Indonesia has now become the epicenter of the pandemic here in Asia, overtaking India. The official death count stands at over 80,000. But experts believe that the true number is much higher.

KOSIK: Anna Coren, thank you.

New data from Israel's health ministry suggest the Pfizer vaccine has limited efficacy against the Delta COVID variant. It's 39 percent effective in general but 91 percent effective in preventing severe disease.

Experts say it's still too early to draw any firm conclusions from that and other studies have suggested Pfizer is far more effective against the variant. As Hadas Gold reports, Delta is creating a new challenge for Israel.


HADAS GOLD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-six thousand fans flooded into Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv this week to see legends Real Madrid and Barcelona on the field.

The excitement and revelry overshadowing an underlying possibility that such a crowded event could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The (INAUDIBLE) and (INAUDIBLE) and everyone. You can't stay at home. But here, we are protected now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm kind of nervous but I'm trying to live my life as much as possible before it really hits. It is worth the risk (INAUDIBLE) but, yes, the government should not let people do this. But I think it is worth the risk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to see Barcelona against Real Madrid. The (INAUDIBLE) a little bit nervous but the game is more important.

GOLD (voice-over): Thanks to an aggressive vaccination campaign, the Israeli government had lifted almost all of its COVID restrictions. But after nearly three months of fewer than 200 positive cases a day, the Delta variant now causing a new spike in cases.


GOLD (voice-over): Including some of the vaccinated; for the first time in months, the daily average nearing 1,000 cases a day. But with about 65 percent of the population either vaccinated or having recovered from the disease, professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute says there is good news.

ERAN SEGAL, WEIZMANN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE: Primary difference is that we're seeing a much lower conversion rate from cases to severely ill. We are also seeing that those who become severely ill are less in a critical condition as compared to the third wave.

All of that means that it will require a much larger number of cases to happen here in order for us to again fill up the hospitals.

And I think that makes it for a very realistic possibility that this wave will be stopped through another increase of more people that we can get vaccinated; potentially a third booster and some very small measures like the green badge (ph).

GOLD (voice-over): A key to stopping this fourth wave, Segal says, is vaccinating the 13 percent of the Israeli population that is eligible but still hasn't received a shot. But even that alone won't be enough, according to prime minister Naftali Bennett.

NAFTALI BENNETT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The main line is that we expect the citizens of Israel to go get vaccinated because the vaccines work.

Are they perfect?

No. Against the Delta mutation, they alone are not enough. This is the problem. However, vaccines, together with masks alongside responsible behavior, that works.

GOLD (voice-over): The government says it is now clamping down on restrictions. Police issuing fines for those who fail to wear masks indoors and criminally charging people who test positive but flout quarantine rules. All as part of an effort to keep the worst of this new wave at bay so that stadiums like this won't once again stand empty for months. GOLD: The Israeli government is trying to avoid the sort of strict

lockdowns that dominated the past 1.5 years, allowing a sense of normalcy to continue with games like this one on August 1st.

The French Super Cup is expected to take place at this stadium and Israelis are hoping that the case numbers don't rise so high that the game is called off -- Hadas Gold, CNN, Tel Aviv.


KOSIK: Coming up on CNN, COVID-19 has been robbing Olympic athletes of the spotlight. But now might be their chance to take it back. We'll talk about whether there's room for optimism at this year's games.

Plus, an Olympic team created out of tragedy and displacement. How the refugee team is offering a source of hope for millions around the world.





KOSIK: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Alison Kosik and this is CNN NEWSROOM.

The Tokyo Olympic Games are underway under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. China has just won its second gold. They've claimed medals in women's weightlifting and women's shooting.

And Iran has its first gold in men's shooting. But even in victory, the coronavirus is making its mark. Athletes are under strict coronavirus rules, having to mask up in the medals ceremonies and having to practice social distancing.

