CDC director: Winter could be ‘most difficult time in the public health history of this nation’

The U.S. could see another 200,000 coronavirus deaths in the next three months if people don’t take mitigation measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing seriously, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” largely because of the stress to the health system, CDC Director Robert Redfield said Wednesday during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.

The coronavirus is surging across the entire nation, and the health care system is being strained nearly to the breaking point in many states. At least 270,000 people have died, including nearly 2,600 on Tuesday, the highest single-day death toll of the pandemic so far.

Redfield said 90 percent of hospitals are in the red zone, with more than 90,000 people hospitalized. 

“I do think unfortunately, before we see February, we could be close to 450,000 Americans dead from this virus,” he said, but added the country is not defenseless.

“The truth is, mitigation works. The challenge with this virus is, it’s not going to work if half of us do what we need to do. It’s not even going to work, probably if three quarters of us do what we need to do. This virus really is going to require all of us to really be vigilant,” Redfield said.

The CDC head said one thing that has disappointed him is the inconsistent messaging and politicization over mask wearing.

“The time for debating whether or not masks work or not is over. We clearly have scientific evidence,” Redfield said, pointing specifically to a CDC study in Kansas that showed areas with mask mandates saw a decline in COVID-19 transmission, while those without a mandate saw a 100 percent increase. 

Redfield said he thinks one of the most “painful” lessons from the pandemic so far is to make sure there’s “harmony” among messaging.

“When you really want to get everybody on board, you’ve got to have clear, unified reinforced messaging. And I think the fact that we were still arguing in the summer about whether or not masks work was a problem,” he said. 

Redfield did not address the fact that much of the inconsistent messaging and politicization has followed a lack of central leadership. There was no national testing strategy, and no national policy on masks or other public health measures, only recommendations. 

States have been left to figure it out for themselves, resulting in a patchwork of differing responses across the country. At the same time, much of the politicization has come from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King’s attorney believes they’re close to getting pardon from Trump MORE and others in the administration, who have prioritized the economy while downplaying the pandemic and the benefit of public health measures from the start.

Trump repeatedly promised a vaccine would be ready prior to the Nov. 3 election, despite what public health officials said. At one point in the fall, Trump phoned Redfield directly to contradict the director’s congressional testimony on vaccine distribution and the efficacy of masks.

Redfield drew scrutiny in March when he showered Trump with praise during a visit to the CDC headquarters, and the president inaccurately proclaimed any American who wanted a COVID-19 test could get one.

Then in April, Trump insisted Redfield dispute his comments to The Washington Post that the winter would be especially challenging because of the combination of flu season and COVID-19. The CDC director acknowledged he had been accurately quoted.

Guidance on who to test for COVID-19 was changed to recommend against the testing of people who had been exposed but were asymptomatic, and top communications officials in the Department of Health and Human Services came under fire for trying to control the content and timing of the CDC’s weekly scientific reports on the pandemic.

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