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'We can get back out there': Trump's top health official upbeat on reopenings

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President Trump Meets With His Cabinet At The White House

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks during a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on May 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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The Trump Administration’s top health official came to Buffalo on Thursday to meet with hospital workers and business leaders and to discuss reopening efforts during the Covid-19 crisis.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited staff at Buffalo General Medical Center and Gates Vascular Institute and toured a research lab at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Azar also participated in a business forum at Roswell to discuss Western New York's phase two reopening and the Trump administration’s plan, which pushes strongly for the benefits of restarting the economy.

"We can get back out there," said Azar, who spoke to The News by phone the day before his visit, and again in a one-on-one interview in Buffalo. "There are ways to be out engaged – to shop, to work, to play, to worship – that also protect against disease."

Those "ways" include three things that have become familiar since March: social distancing; hygiene (as in hand-washing and sanitizing); and the use of masks. Azar's contention is by accepting those, and then considering "the spread of the disease locally as well as our own personal health conditions and risks," people can make decisions that allow for safely managing the virus risk.

"The psychological shift is going to be one from people being afraid and in their homes to feeling confident that with appropriate, sensible protections, most of us can go out and get about our business and our lives and do so in the right way," said Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive who joined Trump's Cabinet in January 2018.

Unlike the often-polarized discourse around Covid-19-related policies, Azar's day in Buffalo was largely devoid of politics. Rep. Brian Higgins, the Buffalo Democrat whose district includes Roswell, joined Azar for a tour of the cancer center's research labs, where doctors briefed the secretary on efforts to use their longstanding expertise in immunology to develop potential Covid-19 treatments.

Higgins, who also sits on the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means and serves on a health subcommittee that has influence over Azar's $1 trillion-plus budget, also participated in the business forum at Roswell. He said Azar's remarks were "common-sensical; it was not idealogical."

To point, after the session, Higgins was speaking about reopening efforts using nearly the same language as Azar. He pointed to social distancing, hygiene and face coverings.

"If people are smart about that," Higgins said, "we can begin to get back to a sense of normalcy."

Azar, who has made similar visits in recent weeks to Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, frames his argument around the health benefits of opening the economy. In conversations with medical practitioners and business executives, interviews with journalists and a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, he has pointed to the effects a slowed economy and quarantine-style living can have on mental health, drug use and the reporting of domestic issues. Azar has also addressed a drop in cancer screenings, vaccine administrations and stroke admissions and discussed the health and economic impacts of delaying elective surgeries.

“We've got to get back to getting screened, getting treated,” said Azar, who pointed out a 90% drop in cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries across Western New York from March to April — a number he attributes to the effects of the pandemic.

"We've had people who aren't getting critical heart procedures," Azar added.

Doctors, public-health experts and policy makers fear that the effects of medical appointments and procedures that haven't happened – from regular check-ups to emergency room visits to delayed cancer tests – could create a secondary crisis. Not one of Covid-19 cases, but of other illnesses that went untreated because people stayed away from hospitals in fear of catching the virus.

"Time will tell what it means, because when you're not screening, you're not detecting," said Candace S. Johnson, Roswell Park's president and CEO, who accompanied Azar on his tour there. "Many times, the beauty of screening – as everyone knows – is you detect the cancers early when they're small, and they're easy to handle, either to remove or to treat, or however they're going to be handled."

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