Gottlieb, Azar push for safe school reopenings amid coronavirus

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Two of the nation's top health experts this week advocated for school reopenings contingent on local coronavirus conditions.

Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb and current Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar advocated for the reopenings during appearances on CBS's “Face the Nation.”

“We don’t believe there are uniform thresholds for school reopenings,” Azar told moderator Margaret Brennan. Azar said each community will have to make the determination for school reopenings.

“But the presumption should be, we get our kids back to school," he added.

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Gottlieb, Azar push for safe school reopenings amid coronavirus

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during an event with President Donald Trump to sign executive orders on lowering drug prices, in the South Court Auditorium in the White House complex, Friday, July 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I think one of the things you need to look at in a local community is whether or not you can get test results, because if you can't get test results back in a timely fashion you really don't have a way to detect whether there’s an outbreak in the community or in the school,” Gottlieb said in an interview with Brennan.

“And while we do need to lean forward and try to open our schools because it's important to children, we need to prevent outbreaks from happening in those schools," Gottlieb added.

Brennan questioned why guidance on school reopenings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was released last week, lacked a threshold for any necessary closures after schools reopen.

Gottlieb said the CDC likely left out the benchmark “because they didn’t want to address something that was politically charged.”

Local school districts should examine metrics like community spread, positivity rate and local testing capacity when determining school reopenings, he added.

Gottlieb, Azar push for safe school reopenings amid coronavirus

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 06: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb speaks about teen vaping during a discussion about overcoming obstacles, at the Newseum on March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“If you have uncontrolled spread within the community, it’s going to be very hard to open against that backdrop,” Gottlieb said, adding that schools are looking at retrofitting HVAC systems to improve air quality.

One of the most important features, according to Gottlieb, is keeping students in defined cohorts, or “pods,” to limit intermingling among students.

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CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said it was vital for schools to reopen in September, but added there must be an increased sense of vigilance and practicality among students, teachers, and administrators. The CDC said that evidence showed a return to the classroom poses "low risks" to students and teachers on the whole and will give children the opportunity to bolster their physical and mental well-being.

Given the absence of specificity in guidelines, Brennan questioned whether a local 5 percent positivity rate, which was said to indicate hot spot territory, would merit school closures.

“I think somewhere in 5-10 percent is starting to get iffy. Above 10 percent is when you really wanna think carefully about closing school districts. … That is a sign there's an epidemic underway in that community,” Gottlieb said.

When asked the same question, Azar said 5 percent signals a "yellow community" and 10 percent indicates a "red community," or an “epidemiological early warning sign of potential spread of disease."

“That’s not been defined as a threshold for reopening of any kind,” he said.

Nevertheless, both Gottlieb and Azar echoed the call for face coverings, social distancing, quality personal hygiene and, among virus hot spots, bar closures and restrictions on indoor dining and other entertainment options.

Gottlieb said if Arizona gains control over the epidemic there, the state could serve as an instructive case. Targeted mitigation steps like bar closures, and, though Gottlieb said it was delayed, Gov. Doug Ducey implemented a mask mandate.

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Fox News' Nick Givas contributed to this report.

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