‘The worst fall from a public health perspective’: CDC director warns of dual threat of COVID-19 and flu

FILE - CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield holds a protective mask while testifying during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on July 31, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Americans could be facing “the worst fall” season due to the potentially deadly combination of the novel coronavirus, the seasonal flu, and people who aren’t abiding by necessary COVID-19 preventative measures.

During an Aug. 14 interview with WebMD’s chief medical officer Dr. John Whyte, Redfield discussed the importance of COVID-19 preventative measures, including wearing a mask, social distancing, washing one's hands and avoiding large crowds.

“You do those four things, it will bring this outbreak down,” Redfield said. “But if we don't do that, as I said last April, this could be the worst fall from a public health perspective we've ever had.”I

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Redfield said his biggest concern is a combined wave of two viruses, the novel coronavirus and the flu, hitting Americans during the worst public health crisis in decades. 

“We’re going to have flu in the fall, and either one of those by themselves can stress certain hospital systems,” Redfield said. “I've seen hospital intensive care units stretch by a severe flu season, and clearly, we've all seen it recently with COVID.” 

The CDC director also stressed the need for individuals to get a flu vaccine.

“By getting that flu vaccine, you may be able to then negate the necessity to have to take up a hospital bed. And then that hospital bed can be more available for those that potentially get hospitalized for COVID,” Redfield said, adding that in the last 10 years, nearly 360,000 people in the U.S. died from the flu. 

As of Aug. 14, the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the United States stood at more than 167,000 and confirmed cases overall in the country stood at over 5.2 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

When asked about the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine being available by early 2021, Redfield said he was cautiously optimistic “that we’re going to have one or more vaccines deployed before the first of the year.”

Even with rapid developments being made on a coronavirus vaccine, many infectious disease experts believe that it could be as long as a year until one is available to the public after the vaccine is approved — and even longer until the world returns to relative normalcy.

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InCrowd, a medical research company, surveyed 100 infectious disease specialists between June 26 and July 6 on their thoughts and beliefs about the COVID-19 crisis. Results from the survey showed that 80% of respondents believed a coronavirus vaccine would be widely available to the public within a year of it being approved for distribution.

According to a press release about the survey, front line treating physicians said that they believe it will not be until at least October 2021 that the world returns to a sense of normalcy, a prediction “that is more than twice as long as physician estimates in May.”

And even if a vaccine was widely available, its efficacy could be hampered by Americans refusing to take it.

An Aug. 7 poll from Gallup showed as many as one in three Americans said they would not get a vaccine for COVID-19, even if the vaccine was FDA-approved and there was no cost out-of-pocket.

Redfield urged the continued practice of recommended measures to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“If the American public will really take to heart what I've asked, wear a mask, the social distance, to use great hand— hand hygiene, and to be smart about crowds, and we all do that,” Redfield said. “And I keep telling people, I'm not asking some of America to do it. We all got to do it.”