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Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Kathleen Sebelius

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusBiden seeks to use the bully pulpit he has on COVID-19 Biden unveils COVID-19 task force Biden's COVID-19 crisis team takes shape as virus rages MORE. Read excerpts from the interview below.

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Clemons: How would you grade the administration in responding to COVID-19? 

Sebelius: If I had to give them a grade, I’d give us as a country and certainly the leadership out of Washington about a D. There is no developed country on the face of the earth that is doing as badly as the United States in dealing with this virus. And in spite of the fact that the president keeps trying to push this down to governors and then to local leaders, it has to start with a tone at the top. It has to start with leadership at the top. And since January, when we first learned about the coronavirus heading to the United States, we have been behind the curve. We have never had the testing capacity that we needed. We have never given the correct information to the American public and given it over and over again. When CDC finally issued some national stay-at-home guidance, and the president seemed to be willing to follow that in April, he then immediately came out and demanded that states be liberated, and made it a very partisan issue. And since that point in mid-April, we have really gone downhill. We have watched this debate about a global pandemic and a virus raging out of control in this country become a partisan football. “I'm not gonna wear a mask if I like Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE. I will wear a mask if I don't like Donald Trump,” instead of being a scientific debate. Instead of following the science. And the latest attack by the White House on our preeminent scientific leader, Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: CDC urges 'universal' indoor mask use when not at home | Pelosi bullish on COVID-19 relief | Trump largely silent on coronavirus as health officials sound the alarm Fauci warns US has not hit 'Thanksgiving peak' even as cases soar The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Fauci to serve as Biden's chief medical adviser MORE, who is not only known well in this country but known throughout the world, as being one of the leaders in vaccine and medication development, the White House has chosen to try and go after him directly. So, we're in a very bad situation in the United States. I give it a D only because I'm afraid we could get worse. And that will be the F.

 

Clemons: What is the White House trying to do with the redirection of information from hospitals about the rates of infection and death from the CDC and to the HHS?

Sebelius: Well, I never have any idea what the White House is trying to do, but what I can tell you is a bit about what it means. First of all, HHS does not have data receiving information. HHS is the umbrella agency. CDC is one of the 11 operating agencies under HHS, but CDC is in Atlanta. It is the public health backbone of this country. It is full of scientists and epidemiologists who actually track and follow diseases all over this country and all over the world. They are the leaders in giving advice on what the best moves are. They have employees embedded in every state health department and in 50 countries around the world, so cutting them out of the data reception, to me, it's just fairly terrifying. HHS as I understand it is now going to subcontract the reception of this data to a private company who again, doesn't have any public viewing. They gave a no bid contract to a private company in the midst of a pandemic when we're trying to get a handle on what's going on, on how many people are in the hospital, what the surge capacity is, where we may need extra help. To take that data away from the CDC just seems very, very dangerous. If something is wrong at the CDC, if they're too slow, if they're not responding quickly enough, then fix it. This is the administration. This is your agency. So, fix what's going wrong. Send a team in, figure it out and continue the flow. But now hospitals are being told suddenly to develop a different protocol than they had last week or last month. And they are coping with all kinds of issues about protective equipment and hospital beds and personnel. This makes no sense to me. And if I understand that correctly, the new private company will not have a transparent view for the public. So, this is now data that will be collected but not shared with the public, unless HHS decides to share it.

 

Clemons: What is happening with this, "either you open with no protections or you get no funding,” debate over schools?

Sebelius: Well, again, it is a playbook that this president seems to think is the winning hand. But so far it has been disastrous. ... I'm delighted that Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE's wearing a mask. But more importantly, Mitch McConnell is blocking a very important package of assistance to state and local governments, an important revenue stream for families across this country. If we want schools to open, you have to push more money to states which have taken a big budget hit. You have to give them resources that they can then push to the school districts to hire additional personnel. There are teachers and teacher’s aides and nurses and additional personnel being laid off as we speak, because states and cities don't have the money to keep them on the payroll. If we want schools to reopen, we have to keep kids in smaller groups which means more people. We have to have more space, not less space, which might mean renting facilities that might be available. We need more cleaning crews. We need personal protective equipment. All of which costs money. Mitch McConnell has refused to move the package of legislation that passed the House almost a month ago and would help this happen. So, what does the Trump administration do? They begin to threaten and not say, “We take the health and safety of children as our No. 1 priority, but we won't send any funding to you if you don't open schools.” That's insanity. No parent wants to put their kids in an unsafe place. ... Another piece of this puzzle that I just learned about because the Kaiser Family Foundation just put out a report that there are more than 3.5 million adults over the age of 65 who are caregivers for school aged children. The majority of those caregivers are African American, and we already know that that's a population at extreme risk. So, school opening has an additional issue and problem where we could be putting a lot of those caregivers in extreme danger just by having the children return to school in hot spots around the country, in places where the virus is out of control. And unfortunately, that's now 37, 38 states.

