CDC director warns second wave of coronavirus could come with flu season
by Stephen Loiaconi
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — With many Americans eager to ease back into normal daily life and leave the disruption of the coronavirus outbreak behind them, a top public health official is warning the nation could face even tougher public health challenges next winter if the new virus behaves as some similar infections have in the past.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield cautioned Tuesday that another wave of coronavirus infections could sweep the nation at the same time Americans are grappling with the regular seasonal flu later this year.
.@CDCgov will soon issue guidance for state and local governments on how they can ease #COVID19 mitigation efforts – moving from current guidance to a phased way to support a safe reopening of America. Read more in @washingtonpost: https://t.co/bWXgznaVcF
— Dr. Robert R. Redfield (@CDCDirector) April 22, 2020
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” he told The Washington Post.
U.S. health officials must encourage more people to get flu vaccines this summer to minimize the need for hospitalizations if the health care system is again strained to its limits by COVID-19 patients Redfield said. If the current coronavirus outbreak had begun months earlier at the height of flu season, “it could have been really, really, really, really difficult in terms of health capacity.”
White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx downplayed the danger posed by a second wave of infections at a press conference Tuesday night. She questioned whether it could be worse than what the nation has already seen—more than 45,000 deaths in a matter of weeks—and she stressed that governments should now be better equipped to prepare for and respond to future outbreaks.
“I don’t know it will be worse. I think this has been pretty bad,” Birx said. “When you see what has happened in New York, that was very bad. I believe that we’ll have early warning signals both from our surveillance that we’ve been talking about and the vulnerable populations.”
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed Wednesday Redfield’s comments were taken out of context and insisted he was just trying to promote getting flu shots.
Kayleigh McEnany claims CNN and the other networks took Redfield’s comments out of context. She claims he was urging people to get their flu shots. pic.twitter.com/eDYKpmkEHB
— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) April 22, 2020
More than 2,600 coronavirus deaths were reported Tuesday, but officials are optimistic social distancing restrictions are working and the country is getting through the worst of the current outbreak.
“We continue to gain ground in the war against the unseen enemy and I see light at the end of the tunnel,” President Trump said Tuesday. “I actually see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.”
However, it is not uncommon for novel virus infections to rise and fall as seasons change until a vaccine or treatment is available. The 1918 Spanish Flu struck in three waves, and the second outbreak caused the most deaths. In 2009, H1N1 first hit the U.S. in April and resurged in the fall.
According to Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, it is difficult to predict how the change in seasons will affect the virus because it is new, but some other coronaviruses have shown seasonality. If life returns to normal, including schools resuming regular activity, the virus could spread again later in the year.
“Given that we will not have herd immunity and will not have a vaccine by the fall, and depending on what happens with the schools, the likelihood of a second (or continuing) wave is high,” Troisi said.
Karin Michels, PhD, chair of the department of epidemiology at UCLA, expects infections to rise whenever social distancing restrictions are lifted. She echoed Redfield’s concern that a bad flu season combined with a second wave of the coronavirus could overwhelm hospitals.
“We don’t know whether if you already have the flu and your immune system is weakened you become more susceptible to COVID-19, in particular getting a more severe form of COVID-19 that requires ICU treatment. We have no experience how these two viruses may interact,” Michels said.
Since the flu vaccine is already recommended for most people over 6 months old and only about half of American adults typically get it, Troisi said much wider use may be necessary to prevent the health care system from getting overwhelmed if there is another wave of coronavirus infections.
“We’re going to need a concentrated effort to improve this and keep people from getting the flu and having to be hospitalized,” she said.
As Birx said, there is plenty of time to prepare, but that might require more aggressive steps than have been taken so far. Experts say states and hospitals should stock up on protective equipment and testing materials, as well as ensuring they have the resources and staffing to conduct contact tracing once infections are confirmed.
“Ultimately, we need to have enough testing available that we can be fairly sure we know what’s happening in a community and be prepared to reinstitute physical distancing if the number of cases is increasing,” Troisi said.
With no coronavirus vaccine expected until next year at the earliest, Michels cautioned flattening the infection curve and preventing hospitals from being flooded with COVID-19 patients may mean keeping those social distancing measures in place longer than some may prefer.
“This requires for preventive measures to stay in place, in particular in the counties and states that are more heavily infected,” she said.