The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic, still raging with unprecedented fury nationwide, will pose the country’s grimmest health crisis yet over the next few months, before vaccines become widely available.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield urged stricter adherence to safety precautions such as wearing face coverings, social distancing and good hand hygiene to slow the spread of a highly contagious respiratory virus now claiming well over 2,000 U.S. lives a day.
The sober message from one of the nation’s top health officers followed Thanksgiving weekend in which millions of Americans disregarded warnings to avoid travel and large gatherings even as COVID infections and hospitalizations surged largely unchecked.
Besides the monumental loss of life, Redfield said, the country faces the prospect of a health-care system strained to the point of collapse. The contagion has now reached every corner of the country – with 90% of all hospitals in areas designated as coronavirus “hot zones” – and continues to spread on a much steeper trajectory than any previous wave of the pandemic.
“The reality is that December, January and February are going to be rough times,” Redfield told a livestream presentation hosted by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”
More than 270,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 to date. And the University of Washington’s influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has projected the toll could reach nearly 450,000 by March 1 without greater attention to social distancing and mask-wearing.
The dire warnings came as U.S. health experts on Wednesday welcomed British emergency approval of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that U.S. regulators may soon follow suit.
As U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations jumped to their highest since the onset of the global pandemic, Britain gave emergency use approval to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE, the first Western country to take such action.
Britain said it would start inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could help reassure Americans about the prospect of an expected mass-vaccination program reminiscent of the anti-polio campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.
“This should be very reassuring. An independent regulatory authority in another country has found this vaccine to be safe and effective for use,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
The British approval is also likely to “put a little pressure on” U.S. regulators to move swiftly, said Kirsten Hokeness, an immunology and virology expert at Bryant University in Rhode Island.