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Sense of Urgency in White House as Taliban Make Rapid Gains in Afghanistan; Hospitals Across U.S. Running Out of ICU Beds as Cases Surge; Biden Lays Out Plan to Lower Prescription Drug Prices. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired August 12, 2021 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Ana picks our coverage right now. Have a good day.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

Our breaking news out of Afghanistan, the breathtaking speed of the Taliban's takeover now has the White House's attention. And there is this warning from the U.S. embassy it Kabul to any Americans still in Afghanistan, leave the country immediately.

This is as the Taliban take more and more territory seemingly by the hour. In fact, a short time ago, CNN learned some Taliban fighters have broken through the frontline protecting the nation's second largest city of Kandahar and are now said to be wreaking havoc inside.

Just minutes ago, we learned an 11th provincial capital has fallen under Taliban control. You can see on the map, all of this happening since last Friday. And the Taliban now appear to be closing in on the capital of Kabul.

One senior administration official telling CNN the city could be cut off within 30 to 60 days, almost certainly dooming the U.S.-backed government there.

Kylie Atwood is at the State Department, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon and Clarissa Ward in Kabul with the very latest.

Kylie, first to you and this new reporting, what are you hearing from State Department this hour?

KYLE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We are hearing that there is a growing sense ever urgency among Biden administration officials over these Taliban gains that are happening at an accelerating pace in Afghanistan. This has prompted a number of meetings and phone calls to happen this morning. We know that Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with his counterpart at Pentagon earlier today. We know that he had a phone call at least last night with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, all about Afghanistan. And this comes as we have reported there have been ongoing discussions within the State Department about a further drawdown of U.S. embassy personnel at the embassy in Kabul. The safety of those diplomats and those contractors is essential here. And that is one thing that is under discussions right now. What is the Biden administration going to do?

Now, the State Department also issued an alert just today, it is the second alert that they've issued telling any American citizens that are in Afghanistan to get out immediately. And we are also learning that the top U.S. diplomat at the embassy in Kabul sent out a memo this morning, an internal memo, saying to the State Department that he thinks that they should consider adding more Afghans to the number of evacuation flights that are going out of the country because the assumption that those Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. in recent years can get out safely across the border is just no longer a possibility given these Taliban gains.

So this is a very quickly accelerating situation but there are a lot of developments happening at this hour.

CABRERA: And, Barbara, the speed of this collapse, did anybody even think this was possible?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think many people in the U.S. military thought that the Taliban would make some advances, the speed since Friday is rather breathtaking. You mentioned the fighting in Kandahar. Let's talk about that city. That sits in Southern Afghanistan, essentially, a major population center. But perhaps even more strategic is that it sits along a highway with direct access to Kabul, to the north, the capital of Afghanistan.

And this appears to be the Taliban strategy right now, to go to areas where they can then cut off highways, roads, access to the capital city and begin to isolate Kabul, put it under pressure, put its security at risk. Taking Kandahar has really captured the Pentagon's attention, not something they anticipated at this point, I think it is fair to say.

So, they're looking at all of this. Some intelligence assessments say that the capital of Kabul could be isolated and under serious pressure within 30 to 60 days. There are other estimates but, look, none of them are good at this point.

For the U.S. military, security is job number one, getting Americans out, if need be, rendering military assistance to do that, if it comes to that, keeping the Americans at the embassy safe and secure. And that is a lot of what these meetings are about. Is security lockdown tight, are there other things they might have to do? Ana?

CABRERA: Okay. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon and Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thank you, ladies, we'll let you continue to gather more information and work your sources.

Let me turn to Afghanistan and Clarissa Ward is on the ground right now there for us. Obviously, it is like the middle of the night where you are, Clarissa. But what is happened in the past 24 hours is so alarming to those of us here in the U.S. Is it just as alarming, do you get the sense that there's an urgency and worry and what is the mood there on the ground?


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is definitely a growing sense of dread and, among many people, a sense of panic, that this is real, this is happening, for Herat to fall, the third biggest city in Afghanistan, an important strategic city, for Kandahar, to be on the brink of falling. Barbara talked there about the strategic importance of Kandahar. But let's also talk about the spiritual importance of this city.

This is the birthplace of the Taliban. If they take over Kandahar, and it appears that they are in the process of doing that any moment now, they could even declare this the capital of their new emirate. This was the capital of Afghanistan at one point. And I've spoken to an M.P. on the ground, we were there last week, he said it hasn't fallen yet but it will fall.

We were at a frontline position in a wedding hall. You may remember that wedding hall now completely under the control of the Taliban. I even texted some of the soldiers who were we with. They said we are still alive but we had to leave.

And so what is becoming clear here, Ana, is there is no resistance, there is no defense. The Afghan army is collapsing like dominos, as we see these provincial capitals going down one after the other and so people here very, very concerned. How do they get out? What are their options? Where can they find security? What is happening with negotiations?

