HHS secretary Alex Azar says the US 'window is closing' to control coronavirus spread

By Ellen Cranley

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Sunday that the "window is closing" for the US to control the novel coronavirus pandemic in what has become "a very serious situation."

Azar said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that as states like Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona saw caseloads spike throughout June, "individuals have to act responsibly" by practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings in public.

Azar waved off the idea that the spikes in cases were due to the country reopening too early, but said the new cases and expected rise in hospitalizations spell "a very serious situation." 

The public health official's take on the rise in cases is a departure from that offered by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence just a few days earlier. At a Friday press conference, Pence claimed the US has "flattened the curve" and repeated Trump's debunked claim that increased case counts are due to increased testing.

Health experts have pushed back on the claim, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said that the challenges in administering widespread testing and diagnosing asymptomatic cases meant the actual number of COVID-19 infections was likely 10 times what official test results have indicated.

Despite the clear science that could encourage Americans to face masks, the issue has become mired in a political debate, most recently with a recent Trump campaign rally that where staffers appeared to thwart hygienic protections.

"I'm not going to talk about politics," Azar said. "But we've seen mass gatherings over the last several weeks with people rightly expressing First Amendment and political views, and this is appropriate. 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 that are appropriate to yourself and your community."

During the Sunday interview, Azar repeatedly emphasized the importance of personal hygiene and practices like face coverings as critical to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus but defended Trump's track record of attending rallies and other appearances without sporting a mask.

"The president, we know, is a very unique circumstance as leader of the free world," Azar said. "He's tested constantly and those around him are tested constantly and they're kept at a distance even with that."

Lawmakers and public health experts ramped up their calls for Americans to wear masks amid the surge of new cases. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump "cowardly" for not wearing a mask in public, arguing he should serve as an "example."

"The president should be an example," Pelosi said Sunday. "Real men wear masks, be an example to the country, wear a mask."

The US currently has more than 2.5 million coronavirus infections since the start of the outbreak and more than 125,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.