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U.S. Nearing 100,000 New Daily Cases as Delta Variant Spreads; Intel Agencies Scour Reams of Genetic Data in Hunt for COVID Origin; CNN Tracks Down a Super-Spreader of COVID Misinformation. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired August 5, 2021 - 13:00   ET



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

Here's the deal. The contagious delta variant is driving the U.S. towards what should be an avoidable milestone. Right now, nearly 100,000 Americans every day are getting infected. And Dr. Fauci warns daily COVID cases could reach 200,000 if vaccinations stall.

Several states now running critically low on ICU beds, patients overwhelmingly unvaccinated. Yesterday, in FLORIDA alone, more than 2,000 people were hospitalized can COVID, 2,000, just one state in one day.

Florida also now leading the nation with hospital admissions of children, and here is what is so upsetting. There is a way out, more shots in more eligible arms.

The White House did have this little bit of hopeful news today.


JEFFREY ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: And we are seeing results. Over the past 24 hours, we've recorded 864,000 vaccinations, the highest in a day since July 3rd. And, importantly, 585,000 first shots. That's the highest since July 1st.


CABRERA: Moving in the right direction but not fast enough to stop needless suffering and deaths right now.

Let's begin with CNN's Nadia Romero in Baton Rouge. Nadia, what's the latest there?

NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, the state just updated us on their statewide numbers for COVID-19, and it just keeps getting worse and worse by the day.

Let's dive in. Hospitalizations, they're up. People who need to be in the ICU, who need help to breathe, that number is up as well. Cases are up all across the state. The only good news is that deaths are down slightly today compared to yesterday. For the state's largest health care system, they say they're up 73 percent in hospitalizations, just compared to last week. That's how bad it is.

And we know that this state is lagging behind in vaccination rates, and so the governor's mask mandate now in effect statewide, indoors, schools as well. And he's encouraging people to get vaccinated.

And so we went to a vaccination site to ask people, why now, why in August 2021, why did it take you so long to get vaccinated? Well, we spoke with one mother who says she's getting her kids ready for the school year. They can finally get that vaccination so she brought them out.

And then we also talked to another woman, an adult, who says that her fear of the delta variant far outweighs her concerns over the vaccine. Take a listen.


ERONE BURCHELL, BATON ROUGE PARENT: I don't know as a parent how I could live with myself if my son -- if I didn't get him vaccinated, he got it and then something happened to him, I don't know how I could live with myself.

KAYLAN MERRITT, BATON ROUGE RESIDENT: Just hearing that you can get the shot and then still get it, still spread it, I was kind of thinking, well, what's the point? But then when the delta variant came out, it kind of made -- urged me to, you know, want to get it more.


ROMERO: So, the state's largest health care system said something that is so concerning for them is they are seeing a significant increase and people getting COVID-19 who are 19 years and younger. Ana?

CABRERA: That is so alarming. Thank you so much, Nadia. Stand by as we turn to CNN's Leyla Santiago in Miami, Florida. Leyla, fill us in on the latest there.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hospitalizations actually higher than where they were in the peak of last year, a 13 percent increase compared to July of last year. And that's coming from the Florida Hospital Association, the same association that is raising the red flag saying, look, 60 percent of hospitals will have critical staff shortages in the next seven days. So, those two things right there give you an idea of where Florida stands right now.

I am in Hialeah, where the governor just spoke. He did not address COVID or take any reporter questions, but listen to the last time he talked about COVID.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Joe Biden suggests that if you don't do lockdown policies, then you should, quote, get out of the way. Well, let me tell you this. If you're coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I'm standing in your way.


SANTIAGO: And the governor saying that he will be reviewing how he will not prohibit masks but make it optional or give parents, rather, an opt out for the upcoming school year.


But one thing I want to highlight here, Ana, the superintendent of Leon County wrote the governor a letter asking him to be flexible and give them autonomy. And he said, please don't allow pride or politics to cloud our better judgment.

CABRERA: Yes. And, in fact, he says that they have four school aged children currently in the hospital and two teachers in the ICU right now, which has changed his thinking on the mask mandates. Thank you so much, Leyla Santiago and Nadia Romero. I appreciate you ladies.

With us now is Dr. Richina Bicette. She is the medical director of Baylor College of Medicine and an Emergency Medicine Physician.

Doctor, currently, U.S.-wide right now, 49.8 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, so not even 50 percent. Reaching herd immunity, which is up to about 85 percent, possibly more because of the delta variant, we're told, that just seems formidable. But we did have that good news today, that vaccinations in the last 24 hours were the highest in a month. Is fear what's driving it? Is that the best motivator right now?

DR. RICHINA BICETTE, EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: I don't think it's fear, Ana. I think it's facts. People see that the delta variant is a completely new beast. We've been dealing with this pandemic for over a month-and-a-half now, but what has been emerging since the discovery of the delta variant is something that we have never seen before. Vaccinated individuals are still testing positive and those who are unvaccinated are getting even sicker than they were previously. I think that's enough to motivate people to want to go ahead and get their vaccine.

CABRERA: Well, let's give some more facts then. Because, according to Dr. Megan Ranney, prelim data, at least for 2020, suggests that COVID was in the top ten causes of death for children, and the top three for all Americans. That again was last year, so this is prelim data. This was pre-delta variant. And right now, we know the delta variant is accelerating cases among kids and the younger population. What are the most critical things parents need to understand and do to keep their kids safe?

BICETTE: First and foremost, if you have a child that is eligible for a vaccine, get them vaccinated. The delta variant is behaving very differently amongst children than the prior variants that we've seen. We've heard reports recently published in the Miami Herald that the sharpest increase in cases have been amongst children under 12. From Arkansas Children's Hospital, we've heard one of their chief officers there say that not only are they seeing more children who are symptomatic but these children are becoming sicker and requiring oxygen, support for ventilation and being admitted to the ICU.

I recent read a report on social media of an eight-week-old infant that was diagnosed with COVID and required Life Flight because they were in respiratory distress. Your children are not immune.

CABRERA: That is such a good point. Right now, we know that the vaccines are holding up to even this variant. Data shows it's not time for a booster shot yet, according to all the health officials we've been talking to here in the U.S. but Germany, France, Israel, the U.K., they are all moving forward with third doses, while you have other poorer nations still struggling to vaccinate even 5 percent of their populations with a first shot.

Doctor, does it make sense for any country right now to move forward with boosters in, you know, these circumstances when other countries are struggling just to get people their first doses?

BICETTE: You know, Ana, I'm not actually sure if the data shows that booster shots are not required. And the reason for that is because we are only tracking the breakthrough cases amongst people who are sick enough to require hospitalization and require deaths.

We know there are more breakthrough cases that are not being tracked. And how can I deduce that? Because if you look at the rate of rise in daily cases in the United States, it's a lot sharper than the rate of rise of hospitalizations and deaths, meaning that there are probably more cases in vaccinated individuals that we don't know about or are not tracking.

Now, whereas there may be some controversy regarding giving booster shots, a lot of wealthier nations are typically giving the Pfizer and the Moderna shots. A lot of these poorer countries who are having trouble vaccinating their residents don't have the infrastructure in place to support having the Pfizer or having the Moderna vaccines. They require sub-zero temperatures. They require certain methods of transportation. We still have Covax, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine. India produces their own vaccine. There are still other options available.

So, I think we probably need to look a little bit deeper at these breakthrough cases before we say that boosters are not necessary.

CABRERA: We are learning President Biden is planning to mandate COVID shots for all foreign travelers. He hasn't gone there yet, but should he?

BICETTE: I don't see why not, to be honest. I've been saying this since the vaccines were approved back in December.


This is our strongest chance to win the war against COVID. You do have a right if you choose not to get vaccinated, but we also have a right not to suffer because of your selfish decisions. Those who are unvaccinated are more likely to spread the disease. They are more likely to get sicker and put a burden on the hospital system. Why take the risk when there is an alternative?

CABRERA: Dr. Richina Bicette, great to have you here. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

BICETTE: Thank you, Ana.

CABRERA: And heads-up, later this hour, I'll be joined by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. These are live pictures of him now at the White House briefing. And I'm going to ask what the administration is prepared to do to ensure students and staff stay safe as schools reopen.

And local leaders are implementing their own plans district by district. Stay with us for that.

But, first, let's talk about what's happening in China right now. It's facing its worst coronavirus outbreak in months. The city of Wuhan, the pandemic's original epicenter, is testing its entire population of 11 million people as the rampant delta spreads.

