Transcript: Alex Azar on "Face the Nation," March 1, 2020

Health secretary investigating allegations by coronavirus whistleblower
Health secretary investigating allegations by... 07:38

The following is a transcript of an interview with HHS Secretary Alex Azar that aired Sunday, March 1, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to take a closer look at the growing fears over COVID-19, commonly referred to as the coronavirus. Last week, the World Health Organization said the global risk of the virus spreading is now very high. Here in the US, there are now 71 cases of coronavirus and worldwide the death toll is almost 3,000. There are also concerns about the global economy. Here in the U.S., the stock market took its biggest hit last week since the 2008 financial crisis. We begin today with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Good to have you here. 

SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: Glad to be here. Thank you for having me. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So we just had the first American death on U.S. soil out in Washington state. What do we know about how the virus was contracted and how much it has spread?

SEC. AZAR: So this individual and we just want to express our sympathy, certainly for his family and for all who are suffering from the coronavirus, this individual was in the hospital out in Calif- out- out in Washington. We do not know how he contracted the virus yet. And so that's why we and the state of Washington are deployed out there to try to trace who he had contact with and how he might have gotten the virus. That's why we call it right now a potential community case, meaning we don't have a discernible connection to any travel to Korea or China or any other impacted area.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So at this point, you don't know if this person came into contact with anyone. He just showed up sick at the hospital?

SEC. AZAR: We have no evidence so far that establishes a connection to somebody who traveled to an impacted area. And so we do not know how he contracted the virus. That's really what we do. That's the basic blocking and tackling right now of public health is we're going to trace the people that he had contact with. We're going to trace the other cases. There is a nursing home that sends patients to this hospital. And there are cases in that nursing home. But who spread to whom? We do not know yet.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president yesterday when he was speaking referred to this fatality as a woman. It is a man.

SEC. AZAR: It- yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How is a mistake like that made? Because people are very nervous right now. And getting some of these basic facts right affects public trust.

SEC. AZAR: Well, I understand that. It's a very fast moving situation. Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were up late at night, very earl- early in the morning, working with the Washington state public health office and inaccurately recorded that the individual was a female. That's what the president was briefed on. They've apologized for incorrectly briefing on that. But it's a very fast moving situation. Obviously, we regret the error. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Given that it is so fast moving, what are your projections now? How many Americans do you expect to come down with this virus?

SEC. AZAR: So what your viewers need to know is the risk to average Americans remains low. We are working to keep it low. We will see more transmission of cases in the United States. We've got the finest public health system in the world here. This is what we do. We cannot make predictions as to how many cases we'll have, but we will have more and we will have more community cases. It's simply just a matter of math.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you have to have a number you're working with in order to make sure that you have adequate supply, things like testing kits, right? So--

SEC. AZAR: We- we don't--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --how are we on shortages? You may not want to tell me the number, but you have one in your head--

SEC. AZAR: No we don't--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --you're using for planning.

SEC. AZAR: No we don't. We- we don't- we do not use- because it is an unknown, the epidemiological spread of this virus in a highly developed health care system that was on it with- at the most aggressive containment measures in the history of the United States. It is unknown how that will spread. In terms of testing kits, we've already tested over 3,600 people for the virus. We now have 70- the capability in- out in the field to test 75,000 people. And within the next week or two, we'll have a radical expansion even beyond that of the testing that's available.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In Washington state, in places that have declared emergencies, even shutting down schools, I mean, they are projecting numbers themselves.

SEC. AZAR: They might make projections of numbers themselves, but we are not. We'll take aggressive public health measures. It's what we call community mitigation steps. So depending on the nature of the disease and depending on what we learn from these in the field investigations, the state and local government will take measures appropriate to contain the spread of the disease.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So in France, they shut down the Louvre Museum. They're telling people, don't kiss, don't shake hands. In Japan, they're closing schools for a month. Canada's health minister told his people to start stockpiling food. In the U.S. there are closures, as we just said, in Washington and in Oregon. They've declared a state of emergency out there. And the CDC said this week, "disruption to everyday life might be severe." 

SEC. AZAR: Might. Might. That's--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What does that mean? I mean, Americans hear this and they are concerned. There's about a 2 percent fatality rate.

SEC. AZAR: And I- I appreciate that people are concerned, and that- that is why we're being radically transparent about what we know and also what the full range of potential scenarios could be. And that's why we say might be, but also might not be with aggressive containment and mitigation steps. Right now, it's important for people to understand we're not advising any types of particular measures in the United States like travel restrictions or closures. State or local public health offices, which are the frontlines of response, might make their own decisions to do that. But at this point, we do not have sufficient spread in the United States that would indicate those measures. But we're not taking any of them off the table. The full range of options will always remain on the table.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In a crisis you need public trust. An inspector general announced this week that they are looking into this complaint by a whistleblower that your agency did not provide adequate training or equipment to those workers who went to receive and welcome back Americans who had been evacuated from Wuhan, China. And those workers were not tested for the virus after they had that contact. Have you personally looked into these allegations?

SEC. AZAR: Yes, we are- we are looking into these allegations. I'm personally involved in doing so. First--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, can you say that this wasn't something that tipped off the spread on the West Coast?

SEC. AZAR: That is absolutely not the case. So, first, we take the protection of our employees very seriously. Second, we want to make sure isolation and quarantine procedures are followed as appropriate. Third, we appreciate the whistleblower bringing forward any concerns. We are aggressively looking into any- if- to see whether there's validity to the concerns. But what the American people should- need to know is that we now have passed well over 14 days since any HHS employee had contact with the individuals involved. They are not- nobody is symptomatic. Nobody has a disease. Even if these allegations proved to be true, there was no spreading of the disease from this. And we have offered, even though it is not medically indicated, we have offered to test any HHS employees involved if they would like that extra piece of mind. We want to do that for employees.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are cases of the coronavirus in Mexico and in Canada. Yesterday, the president said he is considering and looking at closing the southern border. 

SEC. AZAR: Well--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What will decide that? Are you looking at that?

SEC. AZAR: That's not one of the highest priority areas that we're looking at right now, because Mexico only has a couple of cases. Canada's epidemiology is similar to the United States right now. What the president's making clear though is we'll always be looking at travel restrictions, border protections. We will take whatever measures are appropriate and necessary to protect the American people. But we don't forecast doing that anytime soon.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you expect drug shortages, as some senators have highlighted concerns there could be because of disruption to the supply chain?

SEC. AZAR: So, we're very concerned about the intermingling of our supply chain with China, in particular. We- the FDA has gone out and worked proactively with drug manufacturers and there are 20 drugs for which the entire molecule or a critical element of the molecule is made exclusively in China. And so, we're working aggressively with the- with the manufacturers to determine if there are any shortages. We are aware of one drug which has many, many replacements in terms of that therapeutic class available that may be in shortage for a short period of time. But--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What drug is that?

SEC. AZAR: --I'm not able to because it's commercially confidential information that's submitted voluntarily to us, I'm not able to discuss that. But this is a drug in a class where there are many, many, many alternatives available. It's a generic drug. Very available.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time.