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Flu Season Underway; White House Considering Gun Control Measures; Interview with Richard Blumenthal; Academy to Announce Oscar Nominations

Aired January 10, 2013 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning: hitting early and hitting hard. A widespread flu outbreak killing dozens of people, overflowing hospitals, causing calls for public health emergencies. We'll tell you what you need to know about the severe strain that is now circulating.

And sitting down with the NRA. The vice president hears from gun advocates today as he says the president could bypass Congress to get gun laws on the books.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And new rules this morning meant to make mortgages safer, but will they also make it harder to get one?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": Can you feel the excitement? We're just an hour and a half away from the Oscar nominations. So, who's in, who got snubbed? We're going to bring it to you all live. The action is right here coming up.

O'BRIEN: Among our guests this morning, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal will be joining us, New York Congressman Joseph Crowley; CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is with us; the dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, and comedian Jay Thomas, joins us as well.

It's Thursday, January 10th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning, welcome, everybody. Our starting point this morning, the majority of the United States now dealing with a severe and deadly bout of the flu. The CDC reporting that influenza cases are widespread across 41 states. More than 2200 people reported hospitalized. Here are the hardest-hit states, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, each reporting 22 flu-related deaths. Massachusetts declaring a medical emergency, 700 confirmed cases in Boston since October, rates ten times higher than what they saw last year. Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, joins us this morning. He's at CNN center in Atlanta. Sanjay, good morning to you. Put this in perspective for me. How do we compare it to last year?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: As you pointing out, you take a place like Boston, for example, and it's about ten times worse, 700 cases versus 70. But this is clearly a much more severe season as compared to last season which was relatively mild. The question that a lot of people are asking now, is this more and this is early peaking and will taper off earlier as well or will it just stay high now for the rest of the flu season? We don't know the answer to this. Also this particular strain, it's h3n2 just appears to be a more severe strain. We've seen this before. It was severe then, it's severe now. More people having significant sickness as a result.

O'BRIEN: Every year around this time you hear two things. People saying every time I get a flu shot it makes me sick so I'm not going to get a flu shot. Or they say I never get a flu shot and I'm healthy and so I'm not going to bother getting a flu shot. So as a doctor, what do you tell them?

GUPTA: The flu shot is not perfect. It's about 60 percent effective this year. There's another flu virus going around not included in this shot, but it's much better than nothing. It takes a couple of weeks for your immunity to build up after you get the flu shot, so you're not protected right away. Here's an important point, Soledad, and I think you and I have talked about this before. When you get a flu shot, what the body is doing is sort of ramping up the immune system. So it's recognizing that virus so that if it sees the virus again, it can get rid of it more quickly. But that ramping up of the immune system, that's what makes people feel a little crummy. You might sort of have those flu-like symptoms, but it's not the flu after you get that shot.

O'BRIEN: This year it seems that there is this aggressive flu and then whooping cough as well and then the noro-virus, the three of them coming together. They have predicted 50,000 people could die this season. Are these all going to be mostly people who already have compromised immune systems?

GUPTA: Yes. Those are the people that are certainly the most vulnerable. But when you look at numbers like that, 50,000 people potentially dying, 200,000 potentially hospitalized, obviously healthy people are in that crowd as well. So a lot of times it's healthy people who simply -- they get very dehydrated, their fever stays elevated for several days and they don't get to a doctor or hospital on time. So, you know, there's a lot of people who are getting quite sick from this.

O'BRIEN: You have a list of when people should go to the hospital, that it's not sort of the flu that you can stay in bed and resolve at home but that it is so serious that you need to be hospitalized. Let's walk through some of that.

GUPTA: For the vast majority of healthy people, they'll be able to stay home and the focus is on isolation so they don't get other people sick. But if you're unable to keep fluids down, for example, as a result of this, if your fever stays elevated as a result of this, over 103 degrees, most importantly if you suddenly develop difficulty breathing, that is a big red flag. Also one thing that can happen is you can have this viral infection. You get better after the flu goes away but you've developed a bacterial infection afterwards, so you feel better and then a couple of days the symptoms come back. That can be a red flag. O'BRIEN: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you. I should mention Sanjay will monitor the flu's spread over the weekend. You can watch "SANJAY GUPTA MD" for the very latest on that.

Turning now to Washington, D.C., President Obama prepared to go, maybe, around Congress to enact some tough new gun control laws that sort of comes, according to his Vice President Joe Biden, talking about that yesterday on the eve of his meeting today between gun violence commission and the National Rifle Association, it's going to be a busy day for the vice president. Later this morning he'll meet with sportsmen and wildlife groups. This afternoon it's representatives from gun owners groups including the NRA. Then tonight he sits down with members from the -- executives from the entertainment industry.