A huge amount of questions, a huge amount of concern and so far very little in terms of substantive, clear information coming from the government or, frankly, from anywhere to give people a direction to look towards, Ana.

CABRERA: And, Clarissa, you're there in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Are you safe? How vulnerable is Kabul right now?

WARD: Well, listen, right now, it is a very strange moment because there feels to be the city is still relatively secure. It is a very eerie sense of calm. Everybody knows that the calm could be over any moment now, and that when it happens, it is going to happen very quickly. And so for all of the hundreds and thousands of people who worked for the U.S. military, who worked with the U.S. embassy, who don't yet have visas to get out, who worked with the Afghan forces, they are in a state of, frankly, dire need right now because they have nowhere to go.

And they know that they can take their chances and try to surrender to the Taliban if that situation does indeed take place but that may not be a very good situation for them. We've seen the Taliban execute people who -- forces who have surrendered to them in the past. So it is an absolute sense of urgency here as people desperately try to work out where they can go, Ana.

CABRERA: Clarissa Ward, thank you for your reporting, please stay safe.

Let's bring in Retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a CNN Military Analyst. General, given what is happening right now, what should the U.S. do?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It is going to be challenging to do anything right now, Ana, because I think it was summed up by what Barbara said when she was talking about the closure of what we in the military call the lines of communication, the supply routes into Kabul, the ability to maneuver the Afghan National Army around from the government is going to be increasingly difficult as all of these major cities fall, because there is no place to move them to or from.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when General Milley and Secretary Austin said that the Afghan government was going to change their strategy, they were going to centralize their forces and defend the major cities. Well, all of the major cities, except Kabul, are on the verge of falling right now. So it is going to be very difficult to move forces from the outer provinces back into the center part of the country.

And even if that is done, as you just said, as Clarissa just said, without continuous communication and trust in the Afghan government, which the military forces and the population is losing, it is going to be extremely challenging to set up a defensive perimeter around Kabul. And even if that is done, for what purposes? You have a city in the middle of a country that is defended but the rest of the country has fallen to the Taliban.

It is very challenging, what we're seeing is an exponential complexity. If you look at the formula of power is equal to resources times will with a factor of leadership, the Afghan military is losing their resources, their number of soldiers that they have, the Taliban is increasing the will to fight based on their ideology. And the leadership on both sides, when you compare the Afghan government versus the Taliban leadership, you're seeing a critical shift toward that leadership.

So things are right now dire. The Afghan government is dysfunctional. The Afghan National Army, even some of the better forces, are finding themselves surrounded. It is going to be an extremely tough fight, much tougher than many people thought it would be.


CABRERA: But the one line that stood out to me from Clarissa's reporting is that the Afghan forces are falling like dominos.

The Pentagon says, the U.S. helped raise an army and a police force that numbered over 300,000 in Afghanistan. So why aren't they better able to fight back? HERTLING: Well, I'm going to keep going. This becomes the bugaboo right here, Ana. An army will not fight unless it has leadership of the government and the support of the people. Right now, the Afghan army does not have the support of their leadership, the governmental leadership. It is corrupt.

There are some problems. They have fallen. The Taliban has shown that they will kill and influence the local provinces to the degree that they are openly thwarting any kind of security forces. So all of those things, it doesn't matter how many numbers you have. If you don't have the support of the government or the leadership of the government, it doesn't matter.

We could send -- I mean the United States could have the 82nd Airborne Division defending Washington. But if they didn't believe that the government was worth defending, they would quickly fall too. That is what we're seeing with the Afghan National Army right now. They have no faith in their governmental leadership.

CABRERA: Okay. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thank you so much for that analysis. Much more to come on that breaking news story. We'll continue to stay on top of the latest developments.

We're also all over what is happening with the pandemic. Right now, hospitals are so slammed, they are putting beds in parking lots again. Yet Republicans are still fighting mask and vaccine mandates.

Plus, another big blow to the big lie, a federal judge ruling defamation suits can go forward against Trump allies Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and the MyPillow guy.

And we'll talk to one school official fighting back against Republican lawmakers trying to stop teachers from protecting kids against COVID, even urging one governor to withhold school funding.



CABRERA: Overrun, overworked and out of beds, many hospitals right now looking for like they did at the start of the pandemic as the delta variant and Americans fighting vaccines and masks drive the country deeper into crisis.

CNN's Amara Walker is just outside Atlanta. And, Amara, I guess no surprise here, this is happening in states with low vaccination rates.

AMARA WALKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that is right, Ana. Southern states having among the lowest vaccination rates but the highest hospitalization rates. So it goes without saying, Ana, that many hospitals in the region are being pushed to the brink with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Just take a look at Mississippi, what is happening there.

