United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar is grilled by FOX Business host Lou Dobbs on the government handling of the coronavirus crisis.
LOU DOBBS, FOX BUSINESS NETWORK HOST: And joining us tonight is the President’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary Alex Azar. He’s also the chairman of the president’s Coronavirus Task Force. Mr. Secretary, good to have you with us. There didn’t seem to be a different tone today in Washington as it’s becoming clearer what the nation will likely face. Officials seem to be a little more candid than perhaps they had been. Am I perceiving something not there or is there really a change here? ALEX AZAR, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: I don’t know that I’d call it a change. I’d say the message remains transparent message, but one of confidence. And so, what we’re saying is what we’ve been saying that the risk to any individual American remains low. (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: Why not call it then — why not then call it a pandemic? Because you know very well it is. AZAR: Well, in fact, I spoke today with Dr. Tedros, the head of the World Health Organization, about that question, and I’ll give you some insight into their thinking which is while we’ve seen — DOBBS: I’m not interested in their thinking, to be candid with you. You’re responsible for your department. The NIH, the Centers for Disease Control are responsible for the public’s health. I will speak if I may to you, sir, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity, I could care less what the World Health Organization has to say about what is happening to Americans and how this government is being led. AZAR: Well, Lou, within the United States, whether you call it a pandemic or you don’t call it a pandemic is irrelevant. It doesn’t change one single action that we would take here in the United States. Not one, Lou. It really just doesn’t matter. DOBBS: OK, why not — why not call it that and be just as straightforward as possible? AZAR: Why? What’s it — Lou, what does it add? What does it add? What does it add, Lou? DOBBS: You tell me, what does it — what does it subtract if you don’t? AZAR: We’re trying to engage in careful, thoughtful risk communication to people. And that means the risks are low to individual Americans — DOBBS: Uh-huh. AZAR: — and that could change. It hasn’t changed because the president’s bold, unprecedented actions to protect our borders and protect the American people. DOBBS: Absolutely. AZAR: But we are — but we are now seeing some limited community spread, it appears. We’ve seen some limited person-to-person transmission of the disease. DOBBS: Uh-huh. AZAR: And actually, while we’re on the air right now, Lou, we’ve made an important announcement out of the FDA and the CDC that should dramatically increase the availability of our N95 respirator masks — DOBBS: Right. AZAR: — for use by health care professionals in the United States. So we’re making advances — DOBBS: That’s great. AZAR: — with every day we buy. DOBBS: That is wonderful. And at the same time, do we have tests that are now available here in this country — AZAR: Yes, we — DOBBS: — to the degree that we need them? (CROSSTALK) AZAR: Well, we’re increasing — DOBBS: Because the ratio, as I see it, there’s a better ratio of testing for the coronavirus in other countries than we maintain here. We’re actually screening fewer people because we don’t have appropriate testing. AZAR: Well, Lou, we actually have a validated test. The CDC has had it. There’s been no backlog since we’ve had that up and running. It’s out in labs. We’ve been — we’ve been increasing the availability of it. We insist on a valid test. You know, in other countries, they don’t have the — they don’t have the same regulatory requirements for validation. So, in other countries, basically a hospital or a lab can just take the recipe and go for it. (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: No, I understand, Mr. Secretary, but then I don’t understand why at the same time why we are seeing community spread. And we know very well that there have not been test kits available that didn’t work. And, in fact, the CDC had test kits but they were unworkable. AZAR: Well, actually, Lou, the tests worked. The tests worked. They are validated. What happened was there were some — there were some manufacturing issues, apparently, in one stage of the test. And some labs were not able to validate it. We solved that issue. We’ve gotten the tests out. DOBBS: So, they weren’t — they weren’t validated then? AZAR: We now have — we now have tens of thousands of available tests. And by the end of this week, we’ll have over a million likely available — (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: Mr. Secretary, I don’t want to play games with you. And I’m sure you don’t want with me. But when you use words like validated and then say that one segment of their use was invalidated by problems, you know, it just — this is not transparency that I think the American people will — (CROSSTALK) AZAR: Well, Lou, actually, Lou, you don’t want to hear it, but we’ve been transparent at every step of the way. DOBBS: OK. AZAR: There are three stages to this test that the CDC developed. The first two tests for the novel coronavirus, the third was a test for any form of coronavirus, a broad spectrum that wasn’t necessary. The FDA actually concluded a week ago that that wasn’t necessary, the third step, that it was sort of overkill on the test. DOBBS: Uh-huh. AZAR: They authorized the first two stages to be used to test, that enabled 40 labs to available to confirm a test — (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: So why did they do that, Mr. Secretary? Why did they do that? AZAR: And then now, we have tens of thousands of tests out there. We have private sector engaged. DOBBS: So, that you’ve heard no — (CROSSTALK) AZAR: We lowered our regulatory requirements to now allow to get rid of an Obama-era burden on labs to now allow any clinically — any certified clinical lab out there to develop a test based on the recipe that we have produced. That should open up hundreds and hundreds and hundreds if not millions per week of tests available, Lou. DOBBS: You’re making more tests available? AZAR: Yes, absolutely. Hundreds and thousands and millions per week will be available as a result of the regulatory relief that we granted on Saturday morning out of the FDA, relief from an Obama-era FDA requirement that required that any lab-developed test be approved by the FDA. And we said in this emergency situation, we are authorizing those certified labs