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U.S. Averaging 67,000 New COVID-19 Cases per Day; CDC Says the Vaccinated Can Spread Delta Variant; Simone Biles Withdraws from Some Events; Florida Governor Prevents School Mask Mandates; Asian Nations Tighten Restrictions against Delta Variant; Trump's Big Lie; Afghan Interpreters Arrive in U.S.; Taliban Still Maintain Ties with Al Qaeda; GOP Members Mock COVID-19 Measures as Cases Surge; Red Tide Blooms on Florida Shores. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired July 31, 2021 - 03:00   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, a warning from the U.S. president: more restrictions and guidelines could be on the horizon due to rising COVID cases.

Extra police officers taking to the streets of Sydney, Australia, to stop protests against COVID lockdowns.

And after sharing concerns about her mental health, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulls out of two more events at the Olympic Games.


HOLMES: The strain of the Delta variant on America's health care system is already beginning to be felt in the hospitals, a grim sequel to the darkest days of the pandemic. An average 67,000 new cases turning up daily and trending higher.

A year ago, new cases were at about the same level but trending down. The Centers for Disease Control says the Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and can cause severe illness.

Unlike earlier variants, a single case of Delta has the potential to infect many more people. Health experts say the unvaccinated are, of course, at most risk. And right now that's about half of American adults. Unless those vaccination numbers come up soon, U.S. President Joe Biden says tighter restrictions are likely.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In all probability -- by the, way we had a good day yesterday, almost 1 million people got vaccinated. So I am hopeful that people are beginning to realize how essential it is.


HOLMES: Meanwhile, the head of the Centers for Disease Control says the current surge of COVID can be squashed within weeks if the country takes the threat seriously.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: What I think is really clear is that, if we unify together as a country, if we take the steps that are necessary to squash the amount of disease that is there now, we can do so in a matter of weeks.

If we all get vaccinated, if we wear masks until then, there is so much that can be done in such a short period of time to squash this.


HOLMES: Global health officials labeled the Delta variant a concern when it was first detected in India back in February. Well, now we're finding out just how serious it really is. CNN's Athena Jones with our report.


ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A pivotal moment in the pandemic. Internal CDC data warning the war against COVID has changed.

DR. WILLIAM HASELTINE, FORMER PROFESSOR, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: We have underestimated this. And it's time to consider this as a very long haul.

JONES: The new data showing the delta variant of the coronavirus appears to spread as easily as the chickenpox, with one infected person, on average, infecting eight or nine other people as opposed to two or three others with the original COVID strain.

The stunning new document raising the stakes for everyone, including the fully vaccinated, who appear to be able to spread the delta variant to others at the same rate the unvaccinated can.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY (D-NJ): The more we learn about it, the more sobering it is, frankly.

JONES: Today, the CDC also publishing a study that helped drive the decision to revive their mask guidance this week, urging everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission to mask up indoors regardless of vaccination status. It looks at an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts with 469 people were infected in July.

ALEX MORSE, TOWN MANAGER, PROVINCETOWN: 74 percent of the overall cases are among fully vaccinated individuals. And I think that came as a surprise to many folks. JONES: The latest data coming as the U.S. average is now 67,000 new cases a day. Hospitalizations up in 35 states, deaths in many states rising, too, echoes of last year.

DR. COLLEEN KRAFT, ASSOCIATE CHEF MEDICAL OFFICER, EMORY UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: What the hospital feels like right now is really like we're back in March of 2020 or July of 2020.



JONES: The CDC estimating there are 35,000 symptomatic infections per week among 162 million vaccinated Americans. Still, the vaccinated are much safer. Vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease or death at least tenfold.

THOMAS: You cannot avoid delta. It is not possible. So, you have a decision. And the decision is get vaccinated or not. And the results you are telling us, if you are not vaccinated, you have a really poor outcome.

JONES: In the case of Provincetown, only four vaccinated people required hospitalization, two of whom had underlying health conditions. No one died. Measures like mask mandates and social distancing now more urgent than ever. And some are predicting --

JEROME ADAMS, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: I'm predicting closures in the future because we are not going to be able to rein this variant back in.

JONES (on camera): Some are already heeding the new warnings. All 41 Broadway theaters will require vaccination for audiences, performers and staff with some exceptions for all performances through October and proof of vaccination required for entry.

Masks will be required except when eating or drinking -- Athena Jones, CNN, New York.



