HHS Sec. Azar says 'window is closing' to curb coronavirus spike

Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar warned Sunday that “the window is closing” to take action to curb the spread of the coronavirus as cases across the southern United States continue “surging.”

In an interview with “Meet the Press,” Azar said that the country has “more tools than we had months ago” to fight the virus and the disease it causes, including new treatments and more personal protective equipment. But he stressed that America is facing a “very serious situation.”

“We’ve got our fatality rates and our hospitalization rates the lowest they’ve been in two months, but this is a very serious situation. What are we doing about it? We are surging in, working with our local authorities and states,” Azar said.

“We’ve got the tools to do this, we just did this in the last couple of weeks in North Carolina. But the window is closing. We have to act and people and individuals need to act responsibly. We need to social distance, we need to wear face coverings if we are in settings where we cannot social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

The U.S. has had more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases and nearly 126,000 deaths attributed to the virus, according to data analyzed by NBC News, and the nation set a new daily record of cases on Friday.

On Saturday, Florida, South Carolina, Nevada and Georgia reported record highs in new daily cases, and numbers from Johns Hopkins University show that the U.S. is responsible for a plurality of the world’s 12 million coronavirus cases.

Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” that this surge in cases is “different from early on.”

“One of the things that we've heard in Texas and Florida in particular is that nearly half of those who are testing positive are Americans under the age of 35,” Pence said. “We really believe that what is happening here is a combination of increased testing” and “it also may be indication that as we're opening our economy up, that younger Americans have been congregating in ways that may have disregarded the guidance that we gave on the federal level for all the phases of reopening.

In light of the trends, several states and cities have paused or rolled back their plans to reopen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., whose state has had significantly more coronavirus cases than any other state thanks to an early spike in cases, criticized the federal response to the virus so far and accused the government of telling the states, effectively: “You’re on your own.”

“They’re saying what they said three months ago, they are basically in denial about the problem, they don’t want to tell the American people the truth and they don’t want to have any federal response except supporting the states,” he said on "Meet the Press" Sunday.

“This is a virus, it doesn’t respond to politics. You can’t tweet at it, you have to treat it. And we never did that.”

He added that “if these states keep going up, we’re going to have a national crisis like we’ve never seen.”

Throughout his interview, Azar repeatedly stressed the importance of practicing social distancing and wearing masks while in public to slow the spread of the virus.

But Azar's boss, President Donald Trump, does not wear a mask in public settings (he wore one during a private tour of a Ford plant in Michigan) and his campaign held an indoor rally last weekend over the objections of top members of his coronavirus task force.

Meanwhile, some Republican leaders have tried to publicly stress the importance of wearing a mask. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., tweeted a call for people to wear masks with a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, donning a mask, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., told MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” on Friday that a “consistent national message supporting the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing is very important to making sure everybody understands the importance of it.”

“Nothing beats leadership,” Hutchinson said.

Azar did not directly answer questions about whether the president is setting the right example, arguing the administration as a whole continues to stress the importance of public health guidelines.

“So I'm the president's Secretary of Health. I'm telling you, practice social distancing. Where you can't appropriately social distance, we encourage you to wear a facial covering,” he said.

“The president's guidelines for reopening, the president's guidelines, his guidelines have said from day one, practice social distancing. If you can't, wear face coverings.”

When asked about wearing masks, Pence told CBS Sunday that, “the president has worn a mask. I wore a mask on several occasions this week." But, he added, “we want to defer to local officials” for guidance, “and people should listen to them.”

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that she believes it is “long overdue” to mandate mask-wearing across the nation.

“My understanding, that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended the use of masks,” Pelosi told ABC’s “The Week,” but have not required it “because they don't want to offend the president. And the president should be example. You know, real men wear masks.”

When pressed about the president setting an example on mask-wearing as a way to slow the spread, Azar pointed to recent mass gatherings of protestors calling for racial justice in the wake of a spate of police killings of Black people across the country.

“I’m not going to talk about politics. But we've seen mass gatherings over the last several weeks with people rightly expressing First Amendment and political views, and this is appropriate,” he said.

“But my message is one of public health, which is, if you're going to participate in any type of large gathering, I encourage you, consider your individual circumstance, consider the circumstance of those you live with and take appropriate precautions.”

It's still unclear what impact, if any, the protests have had on the virus' spread. One preliminary paper from National Bureau of Economic Research, a nongovernmental organization, found no spike attributable to those protests.