WASHINGTON — Florida Rep. Donna Shalala isn’t impressed by how President Donald Trump’s top health official is handling the job she once held.
The South Florida Democrat — who led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration — thinks Trump’s HHS Secretary Alex Azar should have made a stronger appeal for federal action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would have marched right into the president’s office and made sure he sat down and listened,” Shalala told the Phoenix in an interview Monday. Shalala was HHS secretary for eight years — the longest tenure at the agency’s helm in U.S. history.
Azar, a former health care attorney and executive, assumed the office in January 2018 after earlier stints at HHS under President George W. Bush. He called the threat of a pandemic an issue of great concern at a biodefense summit last spring, undermining Trump’s assertions that the problem was unforeseen.
“What keeps you most up at night in the biodefense world” is pandemic flu, Azar said then. “I think everyone in this room probably shares that concern.”
Asked about his comments at a coronavirus briefing on Friday, Trump said Azar was talking about the “concept” of a pandemic threat. Azar underscored the point, saying, “We’ve all been very focused on pandemic preparedness, that’s what we do,” he said. “But this particular strain of pandemic — who would have known?”
He and other officials reportedly warned Trump of the looming catastrophe earlier this year, but their alarms fell on deaf ears, according to the Washington Post. Azar couldn’t connect with Trump about the virus until mid-January, according to the Post, but Trump reportedly had economic and market concerns on his mind.
“Apparently, [Azar] wasn’t strong enough,” said Shalala, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 27th Congressional District in Miami-Dade County, an epicenter of the disease in the state.
But Shalala isn’t surprised. “The problem is that the White House has been running HHS and every other Cabinet agency … from the very beginning of this administration, and the secretaries are very weak,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Shalala didn’t reserve criticism for Azar alone. She also slammed Trump and Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis for botching the response to the virus, which she said has cost countless lives.
An ‘uneven and heartbreaking’ response
“The political response has been uneven and heartbreaking,” she said. “They stomp all over the science,” she said, calling out Trump in particular. “They started very late. They stumbled. I mean, what can you say? Lots of people lost their lives because we didn’t get going in early January the way other countries did. And there’s no excuse for it.”
DeSantis — whom Shalala called a “clone” of Trump — waited until last week to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but exceptions are undercutting its effectiveness, Shalala said. “There were too many loopholes,” she said, citing exemptions for religious organizations and gun shops.
Scientists, however, have been consistent and clear, Shalala said, pointing to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Deborah Birx, the administration’s coronavirus response coordinator. The president ought to follow their model, and nationalize the distribution and the production of personal protective equipment, she said.
On Monday, Florida’s Department of Health reported more than 13,000 COVID-19 cases among state residents and 236 deaths. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 330,000 cases and nearly 9,000 deaths as of Monday.
Shalala, for her part, is working with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic chairs of House Committees to push for a fourth legislative package to mitigate the effects of the virus.
Pelosi outlined a broad “recovery” package last week that was designed to shore up the nation’s infrastructure, but she has since narrowed her focus to immediate needs, such as assistance for ailing small businesses, expanded insurance for people who have lost their jobs, and more money for individuals and families in the form of direct payments, according to Politico.
Shalala is also pushing for free health coverage for victims of COVID-19 with little or no insurance, funding for hospitals and support for health care providers — provisions she said are likely to gain the bipartisan support they need to become law.
On Friday, Azar said coverage for uninsured people is a “top priority” at the coronavirus task force briefing. He also reminded unemployed people that they can access health insurance on exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act — even as the Trump administration seeks to overturn the Obama-era law.
Shalala is also holding virtual town-hall meetings with experts in health care, business administration, unemployment insurance, and other relevant issue areas. Thousands of constituents are attending, she said. And she’s communicating with constituents via social, electronic and print media about how to stay healthy and access government funds and assistance made available by the spate of new coronavirus laws.
“I’m trying to make sure people in my district know what’s available to them — and what’s coming,” she said.