The White House saying they're in listening mode today and the vice president acknowledging that the president is prepared to use the powers of the presidency possibly to push through a comprehensive gun control plan. Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: The president is going to act. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven't decided what that is yet. But we're compiling it all with help of the attorney general and all the rest of the cabinet members as well as legislative action we believe is required.


O'BRIEN: He says we haven't decided what it is yet. Let's get right to White House correspondent Dan Lothian who's in Washington, D.C., this morning. So talk more specifically. He's not being very specific. What are people thinking that he's talking about?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think we have to really wait and see. The White House is still in the process of compiling what some of those options might be for the president to go it alone. They have these two tracks, as you've pointed out, where legislatively there are things they believe such as reinstating that assault weapons ban but they also want to have options for the president to go it alone, and they're working with the Justice Department on some of the specifics.

Obviously what they're trying to do here is they realize the political climate here in Washington, it is very difficult to get things done very quickly here. We've seen that over the last few months with the fiscal fight, frankly over the last few years as well here in Washington. And the vice president pointing out that things need to happen very quickly so that lives can be saved. Take a listen.


BIDEN: I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing. It's critically important we act. (END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: Now, in addition to the group of people that you mentioned, the vice president will be meeting with today, yesterday he sat down with a dozen faith leaders. They talked about the moral imperative of taking action to prevent the violence that we've seen across the country. In addition, he had a conference call with governors, state and other local officials across the country. They're trying to put together proposals and present to the president all of these proposals by the end of the month.

O'BRIEN: What's been the reaction, Dan, among gun rights groups?

LOTHIAN: Well, they're very concerned when they hear about executive action that the administration might be taking. We've heard from the Gun Owners Association, we've heard from the National Rifle Association as well. They're concerned about the talk of reinstating this assault weapons ban as well, and in fact we heard from the NRA saying that this is just a phony piece of legislation. They say that you should be looking at other things, such as violent video games, looking at mental health issues. That's where the focus should be, not on gun control.

O'BRIEN: Dan Lothian for us this morning in Washington, D.C. Thank you, Dan. Appreciate that.

Turning now to who's in and who's out of the president's cabinet, the White House chief of staff, Jack Lew, is going to be nominated to become the next treasury secretary. He would replace Timothy Geithner. The search is on now for a new labor secretary now that Hilda Solis has announced she's stepping down. Staying on the job for now is Attorney General Eric Holder. He'll be working with the vice president on those new gun control measures that we heard Biden talk about just a few minutes ago. He could leave by the end of the year. The White House also announcing health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, is going to continue to serve in the president's second term.

And today, of course, is Hollywood's biggest morning. The Oscar nominations will be revealed in less than 90 minutes. Some films are considered to be shoo-ins for nomination. Lots of drama, though, in this case. CNN's Nischelle Turner is in Los Angeles for us this morning. Good morning.

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, the good thing about the academy is they like to zig when other folks zag, so there could be five to ten nominations for best picture this morning. Conventional wisdom is it's been a really good year for film. There's a little something for everyone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like our chances now.

TURNER: The campaign for best picture is about to get real. And there's no doubt "Lincoln" will be a leading candidate. Steven Spielberg's civil war drama should land a slew of nominations and not just for best picture.

PETE HAMMOND, DEADLINE.COM: Daniel Day-Lewis, obviously, for best actor. You're going to see him nominated and he's by far the front runner to win. I'm sure you'll see Sally Field nominated in supporting actress and also Tommy Lee Jones in supporting actor.

TURNER: As many as ten movies could be nominated for best picture.'s Pete Hammond points to a handful of top contenders.

HAMMOND: In addition to "Lincoln," "Les Mis" is certain to be nominated. "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" are both certain to be nominated.

TURNER: "Silver Lining's Playbook" should score nominations for best picture and for its stars, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, who has endured an Oscar dry spell.

HAMMOND: Robert De Niro, who has not been nominated, believe it or not, for 21 years.

TURNER: Among the possible Oscar nominees, one movie stands out as a major question mark. What will Oscar voters make of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"?

HAMMOND: "Django" is the wild card here. It could get a ton of nominations or virtually nothing.

TURNER: The d may be silent but critics haven't been, some of them accusing Tarantino of trivializing slavery.

HAMMOND: It's such a box office hit. That can only help.

TURNER: The controversy should make for a suspenseful Oscar nomination announcement.


