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HHS Secretary Leads U.S. Effort To Stop Coronavirus From Spreading


Nearly 2,000 health workers in China have been infected with the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19 - that's according to an announcement from China's Health Commission today. That number underscores the toll and the spread of the virus, with around 64,000 cases around the world. Almost as soon as COVID-19 came on the international radar, countries started taking steps to prevent its spread.

Here in the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services is leading that effort, and its leader is HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who joins us now. Secretary Azar, thank you for being with us.

ALEX AZAR: Rachel, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You've said multiple times in recent weeks that CDC health workers are waiting to get into China to help with efforts on the ground there. What's the status of that? Are they there yet?

AZAR: They are not there yet. We believe that there is agreement for the WHO team, the World Health Organization team, to deploy with American participation. And our team are preparing to be able to get there, but we're waiting for final word.

MARTIN: Do you know what the timeline might be?

AZAR: I do not. It's important to remember, we're now 39 days after I first made the offer to send our CDC and NIH experts in to assist China with answering, really, the critical questions of how quickly does this virus spread, what is the incubation period, what is the severity, is there asymptomatic transmission? We still don't have the answers to those questions, and so obviously, we're quite eager for the Chinese to accept the offer of the World Health Organization and the United States to assist their scientists in this endeavor.

MARTIN: Right. So the World Health Organization has repeatedly stated that travel restrictions to stop the spread of the disease are not only ineffective but potentially harmful. Do you agree with that?

AZAR: I think it needs to be considered under the facts and circumstances of the case. If you're dealing with a land border, that actually is often correct that there can be significant leakage. If you're dealing with internal controls - quarantines of cities, for instance - can often create panic or disruption and have significant leakage as a result. But the United States actually is in a different position, given air travel and given our oceans.

And so - and the localization so far of the community spread of this virus within China, as well as within China's borders, really has presented us with a unique opportunity to take aggressive action to try to prevent further spread of the virus into the United States, to give us time - give us time to continue our proactive efforts to prepare to safeguard the health and safety of the American people.

MARTIN: And just lastly, can you expand on those efforts? I mean, yes, there's the geographic benefit that the United States enjoys, but what else is happening?

AZAR: So we have screened over 32,000 individuals coming into the United States who have been in China within the previous 14 days. That's led to - eight individuals are in quarantine, and others are in home isolation, voluntary isolation at home. We have managed now - we have only 15 cases confirmed in the United States to date. Two of those were spread from other family members. Others had been in the Hubei province, which is the epicenter of the - of this area. So I think so far, our measures have been quite effective.

But we need to remember - it's a rapidly changing situation, and so we have to prepare in the event that this spreads more fully. One of the steps that we announced yesterday is we're working with our flu surveillance network. And in Seattle, San Francisco, LA, New York and Chicago, when individuals present with flu-like symptoms, they will also be tested for the China coronavirus as part of our multilayer surveillance system to see if we - as an early warning system.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Thank you, Secretary Alex Azar of HHS.

AZAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.