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Congress questions HHS chief Alex Azar on COVID-19 'confusion'

Congress questions HHS chief Alex Azar on COVID-19 'confusion'
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks on the coronavirus during a congressional budget hearing on Wednesday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Members of Congress questioned Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday on what they say are mixed messages from the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the danger the country faces from COVID-19.

In separate budget hearings before two congressional committees, Azar told members of Congress that the spread of the novel coronavirus is contained at the moment -- comments that seem to contradict the CDC's warnings to prepare for a possible pandemic.

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"Confusion is the enemy of preparedness," U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Conn., chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee, said at the opening of Wednesday afternoon's hearing. "I believe the administration's lack of coordination for COVID-19 outbreak response is on full display."

Eshoo said agencies appear to be adding to the confusion with contradicting statements, and that financial markets are "reacting to a lack of trusted information."

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The comments countered President Donald Trump's assertion on Twitter earlier in the day that the media is "doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets." The tweet followed earlier comments that COVID-19 was "under control" and that "the whole situation will start working out."

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"The risk right now is very low to Americans," Azar said during a Wednesday morning hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations' subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies. "From a public health perspective, we are technically in a state of containment in the U.S."

Azar said in the earlier hearing on the HHS budget that there have been 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States -- not including those among passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and State Department evacuees from Wuhan, China, epicenter of the outbreak.

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That 14 figure has remained "stable" for 15 days, he said, but acknowledged a 15th case during the afternoon hearing.

In another exchange U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., asked Azar and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield whether they agreed with Trump's comments earlier this month that "the virus that we're talking about... you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat."

While he did not say that he disagreed with the president, Redfield answered that it "would be prudent to assume this pathogen will be with us for some time."

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Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci added that, while historically, respiratory viruses like influenza and other coronaviruses do typically "go away in warmer weather," this is a "new virus. We have no way of knowing how it's going to act."

Fauci also told lawmakers Wednesday that his agency received a shipment of test doses of a vaccine candidate from Moderna Inc. earlier this week. According to Fauci, NIAID plans to begin clinical trials of the vaccine in humans by April, but added that it may be 12 months to 18 months away from being ready for widespread use.

Azar, meanwhile, said that Trump was "expressing confidence in our public health infrastructure. He is trying to calm the American people." He refused to answer Kennedy's question as to whether the president's comments contradicted those of the agencies as to the potential severity of the outbreak in the United States.

On Tuesday, the CDC warned Americans to plan for a pandemic, but noted in a press release that "the virus is not currently spreading in the community in the United States."

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, suggested that Americans start preparing for a possible pandemic because, globally, the COVID-19 outbreak appeared to be nearing the hallmarks of one globally.

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The Trump administration has requested $2.5 billion to fight COVID-19 in the United States, including $500 million previously allocated for Ebola response.

During the hearings Wednesday, there was bipartisan concern over diverting funds from Ebola, given that the disease continues to plague the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Azar said, however, that HHS was only suggesting that as a COVID-19 funding mechanism and was not "wed" to that approach. He also said that the outbreak in the Congo appears to be winding down, and that there is an approved vaccine and two candidate drugs to treat Ebola in the pipeline, suggesting that the need there might not be as significant as it once was.

Much of the funding, Azar said, would be used to ensure healthcare workers have sufficient supplies to manage COVID-19 response. According to Azar, the United States currently has a stockpile of 30 million guaze face masks and 12 million N95 masks, but needs at least 270 million more to protect healthcare workers should the virus spread across the nation.

He added that N95 face mask/respirators -- which are made by Honeywell -- are required, but the costs for them may exceed the amount the department has requested for COVID-19 response. Complicating matters further, many face masks are produced in China, and manufactured with components made in China -- and much of that country's industrial capacity has been at a standstill as it deals with the brunt of the outbreak.

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Trump has scheduled a news conference at the White House for 6 p.m. EST Wednesday to brief the media on his administration's response to COVID-19 to date and its plans if the disease begins to spread in the United States. The briefing will include representatives from the CDC, the Trump said.

Redfield, meanwhile, addressed the CDC's problematic COVID-19 testing kits, which were distributed to labs across the country two weeks ago -- only to be found to have quality control issues once they were put in place.

In all, 11 public health labs across the country, as well as the CDC's main lab in Atlanta, are capable of testing for the virus, and the CDC facility can process up to 500 samples per day.

The test kits are currently being refined, and Redfield said he expects operational kits to be distributed to dozens of labs in the United States by the end of this week.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the city aimed at preparing it for a COVID-19 outbreak -- despite the fact that there are no confirmed cases in the city. USA Today reported that, with the declaration, the city will begin to raise awareness, mobilize resources, accelerates emergency planning and coordinate agencies in outbreak preparedness measures.

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"The global picture is changing rapidly, and we need to step up preparedness," Breed said. "We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm."

"San Francisco is united and prepared,'' Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee added.

Redfield, meanwhile, addressed the CDC's problematic COVID-19 testing kits, which were distributed to labs across the country two weeks ago -- only to be found to have quality control issues once they were put in place. In all, 11 public health labs across the country, as well as the CDC's main lab in Atlanta, are capable of testing for the virus, and the CDC facility can process up to 500 samples per day.The test kits are currently being refined, and Redfield said he expects operational kits to be distributed to dozens of labs in the U.S. by the end of this week.

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