Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday falsely claimed that healthcare workers "don't get infected" with Covid-19 "because they take appropriate precautions" as he attempted to make the case for reopening schools in the fall—even with coronavirus cases surging across the United States.
"If we don't have enough PPE for the healthcare workers on the front lines, how can we possibly have enough PPE for all of the country's teachers to take the same precautions?"
—Sarah Karlin-Smith, Pink Sheet
"There's no reason we can't do any of this," Azar, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and executive, said during an event at the White House. "We have healthcare settings. We have healthcare workers, they don't get infected because they take appropriate precautions. They engage in social distancing, they wear facial covering, they use good personal hygiene. This can work, you can do all of this. There's no reason schools have to be in any way any different."
In addition to noting that Azar's claim about healthcare workers not getting infected is wildly false—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 94,000 healthcare workers have contracted Covid-19 and at least 500 have died—medical professionals rejected the argument that precautionary measures taken in healthcare settings can easily be replicated in the nation's schools.
"We are trained in infection control and have used [personal protective equipment] for years," tweeted Prasad Jallepalli, MD, a professor at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "This is almost as dumb as the 'give teachers guns' proposal."
Sarah Karlin-Smith, a reporter with Pink Sheet, asked: "If we don't have enough PPE for the healthcare workers on the front lines, how can we possibly have enough PPE for all of the country's teachers to take the same precautions?"
Watch Azar's remarks:
In response to widespread criticism of Azar's comments, HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo tweeted that the secretary "is keenly aware of and grateful for the sacrifices #HealthcareHeroes have been making throughout this pandemic" and added that it would be "foolish" to suggest he "doesn't believe these warriors get sick and die."
Kaiser Health News and The Guardian, in a collaborative investigation titled "Lost on the Frontline," identified more than 760 healthcare workers who have likely died of Covid-19 in the U.S.—a death toll significantly higher than the CDC's official count.
"In some states, medical personnel account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. They tend to patients in hospitals, treating them, serving them food, and cleaning their rooms. Others at risk work in nursing homes or are employed as home health aides," the outlets reported. "Some cases are shrouded in secrecy... Many hospitals have been overwhelmed and workers sometimes have lacked protective equipment or suffer from underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the highly infectious virus."