Health and Human Services chief says 'we don't know' how many Americans have been tested for coronavirus

Posted at 8:47 AM, Mar 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 10:47:08-04

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday the department does not know how many Americans have been tested for coronavirus and suggested older Americans avoid large gatherings such as campaign rallies.

"We don't know exactly how many, because 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)," Azar told CNN's John Berman on "New Day" when asked how many Americans have been tested for coronavirus at this point. "We're working with the CDC and those partners to get an I.T. reporting system up and running hopefully this week where we would be able to get that data to keep track of how many we're testing."

The HHS chief also said there are 2.1 million testing kits currently available and more than 1 million have been shipped.

The availability of test kits to health care providers has been one of the most scrutinized aspects of the federal government's response to the crisis, leading to frustrations from state and local officials, and there has been confusion among Trump administration officials over the number of testing kits that have been mailed out.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration's response to the outbreak -- which CNN now considers a pandemic -- acknowledged last week there was a shortfall in the number of testing kits required to meet demand. But, he said, the government would be able to provide testing for those who are believed to have been exposed or showing symptoms.

Meanwhile, fissures between the White House and national health agencies, including the CDC, have begun to expand as the coronavirus pandemic spreads to more American states, creating dissonance between President Donald Trump and the professionals tasked with containing the virus further.

Shifting figures from administration

Trump administration officials have repeatedly been asked about the number of Americans who have been tested for the virus and the number of testing kits available and have given various answers.

US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday when asked how many people had been tested, "The numbers are tough because they're changing minute by minute."

"They should know that we have 75,000 tests available right now for folks. By early next week, tomorrow, we should have over 2 million tests available," he also told Tapper. "By the end of the week, through partnerships with private industry, over 4 million tests available," he said when asked for a rough estimate on the number testing kits available.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson, a member of the task force, told ABC's George Stephanopolous on "This Week" Sunday "over a million tests were shipped out already this past week."

"Tomorrow another 640,000 will be available," he said. "And those are only the ones that are being dealt with on a federal official level."

Azar told Berman on Tuesday there is a "surplus of tests" available.

"At no time, at no time, has a public health official who wanted to get an individual tested for novel coronavirus been unable to get them tested through the CDC's labs or other labs authorized by CDC early on," he said.

As the virus has spread, public health officials have suggested those especially vulnerable -- including the elderly and those with respiratory problems -- avoid large gatherings. But the President and the two leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have vowed to continue holding campaign rallies.

Asked if he would advise his elderly parents to go to a campaign rally, Azar said, "I 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 quarter and potential spread. And if they do go, to take appropriate, personal hygiene protections. Don't shake hands."

This story has been updated to include additional background.


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