HOLMES: Dr. Raj Kalsi is a board-certified emergency medicine physician, joining me now from Illinois.

Good to see you again, Doctor, I wanted to ask about your concerns about this notion that vaccinated people, even though they won't get as sick or die as the unvaccinated, can spread the variant just as easily.

DR. RAJ KALSI, EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: Yes. So, the Delta variant is a player we didn't anticipate. The virologists did but we were hoping this thing would have been over and done with. But there is some concern that the new data from the CDC, saying that

the vaccinated people can spread the variant, as much as non- vaccinated people, maybe a little less than that. This is concerning, because there's already a great schism among people who are vaxers and anti-vaxers.

And now you are telling them they can spread it, regardless. It's concerning.

What do you do?

Do you go back on lockdown?

Do you mitigate with masking, closing down infrastructure?

Or do you move forward and anticipate this concept of herd immunity?

So it is concerning on all aspects.

HOLMES: If vaccinations were, at least, in part, about breaking the chain of infection, if infections are continuing, is the notion the herd immunity becoming out of reach, because of this variant?

KALSI: One is, herd immunity is still something that we can achieve. For the vaccinated, then those who are getting the illness, who didn't get vaccinated, they're getting essentially forced into a vaccine by natural immunity from the disease itself.

They didn't want the vaccine but they're going to get the illness and hopefully, they don't die from it and have these long-haul symptoms because of it.

Or this herd immunity thing takes too long and by the tie we get herd immunity to the current Delta variant, there is a Lambda variant or a Gamma variant or some new variant, Omega variant that is not only more contagious but also more deadly.

HOLMES: When we look at countries with low vaccination rates not to mention dozens of countries which can't get vaccines, there are risks obviously in the global sense.

I heard a doctor last week say Delta isn't the last letter in the Greek alphabet.

Do you fear more and stronger and more deadly variants, ones that could defeat the vaccines?

KALSI: It's always a fear on my mind. I'm an ER doctor, boots on the ground and I'm not the guy thinking in the think tank, that the CDC or wherever the virologists sit and ponder public health.

That being said, I think we're scientifically, based on all of the data we are reading, we are still very far off from an extremely contagious and extremely deadly virus. However, nothing that we have anticipated has really come to fruition with this pandemic. Everything is really defying everything else we have projected. So that is a bit scary.

When it comes to your boots on the ground status, what are you seeing in terms of people with the virus, who, are perhaps, unvaccinated?

Are you seeing plenty of buyer's remorse and non-buyer's remorse?

KALSI: At times, I am. There are heartfelt stories. There are people that are very sick and, regrettably, lamenting the fact that they didn't get vaccinated.

We are also seeing people who did got vaccinated with Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, some other Moderna and they are getting COVID. They did all of the right things and they moved forward in their life appropriately according to the guidelines and they're getting COVID-19, albeit I feel like they're getting a less severe COVID, which is a good thing.


KALSI: It's less likely for a vaccinated person to get the Delta variant. That being said, we are starting to see an uptick in admitting people at one of my bigger institutions, with the Delta variant.

HOLMES: And, less likely to die. I think the latest statistic is almost 99 percent of deaths are unvaccinated people. It makes it a bit of a no-brainer. I think the argument stops there, really, when it comes to vaccinations.

Quickly, before we go, in the U.S., there are new mask mandates, moves by companies as well as the federal government to require workers to be vaccinated and similar moves in Europe with green passes and so on.

Are these tactics the right way to go?

Are there risks in coercion versus persuasion?

KALSI: Listen, I am an American, I was born and raised here. I believe in autonomy, freedom of speech. And I support Americans that feel like their autonomy is being violated by being mandated to be vaccinated.

That being said, the double edge of that sword is, if you get COVID, you could die from it. You could have a long-haul syndrome or set of symptoms from COVID. That is on you. You make your choice and you lay in bed with it and that is on you.

But there is two edges to every side of this. And I believe in human autonomy and people have a right to make that determination. However, this time it's affecting everybody.

HOLMES: Yes, that's the point. You have your freedoms as long as they don't infringe on my health. And that's the ongoing argument. Doctor, got to leave it there, appreciate your, time always good to see you

KALSI: You too, thanks for having me.