Despite all the coronavirus fears and anti-Olympic protests, the IOC president says Friday's opening ceremony was a moment of hope. Not everyone agrees. Will Ripley reports.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The official opening of the Tokyo Summer Games, a ceremony that tried to look familiar but felt so different.

Hundreds of drones forming a globe over the Olympic Stadium, celebrating one world united in sport, under the shadow of a pandemic. The stadium eerily empty, as flag-bearers proudly represented their countries, cheering them on a handful of visiting dignitaries.

U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, among the athletes, some familiar faces and well-oiled physiques. The Tongan flag-bearer famous from Rio and South Korea. Team USA featuring basketball star and four-time gold medalist Sue Bird and baseball playing speed skating silver medalist Eddy Alvarez.

Outside the ceremony, Japanese protesters calling for the games to be canceled, fearing the Olympics will become a COVID-19 super spreader event. Fears fueled by rising cases in the host city. Daily numbers hitting almost 2,000 this week, a six-month high.

Olympic dreams dashed for more than 20 athletes so far, testing positive or being placed in the COVID-19 protocol, including five members from Team USA, most taking the COVID protocols and lack of fans in stride.

KENDRA HARRISON, TEAM USA TRACK & FIELD: When you're lined up with the best in the world like you're not worried about the stands, you're not worried about the people there. You're just worried about going out there and competing to the best of your ability.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Despite the Olympics first ever spectator band, some are making the most of it. Fans watching the opening ceremony from outside the stadium.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was so moved to my heart. So yes, that's so special for us.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Closing out the opening ceremony, the reveal of the torchbearer to light the cauldron, four-time Grand Slam women's tennis champion Naomi Osaka, in recent months, facing her own very public mental health challenges. Perhaps, the perfect representative for the 32nd Olympiad overcoming postponement and a pandemic, to showcase the triumph of the Olympic spirit -- Will Ripley, CNN, Tokyo.


KOSIK: One group of remarkable athletes isn't representing any individual nation. Members of the Refugee Olympic Team will be providing a vision of hope and inclusion for the millions of displaced people around the world.

Athletes from Syria, Congo, South Sudan, Venezuela and other countries will be united at the Tokyo games under the same Olympic flag. The team is comprised of (sic) 29 athletes in 12 sports. The first time the refugee Olympic team competed, it was at the 2016 Rio games.


KOSIK: Philip Barker is an Olympic historian with inside the games and joins me live from Tokyo.


KOSIK: Thanks for your time today.

PHILIP BARKER, OLYMPIC HISTORIAN: Good afternoon from Tokyo.

KOSIK: Hello. I want to hear more.

What goes into the selection process to create the Refugee Olympic Team?

BARKER: Well, it's gone back -- it used to be -- the Olympic rules used to be that if you didn't have a national Olympic committee, you weren't able to take part. And this excluded a lot of people.

But over the last 10-15 years, there's been a realization that there are so many displaced people that they decided to create this, as you say, for Rio in 2016, it was a very small team then. It's mushroomed now, it's about three times the size -- about 29 athletes making up the team.

Not all of them necessarily would have marched in the ceremony because of COVID. But they -- they've now got about 29 and they are chosen, a lot of them received scholarships in the countries that they've moved to and are given help as a coordinating person, called Tegu Tulupe (ph), a former long distance runner. And she actually looks after the team and acts their mother, they call her.

She manages to give them advice on how to compete, what to do, eating the right things, that sort of thing and basically managing their time. And then they go off to training camps together. They've been in Qatar and, here they are now, hopefully ready to compete.

KOSIK: Yes. You know, for this Refugee Olympic Team, this isn't just about winning, not that they don't want to win; of course, they want to win. But there's a greater significance behind this team. It's very powerful, the message that the team is sending and what they represent. Talk to me about that.

BARKER: That's right. You know, the whole thing is the ethos of the Olympic Games is -- they often get it wrong -- the important thing in the Olympic Games is not so much the winning but the taking part.

