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6 Unvaccinated Members of Florida Church Die of COVID in 2 Weeks; Lawsuit Filed Against Florida Governor's Ban in Mask Mandates; FEMA Adds $5B to Help Vulnerable Communities. Aired 3-3:30pm ET

Aired August 9, 2021 - 15:00   ET


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: CNN has analyzed the CDC numbers and found that more than 99.99% of people who are fully vaccinated have not had a breakthrough case resulting in hospitalization or death. That data includes cases up to August 2. And that date is important because it's after the Delta variant took over the majority of the U.S. infections. That's the good news.

Here's the bad news. And for the third day in a row, the U.S. is averaging more than 100,000 new COVID cases a day. We've not seen that level of transmission since February. That's when just 3% of the country was fully vaccinated now as cases go up, so to the hospitalizations so to the deaths.

Today, more than 66,000 people are in hospital, 66 with COVID, more than 500 people a day on average are dying from COVID. The nation's top infectious disease experts are now concerned additional variants more dangerous than delta could form. But the pace of vaccinations they're going up to, we are getting word the Pentagon also is moving to order the vaccine for active duty military members.

Florida, let's go there, it is the epicenter of today's pandemic one county has measured a 1200% increase of coronavirus in some of its wastewater. That's Orange County. It says it recorded the skyrocketing rise over nine weeks. It's head up the coast 150 miles to Jacksonville and a church there held a vaccine clinic today, rather after Sunday service. That congregation is mourning six members. The pastor says they all died from COVID over two weeks.

CNN's Natasha Chen is in Florida. So all these church members, we understand were unvaccinated?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right and four out of the six people were under the age of 35, according to the pastor, and it's just really a heartbreaking situation for that congregation. He said that in addition to prayer, he wants to take action, which is why the church held a vaccination event over the weekend. And he tried to convince the members of the church that faith and science do go together. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE DAVIS, PASTOR, IMPACT CHURCH: I just choose to believe that our God is the one who gives us opportunities like this, not that we put our trust in a vaccine, we put our trust in Jesus. But we -- how many, we put our trust in Jesus to take care of our hearts too, but when your heart start going bad you go to the doctor get it checked out. So there's no reason why medical science and faith cannot work together. We absolutely believe they do.


CHEN: As of last week, Florida saw a seven day average of new cases over the past week that was the highest of any seven day period since the pandemic began. And right now we are at a vaccination site on one side of the street, on the other side that is aligned for testing.

Now there has been no wait to get a vaccine today. But we can tell you that this line has been several hours long since this started at 9 a.m. Some of the people in line telling us that they've been exposed by co-workers or family members. Some of them are not vaccinated. Some of them are getting tested so they can travel. So lots of different reasons why they're in line, but you just feel a sense of urgency here. And from the people who are willing to sit here in their cars and wait for up to four hours.

BLACKWELL: That's certainly a valid sense of urgency considering the numbers there in Florida. The governor is sticking by this ban on mask mandates, vaccine mandates, but we know that there are some legal challenges. Give us the latest on those?

CHEN: Yeah, so Governor DeSantis has stuck by his stance that parents should be able to choose whether to send their students to school with or without a mask. And so because of the state policies, some of the local school districts have had to dance around that. Here in Orange County class starts tomorrow in person. They have a masked mandate, but parents can opt out of that.

Now at the same time you have this issue of vaccine passports that the state DeSantis does not allow but a judge on Sunday ruled in favor of Norwegian Cruise Lines who had sued over this, saying that Norwegian can ask for proof of vaccination. Governor DeSantis' office gave a statement today saying that they will appeal that decision.

BLACKWELL: All right, Natasha Chen for us in Orlando. Thank you.

Dr. Carlos Del Rio is Executive Associate Dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health Systems. Dr. Del Rio, thank you for being with us. I just got from my producer that the CDC is going to be discussing at the end of this week, booster shots. I know that you have a pretty passionate opinion on Americans now getting booster shots. Let me start first though, with what should that conversation include, what should -- who should be considered first?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, EXECUTIVE ASSOCIATE DEAN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT GRADY HEALTH SYSTEMS: Well, Victor, I think that we need to realize that there are some people immunocompromised individuals, some older individuals who may need an additional dose of vaccine to boost their immune system.