The state epidemiologist on Wednesday saying that there is essentially zero ICU capacity, that dozens of people are waiting in E.R.s and waiting for an ICU bed. In fact a health official at the University of Mississippi Medical Center warning that the state's hospital system is just days away from failing.

West Virginia, we go there, the governor there saying that they're seeing the highest number of COVID patients in the ICUs since February, in Texas, about 2,500 medical personnel being deployed by the governor to help with the surge in the hospitals. And here in Georgia, Ana, it is a very similar scene. I just got off the phone with Dr. Doug Olson. He is an a E.R. doctor, the medical director at the E.R. -- at Northside Hospital. It has five locations around Metro Atlanta. And he told me point blank, we're in a bad situation. We are nearing or at ICU capacity at this time.

He also talked to me about staffing shortages, hard to find nurses to work these very long shifts and, of course, as you would imagine, moral taking a huge hit right now. I do want to mention one of the health care workers texted me to say, I'm so tired and it is just August. I'm worried about what winter will bring, Ana.

CABRERA: Oh, my gosh. I can't imagine how tired health officials are in those workers and nurses, doctors and others. Amara, we know more and more kids are also getting infected with COVID and school just started up. There are literally thousands of kids in quarantine right now at the elementary school. I know where you are, they just went to remote learning, is that right?

WALKER: That is correct. So, an urgent notification was sent out to parents yesterday morning by the principal, parents of fifth graders here at East Side Elementary School. The principal in the letter said, quote, there was an extremely high number of positive COVID 19 cases that led to this decision where all fifth grader were told to go home before 11:30, between 11:00 and 11:30 yesterday morning to avoid any potential spread during lunchtime or on the buses.

And as you mentioned, Ana, school was in-person for less than a week here at East Side Elementary School. And now, the fifth graders are reverting back to virtual learning at least until August 23rd. So, mask mandates, none at Cobb County district schools right now, no indication that that is going so change, as a result. We do know that parents, many of them are not happy about it. They will be holding a rally this afternoon at the school district office and we'll keep you posted on that, Ana.

CABRERA: Okay. Thank you for that reporting, Amara Walker, in Georgia.

Let's focus in on Texas for just a moment. The situation is so dire, a tent hospital in Houston is now set up. This as the governor says, more than 2,500 medical personnel are coming in from other states to help staffing shortages.

Dr. Desmar Walkes is the medical director and health authority for the city of Austin. Doctor, I know how busy you have to be.


Thank you for making time for us.

We know, on Monday, the Austin area only have two ICU beds available for COVID patients, the lowest point since the start of this pandemic. What is the situation today?

DR. DESMAR WALKES, AUSTIN-TRAVIS COUNTY MEDICAL DIRECTOR AND HEALTH AUTHORITY: We're still experiencing a strain on system. We have very few ICU beds. We have a lot of people in ICU right now and people on ventilators. And we are really urging people to stay home unless something essential they have to do (INAUDIBLE).

CABRERA: We're having some trouble with your audio.

WALKES: -- to crowds that they were --

CABRERA: Let me just jump in here for a second, Doctor, to make sure that we can try to hear what you're saying. I hear you say you're getting hospitals full of people on ventilators in the ICU. Help us understand how long when people are coming to the hospital, how long are they needing to be hospitalized? What kinds of conditions are you seeing?

WALKES: We're seeing people that are going into ICU and they're going to be there for 14 to 21 days, some longer. And then we have some people who are hospitalized on the med surge floor who will be there for five to ten days. So it varies in the severity of the illness. But we're seeing lots and lots of people and a lot of strain on our staff.

CABRERA: Do you have enough staff and supplies, like ventilators or ECMO machines right now?

WALKES: We have a shortage of staff and we do have enough supplies, as far as ventilators go. We have enough of the equipment. We just need staff to help staff the beds. And that is what we're really reaching out to people to help us get that done.

CABRERA: And most of Texas is right now experiencing high transmission, yet Governor Abbott and the state attorney general filed a petition attempting to block a mask mandate issued for schools and businesses in at least one county. Is the governor putting lives at risk?

WALKES: Well, what is putting lives at risk is people that are not wearing masks and people that are unvaccinated because they are spreading the problem around when they're not wearing masks and they're getting infected when they don't have the vaccination. So, we're really urging people to mask up and get vaccinated.

CABRERA: Dr. Desmar Walkes, thank you your time. I'm wishing you the very best in this, sending you strength to all of those health workers there in Austin and across state of the Texas. Thank you.

Another big development, and if you're vaccinated, this could apply to you. FDA authorization of a third COVID shot, specifically for immunocompromised people, could come in the next 48 hours.

Let's bring in Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, board-certified internal medicine specialist and viral researcher.

Dr. Rodriguez, first, your reaction to this step the FDA is about to take.