And it's that not so much -- yes, everybody's trying to win and these refugee guys and the men and women will be trying to win at the games and they will be giving it their best shot. No refugee has yet won a gold medal. But that's, of course, the dream.

If that were to happen, that would be an inspiration to others. And it is -- it is something that has the power to inspire because everybody will be looking at these athletes. People in displaced camps before the 2016 games, they actually had a torch bearer in one of the refugee camps in Athens at the laoness (ph) camp.

And I was there to see him run with the torch and all the children were out and they could see all the event going on. Yes, it was a little bit of a diversion but maybe in a few years' time they'll remember that moment.

And it's the same here. If they get a chance and those who are somewhere they can watch somebody else who's like me and they're achieving their Olympic Games. And they're fueling their dreams. So it does have a very strong inspirational message.

KOSIK: It certainly does. I know that you are in Tokyo obviously, you're stuck in your hotel room for 14 days because you were pinged by a COVID tracking and tracing app.

How are you feeling?

BARKER: I'm fine. I'm fine. We British say that we have our stiff upper lip and we carry on as long as you've got a cup of tea there. It doesn't matter. And thankfully, thanks to the British Olympic association, who sent me a goody bag full of cereals and coffee and, most important, tea bags, I was running out, I'm not stressed at all.

Once you've got a cup of tea, that really does solve everything at all times of the day. The stereotype is true, you see -- but, no, to be serious, yes, it isn't very pleasant being in a hotel room and knowing that the greatest show on Earth, albeit without spectators, is going on around you.

What I'm going to be particularly interested to see is this artificial wall of sound that they're going to create at every venue, which Thomas Bach has called the vibe of the world, sound effects coming in. We've had it on television for football matches ever since the football and other sports started.

And I'm going to be intrigued how it works in the stadia. So that's probably the thing I'm looking forward to actually mostly, to seeing them from next week onwards. But I would like to see the refugee team. I'd love to see them get a medal because I think that will be so powerful for everybody else.

And you know, we have something in the Olympics called the Youth Olympic Games, for 14- to 18-year olds. And there's a strong movement that when they're in Senegal next time in 2026, there will be a Youth Olympic Refugee Team, as well, to give the youngsters some chance of participating and taking -- and sharing the sport.

KOSIK: Yes. All right. Philip Barker, I'm glad you're feeling well. Thanks for joining us on the show.

BARKER: Thank you.


KOSIK: American adults who had months of opportunities to get vaccinated and yet half the country still has not done it. Now both the White House and some Republican leaders have sharp words for them.


KOSIK: Plus, wildfires are raging across the western United States. Why some people thousands of miles away are experiencing the effects.




KOSIK: Health experts say the Delta variant is driving a dangerous surge in U.S. COVID infections. Over the past week, new COVID infections are up 50 percent or more in the majority of states, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Increases are being felt especially hard in southeastern states like Alabama, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the entire country. Only about 34 percent of the population there is fully vaccinated.

U.S. President Joe Biden is acknowledging the effort of some Republican governors trying to combat vaccine hesitancy. Even over the shouting of protesters on Friday, Mr. Biden implored Americans to set aside politics and get vaccinated.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are today among the unvaccinated people. And I know -- I know it's gotten a bit politicized. But I hope it's starting to change. It's not about red states or blue states or guys like that hollering; it's about life and it's about death.


KOSIK: The number of American deaths is ticking up again while the rate of vaccinations is lagging. CNN's Kaitlan Collins picks up the story.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A new sense of urgency in the White House tonight as the U.S. enters a troubling phase of the pandemic with officials nationwide voicing concern.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We understand the frustration of leaders out there and public voices who are trying to say the right thing. Save people in their communities.

COLLINS (voice-over): More than half the nation remains unvaccinated allowing the highly contagious Delta variant to spread like wildfire.

PSAKI: We're the first to say and we have long said that that's not enough.


PSAKI: We need to ensure more people and more communities are vaccinated.

COLLINS (voice-over): President Biden and his top aides are worried the gains they've made are being erased while issuing blunt warnings from the White House podium to the millions who remain unvaccinated.

