- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson gives a lengthy, exclusive interview to Daily Caller senior White House correspondent Christian Datoc on how HUD is specifically working within the Trump administration to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
- Carson, who prior to launching his political career was one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons, provides his medical assessment of the administration’s coronavirus response. He also explains the paramount necessity of implementing a widespread nationwide testing system for reopening the economy, and addresses the social factors that predispose the African American community to coronavirus and other diseases.
- He discusses how HUD, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and congressional leaders are negotiating a new round of mortgage relief into the next phase of the coronavirus stimulus plan.
DAILY CALLER: I’m sure you saw the comments that the surgeon general made this past week, and some of the other members of the task force, about how the African American community has been, seems to be disproportionately affected by Coronavirus. The surgeon general talked about how there’s nothing genetic that predisposes black individuals to coming down with coronavirus, but there are obviously underlying social issues that have impacted that statistic. Is this something that we can address currently while we’re still fighting the pandemic, or is this an issue that’s going to have to be tackled after the fact, and it’s just something that’s had the light shone on it in these past few weeks?
CARSON: I think the pandemic has emphasized what we’ve known all along, that these disparities obviously subject people to more risk with anything that happens. As I mentioned last week, you know, if you go back to last year’s flu environment, we lost a lot more people in the African American and Hispanic community also, because the underlying problems existed then. They existed 50 years ago, and they’ll exist tomorrow if we don’t use this opportunity to address them.
As an MD, I’m curious to get your professional opinion on the sort of general mitigation strategies that the administration is undertaking. It looks like we’ve got good news in terms of tamping down the curve in some of the hot spots like New York, and Washington and California seem to be improving daily. What happens once we get to the end of the president’s social distancing guidelines at the end of April? Do you think we can just go back to work or will there have to be some sort of halfway steps between the current quarantine and everyone’s normal day-to-day lives.
Yeah, well, it’s a trade off, obviously. You can say let’s wait until 100% of the virus is eliminated, at which time you’ll have no economy, or you can say, look, we recognize what the dangers are now. We’ve learned how to social distance, we’ve learned how to hand wash and do a bunch of other things. We recognize that if we don’t address the economy, more people will die then will die from the virus. So, you know, we’ve got to be able to balance, you know, logic and emotion.
It’s a delicate balance. I think the president has signaled we need to have widespread testing before starting to open up the economy again. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, his target market of roughly 750,000 tests per week seems to be the number that the government wants to hit. How important is it for some of these different types of tests, though, like the antibody test, to be put into wide circulation, before allowing people to go back to work, whether they’re on the frontlines of the medical outreach or just working normal jobs in industries that are shut down, that still deal with a lot of people like restaurants and hotels?
Certainly, if we have a good idea of the antibody titers that a person has, it gives us a great deal of assurance about who’s safe and who’s not safe to go in, so I think ramping up those tests is something that’s very, very valuable. In the same way that during World War II we were able to ramp up our production of tanks, airplanes, way beyond anything that anybody even imagined, and it really is the tide of the war, this is a war too. The real danger right now is that we’re coming down the downslope and that people become lax. And all of a sudden they say, ‘oh, well, everything’s okay now.’ It’s not okay. And we need to continue to follow the guidelines, but it does mean that we can begin to relax and use what we know, in order to reintroduce people into the system in a secure and safe way.
You just talked about that antibody test. The FDA just approved the model put out by Cellix. Is that something that the president, either with or without the Defense Production Act, could put into production at other companies or is that something that can only be produced by Cellix Inc.? Because, like you just pointed out, obviously the more tests we have, the better we can police the general population and the medical responders in particular.
They have their patents and various things, but, you know, I think we can work with them. Because, at the end of the day, I think all of these companies are patriotic, and they’re going to be more interested in getting the country back and step in with health and with economic productivity. So I think the president will be able to talk to them. I think they will be reasonable. I think we can use that technology, we can expand it enormously, and you know, this is America. We can take care of these problems.
One of the underlying problems with the pandemic, especially in New York, has been the economic distress placed on public housing. Are there any plans at HUD right now to sort of buttress these communities? I’ve seen you’ve given a lot of aid to some Native American reservations and other communities, but what exactly is HUD focusing on next?
Well, you know, we’ve been very concerned about this way longer than this virus has been around. More than a year ago, I began talking about what would happen if we had an epidemic and some of these are some of the conditions that exist. That’s the reason that I’ve placed so much emphasis on affordable housing, on public partnerships on, you know, revamping the way that it’s done on homelessness. I hate to say it, but, you know, this is an opportune time. We can take advantage of this crisis right now to really come up with some permanent solutions. We shouldn’t have people living on the streets in crowded and unsanitary and unsafe conditions. We can use federal lands, state lands and county lands to build structures that will allow people to be in a safe environment, to have appropriate hygiene, to take care of their mental health issues and their addiction issues, and to set them on a pathway towards self sufficiency because if we don’t do that, we continue to gather more and more dependent people. Eventually that load becomes greater than society can bear.
