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HHS to Require Its Entire Health Care Workforce be Vaccinated; COVID Outbreaks Force Several Schools to Turn to Virtual Learning; Dry Conditions Fuel 105 Wildfires in 14 Western States. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 12, 2021 - 10:00   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: A Good Thursday morning, I'm Erica Hill. Jim and Poppy are off this week.

We begin this hour with breaking news. Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra announcing he will require his 25,000 person health care staff to be vaccinated. And that includes staff at the NIH, the Indian Health Services and HHS employees whose work puts them in contact with patients. We are also learning that the surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, will require the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service be vaccinated.

Now, the move comes as the delta variant is surging across the country, hospitalizations nearly doubling every two weeks, many officials say they are running out of room in their ICUs as mostly unvaccinated COVID patients fill hospitals.

Take a look at this map here too. In little more than a month, look at how the country has transitioned into a high transmission area.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond following these HHS developments with that announcement. So, Jeremy, what more do we know about this? When is it effective?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Erica, this is the latest move by the Biden administration to move in the direction of mandates and of requirements. That is because they view it as necessary at this point to move from the carrots phase to the sticks phase of this vaccination phase here.

This is going to be 25,000 workers, volunteers and contractors at the Department of Health and Human Services, including the NIH, the Indian Health Service, as well as the Public Health Commissioned Corps. And this is expected to go into effect by late September is what an HHS official is telling me. And listen to the reasoning behind this from the Health and Human Services secretary, Xavier Becerra. He says, as President Biden has said, we are looking at every way we can to increase vaccinations to keep more people safe and requiring our HHS health care workforce to get vaccinated will protect our federal workers as well as the patients and people they serve.

And now, listen, most of these health care workers are probably already vaccinated but the reality here is that this is about sending a signal to the private sector, sending a signal to Americans about the kinds of steps that are necessary and that are appropriate to take at this phase in the pandemic.

And just lastly, Veterans Affairs, they are also expanding their mandate for vaccinations at all V.A. hospitals, expanding it from just certain health care workers to nearly all of their health care workers now at V.A. hospitals. Erica?

HILL: Yes, certainly sending a signal is right. Jeremy Diamond, thank you.

Pretty soon, the FDA is expected to announce authorization for a third COVID shot for those with compromised immune systems. Dr. Anthony Fauci saying this morning it is likely everybody could need that additional shot at some point.

Joining me now to discuss this and more, Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, she's Chief Clinical Officer at Providence Health System. Good to see you this morning.

When we hear that this announcement is expected soon from the FDA, an additional shot for those who are severely immunocompromise, and the fact that we could all need one in the near future, do we have any sense of the timing? How quickly do you think this could -- this recommendation could rollout for perhaps the rest of us?

DR. AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS, CHIEF CLINICAL OFFICER, PROVIDENCE HEALTH SYSTEM: Well, I think the recommendation about severely immunocompromised is coming likely this week, and about the rest of us, we are going to have to wait to see what the science shows. And where we will have people who have been vaccinated for pushing a year now come this winter, and so we should really be able to track immunity and how it wanes over time. And based on that, based on the data, we'll be able to say who needs a booster shot, when.

HILL: CNN has learned of some people who are going out and getting a third shot on their own, in some cases, crossing state lines to do it. I'm curious, if someone came to you, what would your advice be to that person who is considering doing this before it has been recommended and certainly before it is been authorized?

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: I would say, wait. Right now, we know that the evidence shows that people who have been fully immunized have a dramatically lower risk of having severe complications from COVID. You might get symptomatic COVID but your symptoms would be more like a bad cold, not like the life-threatening illness that it is in people without the vaccine.

And so you have time to wait. You can wait and let everybody else who needs the initial round of vaccinations get their vaccinations. And until the science comes out and really understand the risks and benefits, I would hold off.

HILL: Speaking of the science, the CDC now saying pregnant women should -- recommending they should get the vaccine, and that is based on what they've seen.


This is good news.

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: It is very good news. We've known for a while that pregnant women have a higher risk of severe complications from COVID, including having premature babies, including having more risk of respiratory failure and needed to be hospitalized. So now the fact that we've tracked the data long enough to know that vaccines are safe and effective in pregnant woman and actually can help prevent some of those severe complications and are safe for the mom and the baby is really good news.