 

Clemons: How do you reestablish social trust so that wearing a mask isn't political? What are we missing? What is not happening? Is Kansas moving along any better than other parts of the country?

Sebelius: Well, we were moving along pretty well. We have a Democratic governor and a very Republican legislature. She's within a vote or two of being overridden in everything that she does, even if she would veto something. Unfortunately, our legislature, after a month and a half of really successful, not only lockdown, but virus rates getting to a very low and manageable level, the legislature chose to make her directives to the state optional, not mandatory. Gave all counties the option of getting out from under mask wearing, opening up facilities if they chose to do it in direct contrast to our health department's orders and what has happened is we have unfortunately joined a lot of the rest of the country and watching virus levels and hospitalizations and deaths go right back up again. So, we are in a situation where we can pretty well track when the optional policies occurred. I think the American public is watching the science. I think people know that this disease is not harmless, it is scary. They want accurate information. They want to know what we know and what we don't know. And the only way to establish trust is tell people every day what's going on to make it very transparent. And to make it clear, particularly for some of the younger population who think they're invincible and don't have any interest in staying socially distanced and may not have an interest in mask wearing, that they're quite capable of carrying the disease and sharing it with others — siblings who might be at risk, parents who might be at risk, grandparents, even some of their friends who may have underlying health conditions that they know nothing about. So, this is really about us all taking care of one another. We're all in it together. But unfortunately, that message has to start from the top. ... One of the things that epidemiologists will tell you, they can tell you how they track and trace. They can tell you that they need to establish, what are the patterns and what is the frequency. But a fourth tenant of epidemiology is communication, and it's about the kind of social trust you're talking about. I'm very worried about not only what's going on right now, but hopefully we will at some point in the not too distant future, have a safe and effective vaccine. If we don't reestablish some sense that you can believe in the scientific community. If they say it's safe, it really is safe. If they say it's effective, it will really help you and your family. If we don't get to that level of belief in the scientific information, we're not gonna be able to mount a national vaccination campaign.

 

Clemons: Is there a time that those people who are knowledgeable and have been thoughtful about these issues need to come together and send a bipartisan signal to the rest of the country than what they're hearing today?

Sebelius: Well, actually, I think that's going on, Steve. There is a lot of bipartisan work going on supporting the scientific agencies. You saw recently four former FDA commissioners, Republicans and Democrats coming together saying, “Don't diminish the CDC’s role. Keep them definitely in the loop.” There are those of us who have joined again, I think Bill Frist and I were both on a statement about how to reopen safely. What are the steps, how you take those steps. You mentioned George W. Bush, who certainly has been part of this conversation. I think the only missing piece seems to be the current White House and the current political leadership. Governors, Republicans and Democrats are joining together to actually take steps in the northeast part of the country, and the western part of the country to try and fill the vacuum left by the United States. So, there's a lot of bipartisan work going on. Unfortunately, it is continuing to be driven on a partisan basis out of the White House, so people who feel they have to show their loyalty to Donald Trump are making some of these public disputes a partisan issue. And when the virus gets out of control in some of those states, they are backpedaling quickly. You've seen the governor of Texas who tried to maintain that they were in a bubble and this virus wouldn't affect them. And now he has really recanted most of the statements that he made. So, I agree with you. It is definitely a time for bipartisan leadership. It's definitely time for people to trust. But the leaders don't need to be the politicians or the former politicians or those of us who were political appointees, it needs to be the scientists. People will listen and establish public trust around the science. And I think the further back the politicians get and the further forward the science is, the more likely we are to have a uniform set of rules, a uniform set of recommendations and people again reestablish trust that they're getting correct information.