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Top White House Official Joins Baker In Boston For Beth Israel Tour

BOSTON (CBS) – A top White House official was in Boston Friday to get a closer look at the coronavirus response in Massachusetts. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with Governor Charlie Baker to tour the hospital's COVID-19 test kit assembly areas and learn more about the research there.

"There is no better place in this country to come learn about what's going on with respect to COVID, with respect to treatments, with respect to testing, with respective vaccines, with respect to care, than right here and we really appreciate your being with us today," Baker told Azar.

Beth Israel is in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine in a partnership with Johnson and Johnson.

After the tour, they held a roundtable discussion on the Trump administration's plan to reopen America.

"Thanks to the efforts of our frontline health care workers, and that means not just doctors and nurses, that means our janitors, our orderlies, everybody who works in these kinds of health care facilities and puts themselves at risk for the benefit of all of the rest of us," Azar said.

According to Azar, emergency care dropped dramatically during the pandemic. "We see colonoscopies and mammograms declined by over 90 percent, joint replacements down by 90 percent, cardiac surgery is down by 70 percent."

"Referrals here at Beth Israel for breast cancer and blood cancer are down over 60 percent. There's been a 33 percent decline in heart attack hospitalizations and a 58 percent decline in stroke hospitalizations. People aren't stopping having heart attacks and strokes. Because of the pandemic what's happening is, they're not seeking needed medical care," he continued.

"We've got to balance the health risks of the virus against the health risk of forgoing all of this necessary medical care, in addition to the health risks of social isolation and economic dislocation."

Azar said there's no guarantee to the scientific development of a vaccine but they've set a goal of 300 million doses for Americans early next year.

In the meantime, he hopes there are no more widespread shutdowns. "Now, that's not to say there could be isolated communities that will face outbreaks that need to take some forms of community mitigation steps in the future. That will be locally-led."

It is too soon to see if coronavirus cases spiked because of George Floyd Protests. "I would emphasize that peaceful protesting is a vital part of our American democracy and we've got to support that and defend that, and that's really part of our fabric. I do encourage, as a public health matter, of course, individuals exercising those rights to think about themselves and their family members and protecting them. So obviously we would encourage social distancing. We would encourage the use of facial coverings to protect others in those types of situations. In terms of any impact from protest activity, it's too early epidemiologically to be able to draw any conclusions there, connecting to any type of a particular type of activity," Azar said.

"Anytime you have big groups together like that, especially if there's a lot of singing or chanting, which there was, that's concerning. I'm taking some comfort in the fact that it was outdoors. Most people were wearing masks and those groups, for the most part, were moving," Baker added.

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