Secretary Alex Azar says HHS is 'ramping up' testing for coronavirus

Trump confirmed the first coronavirus-linked death in the U.S. Saturday.

March 1, 2020, 11:31 AM

As the Trump administration anticipates the further spread of the novel coronavirus, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary said on ABC's "This Week" that it was "ramping up" testing for the virus.

"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," Secretary Alex Azar said on Sunday.

"How big that gets, we do not know," he added. "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."

In an earlier interview with ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, former Vice President Joe Biden blasted the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus, accusing the president of "incompetence," in the face of the virus’ threat.

"And, look, right now you have this president -- hasn't allowed his scientists to speak -- number one. He has the vice president speaking, not the scientists who know what they're talking about, like (National Institutes of Health Dr. Anthony) Fauci," Biden said on "This Week" Sunday. "Number two, they haven't even prepared a test kit to determine whether or not anybody has the virus. They're not even available. They say now they'll be available in -- in -- by the end of the week or next week. They haven't set up a pattern in how to proceed."

Azar said on Sunday that President Donald Trump was referring to the "partisan sniping" when he referred to the coronavirus as the Democrats' "new hoax" at a Friday rally.

"It's unnecessary, we don't need to have this made a political issue," Azar said. "We're in a public health crisis here -- we all need to be working together."

Azar also said in response to Biden that testing for the coronavirus would increase "radically over the next couple of weeks."

"I'm not sure what he meant when he said there is no lab kit," he added.

Azar said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a test with "historic speed" and that the U.S. has tested 3,600 people and that 75,000 more tests will be available.

Health experts have noted, however, that other countries, such as South Korea -- which have detected large-scale outbreaks -- have been much more aggressive. As of last week, South Korea conducted more than 70,000 tests and as of Sunday morning, there had been 3,736 confirmed cases and 18 deaths.

Azar also dismissed concerns over whether the testing criteria has been too limited. A little over a week ago, six cities began testing for coronavirus when they tested for the flu. Azar said he wanted to expand that practice nationwide and plans to do so as soon as Congress approves the supplemental funding.

The HHS secretary emphasized that the risk to most Americans remains low. Currently, there are at least 69 cases in the U.S., 22 of which were originally detected in the country.

Globally, in at least 60 countries, there have been over 87,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 3,000 people have died.

On Saturday, Trump confirmed the first U.S. death linked to the coronavirus in Washington state. The victim was identified by the CDC as a man in his 50s.

PHOTO: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a press conference at the Department of Health and Human Services on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus, Feb. 7, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a press conference at the Department of Health and Human Services on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus, Feb. 7, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence announced on Saturday that the U.S. would be adding additional travel restrictions on Iran, which has had 978 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 54 deaths. The restrictions would prohibit any foreign national who as visited Iran in the last 14 days from entering the U.S.

Earlier this month, Azar announced restrictions on travel from China related to the virus. Those restrictions deny entry to any foreign national who was not the immediate family member of a U.S. citizen and had traveled to China in the previous 14 days.

Pence, who is leading the government's coronavirus response, also announced that the State Department would issue the highest level travel advisory for regions of Italy and South Korea that have outbreaks of the virus.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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