Sec. of Health and Human Services encourages wearing a mask, social distancing in wide-ranging interview with Action News

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- In a wide-ranging interview, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar discussed everything from Russian attempts to steal vaccine research to efforts to stop local COVID-19 cases and a path to starting school in the fall.

He also repeatedly encouraged wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

Azar was asked if more federal coordination is needed to prevent new surges in states such as Pennsylvania that have had success against the virus.

"So there's a very clear roadmap that our mayors and governors can and should follow that we've been working with them on, which is: if you have appropriate social distancing, people wear face-covering when they're in public and when they can't appropriately social distance. You close your bars if you're in a red or yellow zone, restrict indoor dining to 25 percent or below. You restrict social gatherings in the home to 10 or fewer," Azar said.

"We've actually modeled that you will see a decline in cases that is comparable, not quite as much, but comparable to shutting down or sheltering in place. You just have to have good discipline. We need to all do our part in this. Wear our face coverings and we can actually do this while still keeping our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship and our healthcare systems open," Azar added.

RELATED: CDC director says if everyone wore masks, US would have COVID-19 under control in 4-8 weeks

Azar was also asked about how schools can reopen safely.

He responded, "It's obviously important that we reopen in a way that's safe for our kids and safe for staff, but there are ways to do that. The mindset has to be how do we figure out how to reopen, instead of how do we justify staying closed. Our kids need to go to school in a physical environment. There are real health and mental health consequences from not going to school. Our K-12 kids, a lot of them, get their healthcare in a school setting. A lot of them get mental healthcare in a school setting. They get nutrition services in that school setting and that's on top of the physical, social, and intellectual development aspects of being physically at school. Those all have to be balanced together."

Azar talked about the seriousness of the situation in the South and Southwest where states are seeing a steady climb in hospitalizations. Morgues and ICU's are reaching capacity.

The secretary told Action News, "The increase in cases, especially in the Southeast and Southwest and now in additional communities, is a very serious issue and we are working on it, working with our state local authorities. It is real. We are seeing an expansion of cases."

As for Russian intelligence attempts to steal vaccine research, Azar said, "I am not going to get into classified information of course, but I will just say America's biopharmaceutical industry and well as those at our agencies involved in biomedical research here in the United States are always under attack from adversaries as well as those who would seek to exploit the theft of information for commercial gain. So we're very vigilant and very attuned to the threats of state actors as well as others seeking to steal data."

RELATED: US, UK, Canada accuse Russia of hacking coronavirus vaccine trials
Copyright © 2020 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.