HILL: I'm not sure if you were able to see the map, but I think you probably don't need to see the map to know just how concerning it is when we look at the high rate of transmission across the country for this virus and how quickly it is ramped up because of the delta variant. We're putting up a screen now for folks at home. But we're seeing this surge as we're already hearing about some schools that have gone back for in-person learning having to return to virtual learning. I know that has a lot of parents concerned.

Realistically, how much more of that do you think we could see?

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: I am so worried about this. The delta variant is incredibly infectious. And that map on paper looks scary. I can tell you that as a physician, living in a health care system caring for all those people that end up as dots on a map, it is terrifying. We're seeing what we saw last winter, this rapid ramp up of people truly suffering horrific illness from COVID. We need to do everything in our power to stop this surge.

And so it is a simple thing to ask children to wear masks in school to minimize the spread of this incredibly contagious variant. So as we get kids back to school and systems wrestle with what we do in-person and virtual, at least doing the masking, the social distancing, the good air flow so we can minimize perpetuation of the cycle would be huge.

HILL: Yes, little things that can make a really significant difference. Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, thank you.


HILL: When we talk about the surge in Texas, it is so bad, some hospitals there have set up triage tents outside to care for the influx of patients. Governor Greg Abbott sending some 2,500 out of state medical personnel to assist.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Dallas. Ed, all of this is happening, of course, as the governor and the state A.G. are trying to block a Dallas County mask mandate. I mean, it really -- it is tough to understand, to be honest, that we're seeing these two different reactions from the governor.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it really is an intense back and forth you're seeing in many corners here of the state. This is all essentially happening as the state of Texas is smacking into this coronavirus wall. Some people aren't describing it as a surge any more.

But the governor is -- and the Texas attorney general, both Republicans, are really starting to go after the mostly Democrats in the largest cities in the state who have been in defiance of the governor's executive order issuing mask requirements. The Texas attorney general calling these big city leaders, quote, activist characters and they're vowing to go after all of them in court. But, so far, they're only going after the Dallas County mask requirement in court.

And then all of this is happening, Erica, as the coronavirus cases continue to surge here in this state. There are more than 10,000 people hospitalized, a number we haven't seen since early February and in some of the worst days of this pandemic. We're under 370 available ICU beds. And the CEO of the Harris County Health District there in Houston is warning that this state is heading for a catastrophe, a medical catastrophe because of the stress that's being placed on hospitals all across the state.

He spoke to state lawmakers yesterday and painted an extremely grim picture, saying he's frightened by what is coming in the weeks ahead.


DR. ESAMEIL PORSA, CEO, HARRIS HEALTH SYSTEM: I also see the silver lining but I am frightened by what is coming. We could go in my hospital, had to call it a disaster. We had 30, 3-0, ICU in the emergency room on the stretchers waiting for a bed. Some of them had to wait for more than 30 hours to find a bed, an ICU bed. That is not optimal care. That is not safe care. That is not high quality care. I'm ashamed to say that my hospital provided that care. But that is where we are and that is where we are heading.


LAVANDERA: And the doctor also went on to say that they simply won't be able to handle the crush of patients that continue to come. And the question, as you know, many of these hospitals, Erica, are dealing with staffing shortages. The governor has talked about bringing 2,500 more nurses here to the state to help hospitals but this doesn't happen quickly.

[10:10:00] I've talked to several hospital administrators over the last few days and say this is a problem. Nurses are needed in many parts of the country and getting them here to Texas isn't something that will happen overnight.

So there is a great deal of stress being placed on hospital staff and physicians all over the state and a great deal of concern growing about where exactly this is headed in the coming weeks. Erica?

HILL: Yes. And I have to say it, being here in New York, it just makes you think back to the early days of the pandemic when there was a call for, of course, outside medical help to come into the state of New York. It's amazing that we are back here and now seeing it in Texas. Ed, I appreciate it as always, thank you.

