On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified in front of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. As the committee pointed out, Azar had not testified before Congress since February, when the United States had fewer than 20 confirmed deaths from Covid-19.
Azar’s appearance also came as the nation reeled from the early morning news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus, after the president traveled to Minnesota for a campaign rally on Wednesday and to his golf club in New Jersey on Thursday night.
At the hearing, Azar defended Trump’s pandemic response and answered questions about controversial HHS ad campaigns. When asked about the nation’s coronavirus death toll, which is more than 200,000 people, Azar said: “We regret any loss of life. Let’s be very clear about that. We wish we didn’t have this … pandemic but people do die in pandemics.” He didn’t acknowledge any steps the administration could have taken to combat the pandemic early on, instead pointing to Trump’s travel bans as an example of policies that saved lives.
While he did emphasize the importance of mask-wearing and wore a mask for the entirety of the hearing, Azar refused to condemn the president’s continued hosting of rallies and other large events. Azar was seen without a mask at a crowded White House event just last Saturday. Azar also did not address Trump’s disdain for mask-wearing or the president’s opposition to testing, saying, “I will not discuss my interactions or conversations with the president.”
In one exchange with Rep. Maxine Waters, Azar asked that she use her position to inspire confidence in a potential vaccine, as he defended the president’s comments that a vaccine would be available before the election as the president simply being “hopeful.”
Azar did condemn the actions of Paul Alexander, a former HHS official who attempted to interfere with both Dr. Anthony Fauci’s messages and the CDC’s reports. “I do not find that tone and tenure of discussion to be acceptable,” he said, stressing that Alexander was no longer employed in the government and denying claims of ongoing political interference.
Azar didn’t answer questions about whether he authorized publication of inaccurate guidelines on the CDC website that minimized the importance of testing asymptomatic officials. These guidelines were reportedly the result of HHS interference and were reversed soon after the news broke. Azar repeated CDC Director Robert Redfield’s claim that the guidance was changed due to it having been misunderstood. And he defended the review process itself, saying that it was completely appropriate for the White House to give input to the CDC and career scientists.
Azar also addressed news about a controversial $300 million HHS ad campaign, in which celebrities would be dispatched to share optimistic takes on the pandemic. Azar said he had personally ordered a strategic review of this public health campaign, which the latest reports show has been faltering, and that any products coming out of it will be reviewed by the CDC — something Redfield had been unable to confirm at last week’s hearing. Contradicting earlier reports that the campaign’s focus was to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus, he said it aimed to encourage Americans to socially distance, wear masks, get a flu vaccine, and get a coronavirus vaccine once one is available.
Part of Investigation: