Alex Azar

‘Window is closing’ to stop coronavirus as US cases pass 2.5m

The Health and Human Services secretary pointed to a recent spike in infections, particularly in the south and said people have “to act responsibly” by social distancing and wearing face masks especially “in these hot zones”


US health secretary Alex Azar has warned that “the window is closing” on the country’s chance to take action to effectively curb the coronavirus, as the number of confirmed cases surpassed 2.5m. The Health and Human Services secretary pointed to a recent spike in infections, particularly in the south and said people have “to act responsibly” by social distancing and wearing face masks especially “in these hot zones”.

For a third consecutive day on Saturday, the number of confirmed US cases rose by more than 40,000. In Arizona, cases have risen by 267% so far in June and jumped by a record 3,857 cases on Sunday, the eighth record-breaking increase this month. Overall, US deaths from Covid-19 have surpassed 125,000 with more than 2.5m confirmed cases, according to compiled by Johns Hopkins University, far more than any other country in the world.

The fresh surge in Covid-19 cases has been most pronounced in a handful of southern and western states that reopened earlier and more aggressively, with the support of the Trump administration, despite warnings by health officials to wait to see a steady decline in cases. Texas and Florida were among the states that reversed course on parts of their reopening plans last week as cases continue to increase.

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press program on Sunday morning, Azar was asked by presenter Chuck Todd why the US was failing to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, especially when so many other countries seem to be succeeding.

Azar acknowledged the US was “seeing surging in cases” and that the majority of those are among people under the age of 35, which means a “large number of those” will be asymptomatic, presenting a different challenge for authorities trying to get a grip on outbreaks.

“This is a very serious situation,” Azar said, adding that “the window is closing” to stop virus spread. “We have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibly. We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings.”

Azar argued that the US is in a better position than two months ago in fighting the virus because it is conducting more testing and has therapeutics available to treat Covid-19. But he acknowledged that hospitalizations and deaths could increase in the next few weeks, because it is a lagging indicator.

The Trump administration has long been criticized for its response to the coronavirus crisis, and the president has frequently been at odds with public health officials on the best course of action to curb the spread.

New York state, which was the center of the US outbreak through April and May, and enacted strict stay-at-home measures, reported its lowest number of Covid-19 fatalities on Sunday.

Five people died from the coronavirus in the state on Saturday, a toll Governor Andrew Cuomo called “the lowest number we have had since this started.” During the peak of the pandemic in April, nearly 800 people were dying every day from coronavirus.

“We are on the exact opposite end,” from states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, Cuomo said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press. The governor cautioned, however, that the numbers could spike again if New Yorkers let down their guard down and fail to follow social distancing and mask-wearing requirements.

“I’m now afraid of the spread coming from other states because we are one country and people travel,” Cuomo said. “I’m afraid the infection rate in the other states will come back to New York and raise that rate again.”

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday that it was “long overdue” for masks to be mandated across the country, but that opposition from Donald Trump had played a role in blocking such a step.

“And my understanding, that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended the use of masks, but not to demand – required it, because they don’t want to offend the president,” she said on ABC’s This Week.

“And the president should be an example. You know, real men wear masks. Be an example to the country and wear the mask… it’s not about protecting yourself. It’s about protecting others and their families.”

Azar said Trump doesn’t have to follow his own administration’s guidance because as president he’s tested regularly and is in “very different circumstances than the rest of us”.

Democratic Washington Governor Jay Inslee told CBS that Trump should spend more time tweeting about wearing masks instead of defending monuments to Confederate generals. “We need a president who will care more about living Americans and less about dead Confederates,” he said.

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