The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19
A Lack of Trust
Alex Azar had sounded confident at the end of January. At a news conference in the hulking H.H.S. headquarters in Washington, he said he had the government’s response to the new coronavirus under control, pointing out high-ranking jobs he had held in the department during the 2003 SARS outbreak and other infectious threats.
“I know this playbook well,” he told reporters.
A Yale-trained lawyer who once served as the top attorney at the health department, Mr. Azar had spent a decade as a top executive at Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest drug companies. But he caught Mr. Trump’s attention in part because of other credentials: After law school, Mr. Azar was a clerk for some of the nation’s most conservative judges, including Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court. And for two years, he worked as Ken Starr’s deputy on the Clinton Whitewater investigation.
As Mr. Trump’s second health secretary, confirmed at the beginning of 2018, Mr. Azar has been quick to compliment the president and focus on the issues he cares about: lowering drug prices and fighting opioid addiction. On Feb. 6 — even as the W.H.O. announced that there were more than 28,000 coronavirus cases around the globe — Mr. Azar was in the second row in the White House’s East Room, demonstrating his loyalty to the president as Mr. Trump claimed vindication from his impeachment acquittal the day before and lashed out at “evil” lawmakers and the F.B.I.’s “top scum.”
As public attention on the virus threat intensified in January and February, Mr. Azar grew increasingly frustrated about the harsh spotlight on his department and the leaders of agencies who reported to him, according to people familiar with the response to the virus inside the agencies.
Described as a prickly boss by some administration officials, Mr. Azar has had a longstanding feud with Seema Verma, the Medicare and Medicaid chief, who recently became a regular presence at Mr. Trump’s televised briefings on the pandemic. Mr. Azar did not include Dr. Hahn on the virus task force he led, though some of the F.D.A. commissioner’s aides participated in H.H.S. meetings on the subject.
And tensions grew between the secretary and Dr. Redfield as the testing issue persisted. Mr. Azar and Dr. Redfield have been on the phone as often as a half-dozen times a day. But throughout February, as the C.D.C. test faltered, Mr. Azar became convinced that Dr. Redfield’s agency was providing him with inaccurate information about testing that the secretary repeated publicly, according to several administration officials.
In one instance, Mr. Azar appeared on Sunday morning news programs and said that more than 3,600 people had been tested for the virus. In fact, the real number was much smaller because many patients were tested multiple times, an error the C.D.C. had to correct in congressional testimony that week. One health department official said Mr. Azar was repeatedly assured that the C.D.C.’s test would be widely available within a week or 10 days, only to be given the same promise a week later.