WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday there will likely be more cases of coronavirus in the United States, and he asked a Senate subcommittee to approve $2.5 billion in funding to fight the outbreak after proposing cuts to the department’s budget.
“While the immediate risk to individual members of the American public remains low, there is now community transmission in a number of countries, including outside of Asia, which is deeply concerning,” Azar said, speaking before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. He said recent fast-spreading outbreaks in Iran and Italy were particularly worrying.
“We are working closely with state, local, and private sector partners to prepare for mitigating the virus’ potential spread in the United States, as we will likely see more cases here,” he said.
Azar said the additional funding would help the U.S. expand surveillance systems for the new virus, support state and local governments, help development of vaccines and therapies and expand stockpiles of protective equipment like surgical masks.
The Trump administration asked Congress for the funding on Monday.
Some senators on the subcommittee questioned whether Azar was asking for enough funding, particularly as he had requested cuts to the budget of the department’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cuts to the CDC “are not going to help us deal with this,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington. “We can not plan on the cheap or at the last minute.”
Azar also said the U.S needs to build out the manufacturing capacity for surgical masks. He said the country currently has a stockpile of 30 million N95 surgical masks, but HHS estimates suggest the country needs 300 million masks.
(Reporting by Michael Erman in New York, Diane Bartz in Washington and Manas Mishra in Bangalore; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)