America has prepared for coronavirus for years, Sec. Azar says

Americans 'need to take a bit of a deep breath here'

After the stock market took a dramatic fall for a second straight day due to growing coronavirus fears, United States Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar said Americans should stay calm.

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"We have been preparing for decades for the spread of a virus like this, so we know what we're doing," Azar told FOX Business' Lou Dobbs on Tuesday. "This is what we do. And so, I think part of the message to the American people is we all need to take a bit of a deep breath here. The government is working on this."

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President Donald Trump and his chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Tuesday the new coronavirus is under control in the U.S., even as the government's top disease-fighters warned Americans to prepare for an outbreak here.

"We want to treat everybody like adults," Azar added on FOX Business' "Lou Dobbs Tonight." "The president has insisted on radical transparency. That's what the CDC and NIH were doing today, making sure that the American public knows we've aggressively contained this for the moment."

Azar admitted with how it's spreading thus far in the world, "we'll probably see more cases here." He reiterated, however, America has the tools to combat it.

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"We're working with Congress to ensure we've got the right resourcing, and the president's providing the aggressive leadership on this," Azar insisted.

However, lawmakers of both political parties questioned whether the White House's request for $2.5 billion in virus response funding will be enough to prepare the nation.

“If you low-ball something like this, you'll pay for it later,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told Azar earlier in the day.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testifies about President Donald Trump's budget request to fund health care issues, including the coronavirus, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The two faced off at a budget hearing that turned into a forum for assessing U.S. readiness for coronavirus.

Shelby said if the virus keeps spreading, “it could be an existential threat to a lot of people in this country.” He chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, which sets spending levels for federal agencies.

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Azar said that nearly two months after the first alarms were raised, there's no evidence the virus has spread here beyond patients infected overseas and a few close relatives. He credited travel controls and mandatory quarantines, adding that government scientists are working to develop a vaccine and to perfect a test for detecting the virus.

"We have been preparing for decades for the spread of a virus like this, so we know what we're doing."

- United States Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar

“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus and we need to be realistic about that,” the health chief acknowledged. “We'll have more cases in the United States, and we've been very transparent about that.” If it happens, “we'll work to mitigate those.”

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said the administration's handling of the crisis has been “unacceptable."

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“We cannot afford to plan on the cheap or at the last minute," Murray said. “I'm deeply concerned that we are way behind the eight-ball on this."

A man holds a baby while walking by Zekai Tahir Burak Hospital where 17 people suspected of having coronavirus are to be quarantined, in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. ( AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

In an indication of the challenges, Azar said the government currently has stockpiled 30 million special N95 respirator masks but 300 million would be needed to protect health care workers in an outbreak.

Azar told senators that U.S. cases currently total 57. That includes 14 who either traveled to China or were close relatives of travelers; three Americans repatriated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China; and 40 passengers returned home from the cruise ship Diamond Princess.

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The White House budget office said the $2.5 billion would be used for vaccine development, treatment and protective equipment, but Democrats immediately slammed the request as insufficient.

A health worker wears a protective suit at the infectious disease clinic in Zagreb, Croatia, where the first coronavirus case in Croatia is hospitalized, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

"I feel very confident that we'll get the $2.5 billion, and if we need more money, we'll ask for more, and we'll work with Congress on that process," Azar explained to Dobbs on Tuesday.

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Before the funding request, key government accounts were running low.

The White House is requesting $1.25 billion in new funding and wants to transfer $535 million more from an Ebola preparedness account — a move opposed by Democrats. The administration anticipates shifting money from other HHS accounts and other agencies to complete the $2.5 billion response plan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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