The Republican speaker of the Tennessee House is now asking the governor to call a special legislative session in an attempt to block school mask mandates. And this comes as tensions over masks in schools, those tensions really reaching a boiling point.

The Williamson County School Board recently approved a temporary mask requirement. It goes into effect this morning. Here is one father who is also a doctor explaining why he supports masks in schools.


DR. BRITT MAXWELL, HOSPITALIST, INTERNAL MEDICINE SPECIALIST: At my hospital, we're seeing otherwise healthy people in their 30s and 40s getting sick and the case counts are going up exponentially and some are dying. And we have to do everything we can to protect the whole community, and that means that people in this room that don't agree with me and their kids in the classrooms. If we don't do this, we're going to have school shut downs and quarantines and needless tragedies and I don't want that from my community.


HILL: Well, the situation at that board meeting went from tense to chaotic after some parents who are against masking spilled out into the parking lot, harassed some of the people who do support the mandate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No more masks. No more masks. No more masks. No more masks. Child abusers, you are child abusers. There's a hell for you guys. There's a bad place in hell. And everybody is taking notes, buddy. Keep that little smug.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You should put that mask back on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Put your mask on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let those poor kids sucking that bacteria. How do you like that? We know who you are. We know who you are. No more masks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep it calm. Keep it calm.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're on these guys' side. They're on our side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they're not. They're not on our side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The police are on our side. The police are on our side. Let's calm down.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know who you are. Who we know who you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can leave freely but we will find you and we know who you are. We know who you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You won't be allowed in public again. You will never be allowed in public again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know who you are. Let him out. Just let him out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You better watch out. You better watch out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You just keep it calm. Keep it calm. Everybody back up, please. Everybody back up. Back up. Back up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm back, man. I'm on your side. I'm a parent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peace. Everyone, peace, but we know who you are. We know who you are.


HILL: I mean, just let that sink in for a minute. Think about some of the things that you heard. You'll never be allowed in public again. We know who you are. You'd better watch out, and then you hear, I'm a parent. What an example to set for your child in terms of dealing with thing that you may not agree with.

The Williamson County Sheriff just sent a statement to CNN about that incident. In law enforcement, it reads, we have to constantly strike a balance between maintaining the peace while respecting the rights that citizens have for free expression, even when the expression is unpleasant or even hostile.

When expression crosses over into behavior that is violent, law enforcement's role is clear. And the Williamson County Sheriff's Office will intervene to address those criminal acts when observed or when they're brought to our attention.

There needs to be a more civil discourse at public meetings, it goes on to say, and elsewhere, and we'll continue to work with other elected officials and community leaders to help strike that balance. We do take our obligation to protect our citizens very seriously and I'm always open to suggestions about how we can do a better job.

Still to come, California just became the first state in the country to require teachers and school employees to be vaccinated. How though will that policy be enforced? The superintendent of the L.A. County Office of Education joins me just ahead.

Plus, President Biden and Democrats pushing for sweeping action to tackle climate change, as the administration's massive infrastructure package advances. I'll speak with the EPA administrator next.

And hundreds of migrant children separated under the Trump administration still have not been reunited with their families.


So what is the hold up? We have a live report.


HILL: Right now, 105 wildfires burning on the west coast. 14 states, newly released data show that fires have now a burned 30 square miles of land every day since June. So what does that equate to? It's is an area about the size of Washington, D.C. scorched every other day for more than two months.

More than 95 percent of the west is now under some type of drought classification, as the dry conditions and extreme heat add fuel literally to the fire.


The Biden administration working to tackle the climate crisis as part of this two-track. The first track, of course, is the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that passed the Senate on Tuesday. The second is that $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which is packed with some climate provisions that Democrats are really hoping pass in the fall.

Joining me now to discuss, Michael Regan, he's the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Sir, good to have you back with us today.

As we look at where we stand, House progressives, as you know, sent a letter to House Speaker Pelosi and to Majority Leader Schumer in the Senate this week. They said they're not going to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill until their priorities are included in this larger -- in this larger spending bill, as we know, that Democrats will take up in the fall. What is your message to them? Are you concerned here?