But I want to tell you that it's not going to be everyone. And that's the point that I'm trying to make. When you think about boosters, you think about for example, when we vaccinate you against measles, they give you a booster and they give it to everybody. And I think the great majority of people who've been vaccinated are not going to need a booster.

I am 62. I'm in good health. I went vaccinated back in December and early January. It's almost eight months. I'm not running out there looking for a booster because I honestly think that people like me, despite my age, I'm in good health, I'm not going to need a booster at least anytime soon. But it was very -- it would be very different if I was immunocompromised, like a transplant patient or somebody like that.

So I suspect that CDC is going to come up with recommendations for additional dose of vaccines to people who are like that immunocompromised et cetera.

There's also an issue with people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. We are beginning to learn that the protection from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while good is not as good as with the other vaccines. And it may very well be that CDC comes out with a recommendation that if you receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you should receive a second dose with one of the mRNA vaccines, either Pfizer or Moderna. But let's wait and see what happens there.

BLACKWELL: All right. We just heard from Natasha Chen, who was in the epicenter of the spread of COVID, the State of Florida. And we heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci over the weekend, major concerns about this spread not just the primary spread and the impact of the Delta variant, but what that could mean down the line. Here's Dr. Fauci.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: But if you give the virus a chance to continue to change, you're leading to a vulnerability that we might get a worse variant and then that will impact not only the unvaccinated, that will impact the vaccinated because that variant could evade the protection of the vaccines.


BLACKWELL: So he says that that could happen, how likely is the development of a more vaccine resistant variant?

DEL RIO: Well, Victor, every time the virus is multiplying, is transmitting, it's infecting other individuals is potentially developing new mutations, and some of those mutations will make the virus less likely to transmit. Some of those mutations may be made, make the virus more fit, more like transmit, more resistance to vaccines. And that's one of the reasons why we need to slow down transmission. The best way to deal with variance is actually to stop transmission.

BLACKWELL: I want you to listen to something that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said, as he is now trying to motivate people to resist some of the elements from their state governments. Do we have the Ron Paul sound? OK, all right. Let's listen.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): We don't have to accept the mandates, lockdowns and harmful policies of the petty tyrants and bureaucrats. We can simply say no, not again. No one should follow the CDC anti-science mask mandates. We are at a moment of truth and a crossroads. Will we allow these people to use fear and propaganda to do further harm to our society, economy and children? Or will we stand together and say, absolutely not, not this time? I choose freedom.


BLACKWELL: Now, he's a politician and that's politicization. I want to ask you from a public health perspective, what's the impact?

DEL RIO: Well, I think the impact is terrible. I want freedom too, but I also, I believe in public health. And you know, we have had this false dichotomy between public health and the economy. The way to have a healthy economy is to have a strong public health. The way to continue growing and to have our country not going to lock downs is precisely to support public health.

I am particularly offended also by Senator Rand Paul, saying that we shouldn't -- we shouldn't listen to CDC. We shouldn't trust CDC, as somebody who lives in Atlanta and who knows the outstanding people who work at CDC, I can tell you, we have the best public health agency in the world. And we are lucky to have CDC that is really working 24/7 to try to get us over this outbreak. And many times they may not have all the information, but they're trying to do the best with what they have. So my advice is, listen to public health and listen to what CDC is saying.

BLACKWELL: All right, Dr. Carlos Del Rio, thank you.

DEL RIO: Happy to be with you.

BLACKWELL: So with the Delta variant surging in parts of the country with the low vaccination rates, a lot of health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic are reaching what they describe as a breaking point.


DONNA COCHRANE, CHIEF NURSING OFFICER, LIBERTY REG. MEDICAL CENTER: The vaccine is absolutely something that you can all do to help. We are tired. We are at wits' end. The staff is overwhelmed. We're taking care of your community, taking care of your family, possibly watching them die. It's trying times, I've been doing this for 26 years and never have we seen anything like this.



BLACKWELL: Well, the rise in COVID cases and low vaccination rates are also widening a political divide in the country over who's to blame. Let's bring it now Sarah Smarsh. She is the author of the book Heartland: A Daughter of the Working Class Reconciles an American Divide. And she wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday edition titled, "What to Do with Our COVID Rage."