DR. JORGE RODRIGUEZ, BOARD CERTIFIED INTERNAL MEDICINE SPECIALISTAND VIRAL RESEARCHER: Well, I think it is a very necessary step. I think there is compounding information that still has to be analyzed that shows that these vaccines, their efficacy is definitely waning with time for probably everybody. But the people at greatest risk for sure are the people that are immunocompromised. There are two shots or the one J&J shot might not have been effective.

What I urge the CDC to do is to be very clear, very clear as to what the definition of immunocompromised is. I already have patients who have like HIV but they're very stable, are they immunocompromised. So, we need guidance and we need very clear and specific definitions as to whom this is going to apply.

CABRERA: I think that's really important because a lot of people are saying, well, how do I know if I have had a good response to the vaccine dosage I already had, right? And, again, if this is just going to be for certain immunocompromised people, not everybody, how is the CDC and the FDA making these decisions, do you think?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I'm hoping that they're getting all of the data that is being provided to them by, for example, Pfizer and Moderna, who have been following the people that have been on studies since last summer. They have already said that they are seeing declining efficacy of an immune response in a lot of these people. And also that they need to take into consideration is the actual live person data that we're seeing in the day-to-day, how many people that are vaccinated are that are ending up in the hospital.

Luckily this is stable. And if you're vaccinated, your chances of getting seriously ill are like 0.001 percent. But the CDC needs to be in front of the problem, right, because we don't want suddenly people that were vaccinated in December to lose their immunity when they should have been vaccinated a month ago.


So they really need to be in front of the problem, not behind it.

CABRERA: Let me just ask another quick follow-up to that, because we are seeing some evidence that the vaccines are waning and because of the delta variant specifically. So, if I'm a healthy person who got vaccinated a few months ago, do you think there is enough evidence at this time to suggest that I should have a booster shot now versus waiting for later?

RODRIGUEZ: Probably not. There have been evidence already presented by the independent reviews of the pharmaceutical company data that says that if there is any waning of efficacy, it starts somewhere after six months. So, elderly people were vaccinated at first in December. You just had a guest on the that showed how health care workers were overtaxed and at risk. We were vaccinated in December- January. So we are part of the population that needs to know when, if at all, we need boosters.

But, again, being vaccinated prevents you from getting seriously ill 99.99 percent of the time. So, no need to fret at this moment.

CABRERA: The CEO of Texas Children's Hospital says the FDA should not wait any longer to authorize a COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 now. Do you support this call?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I do. Listen, I'm not privy to that data and I know that they're being super cautious as to the side effects for children. Children are very emotional issue. I mean, I'm getting goose bumps just talking about it. Nobody wants to lose their child, right, to a vaccine that has long-term side effects. But the populations most susceptible now are people that choose to be unvaccinated and, unfortunately, the children that cannot be vaccinated. The virus is apparently not discriminating between either of those subclasses and we're seeing a lot of our children get --

CABRERA: Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, thank you.

And we'll go live to President Biden.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: -- a few words about the pandemic, the pandemic and the unvaccinated.

I know there are a lot of people out there trying to turn a public safety measure that is children wearing masks in school so they can be safe in a political dispute, and that this isn't about politics. This is about keeping our children safe.

I saw a video and reports from a Tennessee protesters threatening doctors and nurses who were before a school board making a case that to keep kids safe, there should be mandatory masks. And as they walked out, these doctors were threatened, the nurses were threatened.

You know, our health care workers are heroes. They are the heroes when there was no vaccine. Many of them gave their lives trying to save others. And they're heroes again with the vaccine. They're doing their best to care for the people refusing to get vaccinated. And unvaccinated folks are being hospitalized and dying as a result of not being vaccinated.

To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders, who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids, thank you, thank you as well. Thank God that we have heroes like you. And I stand with you all, and America should as well.

Now, let me turn to the focus of today's remarks. There aren't a lot of things that almost every American can agree on but I think it is safe to say that all of us, whatever our background or our age and where we live can agree that prescription drug prices are outrageously expensive in America.

Today, I'd like to talk about how we're going to help millions of Americans save money and ease their burdens by lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Let me start by acknowledging the groundbreaking and live-saving work that many pharmaceutical companies are doing.

Look no further than the vaccines they're manufacturing and delivering that are helping us beat this pandemic and save lives. But we can make a distinction between developing these breakthroughs and jacking up prices on a range of medications for a range of every day diseases and conditions.

Right now, right here in America, we pay the highest prescription drug costs of any developed nation in the world. Let me say that again, of any developed nation in the world, about two to three times what other countries pay.

Last week in the Oval Office, I hosted a small business owner named Gayle (ph) from Denver. She's 60 years old. When she was 11, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.


For nearly 50 years, she's had to take insulin to stay alive. Do you know what she told me?