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Remarks to the National Business Group on Health

Eric D. Hargan
Virtual Conference
March 26, 2020
Washington, D.C.

As the President and Vice President have said, it’s going to take all of America to defeat this virus, and American business in particular has a key role to play.

I know all of you are eager to return to business as usual, and, believe me, we want that too. But we need to be vigilant in fighting this virus with sound science and prudent public health policies.

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you all for the opportunity to speak with you today. I apologize that Secretary Azar could not join you all today. On the Secretary's behalf, I want to express the deep appreciation we have for the work that you and your colleagues, as business leaders, are doing to stay in close contact with the administration during these uncertain times.

As the President and Vice President have said, it's going to take all of America to defeat this virus, and American business in particular has a key role to play.

I know all of you are eager to return to business as usual, and, believe me, we want that too. But we need to be vigilant in fighting this virus with sound science and prudent public health policies.

As all of you know, we remain under the national social-distancing guidelines that the President and his task force released last week, at the recommendation of our top public health leaders at HHS.

All Americans, including the young and healthy, should be working and engaging in schooling from home when possible, unless they work in a critical industry. 

We know that this has been a significant ask for many companies, so we am grateful for the work that your firms have done to make these efforts possible. It is a truly significant contribution to public health.

As you know, many state and local governments have issued more detailed guidelines or formal restrictions on business and social activities, so please be in touch with them as well for other particular details.

On top of that, CDC has put out guidance for employers around social distancing and infection control, on their website at coronavirus.gov. We will continue updating this information as the pandemic evolves and as we learn more about the virus.

The President has been clear: The health of the American people is the top priority. Beating this virus is the best step we can take to ensure that our economy bounces back stronger than ever.

As the President said this week, he will work with his public health leaders, like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Redfield, and Dr. Birx, to assess when and how it makes sense to update our national guidelines.

We're also working across the administration to address the various impacts that the virus has had on our economy.

Last night, we were immensely pleased to see the Senate vote unanimously to pass the approximately $2 trillion stimulus package. This bill will provide a shot in the arm for our economy, while also providing the support needed by both employers and families to get through this challenging time.

We're grateful to American businesses that have already stepped up to expand family and sick leave policies to support your employees during this time.

We've also taken a number of administrative steps to provide economic relief, like delaying the tax deadline for individuals and businesses until July 15 and hitting pause on student loan interest.

The President has also been reaching out to industries that are key to supporting social distancing, like grocery chains, fast food restaurants, and delivery companies. He's been recognizing the heroic work of their employees and staying in touch regarding their needs.

Now, I want to turn to the public health response that Secretary Azar and I are leading at HHS, in close cooperation with FEMA and the White House.

I'll discuss briefly how we're working to track the spread of the virus and support our healthcare system, and how the private sector has a role to play on both fronts.

First, in terms of tracking the virus's spread, we are now in a new phase where testing is much more easily accessible. Specifically, we've moved from relying on public health laboratories to allowing states to oversee private-sector, automated, high-throughput testing.

This week, the U.S. is processing more than 60,000 tests a day—before we count hospital tests, which we expect to begin counting this week—and these numbers continue to rise. As Ambassador Birx has pointed out, we've now done as many tests in eight days as South Korea did over the past eight weeks.

Thanks to work at FDA and CDC, and President Trump's unleashing of the private sector, states now have a wide range of options they can use for testing, and we've authorized new options like a point-of-care diagnostic, where results can be available in hours, rather than days.

With the sufficient supply we've made available, state and local governments and private providers have already opened up drive-through testing.

This work will be supplemented by the national public-private testing partnership President Trump announced and HHS is working on.

State and local governments know best how to meet their community's needs. By working with private sector companies like retailers, they can get creative about where these testing options should be located.

To the extent that your companies may be able to help in this testing effort, I encourage you to be in touch with HHS and with your state and local governments.

While dramatically more tests are now available, it's also important to remember that there are still priorities for testing. Even as testing capacity skyrockets, we need to prioritize getting test results first for our healthcare workers and for vulnerable patients, as every country around the world has done.

If you develop symptoms such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing, stay at home, avoid close contact with others, and contact your medical provider. Please work to provide this guidance to your employees, as well.

The same kind of private-sector ingenuity that's driving our testing capacity is also vital for ensuring that our healthcare system has the supplies and capacity it needs.

We have already worked with manufacturers of personal protective equipment and ventilators so they can ramp up their production in the United States. For instance, this past weekend, we began executing on orders for approximately 600 million N95 masks.

That was the culmination of conversations that HHS began back in January, which have now driven N95 manufacturing on U.S. soil from about 250 million masks a year to about 640 million. We're pleased that the legislation the Senate passed included another $16 billion for this kind of equipment.

We've also been working with the private sector to develop innovative alternatives or new uses for supplies, such as ways to safely reuse masks or repurpose other machines to serve as ventilators.

To the extent that your company is involved in manufacturing or supply chains, please be in touch with FEMA and HHS. Our doors are wide open for ideas and for assistance.

We can also take creative steps to free up capacity in our healthcare system, like delaying elective surgeries and maximizing telehealth options. Using emergency powers at HHS, we've already expanded Medicare and Medicaid payments for telehealth, and we've waived HIPAA penalties so that all providers and patients can use everyday technologies like FaceTime or Skype to talk to each other.

We hope you'll engage the payers and providers you work with to maximize these flexibilities, which states have also supplemented with their own actions.

We also suggest that you talk to your private-sector partners directly about how to create new options to support your employees' health at home, like getting advanced refills on prescription drugs. We need you as a partner, so please keep letting us know about any obstacles that stand in your way.

On the payer side, we've also opened the door for Health Savings Accounts tied to high deductible plans to cover all medical costs for patients suffering from COVID-19. That means HSAs, which I'm sure many of you offer, can cover everything from an initial diagnostic test to an eventual vaccine.

We've made our response to COVID-19 the absolute top priority at HHS and across the administration. But we are also working to ensure that other important work on the President's healthcare vision can move ahead.

HHS is still driving forward on increasing price and quality transparency, reforming regulations, and moving to a system that pays for health and outcomes rather than sickness and procedures. We look forward to continue working with many of you on these ongoing priorities.

We're grateful to all Americans who have contributed to the response: from the heroic healthcare workers on the frontlines to those who are making sacrifices by staying home from work, to the business and government leaders who have partnered with us.

Every time America has faced a serious crisis like this, it has been American government and business working together to keep us safe and triumph over the threat we face. We've done it before, and we're confident we're going to do it again.

Thank you again for inviting us to speak to you all, and I will now hand things over to Dr. Redfield for a brief update from CDC.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on March 26, 2020