Sarah, thank you for being with us, I enjoyed the piece. And let's now break apart some few, a few parts of it because you scrutinize how some in blue state, some liberals have pronounced this, "a red state problem." But there is a clear political divide, the 10 states with the highest vaccination rates voted for President Joe Biden, nine of the 10 with the lowest vaccination rates voted for President Trump, former President Trump, the 10th is the state of Georgia. So in what context should we look at this divide? It's not an irrelevant observation.

SARAH SMARSH, AUTHOR, "HEARTLAND: A DAUGHTER OF THE WORKING CLASS RECONCILES AN AMERICAN DIVIDE": Well, thank you, Victor, for having me. It's certainly not an irrelevant observation. My argument is that the very simplistic frame of the red and blue map when we zoom out and look at state lines, falls woefully short of grappling with an understanding the current debate and very difficult fray that is vaccination status in America who is and who isn't.

We are falling back on some very easy, often, frankly, political stereotypes, directing among vaccinated Americans, a sense of rage or outrage, understandable, I would add, directing it toward longtime scapegoats, frankly, in our current political era. So as someone who grew up in rural America, I'm sensitive to the fact that one of those scapegoats often tends to be rural Americans, specifically white working class rural Americans, to be sure there are correlations between conservatism and also whiteness, and a reluctance to the vaccine based on conspiracy theories that outrage those of us who care about science.

But in -- meanwhile, that group, the anti-vaxxers, we might call them, the ones who show up with signs that we see on the nightly news that, you know, at the meeting and they're spitting on public health officials, they are getting too much air in the conversation because they are not according to many reputable studies, the overwhelming majority of folks who are hesitant about getting vaccinated.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, you're right that focusing on or vilifying people and this caricature of a Trumpian rube, you write this, "In handling the pandemic such misdirection of attention keeps us from what we should be doing trying to reach the vast group of people who might choose vaccination if barriers to access and knowledge were removed." So let me ask you in that context, Georgia, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in Alabama, from statistics, the lowest vaccinated state in the country, said and did this. And let's talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): I hear Alabama might be one of the most unvaccinated states in the nation. Well, Joe Biden wants to come talk to you guys. He's going to be sending one of his police-state friends to your front door. Well what they don't know is in the South, we all love our Second Amendment rights.


BLACKWELL: And invoking using guns there, you say that a lot of it comes down to fear. How does that work in a community that is afraid? How effective is something like that?

SMARSH: Well, I would say that the clip that you just shared, you know, one of the arguments that I'm making in my piece is that, we are directing our rage and anger and frustration in the wrong -- toward the wrong, bad actors that when there are many of them among us, but the most powerful of them, which would include say a rep -- an elected official, such as the representative or even Senator Rand Paul from your previous interview.

They are the ones toward whom we should be directing our anger and outrage, demanding public mandates, refusing disinformation and misinformation that is, frankly being spread knowingly and wittingly to deadly effect by extremely powerful people. And that's a very different thing. That's a very different paradigm then looking, you know, conceiving of this stereotypical for backwards person who's not getting a shot.


And, you know, that clip is an example again of something that understandably elicits both fear, which you just mentioned and then fears byproduct, which is anger.

What I'm interested in is, not necessarily whether we deserve to feel that or not, yes, we do. But what are we going to do with it, the longer that we stay mired in our own self righteous misery over this very unjust and unfair situation, the longer we are not moving toward constructive right action, such as keeping lines of communication open with the persuadable folks who, who actually still are the majority of the unvaccinated.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, you also suggest if you want to help, you can donate to one of these organizations. That's in Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia to try to go out and get people vaccinated. Sarah Smarsh, it is a fantastic piece. I thank you for taking some time to discuss it with me.

SMARSH: Thank you, Victor.

BLACKWELL: So Code Red for humanity, this new report gives a stark warning on climate change. The Administrator of FEMA joins me next to explain how the Biden administration plans to protect the community's most in need.


BLACKWELL: U.N. report is a code red flashing for humanity right now. The world's top climate scientists to present a disturbing picture about what we all could face as the earth keeps warming up, the landmark report by the U.N. Climate panel. And it warns that climate change largely caused by greenhouse, gas emissions is accelerating and time is running out to prevent catastrophic consequences. We're already seeing the effects of that, heat waves, drought floods, wildfires fueled by tinderbox conditions in California, yes, but Greece and Turkey, and Siberia.