We have exclusive CNN reporting for you now on the lengths U.S. intel agencies are going to to uncover the origins of the virus.

CNN's Katie Bo Williams joins us now. And you have discovered the U.S. is now digging through this trove of genetic data. Explain what this is and why it might hold the key to this mystery.

KATIE BO WILLIAMS, CNN REPORTER: Yes. So, bottom line, what they're looking for is they're looking for evidence to help them determine whether or not the coronavirus developed naturally in the wild or whether or not it possibly escaped from this lab in Wuhan either through a lab accident or through some other means.

And so, specifically, what they're looking for is they're trying to look through this big pile of genetic data from virus samples that the Wuhan lab that some officials believe may have been the source of the pandemic were studying. And so what they're looking for is kind of a genetic blueprint for a virus that might be closely related enough to SARS-Cov-2, as we know it today, to provide some clues about how the virus evolved.

But this is a big ask. It's a lot of data. So it's a little bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. And to that point, at least a few scientists we spoke to basically expressed some skepticism that there were any viruses that the WIV, that this lab in China was looking at, that U.S. researchers weren't already aware of.

And to make that even more complicated, even if they do find kind of a kissing cousin to SARS-Cov-2 in this big pile of data, the intelligence community is still going to need lots of other contextual information to be able to reach a high confidence assessment about whether or not this virus escaped from a lab or whether or not it developed naturally, as many scientists believe it did.

CABRERA: Really, really interesting reporting. Katie Bo Williams, thank you so much for bringing us that update.

Now, to California, an apocalyptic image as the wildfires levels most of a downtown area. Take a look at these pictures. Wow.

Plus, profiting from his lies, Randi Kaye confronts a doctor for being a super-spreader of COVID misinformation.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Randi Kaye with CNN. Can we ask you a couple questions? We just want to talk to you about vaccines and what you've been saying about them.




CABRERA: More people forced to flee their homes in California where 11 large wildfires have already burned an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. The river fire just started yesterday and has already torn through 1400 acres, damaging or destroying at least 40 structures, and it's prompting this dire warning from a local sheriff.


SHERIFF DEVON BELL, PLACER COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: If you receive an evacuation warning, please go. And if you receive an order, get out. Do not take your chances. Please go. We do not need you in there. You're taking your life in your hands.


CABRERA: The state's largest active wildfire, the Dixie fire, it engulfed the entire mountain town of Greenville last night. In the aftermath, frankly, looks like a bomb went off.

So far, the fire is only 35 percent contained.

Now to Florida, where COVID hospitalizations have broken the pandemic record. Well, there are a multitude of reasons for this spike, false information and a lack of understanding are a big part of the root cause. And one Florida doctor is being pegged as the most influential super-spreader of misinformation online.

CNN's Randi Kaye tracked him down.


DR. JOSEPH MERCOLA, : It's unproven vaccine. It's just being accelerated and eliminated virtually every safety study. KAYE (voice over): He is the ultimate super-spreader, not of the coronavirus, experts say, but of misinformation about COVID-19. His name is Dr. Joseph Mercola.

IMRAN AHMED, FOUNDING CEO, CENTER FOR COUNTERING DIGITAL HATE: It is likely most people in America, if not the vast majority of people in America, have seen misinformation that has originated with this super- spreader of lies and misinformation.

KAYE: That's exactly why the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit tracking misinformation about COVID online, put Dr. Mercola, an osteopathic physician, at the top of its disinformation dozen. A list of 12 people, the group says, were the source for sharing 65 percent of all anti-vaccine messaging on Facebook and Twitter from February 1st through mid-March.

AHMED: In a pandemic, misinformation has a life that -- has a cost that's paid in lives.

KAYE: We tried to track down Dr. Mercola to ask him about the misinformation he's been posting, like masks may not work, vaccines could be dangerous and vitamin C and D can prevent or treat the coronavirus.


We first tried to find him at his office in Cape Coral, Florida, outside Ft. Myers.

I'm looking for Dr. Joseph Mercola.


KAYE: Not here? Is he here today? Can I leave a message?


KAYE: Will he be here tomorrow if not today or --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, he's normally not here.

KAYE: So, even though his office is listed here, he doesn't work out of here?


KAYE: Okay, thank you.

