The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still raging with unparalleled rage across the country, will be the country’s worst health crisis in the months before vaccines become publicly available.
CDC chief Dr Robert Redfield urged stricter measures such as wearing face masks, social distancing and good hand hygiene to slow the spread of a highly contagious respiratory virus that now claims more than 2,000 American lives a day.
The sober message from one of the country’s top health officers followed Thanksgiving holidays where millions of Americans ignored warnings to avoid travel and large gatherings even though COVID infections and hospital stays increased largely unchecked.
In addition to the monumental loss of human life, Redfield said, the country faces the prospect of a health care system strained to collapse. The infection has now reached all corners of the country – with 90% of all hospitals in areas designated as “hot zones” for coronavirus – still spreading on a much steeper path than any previous pandemic wave.
“The reality is that December, January and February are going to be tough times,” Redfield told a livestream presentation as the host of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “I actually think they will be the most difficult time in the history of public health for this nation.”
Elected President Joe Biden reinforced the gloomy forecast during a roundtable with workers and small business owners hit hard by the devastating economic downturn of the pandemic.
“Christmas will be much more difficult. I do not want to scare anyone here, but I understand the facts – we are likely to lose another 250,000 people dead by now. Can you hear me? “Said Biden.
More than 270,000 Americans have died so far from COVID-19. And the University of Washington’s influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has estimated that tolls could reach nearly 450,000 on March 1 without much attention to social distancing and masking.
Vaccines on the horizon
The serious warnings came when US health experts on Wednesday welcomed British emergency approval of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit.
As US hospital admissions for coronavirus peaked since the onset of the global pandemic, the UK provided emergency use vaccine to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE, the first Western country to take such action.
Britain said it would begin inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could help reassure Americans of the prospect of an expected mass vaccination program reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s anti-polio campaigns.
“This should be very reassuring. An independent regulator in another country has found that this vaccine is safe and effective for use, US Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
The British approval will probably also “put some pressure on” US regulators to move quickly, says Kirsten Hokeness, an immunology and virology expert at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
Regulatory and social barriers
A CDC advisory committee recommended on Tuesday that medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities should be first in line to receive initial doses of the vaccines.
US COVID-19 hospital admissions broke records for the fourth day in a row on Tuesday, approaching 100,000, according to a Reuters speech. At the same time, exhausted care staff are short-staffed and many of their colleagues become ill.
A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of external advisors will meet on December 10 to discuss whether to recommend the urgent use of the Pfizer vaccine. The mother’s vaccine, which also proved to be almost 95% effective, is expected to be reviewed a week later.
While some U.S. health officials described a launch timeline that assumed FDA approval would come within days of the December 10 meeting, FDA officials said it could take weeks.
Pfizer, Moderna and a third producer, AstraZeneca Plc, have already started manufacturing their vaccines and say distribution can begin almost immediately after approval. However, AstraZeneca may need to perform an additional test to obtain US approval after a dosing error has led to better results in recently published data than for its planned treatment.
In addition to regulatory barriers, vaccinations face opposition from a large number of Americans who reject medical science and fear vaccines as harmful.
Similarly, many Americans still refuse to follow basic public health guidelines to wear masks and avoid crowds.
In the hope of increasing compliance, the CDC on Wednesday added new guidelines to shorten the duration of quarantines.
The health service said seven days with a negative COVID-19 test and 10 days without a test would be enough for individuals who do not show any symptoms after exposure to the virus. However, a 14-day quarantine is still recommended.