HOLMES: It is day eight of the Tokyo Olympics and Simone Biles, arguably the world's greatest gymnast, has withdrawn from two more events. USA Gymnastics says Biles won't be competing in the vault and uneven bars finals on Sunday, but she still could take part in the floor exercise and balance beam events early next week.

Biles says she's been suffering from what gymnasts call the twisties, a debilitating mental block that keeps them from performing moves they've done thousands of times before. You basically lose track of where you are in the air. Joining me now, "CNN SPORT's" Andy Scholes, here in Atlanta.

It is surprising that Biles pulled out of more events?

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Michael, we certainly knew it was a possibility after what Biles had been saying on Instagram.

As you mentioned, she says she's suffering from a case of the twisties, which is a term used by gymnasts, when they feel like they just get lost in the air doing the same movements they've done thousands and thousands of times.

She posted these videos of her practicing, just struggling, saying her mind and body are simply just not in sync right now.

USA Gymnastics releasing a statement earlier saying, "Today after further consultation with medical staff, Simone Biles has decided to withdraw from the event finals for vault and uneven bar. She will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether to compete in the finals for floor exercise and balance beam."

The floor final is on Monday and the beam final is Tuesday. We'll wait to see on those, of course. Biles also firing back at the people who think she quit, Michael, saying on Instagram, they don't realize how dangerous it is trying to land these moves on that hard competition surface.

HOLMES: Yes, really. I mean we can't even begin to imagine.



HOLMES: Good stuff. Good for her.

Well, Tokyo's Olympic venues are mostly empty. Very few people allowed to watch the games in person. But the athletes' families, friends and supporters are finding ways to cheer them on from afar. Selina Wang shows us how.


SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Olympic excitement keeps growing, not just in Japan but around the world. There are few spectators in the stands but that hasn't stopped passionate Olympic fans from making their voices heard.

Japanese residents gathered outside of the Olympic stadium, posing for photos, celebrating the host country's many gold medals so far. Some say the national pride they feel has moved them to tears.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I'm moved. I cry every day when I see our athletes winning. It's as if it's my own kids out there, doing their best.

WANG (voice-over): In Oakdale, Minnesota, USA gymnast Suni Lee's family was thrilled to see her win gold in the women's all-around gymnastics competition. Her parents say the moment is just surreal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm happy. I'm proud. But there is no words that can describe how we feel right now.

WANG (voice-over): Twenty-nine of the athletes in Tokyo this year are refugees competing in the games under the Olympic flag. Their families are cheering them on, some from Kenya's Kakuma refugee settlement.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): May God grant you a pure heart. Run with it. Run as you normally do, and I pray you win so that when you come back, we will all celebrate your victory.

WANG (voice-over): Excited crowds greet some athletes as they begin arriving home. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz got a huge welcome when she returned to the Philippines an she deserves it.

Not only did the 30-year-old take home the country's first Olympic gold medal but Diaz set an Olympic record with her combined weight total of 224 kilograms across two successful lifts. President Rodrigo Duterte also recognized her success.

RODRIGO DUTERTE, PRESIDENT, THE PHILIPPINES: The nation is ecstatic about your achievement.

WANG (voice-over): It was cheers and hugs as skateboarder Rayssa Leal arrived home in Brazil. The 13-year-old is the youngest Brazilian athlete to ever win an Olympic medal. Leal showed off the silver she won in the women's street skateboarding event.

Olympians from around the world are making history and they have incredible support, from their fans in Tokyo and beyond -- Selina Wang, CNN, Tokyo.


HOLMES: CNN NEWSROOM will be right back.



[03:20:00] (MUSIC PLAYING)

HOLMES: Welcome back.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis thumbing his nose at the scientists at the CDC, issuing an executive order on Friday to prevent mask mandates in Florida's schools, saying it was, quote, "in response to several Florida school boards considering or implementing mask mandates in their schools after the Biden administration issued unscientific and inconsistent recommendations that school-aged children wear masks" -- his words.

DeSantis says his order is meant to, quote, "protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks."

It also includes financial penalties for schools that don't comply, choose to go their own way.

Australia's military is stepping in to help enforce COVID isolation rules in Sydney. The city's police are out in force right now. But on Monday, troops will join the officers to make sure people who tested positive for COVID are, indeed, isolating.

The move came after Australia announced a new plan to get its COVID surge under control. As Cyril Vanier reports, there is no firm timeline for ending lockdowns and reopening borders.


CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A path to freedom. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison laying out a staged plan to break the back of the coronavirus.

SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER, AUSTRALIA: Australians, we have to take each step together. And that starts with walking in the door of that vaccine clinic and seeing that GP, that pharmacist, the state hub and getting that vaccine.

VANIER (voice-over): So, what does the government say is the way out? Phase A, suppression of the virus. It's where the country is now and for the near term, will continue to be with parts of the country with high infection rates going in and out of lockdowns to contain outbreaks.

Phase B will be reached when 70 percent of adults in the country are fully vaccinated. Morrison hoping this can be achieved by the end of the year, saying those who get the shots will be subject to fewer COVID-19 restrictions.


MORRISON: So, if you get vaccinated, there will be special rules that will apply to you.


Because if you're vaccinated, you present less of a public health risk.

VANIER (voice-over): Morrison says international borders will begin to reopen in phase C, when 80 percent of that population is fully vaccinated.

But getting people to follow the steps will be one of the government's biggest challenges. So far, just over 18 percent of people over 16 years old in Australia are fully vaccinated because of a vaccination drive that got off to a slow start due to a shortage of doses.

Also, Sydney's 5 million residents are under stay-at-home orders because of the highly contagious Delta variant, restrictions that are wearing thin with some people.

Last week in Sydney, anti-lockdown protesters, fed up with coronavirus rules, turned out by the thousands, defying social distancing measures. The premier of the state of New South Wales warned protesters not to repeat them this weekend.

GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER, NEW SOUTH WALES: Your actions will hurt -- forget about the rest of us. But you could be taking the disease home and passing it on to your parents, your siblings, your brothers and sisters.

VANIER (voice-over): Officials say there will be a thousand police officers on hand this weekend and the Australian defense force has been called in to crack down on non-compliance. From Monday, some 300 army personnel will help police go door-to-door to ensure people who have tested positive are isolating.

The government saying these tougher measures are the only way to contain a virus that's becoming tougher to control.


HOLMES: That was Cyril Vanier reporting there.

I'm Michael Holmes. If you're an international viewer, "AFRICAN VOICES CHANGEMAKERS" is coming up next. If you're here with me in the United States, I'll be back with more CNN NEWSROOM in just a moment.





HOLMES: And welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM, everyone. I'm Michael Holmes.

Now we are learning more about yet another attempt former president Donald Trump made to overturn the 2020 election.

A House committee released handwritten notes of a late December phone call between Trump and a top Justice Department official. They show him pressuring his incoming attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, to declare the election corrupt. CNN's Paula Reid has details.


PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, these new details come in contemporaneous handwritten notes by the former acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donahue.

In these notes, he describes a December 27th meeting between former president Trump, himself and the then acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen. During this meeting on December 27th, the president allegedly told them that they should declare the election illegal and corrupt, reportedly telling them, "Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen."

According to these notes, the acting attorney general told the president, then-president, that, look, we can't just snap our fingers and make things happen. That's not the way this works.

This evidence has been handed over to lawmakers. That's how it was released and made public. It's likely to be used in several ongoing congressional investigations, looking at the former president's efforts to try to undermine confidence in the election and the events leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

Both of those former Justice officials could potentially be called to testify. Now in another major legal development related to the former president, the Justice Department has ordered the Treasury to turn over some of his tax records to congressional lawmakers.

Now the House Ways and Means Committee had requested these documents over two years ago and the Trump Justice Department had suggested that the reason they were trying to get them may not be legitimate.

But the Biden Justice Department disagrees with that reasoning and the Office of Legal Counsel has said that they must be turned over. It's not clear if the former president will fight this decision in court.

We know a Manhattan grand jury has already gotten some similar documents. So far, they have not leaked but things have been known to leak off the Hill -- Paula Reid, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauding the Justice Department's decision on Trump's taxes, writing in a statement, quote, "Access to former president Trump's tax returns is a matter of national security.

"The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as president."

But there has been some pushback. Republican senator Chuck Grassley is criticizing the opinion, saying, quote, "The Office of Legal Counsel is supposed to be a source of thoughtful legal analysis, not a source of political justifications to back up partisan House investigations.

"Troublingly, this new OLC opinion contradicts its own very recent opinion."

Now the first group of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops has finally arrived in the United States. About 200 Afghans, including special immigrant visa applicants and their families, traveled to Fort Lee, Virginia, on Friday.

