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Federal health chief: 'Window is closing' on narrowing spread

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar warns Americans to keep taking precautions against coronavirus. Credit: Getty Images/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday said the country is in “a much better place” to respond to the growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the country, but Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar warned “the window is closing” to narrow the spread of the virus.

Pence, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation, said compared to four months ago the country has more personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing capacity to respond to the spread of the coronavirus. His assessment comes amid a steady increase over the past week of new coronavirus cases, with the United States hitting a daily peak of nearly 45,000 new cases on Saturday.

Azar touted the same increase in medical supplies and testing, but struck a more cautious tone during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“We’ve got the tools to do this ... but the window is closing,” Azar said. “We have to act and people and individuals need to act responsibly. We need to social distance, we need to wear face coverings if we are in settings where we cannot social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

Asked why Trump has not vigorously encouraged Americans to wear masks in public as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pence said the administration continued to defer to state governors on rules mandating masks to curb the spread of the virus.

“One of the elements of the genius of America is the principle of federalism, of state and local control,” Pence said. “We've made it clear that we want to defer to governors. We want to defer to local officials.”

CBS News’ John Dickerson questioned Pence on whether the current moment called for a “coordinated national response” given that the “the virus doesn’t know federalism,” and can be spread from travelers across state lines.

“If we’d have taken that approach, we'd have never had the success that we had in the greater New York City area,” Pence said, adding that New York and other states hardest hit during the onset of the pandemic “tailored” their responses “to the unique circumstances in their states.”

Amid the uptick in new cases, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, told “Face the Nation” Americans should brace for “many weeks ahead of us of continued growth.”

Gottlieb said while the fatality rate of cases is declining, likely due to cases now being “clustered” among younger Americans, “that's not likely to stay that way.”

Asked whether states now seeing a dramatic spike in cases, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, reopened their economies too soon, Gottlieb said states should have paused between phases of reopening to determine if the measures were working.

“These epidemics take time to build,” Gottlieb said, adding that most states “didn't really pause in between steps of their reopening for a sufficient amount of time to see if it was having an untoward effect. And so as they reopened parts of their economies, they should have taken two week pauses in between. That's what states like Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan did and did it successfully so that they could measure the impact of their actions.”

Former CDC director Tom Frieden, asked about Pence’s assessment on the virus, told "Fox News Sunday": “There’s no doubt we’re doing more testing, our hospitals are better prepared, but there’s also no doubt the virus has the upper hand.”

“This virus is not going to go away on its own, we have to stop that, and only we can do that by working together,” Frieden said. “We’re all sick and tired of staying home but the virus is not tired of making us sick.”

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