CDC director fears fall and winter may be 'one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health'


Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sat down with JAMA editor in chief Dr. Howard Bauchner on Tuesday to talk about the state of the coronavirus in the U.S., which has infected more than 3.3 million Americans and led to over 136,000 deaths.

Redfield’s appearance via YouTube live stream (still available to watch) followed the release of an editorial in JAMA authored by him and two others about the need for universal masking. “At this critical juncture when COVID-19 is resurging, broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty,” the paper reads. “A small sacrifice reliant on a highly effective low-tech solution that can help turn the tide favorably in national and global efforts against COVID-19.”

The CDC director expanded on his thoughts in the talk with Bauchner. “I really do believe if the American public all embraced masking and we all really did it rigorously ... over the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.” Masks, which have been recommended by the CDC since March, have been shown to not only protect individuals from spreading the virus themselves but also protect those wearing it from catching the infection.

Despite these facts, many have been resistant to mask-wearing — with some taking legal action to argue that mask mandates infringe on their rights. Redfield brushed off these claims, saying the issue shouldn’t be up for debate. “Masking is not a political issue; it’s a public health issue, and it really is a personal responsibility for all of us.”

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

He went on to say he was “heartened” to see more people embrace mask-wearing and was “glad to see the president wear a mask.” (President Trump was pictured for the first time in public in a face mask on Saturday.) “We need them to set the example,” Redfield said of Trump and other Republican leaders. “As I always say, we’re not defenseless against this virus. The most powerful weapon we have — or weapons — are face coverings ... washing our hands and really being smart about social distancing.”

Redfield expressed optimism about some aspects of the pandemic — including therapeutics like remdesivir and ongoing vaccine safety trials — but he voiced concern about the coming months in the United States. “I am worried; I do think that fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health,” Redfield said.

His concern rests on the “co-occurrence” of COVID-19 and influenza, the latter of which infects anywhere from 9 million to 45 million Americans per year. One of the concerns, aside from overlapping symptoms of the two illnesses, is that if both infections spike at the same time, hospitals will be unequipped to handle the number of individuals who are extremely ill. “Those two respiratory pathogens hitting us at the same time do have the potential to stress our health system,” said Redfield.

Redfield noted that health care systems pushed past their capacity can contribute to higher death rates. “When you really look at the differential mortality across the country, it was quite significant — sometimes New York, 5, 6, 7, 8 percent — a lot of that mortality is driven by the stress of the health care system that the patients are in that are trying to be taken care of,” Redfield said. “So keeping the health care system from being overstretched is going to be really important, and the degree that we’re able to do that will define how well we’re able to get through the fall and winter.”

The CDC director ended the call with a plea to lawmakers to use this current pandemic as a lesson. “For the last five decades, we’ve failed to invest in a meaningful way in public health in this nation. If this COVID outbreak has taught us anything, it’s that now is the time,” said Redfield. “Now is the time to get overprepared in public health. ... This is the message I try to say to Congress, ‘Now is the time to give this nation the public health system that not only it needs but it deserves.’”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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