TURNER: Now, if the academy decides to expand the best picture category, "Django" could get a nomination if they go to six, seven or eight movies. But it would be a bit of a surprise if Jamie Foxx does get a nomination for best actor for that film. The best actor category one of the tightest this year, we probably will see people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington get nominations, but there could be heavy hitters in Hollywood like Richard Gere, Bradley Cooper or Joaquin Phoenix that could find themselves on the other side of the nomination.

O'BRIEN: All right, lots of drama there. You can stick around for our special coverage of the Oscar nominations that begins at 8:nic8:15 this morning. A.J. Hammer will join me and we'll talk about it live on the air. Go to our Facebook page or tweet us your thoughts on the nominees. It's @startingptcnn, our hash tag CNNnoms.

Other stories making news this morning, John Berman has a look at that. Good morning. BERMAN: Thanks so much, Soledad. In Colorado, the evidence hearing against James Holmes has wrapped up. The presiding judge will decide tomorrow if this case will go to trial. Holmes accused of opening fire inside the movie theater in Aurora last July killing 12 people, wounding dozens of others. Yesterday prosecutors claimed that Holmes cased the theater up to three weeks before the massacre. They presented photos recovered from his cellphone along with chilling cell photos of him posing with weapons.

Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai is making the rounds in Washington. Today he stops by the Pentagon for a meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He'll also see the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial. The two men will discuss the American troop situation in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission officially ends next year, and of course tomorrow Hamid Karzai meets with President Obama.

So it's a race against time to free a pack of killer whales trapped by ice, 11 of them trapped in a 50 foot by 50 foot space near a small Canadian village in northern Quebec. Experts are headed there today to see if it's possible to save them, but if the hole they're using to surface and breathe freezes over, the orcas will eventually die. Earlier I asked William Hurley of the Georgia aquarium why these whales ended up there in the first place.


WILLIAM HURLEY: We're seeing a lot of changes in the arctic. In this case it looks like these animals were probably looking for food and found themselves in a place they wouldn't normally be exploring and Mother Nature took a turn and brought the ice in quickly. This is one of the number one killers for marine mammals in the arctic areas. We didn't used to have iPhones in places where we could spot them like we do today.


BERMAN: Ice-breaking ships are about a day and a half away and open water is about six miles away for those whales. There was a movie that came out last year and there was a case in 1988 in Alaska, where they were able to make a path for whales, but the ice breakers may be too far away this time.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the vice president's task force looks at gun control. Will they look at ammunition and who is allowed to buy it? Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal will join us to talk about his new proposal.

Christine has got a look at business as well.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: New rules on mortgages. Will it make it harder for you to get a loan?


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Our team this morning, Will Cain is back, he's a columnist for I missed you a little bit. We kind of butt heads occasionally, so I missed you. We have a full day to get together on that. Jen Psaki is with us, Democratic strategist and former traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign. Jeff Toobin is a CNN senior legal analyst. Nice to have you all with us.

Potential face-off in Washington, D.C. to talk about -- Vice President Joe Biden will meet with the NRA a day after the vice president said the president might take his own action on the issue. Listen.


BIDEN: The president is going to act. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven't decided what that is yet, but we're compiling it all with help of the attorney general and all the rest of the cabinet members as well as legislative action we believe is required.


O'BRIEN: Senator Richard Blumenthal is a Democrat from the state of Connecticut. He's a member of the armed services committee and also the Judiciary Committee. It's nice to have you with us, sir.


O'BRIEN: What do you make of what Joe Biden was saying.

BLUMENTHAL: I think very realistically he's focusing on what the president can do to improve enforcement through executive action, which, by the way, ought to be very welcome to the gun rights advocates because they have been saying for years and years let's enforce the existing laws better than we have. And I agree that existing laws should be enforced more aggressively and proactively. So this kind of --

O'BRIEN: Well, gun rights activists did not welcome it. I mean they didn't hear a sense of -- they didn't read that as let's enforce existing laws. Many read it as the president is going to do what he can to go around Congress and put into effect what he'd like to.

BLUMENTHAL: And the vice president is reaching out to them, will meet with them today, perhaps better explain exactly what he means. But I think that we need to act on all fronts. There needs to be a comprehensive strategy. No single solution exists to combat gun violence. The proposal I've made for background checks on ammunition purchases also is a commonsense enforcement tool that basically says we need to do the same kind of checks with the federal database that we do for 60 percent of firearms purchases.

