Azar warns ‘medically fragile’ Americans against large gatherings — but stays mum on Trump rallies

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday warned “medically fragile” Americans to avoid flights, cruises and large gatherings — but stopped short of telling them to skip a rally with President Donald Trump.

Ahead of an expected announcement later in the day of an upcoming Trump campaign event, Azar was asked whether it was wise for the president’s reelection effort to proceed with its plans given the administration’s guidance to “consider adjusting or postponing large meetings or gatherings” in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“In terms of large gatherings, and I don't want to comment on a campaign, I'll defer to what [Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] said at last night's press conference, which is: It all depends on the community where you're doing it and what the circumstances would look like for gatherings,” Azar told CNN in an interview.

Pressed further on why the Trump campaign would hold a rally given the grave nature of the public health risks posed by the coronavirus, Azar sought to elaborate further upon the government’s recommendations.

“It's consider adjusting or postponing large gatherings if you're at risk, if you're in communities where they're spreading, if there's a science and evidence-based reason for doing that, or if you're a particularly vulnerable person,” Azar said.

“So the elderly and those who are medically fragile, we have said you really should think twice before going to a large gathering, taking a long flight, or in particular getting on a cruise ship. Please don't do that,” he continued.

Although the president on Monday evening told reporters during a White House news conference that he would propose a payroll tax cut and paid leave for hourly employees unable to work due to the coronavirus, Trump has seemingly disregarded some personal preventative measures meant to counter the outbreak.

He was seen shaking hands with supporters along a rope line on Monday after deplaning Air Force One near Orlando, and the White House later confirmed that the president has not been tested for COVID-19 despite contact with multiple GOP lawmakers who have self-quarantined over coronavirus concerns.

Trump has also insisted that he will not alter his campaign schedule and said he will continue to hold rallies as he gears up for the general election in November, remarking that “it's very safe” to keep conducting the events.

Asked on Tuesday whether he would advise his parents to attend a political rally amid the coronavirus outbreak, Azar said that he did not want “to get into making this a political issue,” but added that he “would encourage any individual who is elderly or is medically fragile to think long and hard about going into any large gathering that would involve close quarters and potential spread.”

If those Americans do put themselves in such situations, however, Azar urged them “to take appropriate personal hygiene protections” including avoiding shaking hands and keeping “as much distance as you can from others.”

Azar also struggled to answer questions on Monday regarding the number of people in the U.S. who have been tested for the coronavirus, acknowledging that the administration did not yet know the total amount since “hundreds of thousands of our tests have gone out to private labs and hospitals that currently do not report in” to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The secretary said the administration was working with the CDC and the private partners to get a reporting system “up and running hopefully this week” to track that data. He speculated that roughly 10,000 Americans per day were being tested, with the possibility of 20,000 tests per day by the end of the week, according to a study he said he had heard about.

Azar claimed that 2.1 million tests were now available and that 1.1 million had been sent out, but noted that “most of those 1.1 million that shipped were from a private vendor selling to their customers, and those entities that used their tests do not have to report back to CDC.”

Meanwhile, CDC Director Robert Redfield told a House Appropriations hearing that nearly 5,000 people have been tested through public health labs as of Monday, and said he anticipated that commercial testing companies would have stepped forward earlier to work with the federal government to develop more tests.

“I would have loved the private sector to be fully engaged eight weeks ago,” he said.

Redfield said commercial labs like Quest and Labcorp have dramatically increased testing capabilities while acknowledging that public health labs in Washington state, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., are overwhelmed.

“There’s not enough equipment, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough internal capacity and not enough surge capacity,” Redfield said, adding that the public health infrastructure is stretched thin and has a workforce shortage.

Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.