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Testing for coronavirus to vastly increase, federal officials say

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus on Saturday flanked by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Roberto Schmidt

WASHINGTON — The federal government is “ramping up testing” in the United States for the coronavirus and is looking to vastly increase its screening efforts as global cases of the virus continue to rise, said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Sunday.

Azar and Vice President Mike Pence made the rounds of the Sunday morning political talk shows looking to assure the public that risk to most Americans remains low despite the inevitability of more cases arising in the near future.

“I think it's very important that we treat the American people like adults and explain to them that we don't know where this will go, that we will see more cases, that we will see continued community spreading in the United States, as we're seeing around the world,” Azar said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” “How big that gets, we do not know. But we have the most advanced public health system and surveillance system in the world. We are actively working on a vaccine. We are actively working on therapeutics. The diagnostic is out in the field, and we're going to work to protect the American people with every tool that we've got.”

Azar, responding to criticisms that the Trump administration did not move quickly enough to develop and provide testing kits to impacted communities, said the United States currently has the “ability to test 75,000 people in the field at this moment, and that will increase radically over the next couple of weeks.”

The secretary said federal health agencies want to “expand that kind of surveillance [and] testing nationwide” and were awaiting on a bipartisan emergency spending package from Congress.

“As soon as Congress gets us the money, that will be out there throughout the country,” Azar said of more testing efforts.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday said he hopes the spending plan is approved by next week and called for any plan that passes to include a provision that would make a possible coronavirus vaccine free for Medicare recipients.

“Seniors will need the vaccine the most, because they’re the most susceptible, and they should not have to worry or wonder where they stand once the vaccine becomes available,” Schumer said at a news conference in his Manhattan office.

No coronavirus vaccine currently exists. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health has said it could take a year to a year and a half for a successful vaccine to emerge.

Pence, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” said “there’s no question” there will be more cases of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, but said the risk “remains low” to Americans.

“We're going to bring the best scientific minds, experts together ... we’re going to work every day ... to contain this disease, to treat those that are contracted, and I'm very confident we're ready, and I know ... that we’ll get through this,” said Pence who was tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the federal government’s response to the disease.

Pence told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that the administration would “respect any decisions that are made at the state and local level” to address the virus. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Saturday announced that New York had received approval by federal health officials to begin its testing, the approval coming after the governor pressed Pence to fast track the decision.

"Those are decisions that governors in consultation with local health officials will make as they deem that necessary," Pence said when asked about the prospect of school closures. "But other than in areas where there are individuals that have been infected with the coronavirus, people need to understand that for the average American, the risk does remain low.”

Pence said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were working with local officials in Washington State to determine how the first person in the United States to die from the disease — a man in his 50s — became infected. A man in his 70s, also in Washington state, was reported by local health officials to have died of the disease Sunday night.

The disease, which spread quickly from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, is now present in 84 U.S. cases, with more than 88,000 reported cases of infection worldwide. More than 3,000 people have died from the disease, according to the CDC.

Trump in a Sunday morning tweet said “in addition to screening travelers ‘prior to boarding’ from certain designated high risk countries,” the United States will also screen those travelers when they arrive in the country.

The virus has become the latest issue at the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

Both Pence and Azar faced questions about Trump’s comments Saturday at a conservative political conference, where he accused Democrats of weaponizing the virus as a “new hoax” against his administration.

Asked on ABC’s “This Week” if it was appropriate to use the term hoax in the context of the disease, Azar said that Trump was referring to “the political sniping that we’re seeing.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, appearing on “This Week” before Azar, took aim at Trump’s appointment of Pence to coordinate the virus response efforts, saying he saw “no preparedness” from Trump “other than political talking points, putting someone in charge who is not a scientist and muzzling the scientists.”

"This is not a Democratic hoax, this is incompetence,” said Biden who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg, in an unprecedented move, purchased three minutes of prime-time airtime on NBC and CBS to deliver a prerecorded address on the coronavirus. The advertisement's background resembles the Oval Office, where presidents have long delivered their national addresses.

In the ad, Bloomberg touts his experience as mayor leading New York City’s recovery in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Each crisis is different, but they all require steady leadership, team building and preparation,” states Bloomberg. “As Americans we have faced many challenges before, and we have overcome them together by looking out for one another — and I am confident that is how we will get through this one as well.”

It’s unclear how much Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire spent to air the ads, but The New York Times reported it could have cost anywhere from $1.25 million to $3 million.

Bloomberg, appearing on CBS' "60 Minutes" criticized Trump's response to the all the uncertainty surrounding the virus saying, "It is just ignorant and irresponsible to not stand up and be the leader and say 'We don't know. But we have to prepare for the fact that if it is, we have the medicines and the structure and the knowledge to deal with it.' "

With Jesse Coburn

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