Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) challenged Azar about the communication breakdown and Azar grew defensive, although he later apologized to Schatz for the tenor of their conversation, according to one person in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what occurred.
“Secretary Azar and Senator Schatz spoke after the briefing and agreed to work together to address the concerns during the briefing,” said HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley. “Since then, HHS legislative staff have followed up with both his and Senator Hirono’s offices.”
The briefing with members of Congress came just days after the administration drastically stepped up its response to the growing coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 24,000 people in China and nearly 200 people in 24 other countries. Last week, the administration declared the virus a public health emergency; began on Sunday barring non-U.S. citizens who recently visited China from entering the United States, subject to a few exemptions; said it would quarantine any Americans who had visited China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, within the last 14 days; and would require screening and self quarantines for Americans who had recently visited other parts of China.
Azar is leading an administration task force overseeing the coronavirus response that is composed of top officials from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, State Department and Department of Homeland Security.
Some lawmakers criticized the administration’s lack of coordination with state and local officials, after a weekend of panicked calls and emergency meetings over how states should carry out the stringent new travel restrictions. State officials said the order on Friday came with no advance notice and little planning.
The lack of coordination was acute in Hawaii. Both of the state’s Democratic senators, Schatz and Mazie Hirono, unloaded on the administration, with Schatz describing the administration’s handling of the virus as “keystone cops."
“The coordination was not just minimal, it was zero,” Schatz said. “And if you’re going to do a public health response, you have to work with state and local government, and they just didn’t.”
Hirono questioned who was in charge, given that Azar shares responsibilities for the virus response with the CDC, which has sent employees to help airports screen travelers and provides support to states with suspected and confirmed cases of the disease.
“This won’t be the last pandemic but here’s Azar sitting there, and even as I ask him ‘are you the lead person on this,’ he says ‘yes,’ oh but then you have the CDC person over there,” Hirono said. “This is why the situation leads to a lot of frustration.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he appreciated the briefing from administration officials but said there was still a lack of full communication between federal, state and local officials.
“The biggest concern at this point is lack of clear lines of communication from the federal level to all the folks who are on the ground and at the state and local level,” Van Hollen said. “They need to improve those lines of communication.”
As he left the briefing with senators, Azar said he had heard their complaints and was committed to addressing them.
“We are absolutely committed to being a good partner with state and locals so it’s good to hear that. In fact, I was able to sit with Sen. Schatz afterwards to try to dig into any concerns there with interactions with Hawaii, but we’re open to that feedback from any state,” Azar said. “It’s critical that we have excellent partnerships with state and local authorities, public health departments. That’s how this works, seamlessly, all of us together so if there are any hiccups we want to solve them.”
After briefing senators, Azar and other top officials, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, headed to a briefing with House members, who were more complimentary about the administration’s response. Several House lawmakers of both parties said they thought the administration has the situation under control, though lawmakers said they raised concerns about the U.S. reliance on China for drugs and other supplies, and whether the administration had enough money for its broad response effort.
Only 12 people in the United States have been found infected by the coronavirus thus far, though the virus is spreading rapidly in China and scientists still do not have a vaccine or treatment for the disease. Much remains unknown about how readily the virus spreads, how deadly it is and if there will be future mutations that could cause more severe illness.
Exiting the briefing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is also on the administration task force, saying she had worked with him for years. Fauci was among those briefing lawmakers on Wednesday.
“He has confidence in what is happening at CDC, so again, my confidence is in him,” Pelosi said. “I think we have to be appropriately alert but not fearmongering on this, and I think that’s the right tempo.”
Asked about Azar’s leadership, Pelosi said: “I don’t know that much about Azar but I know Fauci. All I know about Azar is he used to work for a pharmaceutical company. I don’t know that much about his experience with disease but Dr. Fauci is a doctor, and this is his life’s work.”
Azar was a senior executive at Eli Lilly and Company in Indiana for a decade until 2017 and was sworn in as HHS secretary in January 2018. He also served as HHS general counsel and deputy secretary during the Bush administration, where he was involved in the 2003 SARS outbreak, 2001 anthrax attacks and other public health emergencies.
“Secretary Azar has decades worth of experience at the helm of the department during many public health emergencies,” said Oakley, the HHS spokeswoman. “The president saw Secretary Azar’s leadership at the first sign of trouble in China, and because of his confidence in him, formally put him in charge of his task force.”
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said she had sought answers from the administration officials about how quickly they are burning through about $100 million designated for infectious disease response and their plans to transfer about $136 million more from other accounts. She said they did not have answers but committed to getting back to her.
DeLauro and Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) have urged the administration to request emergency spending from Congress for the coronavirus response. The administration has said that is unnecessary so far, but senators said they were told to watch for details as part of President Trump’s 2021 budget request, which is due out Monday.