MICHAEL REGAN, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, thank you, Erica, for having me this morning. And, no, there is really no concern because we're following President Biden's leadership. And President Biden promised to the American people that he would reach across the aisle, work on their behalf and get the best deal for the American people. He's done that. Working with the Senate on the bipartisan infrastructure deal and I expect his leadership will continue as we enter this next phase with the House.

HILL: So, you're confident that this will all work out in the House. Let's look specifically at what has been laid out here, these ambitious goals. We're going to put it up on the screen. The bipartisan bill includes $65 billion to update the nation's power grid, $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure and replace 100 percent of the nation's lead pipes and service lines, another $21 billion to clean up superfund and brownfield sites.

Let's talk some brass tacks here. I know you've been very clear about environmental justice and equity as clear goals for the EPA moving forward. So keeping that in mind, if we're looking at replacing 100 percent of those lead pipes, when and where are going to focus your efforts to start? Which communities are in your sights right now?

REGAN: We're focusing our efforts on the communities that need the focus the most. When you look at cities, like Chicago, 400,000 lead service lines that need to be replaced, cities like St. Louis, New York, all across the country. And so what we're doing is we're focusing on areas that need the focus the most will push those resources to those areas.

And we have established programs at EPA that have focused on water infrastructure for decades. We know how to do this. We know the criteria that we need to apply and we're working with our stakeholders at the state level and on the ground to be sure that we get the resources into the hands of those who need it the most.

This is an excellent opportunity, not only to begin that journey of replacing the 6 to 10 million lead service lines or pipes that need to be replaced but looking at shoring up water infrastructure all over the country to mitigate against flooding, to look at wastewater and other water services as well. This is a significant opportunity for looking at delivering good water quality to all Americans, but also creating millions of jobs.

HILL: So, it sounds like you're focusing really -- I'm sure, obviously, you're looking at where the need is great, but focusing on cities there.

Taking a look at what is in this $3.5 trillion budget resolution, we know that there are certain buckets here, right? What stood out to me is this creation of the Civilian Climate Corps. So this is an effort to put Americans to work, jobs that would include, as far as I understand it, restoring public lands and water, increasing reforestation, protecting biodiversity. Can you give me some more specifics and where we could see the jobs, those specific areas of the country that could benefit not only from their work but from the actual employment?

REGAN: Actually, Erica, great question. And we will see these jobs all over the country. When you look at what the Civilian Climate Corps could do in terms of helping to implement and execute on a national agenda to deploy clean energy services, to look at water quality protection, protection of biodiversity, these are opportunities for employment and in both our urban and rural communities all over the country.

And this is why this program is so exciting. It doesn't discriminate. We're talking about putting millions of young adults to work in areas where the country need it the most, earning a good paycheck but also looking at the fact that you don't have to sacrifice good economic opportunities for environmental protection. So we're really excited about the potential of this program.

HILL: We look forward to seeing more details on the where, you say, everywhere, but some of those specific areas.


I do want to get you though on this U.N. climate report that we saw earlier this week. You tweeted, the scientists are united in their voices to tell us that action climate change isn't optional, it's essential. Do you believe this bipartisan infrastructure bill goes far enough to address your top environmental concerns?

REGAN: You know, I believe that the bipartisan infrastructure deal is a really good start. I think when we look at what the president has included for reconciliation in terms of a clean energy standard, tax incentives for businesses, for electric vehicles, clean energy opportunities, the tools that every agency has in its tool box to begin to deploy tactics to reduce and mitigate against climate pollution, I believe that the president's whole of government approach is the right approach.

When you look at what the EPA has, for instance, last week as part of the president's executive order to pursue 50 percent of new vehicle sales by 2030 be zero emission vehicles, part of that package was a proposed rule-making from EPA to get that started vehicles for the years 2022 through 2026. So we have regulatory tools in our tool boxes, agencies that will complement what is happening with the legislative actions. We believe that we can get it done. But it is a whole of government approach.

HILL: We're going to have to leave it there. Michael Regan, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

REGAN: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: Just ahead, unprecedented action on COVID vaccines in schools. California mandating all school employees be vaccinated in time for start of classes. The superintendent from L.A. County joining me on how this will be enforced, next.