Amid criticism of coronavirus response, HHS secretary says U.S. is "expanding the testing"

Alex Azar on federal coronavirus response
Alex Azar on federal coronavirus response 04:39

The United States government has been criticized for delays in coronavirus testing and mixed messages from officials. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 8,500 coronavirus tests have been performed in the U.S., the real number of tests conducted is difficult to track because private labs administering them don't report back to the CDC, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Azar said the U.S. has sent out more than 1.1 million tests and another 2 million are either being shipped or waiting to be ordered.

The 8,500 figure is "simply the tests that have been conducted by CDC's labs in Atlanta or by public health labs using the CDC test," he said. "But that's not really the relevant metric. The relevant metric is going to be how many positive cases we get, and we always get that data."

As of Wednesday morning, more than 1,030 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S., up from 126 one week ago. The virus has been linked to 32 deaths nationwide.

Azar dismissed the notion that it has taken too long for the U.S. to establish the system to monitor testing and distribute the tests.

"We had the tests right away, as soon as we got the genetic sequence from China," he said. "There has not been an instance where a public health official needed to test somebody for the novel coronavirus where they couldn't get tested."

Azar added that the government is now "expanding the testing to make sure it's ever closer to the patient, ever closer to the doctor and hospital, and just as convenient as humanly possible."

Pressed on if he could guarantee that any doctor who wants to get a test can get one easily, Azar said, "Any doctor who believes that a test is clinically indicated can get that test done."

"There is no barrier whatsoever from the federal government in terms of getting that done," he said.

But, barriers to getting tests remain, according to CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus.

"There certainly are barriers for doctors across the country to get patients tested, and I've seen it, and I'm getting calls both from governors and from doctors across the country," Agus said, adding that in some states, it's easy to get tests and in others, "it's very hard."

"There certainly is not ability to get tested on a same-day basis across the country at the present time," Agus said.  

Dr. Agus on availability of coronavirus tests... 03:46

Asked about the present risk of contracting coronavirus, Azar insisted that "for most of us, that risk does remain low because the spread is really localized in four or five main jurisdictions and clusters, plus popup cases related to travel to infected areas." He said the "most important issue" is the severity for the elderly or people with preexisting conditions.

But when asked to explain why the CDC warned that over the next year, many Americans will be exposed to the virus and likely become sick, he said, "We've been clear from day one that we're going to see further spreading and would see more cases."