If seasonal influenza roars back this fall while the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, the combined weight of the diseases could cause US healthcare systems to collapse, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday.
The grim warning comes as COVID-19 is spreading out of control in many areas of the country, which is now seeing upwards of 60,000 new cases a day.
“I am worried,” CDC director Robert Redfield said in a live interview with Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief of the medical journal JAMA. “I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times we’ve experienced in American public health.”
Outbreaks of seasonal influenza can stress healthcare system resources in normal times. But, on top of a devastating pandemic with no end in sight, the yearly burst of respiratory infections could overwhelm hospitals and clinics.
The CDC estimated that up to 56 million people were sickened in the 2019-2020 flu season (spanning October to April), which led to as much as 740,000 hospitalizations and up to 62,000 deaths.
If hospitals and clinics become overwhelmed with the mix of flu and COVID-19 patients, health care workers won’t be able to provide optimal care. This will lead to more deaths among those patients as well as patients seeking care for all other types of illnesses and conditions.
Not too late
In the interview, Redfield highlighted that the excess deaths already seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in New York, point to overburdened health systems.
“Keeping the healthcare system from being overstretched, I think is really going to be important,” Redfield emphasized. “The degree that we’re able to do that, I think, will define how well we get through the fall and winter.”
Though the United States has failed to suppress the pandemic thus far, health experts have emphasized that it’s not too late to get it under control, if people take it seriously and follow the social-distancing and mask recommendations.
Redfield encouraged the American public to buy into social distancing and to wear masks in public. He also pointed to fresh data suggesting masks are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think that over the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.”
When it comes to universal masking, “the time is now,” he said.
Since the pandemic began in January, the US has reported over 3.4 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 136,000 deaths.