Next stop, more than 220 miles away, Ormond Beach, Florida, which Dr. Mercola calls home. We found his house behind a large gate and tried making contact through the security access pad.

Hello, this is Randi Kaye from CNN. I'm hoping to get a word from Dr. Mercola.

Later we spotted Joseph Mercola him riding his bicycle. Once he stopped, we thought this was our opening to get some answers as to why he's pushing false claims about masks and the vaccine.

How are you?


KAYE: I'm Randi Kaye with CNN. Can we ask you a couple questions?


KAYE: We just want to talk to you about vaccines and what you've been saying about them. Do you feel responsible for people who didn't get vaccinated, possibly got sick and died because of what you told them about the vaccines?

What do you say to families who lost loved ones? Are you spreading misinformation?


KAYE: Why won't you speak to us? Here's your opportunity to speak with us and answer questions.

So, despite all his bravado online, Mercola suddenly had nothing to say. Though after we emailed him questions, he responded saying, I encourage every person to fully educate themselves to make individual decisions about medical risk-taking.

Throughout the pandemic, he's been quite outspoken.

MERCOLA: I wanted to go back to the reason why the mask may not work.

KAYE: In his email to us, Mercola challenged any suggestion that he belongs on a disinformation list. Still, by fueling the narrative that vaccines are dangerous, who knows how many of his followers chose to skip the vaccine.

This was Mercola on a podcast in April last year, saying vaccines are --

MERCOLA: -- being fast tracked and abandoning all safety precautions to the wind.

I'm sure it will cause enormous disability and premature deaths as a result of implementing this.

KAYE: What Mercola hasn't made clear to his followers is that, according to the CDC, the vaccines are safe and effective. And of the more than 345 million doses administered, there have been an infinitesimal percentage of serious adverse events conclusively linked to the vaccine.

Though he told us via email that over 400,000 adverse events and 6,000 deaths from the COVID-19 vaccines have been filed, a majority of which were filed by medical professionals.

To be clear, the FDA has not established a causal link to these deaths.

Earlier this year, Mercola posted this outlandish claim, that vaccines, quote, alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch. The CDC has said vaccines don't interact with your DNA.

Mercola also posted an article he authored that states aerosolized hydrogen peroxide can be used as an at-home remedy to treat coronavirus. According to the FTC, there is no study known to exist that supports that. Yet, via email, Dr. Mercola said the approach is one that many clinicians I have discussed have found provided a significant improvement to their patients.

The danger in all of this is that Mercola's misinformation has reach. The Center for Countering Digital Hate found he still has 14 accounts on mainstream social media with more than 4.3 million followers. His website promises to deliver trustworthy, natural health information, and has had more than 37 million visits since January.

AHMED: He wants to replace those doctors as the source of health information for people because then he can recommend his cures.

KAYE: His cures? Apparently, they include vitamin C and D.

After Mercola posted an article headlined, vitamins C and D finally adopted as coronavirus treatment, which has since been removed, the FDA requested Mercola, quote, take immediate action to cease the sale of unapproved and unauthorized products after noting he misleadingly represented the supplements as COVID-19 treatments.

In his email to us, Dr. Mercola said he has responded to the FDA letter and asked to meet with them.

And just today, Mercola announced he is removing all articles from his website within the next 48 hours.

MERCOLA: The last week has brought a tremendous amount of reflections to me and a lot of unacceptable threats to a company.


So the course of action I am now forced to take is to remove my entire archive of articles. 25 years worth of blood, sweat and tears coming down.


KAYE (on camera): Now, this doesn't mean that he's actually shutting his website down. He just says that he's now going to post those articles and keep them up for just 48 hours before removing them. But the question is will he continue to share those articles across his social media platforms along with the misinformation that they contain.

We reached out to some of those social media platforms to ask them what they're doing about that. Twitter told us they have removed tweets and they have also applied misleading information labels to some of Mercola's tweets. Facebook says they have removed some pages and YouTube says they have removed some videos, but he hasn't measured up to the number of strikes that he needs to be fully removed from the YouTube platform, but they're not opposed to that, they said.

We did check on it, and since we did our story, they have removed some of the videos that we actually used in our story. So they are certainly staying on top of it, Ana.

CABRERA: Well done. Thank you for shining light on this. Thank you, Randi Kaye.

With COVID numbers surging, how might they affect an economy that was so close to reopening? That's next.