to create their own test based on the recipe that we have published — DOBBS: If you had plenty of these — I’m sorry — (CROSSTALK) AZAR: — and we can start testing immediately. And then they just have to come in and file a data with us. (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: Mr. Secretary, I apologize. I apologize, but, frankly, you’ve just said that you had plenty, and now you’re acknowledging that you didn’t. AZAR: No, I didn’t. DOBBS: I don’t want to get bogged down in this. I mean, I really don’t. But I do want to understand how bad is this going to get. Are we going to be talking about it? What is the planning and the thinking of the Corona Task Force right now for Americans who are watching this broadcast, who I assure you are all adults and who want to know the facts — hard-boiled, straight up, straightforward, no sugar-coating and no pedantics? AZAR: Lou, we’re planning for all scenarios. Right now, we’ve got a fairly limited scenario, but we’ve planned for the full range. We’ve talked about this, the full range. Right now, we’re actually out there working with Santa Clara County and King County in the state of Washington on community mitigation recommendations. And that’s the appropriate step to take. But you can go all the way from community to large community to national mitigation steps. And we’ll take all measures needed to protect the American people. But we don’t need to do it until they’re — until they’re necessary. And that’s — the president has taken unprecedented action. These — you know, these travel restrictions that he took on China, people complained about them at the time. But they protected America. They delayed this impact here in the United States significantly. And now everybody’s praising him for those measures. And we’ll continue to take bold, aggressive actions. He won’t hesitate. We’d rather overreact than underreact to this situation. DOBBS: Yes, I am not talking about the steps the president has taken, which I happen to agree with you, where with the foresight and where the exact necessary step to take. You know, as a matter of fact, I’ll go further, you know, this president was looking in 2017 at the dependency of this country on offshoring and — and across the country, the entire world, frankly, the dependency on Southeast Asia and China for supply chains. And he was talking about it three years ago. So I’m — I’m keenly aware of his thinking on this. And the reality is I’m talking about the public’s right to know here. And that’s quite a different thing. I have absolute — AZAR: And we — DOBBS: — I have absolute faith in the leadership. My concern is how much the American people are being told that they need to know. And that is, I think, everything. AZAR: So, Lou, they’re being — they have been — DOBBS: So, let me put it this way — (CROSSTALK) AZAR: — everything. In fact, we just in 2017, updated what’s called the pandemic action plan. That’s a public document that goes through how one deals with a pandemic — (CROSSTALK) DOBBS: Wait a minute, did you say pandemic? AZAR: That is — that is what we prepare for. We prepare for pandemic status of this — DOBBS: Do we have one? AZAR: — and we have the stages from active containment, through community mitigation, through larger scale multi-region community mitigation. All that — all those steps, Lou, everything is laid out very transparently about what the government would recommend. Also, our states have, thanks to the work that I did with President Bush back in the 2000s for pandemic flu preparedness, every state has pandemic plans that we exercise, that integrate into a national pandemic action plan. As this disease progresses, and we hope it will not — DOBBS: Right. AZAR: — but as it progresses, we will see a continued escalation of different types of mitigation steps, and we’re going to modify those — you know, some of the things we’re doing in Santa Clara County — DOBBS: What are you projecting will be the number of cases in this country over the next week? AZAR: Lou, I couldn’t possibly predict what the number of cases over the next week will be. All I can tell you is we are going to see more cases and, unfortunately, we saw four new fatalities this morning. DOBBS: Right. AZAR: And I fear we will — we’ll continue to see more. There’ll be an increase. But one can’t predict the number of cases we’re going to see. No country’s been able to predict how many cases they would see over a certain period of time, Lou. I wish I could. I wish I could, but you can’t do that. DOBBS: OK. Well, with that, what do you think is the most important thing for the American people to know about this pandemic? AZAR: What say — in spite of how you’ve been describing, Lou, for most Americans — for everyday Americans right now, this shouldn’t impact their daily lives. They should go about normal preparedness — DOBBS: Well, wait a minute, how did I describe it? How did I describe it? (CROSSTALK) AZAR: — activities like what they would have done six months ago, Lou. DOBBS: I missed that part. What — how did I describe it? AZAR: You’re — I think you’re just trying to whip people up into a frenzy here, Lou — DOBBS: About what? AZAR: I’m trying to get people to understand that the government has a plan. We have steps. We exercise this. But in their daily life at this point, and that could change — at this point, there isn’t a change in people’s daily existence except for normal, good preparedness activities, the same stuff we would have recommended six months ago. Go to CDC.gov for recommendations of what you should have been doing all along and the kinds of steps you ought to take now. And we’re working with your communities. The communities are working on different mitigation approaches to plan for — we have the plans — to exercise what they would do. How do you, for instance, if you have a community outbreak in an area, do you close a school? Or maybe there’s some good mitigation steps there like you just don’t have sessions in the auditorium or large-scale recesses where the kids congregate. These are some learnings we’ve got from Hong Kong and Singapore through this experience. And we’re using them as we work with Santa Clara County and King County out in the Seattle area to help advise them as they work on the community containment that they’re facing now. DOBBS: Mr. Secretary, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much. AZAR: Thanks, Lou. DOBBS: But I promise not to whip anybody into anything, you know, concerned about the — well, the body of public knowledge in a free society. I — you know, God forbid I should do that. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.