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Democrats press Azar on COVID-19 efforts at testy hearing shortly after Trump tests positive

Democrats press Azar on COVID-19 efforts at testy hearing shortly after Trump tests positive
© AP/Pool

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar testified before Congress on Friday, just hours after President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE disclosed he had tested positive for COVID-19, at a sometimes-combative hearing where lawmakers pressed him on the federal government's efforts to fight the pandemic.

Trump's coronavirus test results came after holding multiple campaign rallies, with an indoor one last month, that public health experts warned were dangerous to hold during a pandemic.

Azar on Friday declined to answer questions about whether he had advised the president not to hold those rallies, where mask-wearing and social distancing were rarely practiced. 

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“I’m not going to discuss my discussions with the president, but the president’s guidelines since April have said wear face coverings, wash your hands, wear face coverings, practice social distancing,” Azar said.

He was also asked why the first family did not wear masks at Tuesday's presidential debate in Cleveland.

“The protective aspect around the president is a different situation than the rest of us because of the protocols around the first family,” Azar said, likely referring to the regular testing of those in contact with Trump.

First lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMelania Trump bids farewell to Be Best in new video Garth Brooks, Joan Baez among this year's Kennedy Center honorees Melania Trump says she was 'disappointed and disheartened' watching Capitol riots MORE also tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

Some lawmakers offered their well wishes for Trump and the first lady.

"All of us woke up this morning to the news that the first family and at least one of their close staff members had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and we wish for all of them a speedy and complete recovery," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

But much of Friday's discussion before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis focused on vaccine efforts, with Azar telling lawmakers that the president is trying to inspire hope in Americans when he talks about a vaccine being available within weeks through the administration's Operation Warp Speed.

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Trump has repeatedly said the country could be “weeks away from a vaccine,” maybe even before the election, despite drug companies and experts saying otherwise.

“I think the president's trying to be hopeful and hold out hope for individuals, but I want to be very clear, this will be determined by data and independent processes,” Azar said.

Public health experts have warned that such statements from Trump can reduce public confidence in the vaccine approval process. Polls show Americans are growing increasingly skeptical about a potential COVID-19 vaccine, citing worries about political interference and the speed of the process. 

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciCOVID-19 is a precursor for infectious disease outbreaks on a warming planet Sunday shows - Capital locked down ahead of Biden's inauguration Fauci: Approval of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines likely 'weeks away' MORE, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has noted that while Operation Warp Speed can be seen as a financial risk to the U.S. — it is investing billions of dollars in potential vaccines in hopes that at least one will work — the government is not cutting corners on safety or effectiveness.

Azar echoed those remarks Friday, saying: “We're in fact moving quickly because we can take the financial risk away from the drug companies both on development and manufacturing but the standards remain the same.”

The approval process will be determined by career officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with no political interference, Azar added.

Still, Democrats repeatedly questioned him on the helpfulness of Trump’s comments, including a recent tweet alleging “deep state” actors at the FDA are “making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test these vaccines and therapeutics.” 

“Do you understand how demoralizing it is when the president makes statements like this about the scientists and then you do not stand up and confront the president for his demeaning of their motives?” asked Rep. Bill FosterGeorge (Bill) William FosterHillicon Valley: WhatsApp delays controversial privacy update | Amazon hit with antitrust lawsuit alleging e-book price fixing | Biden launches new Twitter account ahead of inauguration Illinois Democrat calls for new committee focused exclusively on information technology Working together to effectively address patient identification during COVID-19 MORE (D-Ill.).

Azar did not directly respond to the question, instead stating that “it’s important that we have confidence in the work of FDA.”

“I support our scientists, I support our career officials, and I support our agencies,” he said.

Seven former FDA commissioners wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week that while they have faith in career officials at the agency, "the perception of political influence matters" and is "eroding the public's confidence."

Trump has attacked the FDA’s plan to issue tougher standards on emergency vaccine approval as a “political move.” The FDA has approved the emergency use of potential COVID-19 treatments before evidence showed they were effective.

Lawmakers also pressed Azar on COVID-19 testing.

The former pharmaceutical company executive, who was confirmed by the Senate in 2018 to lead HHS, repeatedly refused to criticize the president’s public comments on coronavirus, mask-wearing or vaccines, even ones that were demonstrably false.

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Azar declined to answer a question from Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersCapitol Police report warned that Congress could be targeted three days before riot Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Lawmakers warned police of possible attack ahead of siege MORE (D-Calif.) about whether Trump asked him to slow down COVID-19 testing.

Trump has misleadingly said the high case count in the U.S. is a result of increased testing. 

“I’m asking you if the president told you to slow the testing down,” Waters said. 

Azar replied: “I will not discuss my interactions or conversations with others.”

Asked by Waters if Azar was proud of the job he has done, he replied: "I don't like to speak in those terms. 206,000 people have died." 

Fauci, the CDC director, the FDA commissioner and the assistant secretary of health all told Congress in July they were never instructed by the president to slow testing. 

But at a different point in Friday's hearing, Azar noted that a negative COVID-19 test does not always mean someone doesn’t have the virus. 

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People should not “view a negative test as a get out of jail card” because the virus has an “incubation period,” he said.