In a statement, President Biden thanking them for standing with the U.S. during the nation's longest war, adding he's proud to tell them welcome home.

Now those who arrived on Friday are part of a group of 700 Afghans, who have completed most of the background screening process. They'll be at Fort Lee for about a week, securing a medical clearance and getting the opportunity to receive a COVID vaccine. Here's Virginia Senator Tim Kaine on their arrival.


SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): We feel particularly supportive and even proud that we can be the initial place of touching soil in the United States as these Afghan SIVs and their family members begin a next exciting, challenging chapter of opportunity in this country, just as waves of immigrants before have enriched our nation.

These Afghans are already enriching our nation and will continue to.


HOLMES: Now these Afghan nationals were essential, of course, to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Listen to how one Army captain described the wartime camaraderie.



CAPT. SAYRE PAINE, U.S. ARMY (RET.): I'm grateful to anybody that sat in the trenches with me, fully knowing the hazards that we faced, that, more than likely, one of us was going to die. And the interpreter was right there with us. And I owe them a duty as much as I owe any soldier that I was with.



HOLMES: Now the arrival of those Afghans in the U.S. is good news but it's a drop in the bucket and it comes late in the game for tens of thousands of others, whose lives are at risk right now and who continue to wait.

Meanwhile, Afghans and Afghanistan have myriad other looming challenges and risks ahead, even from next door neighbors, which brings me to Husain Haqqani. He is former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., also director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute.

He's written about some of these challenges in "Foreign Affairs" magazine, focusing on neighboring Pakistan.

It's good to see you again, Husain. Let's start with this. The Taliban gains have been fast; predictable in many ways. As you write in "Foreign Affairs," Pakistan's hardliners have been supporting the Taliban for decades. They are getting what they wished for. But as you put, it they will come to regret it. Explain what you mean.

HUSAIN HAQQANI, FORMER PAKISTAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Pakistan now does not want the Taliban to have a military victory because it would result in 2 things. One would be chaos in Afghanistan; second, the international isolation for both Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban and for Pakistan for enabling it.

So, Pakistan would have preferred some kind of a brokered settlement in which the Taliban's ascendancy was accepted by the international community in a negotiated process.

And all of a sudden, those who have supported the Taliban in Pakistan are realizing the fact there, which has been granted may not necessarily end the problems they had hoped to combat.

Pakistan's reason for supporting the Taliban historically has been that they want to deny Indian influence in Afghanistan. And that is something they might be able to achieve but at a much bigger price, which is the loss of international support from other quarters.

HOLMES: Which is a good explanation on your piece.

How might a Taliban regime next door affect Pakistan's domestic peace and security?

You write, quote, "Islamist extremism has already divided Pakistani society along sectarian lines and the ascendance of Afghan Islamists next door will only embolden radicals at home.

How might that play out?

HAQQANI: Pakistan's current military chief has disagreed, publicly, with his predecessors by saying that the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, who are responsible for many terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, including that very brutal attack on Pakistani school children a few years ago, that group is inextricably linked with the Afghan Taliban.

You had on CNN the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, saying we are working with the Afghan Taliban, so TTP will be the first threat that Pakistan will face. They will want not only Afghanistan to be Islamic; they want their vision of Islam to also spread to the areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

The second threat for Pakistan will be refugees, not all Afghans will accept the Taliban rule and many will resist. Third, having a civil war next door is never good for a country's

economy. That will be another problem for Pakistan to deal with. Of, course whenever the Taliban come into power or Afghanistan descends into chaos, there is always the increase in narcotics production in remote border areas. That will become a problem for Pakistan.

And lastly, Pakistan will have to deal with being blamed for the Taliban having taken over and it will be in a difficult position of not being able to totally break with the Taliban, because this is a country right next door. And Pakistan would like to have relations which whoever is in power there.

But at the same time, the other problem will be that they will not be in Pakistan's control, while the international community will demand that Pakistan bring them under control.

HOLMES: As I said at the outset, there are myriad issues for Pakistan. The major U.S. demand in talks with the Taliban was that they break off ties, and cooperation with Al Qaeda, don't allow a terror base in the country. But that was pretty naive, really.

The evidence is the Taliban not having broken off ties and Al Qaeda has even been fighting alongside the Taliban. Then you have the Haqqani Network in Pakistan, with its links to Al Qaeda.

