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Azar Says Reopening Economy a Health-Versus-Health Equation (1)

May 17, 2020, 5:07 PM

The question of when and how to end stay-at-home orders in the U.S. is a health-versus-health equation as well as an economic one, President Donald Trump’s health secretary said.

There’s a “very real health consequence to these shutdowns” that needs to be balanced against possible illness from the coronavirus, Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

That’s shown in terms of other medical procedures or regular screenings not being performed or postponed until the Covid-19 outbreak is further contained, he said.

Azar made similar comments on CNN.

“Whether it’s the suicidality rates, or cardiac procedures not being received, cancer screenings, pediatric vaccinations declining,” he said on “State of the Union.” “All of these are critical health needs that are part of reopening the economy.”

The U.S. has over 1.4 million cases of the virus and more than 88,000 deaths so far, the world’s highest totals.

Many of the protests against lockdowns -- including one planned for New York’s capital on Sunday, encouraged by Trump in a tweet -- have focused on what demonstrators say is a violation of their civil liberties.

But Peter Navarro, the White House policy coordinator for the National Defense Production Act, said the U.S. has “basically locked down” hospitals “for everything but Covid” in the past two months.

“Women haven’t been getting mammograms or cervical examinations for cancer. We haven’t been able to do other procedures for the heart or the kidneys,” Navarro said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And that’s going to kill people as well.”

Blaming CDC

Navarro also took a swipe at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying the health agency “really let the country down” with its early snags on coronavirus test design. Azar said on CBS that he didn’t share that view.

The majority of U.S. states are taking at least gradual steps toward reopening. Azar said he was encouraged that states like Georgia and Florida, which took early steps to lift their lockdowns, haven’t shown a significant jump in new cases.

“We are seeing that in places that are opening, we’re not seeing this spike in cases,” Azar said. “We still see spikes in some areas that are in fact close to very localized situations.”

The health secretary hedged when asked how quickly the U.S. can deliver a vaccine against Covid-19, and in sufficient quantities to treat the entire population, adding that a vaccine is just “one part of a multifactorial response” to the pandemic.

Vaccine Inefficiencies

Vaccines can typically take at least several years to develop as drug companies go through several phases of testing. Azar said the U.S., at Trump’s direction, is “wringing the inefficiency out of” the vaccine development progress.

The federal government, as part of its Operation Warp Speed, has narrowed 100 vaccine contenders down to 14 and will continue to winnow to some four to six “that we really place the big financial bets behind and drive on,” he said.

Tom Inglesby, a doctor and director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said “if everything goes in the right direction, we could possibly be seeing a vaccine by the end of the year.”

Getting mass quantities of a vaccine are another matter, though.

“It’s very hard to get to the point where you’re manufacturing at high, high quantities,” Scott Gottlieb, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“That’s probably more likely a 2021 event that we’re going to have the vaccine available in sufficient quantities to mass-inoculate the population,” Gottlieb said. In the meantime, an early version could be used to “ring-fence” specific locations or segments of the population.

(Updates with Navarro, Inglesby, Gottlieb from 10th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Todd Shields.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Ros Krasny in Washington at rkrasny1@bloomberg.net;
Tony Czuczka in New York at aczuczka@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
James Ludden at jludden@bloomberg.net

Steve Geimann

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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