The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic, raging with unprecedented fury nationwide, will pose the country's grimmest health crisis yet over the next few months, before vaccines become widely available.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield urged Americans to redouble their diligence about wearing face coverings, avoiding crowds and practicing good hand hygiene to slow the spread of a highly contagious respiratory virus now claiming over 2,000 US lives a day.
He said the latest coronavirus surge has already proven far more devastating than previous waves in terms of its wide geographic scope and steeper trajectory of rising infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths.
Besides the outright loss of life, Redfield said, the country faces the prospect of a healthcare system strained to the point of collapse.
"The reality is that December, January and February are going to be rough times," Redfield said in a livestream presentation hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. "I actually believe they're going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation."
More than 270,000 Americans have perished from COVID-19 to date. And the University of Washington's influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has projected the toll could reach nearly 450,000 by March 1 without greater attention to social distancing and mask-wearing.
"We're potentially looking at another 150,000 to 200,000 people (dead) before we get into February," Redfield said.
The dire warning came as US health experts on Wednesday welcomed British emergency approval of Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit.
As US coronavirus hospitalizations jumped to their highest since the onset of the global pandemic, Britain gave emergency use approval to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE, the first country to do so.
Britain said it would start inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could make Americans more confident about the prospect of an expected mass vaccination campaign reminiscent of the anti-polio campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.
"This should be very reassuring. An independent regulatory authority in another country has found this vaccine to be safe and effective for use," US Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
US COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a record for a fourth consecutive day on Tuesday, approaching 100,000, according to a Reuters tally. At the same time, exhausted healthcare professionals are short-staffed, with many of their colleagues falling sick.
Although China and Russia also have moved ahead with inoculation campaigns with their own vaccines, Britain's medical standards more closely align with those of the United States.
"It's got major significance being that it's the first Western country to approve the vaccine for a roll-out and start administering it to the public," said Kirsten Hokeness, an immunology and virology expert and chair of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. Moderna's vaccine, which employs similar technology as Pfizer's and was also nearly 95% effective in preventing illness in a pivotal clinical trial, is expected to be reviewed a week later.
While some U.S. health officials described a timeline that assumed FDA authorization would come within days of the Dec. 10 meeting, others have said it could take weeks.
"Surely we want a vaccine available as soon as it is deemed safe. We want to make sure that we can provide accurate information to the public," said Dr. Lisa Costello, a professor of pediatrics at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who is helping advise West Virginia's state government on vaccine distribution.
Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca Plc have already started manufacturing their vaccines and say distribution could begin almost immediately after approval. AstraZeneca, however, may have to conduct an additional trial to gain U.S. approval after a dosing error led to better results in recently released data than for its planned regimen.
Beyond regulatory hurdles, vaccinations face opposition from significant numbers of Americans who reject medical science and fear vaccines as harmful.
Similarly, many Americans still refuse to follow basic public health guidance on wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
In hopes of increasing compliance, the CDC on Wednesday added new guidelines for shorter quarantines after coronavirus exposure.
The health agency said seven days with a negative COVID-19 test and 10 days without a test would work for individuals showing no symptoms after exposure to the virus. But it still recommends a 14-day quarantine period as the best way to reduce its spread.