Do you believe Al Qaeda will reconstitute itself in Afghanistan?


HOLMES: And what are your fears if that happens?

HAQQANI: Well, Al Qaeda, according to the U.N. report on the subject, already have relations with the Taliban and it is already -- stands reconstituted. It may not have the same vigor as in the past.

But once they have the control of Afghanistan and are an international pariah, we will go back to the 1990s, where the Taliban will get some kind of international connection through Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda will have the protection of the Taliban.

These are groups that are ideologically connected. And they are also connected by marriage. They have been together in form or another going back all the way to the Soviet occupation.

And we must acknowledge that then, Americans who were naive enough to let these people come and operate out of Pakistan, thinking they would only fighting the Communists and not be a problem later, well, they did become a problem.

And then, after 9/11, there was an American naivete in thanking they could go after Al Qaeda without going after the Taliban.

Lastly, there has been this naivete that, if only the Taliban can come to the Ritz-Carlton in Doha, they will sit together with us, sign an agreement and then they will say goodbye to Al Qaeda. None of those naive presumptions will be fulfilled, because the

Taliban have a core ideological belief. They believe that they are doing God's work in whatever they do. And when you feel that, then you do not compromise.

HOLMES: I wish we had more time, we never even got to China, Iran, Russia, their interests in the country as well. Always a fascinating discussion with you, Husain Haqqani, thank you so much.

HAQQANI: Such a pleasure.


HOLMES: Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, unvaccinated Americans are getting hit hard by the Delta variant, especially in conservative corners of the country.

So why are many Republican politicians openly mocking masks and vaccines?

We'll be right back.





HOLMES: Now even as we see more evidence of the danger from the Delta variant, many Republican officials continue to mock and defy recommendations to wear masks and get vaccinated.

That is as Republican-controlled areas tend to have lower vaccination rates and are, of course, as it would follow, getting hit by the worst of the Delta variant.

But some Republicans are now changing their tune. CNN's Brian Todd with that.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, mocking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for wearing a mask and a face shield on an official visit overseas, tweeting this, quote, "Our SecDef is vaccinated but he arrives in the Philippines wearing a mask and a face shield, embarrassing COVID theater."

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, FORMER NEW YORK CITY ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER OF HEALTH: This is akin to making fun of police officers and soldiers who want to wear bulletproof vests and body armor in the line of fire.

TODD (voice-over): A Defense spokesperson responded to Rubio by telling CNN General Austin was abiding by the Philippine government's health guidelines. Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis is bypassing the CDC's masking guidelines, today, signing an executive order leaving it up to parents to decide if their kids should wear masks and schools.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): These kids are in school. They have the mask on.

When they go out of school and hang out, do you think they are wearing the masks when they are in each other's house?

Of course not. So it's terribly uncomfortable and it is something that a lot of parents have been frustrated about.

TODD: All of this despite the government's push to get more Americans to vaccinate and wear masks indoors.

GOUNDER: What these Republican leaders are doing is very detrimental to people's health, because they are actively discouraging them from doing the very things that will protect their health.

TODD: Meantime, other Republican leaders like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell are pushing Americans to get vaccinated. McConnell narrating this new radio ad in his home state of Kentucky, recalling his own battle with polio.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Every American should take advantage of this miracle and get vaccinated. It's the only way we're going to beat COVID. This is not complicated.

TODD: Alabama's Republican governor Kay Ivey, whose state has some of the lowest vaccination rates, has been more blunt about who is responsible for the spikes in new COVID cases.

GOV. KAY IVEY (R-AL): It's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that let us down.

TODD: Now some of the unvaccinated and their loved ones are settled with crushing pain and regret. William Thomas Ball from Mississippi and his wife, Alicia, initially decided not to get vaccinated. Alicia has since gotten the shot but her husband's case of COVID has kept him in the hospital for three weeks.

ALICIA BALL, WIFE OF COVID-19 HOSPITAL PATIENT: He means so much to our family. He is the wealth of our family. We just want him to get better and come home.

TODD: Christy Carpenter and her family had been hesitant to get the vaccine. Coming off her own battle with the virus, the hospital employee from Alabama is now telling journalists what she misses most about her 20-year-old son, Kurt, who died of COVID.