Are you guys partnering with HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) or Veterans Affairs (VA) or any of the other administration agencies on this mental health push? That’s not really something that we’ve seen talked about in the press to this point.
Yeah, we have definitely been been working with them and talking with them, talking with public health service with DOD. In fact, you know, we were coming up with a very nice, coordinated plan before this hit, and we were about to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city of Los Angeles. We will get back to it. There’s no question about that once this taps down a little bit. But we really need to go to the epicenter of some of these kind of problems, which is California and solve it there and utilize what we learned there to solve it in the rest of the country, but there’s no reason that a country like ours should have these kinds of problems.
One of the things that HUD did pretty early on at least in this month, at the beginning of April was suspending all evictions and foreclosures. Is there any plan to enact sort of a similar policy for people paying their mortgages to receive relief? Is there an expected timetable on when that will be rolled out by the government?
Well, you know, with the people who are endorsed by FHA [Federal Housing Administration], and our associated units like USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] and the VA, we provide partial claim, which means that you can take those payments that were missed and create a sub mortgage, interest free by the way. So, when you finish paying off your mortgage, then those kick in, so those kinds of creative things, I think can help solve the problem. What we have to think about, though, are the services and the people providing those mortgages, they have obligations as well. Particularly the non-banks, who really do a lot of the mortgage lending these days, who don’t have, you know, enormous amounts of cash, we have to make sure in the stimulus package that we provide them a mechanism or we’re going to destroy the mortgage industry. So those are the things that we’re obviously thinking about.
Are those conversations that you or Secretary Mnuchin or anyone else in the administration are negotiating into the next phase of the stimulus with House Speaker Pelosi or Leader McConnell or anyone else in leadership in Congress right now?
Yes, those are ongoing conversations right now.
I want to turn back toward the medical aspect of this for a second, because a new story that I’ve seen pop up over the last couple of days, and Dr. Fauci, was actually asked about it last week at one of the briefings, is the appearance of reactivation cases that we’re seeing in South Korea. It’s not a huge number. It’s around 115, 120 or so for this past week that I saw this morning, but it’s about double the previous figure from the week prior. Is this something we need to be worried about? Is this an indication that the virus might be mutating? I think this is something that people are worried about, that whenever we end the social distancing guidelines, we might see cases pop back up in the population.
Well, it tells us why we can’t just abandon all the guidelines immediately, even if we think the problem is solved. We don’t really know in those cases whether the virus is reactivated or whether it was never deactivated. There are cases where you get false negative testing, and you know, the testing is only as good as the people who are doing it, quite frankly. Not everybody does it perfectly. We have to take all of those things into consideration, but it’s the reason that we have to continue to exercise extreme caution even after we begin sending people back to work. We need to understand that we will probably never go back to being the way we were pre-virus. A lot of things have been learned during this about teleworking and remote working, which will have a lasting impact on schools, on work facilities. We’re changed forever, and there may be some good that comes out of that.
You just mentioned the telework aspect. Medicare has changed the way that they handle telework, a variety of services have been made available to beneficiaries to help with the pandemic. Do you expect the medical community to work in this manner moving forward, are we going to see a trend back to, I guess, gating some of these health practices in the future?
Yeah, well, you know, particularly, you know, when you look at some of the rural and the remote settings being able to do things remotely, it’s going to make a big difference. You couple that with the advances that have been made with virtual reality technology. You can actually, like having an ophthalmoscope, and you can have a relatively unskilled person be able to apply it and then have somebody who’s quite skilled to be able to look at what’s going on and be able to make a diagnosis of the recommendations remotely. That’s going to make a huge difference in our society, particularly for people who are sick and shut-in. It makes a big difference.
We’ve seen some stories that, you know, for lack of better words are horror stories of people in the hospitals in New York being flooded with patients and really putting themselves and their families by extension at risk, just by doing their jobs. At the same time we’re seeing plenty of stories of folks, you know, doing amazing stuff to help their community, help people who might be suffering in this very trying time for the medical industry. What’s your personal message to those people out there putting their lives on the line daily?
We often think and talk in terms of first responders as policemen and firemen. We talk about our military, and those are all really heroic people. There’s no question about it. But we need to recognize that those doctors and nurses and technicians that put themselves on the frontline, are also first responders, taking enormous risks for the sake of their fellow human beings. I think we need to put them in the same category as we do our traditional first responders. It makes a huge difference in the lives of everybody here in our nation.
*Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity