The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the country faces “rough times” amid a deepening COVID-19 pandemic that is putting the healthcare system at risk of collapse.
The comments from CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield came as the number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 exceeded 100,000 for the first time.
“The reality is that December, January and February are going to be rough times,” Redfield said in a livestream presentation hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”
He said the latest coronavirus surge had already proven more devastating than previous waves in terms of its geographic scope and steeper trajectory of rising infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths.
Besides the loss of life, Redfield said, the country faces the prospect of a healthcare system strained to the point of collapse, before vaccines become widely available.
Death toll still rising
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.
“We’re potentially looking at another 150,000 to 200,000 people (dead) before we get into February,” Redfield said, urging people to wear masks, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
On Wednesday, the COVID Tracking Project said in a social media post that there were 100,226 people currently in hospital with the disease in the United States, “the first time hospitalisations have exceeded 100k”.
Redfield sounded the alarm as US health experts welcomed British emergency approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit.
Britain has said it will start inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could make Americans more confident about the prospect of a mass vaccination campaign 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,” US Health Secretary Alex Azar told the Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of outside advisers will meet on December 10 to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorisation of the Pfizer vaccine.
Moderna’s vaccine, which employs similar technology as Pfizer’s and was also nearly 95 percent effective in preventing illness in a pivotal clinical trial, is expected to be reviewed a week later.
While some US health officials described a timeline that assumed FDA authorisation would come within days of the December 10 meeting, others have said it could take weeks.
“Surely we want a vaccine available as soon as it is deemed safe. We want to make sure that we can provide accurate information to the public,” said Dr Lisa Costello, a professor of paediatrics at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who is helping advise West Virginia’s state government on vaccine distribution.
Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, whose experimental vaccine with Oxford University is in third-stage trials, have already started manufacturing their vaccines and say distribution could begin almost immediately after approval.
Beyond regulatory hurdles, vaccinations face opposition from significant numbers of Americans who reject medical science and fear vaccines as harmful.
Many Americans have also refused to follow basic public health guidance on wearing masks and avoiding crowds.