PSAKI: Other communities where there's 40 percent, 50 percent or otherwise, that's not just a health issue, it's a huge health issue. It's an economic issue.

COLLINS (voice-over): New cases, hospitalizations and deaths are a fraction of what they were before vaccinations.

But the numbers are still rising quickly. The U.S. is now averaging 43,000 new cases per day, a 65 percent increase over the last week with cases topping 40,000 for the first time since May and 250 new deaths each day almost entirely among the unvaccinated.

Officials say the current surge from Delta could have been avoided with one health official telling CNN, "We are seeing the consequences of what we've been warning about. It's serious and it's spreading faster than was anticipated."

Booster shots aren't currently recommended by the FDA but the U.S. government has now purchased an additional 200 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine, just in case.

PSAKI: Here's the bottom line. We've always prepared for every scenario. We don't know if we'll need a booster shot.

COLLINS (voice-over): Republican governors are now outright pleading with their residents to get the shot.

GOV. JIM JUSTICE (R-WV): You've got to get vaccinated now. And so, all I would say is this Delta thing is coming.

GOV. MARK PARSON (R-MO): Unvaccinated Missourians are the primary target of this new COVID-19 strain.

COLLINS (voice-over): Alabama, one of the hardest hit and now the least vaccinated state in the U.S. Only 33.9 percent of residents are fully vaccinated as cases are double what they were a week ago. Alabama's Republican governor says she knows who to blame.

GOV. KAY IVEY (R-AL): The new cases and COVID of accounts of unvaccinated folks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is it going to take to get people to get shots in Arkansas (sic)?

IVEY: I don't know. You tell me. Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.

COLLINS: When the White House press secretary was asked if they would take a similar approach to what you saw from Alabama governor Kay Ivey, blaming the unvaccinated for what we are seeing happening with these outbreaks, she said she doesn't believe it's their position to place blame on people.

But they're going to make sure they're getting accurate information about the vaccines out -- Kaitlan Collins, CNN, the White House.


KOSIK: Thousands of firefighters across the United States are battling dozens of wildfires. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon has burned more than 400,000 acres and is still growing. We get the latest from the CNN Weather Center when we come back.





KOSIK: The U.S. is dealing with more than 80 large wildfires burning in 13 states right now. That's according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Almost 22,000 firefighters and support personnel are working tirelessly to put them out.

You're looking at some of those firefighters caught in the middle of a fast-moving blaze in Nevada. They say it was, quote, "a close call." And it's not just here in the U.S.; devastating wildfires are now raging through areas that rarely burned before, all across the Northern Hemisphere. As Tom Sater reports, climate change has a lot to do with it.


TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST (voice-over): This is known as one of the world's coldest cities. Now wildfires near Russia's Siberia blanket the area in smoky haze.

From above, Russian military drop water, hoping to douse the flames below, as they tear through some 800,000 hectares of forest.

In the western U.S., firefighters also taking measures to battle ongoing wildfires, dousing tracks and surrounding the area with water from a moving train in hopes of stopping the northern California Dixie fire from spreading.

For the north, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon is growing with incredible speed, becoming so intense it's creating its own weather formation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is very clear is that no corner of our state is immune to fire. On the West Coast and here in Oregon, the urgent and dangerous climate crisis has exacerbated conditions on the ground.

SATER (voice-over): Canada, the western U.S. and Russia all fighting massive fires. All seeing firsthand what scientists have warned about for years.

According to Copernicus climate change service those regions all experienced a drier than average June, turning their forests to tinder boxes. Now fires raging in those regions are releasing environment polluting aerosols into the air, one of the ways the blazes could be accelerating global warming as once periodic wildfires become more frequent and extreme than ever before -- Tom Sater, CNN.


(WEATHER REPORT) [04:55:00]

KOSIK: That wraps this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Alison Kosik. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @AlisonKosik. I'll be back with more news.