CHRISTY CARPENTER, MOTHER OF COVID-19 VICTIM: You're going to make me cry. Just -- his infectious laugh. He would laugh from his toes. He was so sweet and loving and just really caring. TODD (on camera): Infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder acknowledges that Americans are burned out from all of this and that the new messaging on masking at least has been confusing for many Americans.

But she says the public has to understand the messaging will change again as the science keeps changing. And she urges patients as America's top doctors try to get ahead of this dangerous moving target, the Delta variant -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES: And we'll be right back after the break.





HOLMES: And to Florida now, where dead fish are piling up in Tampa Bay. The water there full of red tide, a toxic algae bloom, that kills marine life and has gotten noticeably worse. CNN's Nick Valencia with that story.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fishing boat Captain Dustin Pack says he's never seen the red tide in Tampa Bay this bad.

DUSTIN PACK, FISHING BOAT CAPTAIN: I hope that it's the worst is behind us in Tampa Bay. Pray that it is but I'm not holding my breath.

VALENCIA (voice-over): The toxic algae blooms which cause fish kills and can be harmful to humans, happen almost every year in and around Florida's coast. But for the lifelong fishermen, this year is different.

PACK: Typically what happens is red tide happens offshore. With currents and tides or wind direction, it can be blown into the beach. What's different about this one is this started inside a Tampa Bay. We have the worst fish kill red tide we've ever had.

VALENCIA (on-camera): Back in the spring, 215 million gallons of wastewater were released into Tampa Bay from this former phosphate plant to relieve pressure on a leaking reservoir. You can see cleanup is still underway. Environmentalist say the disaster that happened at Piney Point is fueling the red tide that we're seeing in Tampa Bay.

Now five organizations are suing the governor, the Acting Secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and the owners of Piney Point. They want the plant cleaned up and closed down safely so disasters of this magnitude never happen again.

VALENCIA (voice-over): But Governor Ron DeSantis claims the science is pointing in a different direction.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): The scientific consensus is clear, it didn't cause the red tide. The red tide was here.

VALENCIA (voice-over): The governor saying it was Hurricane Elsa in July and not Piney Point's wastewater which led to this year's historic fish kills. Asked if he might be playing politics by not declaring a state of emergency over the red tide in Tampa Bay, DeSantis was defiant.

DESANTIS: How did I politicize red tide? They were the ones who were saying, you're going to declare a state of emergency and so we asked them, why? Well, they didn't know why.

MAYA BURKE, TAMPA BAY ESTUARY PROGRAM: The data are really clear that this algae bloom that was occurring in Tampa Bay started well before Hurricane Elsa passed by.

VALENCIA (voice-over): Maya Burke with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program says, while money made available so far by the governor's office has helped clean up the bay, they need more of it now.


VALENCIA (voice-over): She says not only has the water not looked this bad since the 1970s, before there was a Clean Water Act, but the governor's timeline for what's causing the red tide is way off.

BURKE: What Hurricane Elsa did was it changed the wind patterns and it put all those, you know, thousands of tons of dead fish right up along the Downtown Waterfront in St. Petersburg and it was an assault to the senses.

VALENCIA (voice-over): Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who just announced her run for governor, things based on the neuro toxin levels in the water, the red tide and fish kills could be a recurring problem in the bay for months.

NIKKI FRIED, FLORIDA AGRICULTURAL COMMISSIONER: We saw the emergency, we saw the governor are able to come out there at the very front end of Piney Point. And then he forgot about it and kind of moved on to the next issue. And instead of continuously having resources and support, it got, you know, brushed under the rug.

VALENCIA (voice-over): Back on the water, Pack says some fishermen and guides he knows have had to leave for work elsewhere, while the bay deals with an unprecedented fish kill. Its conservation group, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

PACK: We keep doing that, you know and we keep having these year in and year out. I don't know if we're going to have a bay left. You know, we'll have water here. Nobody's going to want to swim in it. And we want to fish in it.

VALENCIA: According to scientific measurements done by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, an estimated 40 percent of the wastewater from the Piney Point disaster is still in Tampa Bay.

Environmentalists say the red tide here could ultimately get worse before it gets better. We did reach out to the office of Governor Ron DeSantis to see if he wanted to clarify his comments as to the cause of the unprecedented red tide. His office did not respond -- Nick Valencia, CNN, Tampa, Florida.


HOLMES: I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for spending part of your day with me. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @HolmesCNN. Robyn Curnow will have more CNN NEWSROOM in just a moment. I'll see you next time.