Let's talk about this with FEMA Administrator Deanne, Criswell. Administrator Criswell, thank you for being with me. I want to start first, this report is not that we are approaching the point of no return. We are there. The impact could last for centuries, your reaction to that? And what is this administration? What can corporations here in the U.S. do to at least slow that trend?

DEANNE CRISWELL, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Victor, thanks so much for having me on today. Climate change is the crisis that we are facing right now. It is the crisis of our generation. And what this report does is really highlight as you stated, we are already seeing the impacts, more severe weather, more frequent storms.

And the disturbing part of this report is that it's not going to get any better. And so what we need to do is think about what are these future risks that we're going to be facing as a result of the change in climate, and were FEMA's role comes in, is helping to reduce the impacts. That's why we're really excited that President Biden authorized close to $5 billion to help state and local communities develop projects to fight this climate change, and develop those projects to reduce their impacts.

BLACKWELL: So and let's talk more about that, because it's not just the individual house what one family can do with these grants, these are going to states and municipalities. You want them to think big, you want them to think on a community level, what are you hoping they do with this money?

CRISWELL: Exactly, we have to start shifting the way we think from an incremental approach to hazard mitigation into a system-based community-wide approach. We'll still need individual projects. Don't get me wrong, it's really important that we keep that piece in place.

But we have to start having a focus on investing our money that's going to have exponential impacts on a community. And it has to also look to the future. We develop so many of our projects based on historical risk. And while that is still important, we have to take action now to start thinking about that future risk, as this report indicated it's going to continue to get worse. And so what is that going to look like for communities in 2040? And how do we put measures in place now to reduce the impacts that we'll see then.

BLACKWELL: Let's talk about the other crisis that our country is facing. COVID, I read an update this morning about the FEMA medical team that's in Springfield, Missouri, the one that was sent there as their hospitals started to fill. I had a doctor on from Harris County in Texas who's hoping that his governor will request one because they've now erected tents outside of the hospital for potential patients there. What else will this administration will FEMA be doing to help these communities, these hospitals that are facing the surges?

CRISWELL: FEMA is been helping with this crisis ever since it started, right? So for the last year and a half, we've been providing a lot of resources and staffing and personnel to support state and local jurisdictions as they've been experiencing the various surges.

You know where we're at right now, the biggest thing that we're doing is still supporting our vaccine mission so important that we get everybody vaccinated. And we're doing that with some mobile vaccine units as well as setting up vaccination clinics when we open up a disaster recovery centre after a disaster.

We're doing that in Michigan right now. We did that in Louisiana earlier this year. But we're going to continue to work with HHS and partner to send resources in as needed as these states are experiencing surge. But we're also sending community engagement teams. In Nevada, at the request of the governor, we sent outreach teams to help get the message out to community members about the vaccine availability.


And the biggest thing that we're doing, state and local jurisdictions have done great work to put contracts in place to help augment their staff and their resources over the last 18 months. We're continuing to support that by reimbursing that 100%. And so we've got a lot of capability today, a little bit more than we had earlier. I mean, we're going to continue to listen to what the needs are at the state and local level and partner with them to get what they need.

BLACKWELL: On COVID, I want to ask you about some reporting from NBC News, you remember that during the early days of the pandemic, there was a shortage across the country of the personal protective equipment, the PPE, the gowns, the gloves, the masks, the face guards. NBC News is reporting that a report is coming from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security says that it was not the fault of the White House Task Force, but instead of problem created by FEMA's data management, what do you know about the report and the problem?

CRISWELL: I have not read the report yet, Victor, and I understand that this is still a draft report, so I can't comment on that. But what I can say is that the men and women at FEMA, they worked hard all last year to make sure that we were meeting the needs of state and local jurisdictions, some of the best public servants that I think the government has to offer, and we're going to continue to work hard to support their needs.

BLACKWELL: All right, when that report comes out, I hope we can discuss it with. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, thank you.

CRISWELL: Thank you, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, just in Secretary of State Tony Blinken says the U.S. is, "falling behind." Here what he says Americans need to do at home to boost diplomatic strength with rivals like China, next.

Also a quick programming note, the new CNN series, Being Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins Dana Bash. The Congresswoman shares what it's like to be both adored and reviled. Being AOC, airs tonight at 9:00.