O'BRIEN: Let's walk through the specifics of what you are proposing. We have a graphic of that. Background checks to buy ammunition is part of the ammunition background check act of 2013. Sellers must keep track of ammunition sales and their inventory. Seller must alert police when there's 1,000 rounds or more bought within five days. And there would be a ban on Teflon-coated bullets and incendiary ammunition. Why focus on the bullets when many are focused on AR-15s, for example?

BLUMENTHAL: You know the saying guns don't kill people, ammunition kills people, bullets kill people. We now have a system where both firearms and ammunition purchases are forbidden for certain categories of people -- felons, fugitives, people with serious mental illnesses, people who are under domestic abuse orders. And those people can walk into a Wal-Mart right now, buy a shopping cart full of ammunition, pay for it, walk out, no questions asked, whereas firearms purposes are subject to a background check.

And so the legislation I'm proposing very simply would enforce the existing ban. There already is a ban against those categories of people purchasing ammunition. We need to make the law real, give it teeth and that's why we need those background checks, but also reporting for people who purchase more than 1,000 rounds and the ban on Teflon-tipped bullets, which pierce armor worn by our police and others.

O'BRIEN: You say it's simple, but many people are against it.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, obviously the precursor to this debate and obviously the precursor of many of these laws is the terrible tragedy that happened in your state. Does it give you any pause that Connecticut had an assault weapons ban in place when Newtown occurred, that essentially we're trying to pass laws to avert needles in hay stacks. These kinds of tragedies, although they're horrible, also don't happen frequently. So what kind of law would have stopped this horrible incident? You had one in place and it didn't.

BLUMENTHAL: A better and stronger law would have had a much better effect --

CAIN: How strong do you have to go to make sure it works?

BLUMENTHAL: It has to be without the kind of exceptions that right now riddle Connecticut's law and also plagued the federal law when it was in existence between 1994 and 2004. The assault weapon ban that I'm going to be introducing with Senator Feinstein, who has led this effort in the United States Senate for many years and other colleagues, will not be in effect undermined by the many exceptions and exemptions that made that assault weapon ban that was used in Newtown actually legal in the state of Connecticut.

I know about this law because I advocated it, I defended it in court when it was challenged, did the trial myself, argued the appeal. It was challenged on vagueness grounds because it had so many exceptions and exemptions. So it's not just a law, not just a ban, but a good law and active, aggressive enforcement. Best law on the books is dead letter unless it's enforced.

O'BRIEN: Senator Richard Blumenthal joining us this morning. Nice to have you with us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT. Take a look at this governor. "TIME" magazine shows New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Some people are mad because it says "The Boss." they say they're offended. We'll tell you which group and why straight ahead.

And do you think as many do that "Lincoln" is a shoo-in to be nominated as best picture? Tweet your predictions to us, @startingptcnn, # CNNnoms. We're back in a moment.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans minding your business. U.S. stock futures higher after positive news out of China overnight. The European Central Bank has its first meeting of the new year today in Frankfurt. Here in the U.S. we'll get a fresh reading on the jobs market with the weekly jobless claims at 8:30.

New mortgage rules today from the consumer financial protection bureau to end the risky lending that led to the housing collapse and make sure people have mortgages they can actually pay back. Before writing the mortgage lenders must prove the borrower has money, has a job, has decent credit history, and can afford the monthly payments. Plus lenders have to prove the borrower can afford all the costs associated with the house like property taxes, and home equity loans, and they can't saddle a homeowner with total debt more than 43 percent of their income. The new rules take effect January 21st but lenders have a full year to implement them.

Soledad, it's so interesting because no more teaser rates. They can still do these -- no more no-doc loans. They can still do interest only loans but they have to prove the person can pay more than just the interest, can actually pay the principal back too.

O'BRIEN: It is kind of crazy that a big step in this is proving that you can pay back the massive loan you've just taken out on your home, right?

JEN PSAKI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm betting most people thought these were already the laws, that's the thing that's so amazing, and that it's taken this long to get it in place and through a very hard fight early in the administration.

ROMANS: Some are worried it means you're not going to be able to get a loan.

CAIN: Well, good.

ROMANS: It also means lenders can't trick people. Part of the problem in the housing crisis, lenders tricked people and said you can afford this.

PSAKI: Part of the problem is financial education and people don't know what they're signing on to.

O'BRIEN: Now everybody is clear. No money if you can't pay it back.


O'BRIEN: Oh, cynics, cynics, cynics.

Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, a flu outbreak has killed people, sickened hundreds of other people. We'll tell you what's different about the flu this time around and what's making it so severe.

And then this, neighbors call 911. They see a ferocious and deadly beast walking the streets. It's actually just a dog. We'll have that story straight ahead. We're back in a moment.