CDC Director Speaks of “Impending Doom” As COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations Rise

March 29, 2021
Mary Caffrey

Mary Caffrey is the Associate Editorial Director of AJMC/Managed Care for MJH Life Sciences. Her editorial responsibilities include Evidence-Based Oncology, Chief Healthcare Executive, and Managed Healthcare Executive.

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are up 10% from the prior week, causing the CDC director to warn of a fourth possible surge.

Can the race to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 outpace the next wave of the virus?

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, warned Monday of “impending doom” amid fears that a fourth surge of the pandemic could hit just as the nation starts to feel hopeful about heading outside and seeing friends and family again.

Not so fast, Walensky said, armed with data that show cases are up 10% from last week, and hospitalizations and deaths are creeping back up, too, even as 3.28 million Americans were vaccinated yesterday.

In a press conference with White House advisers Andy Slavitt and Anthony Fauci, MD, who is the longtime director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, Walensky said she was throwing out the script and making a heartfelt plea for Americans to follow health basics: wear your mask, maintain social distancing, and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope," Walensky said. "But right now, I'm scared."

Her fears are rooted in the data: the most recent seven-day average is just below 60,000 cases per day. Hospital admissions are at 4,800 admissions per day over the prior week, up from about 4,600 per day in the previous seven-day period. Deaths, which lag behind cases and hospitalizations, have climbed 3%, to a seven-day average of about 1,000 per day.

Based on the pandemic’s history, Walensky said, those kinds of upturns in cases and hospitalizations signal coming surges. The combination of governors lifting mask orders and recent increases in travel may be leading to the spread of more aggressive variants of the disease.

“The trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to many other countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy, and France looked like just a few weeks ago,” Walensky said. “Since that time, those countries have experienced a consistent and worrying spike in cases.

“We are not powerless. We can change this trajectory of the pandemic,” she continued. “But it will take all of us recommitting to following the public health prevention strategies consistently, while we work to get the American public vaccinated. I’m calling on our elected officials, our faith-based communities, our civic leaders, and our other influencers in communities across the nation. And I’m calling on every single one of you.”

Fauci said with the warmer weather coming, it’s understandable that people want to “just cut loose.” But even though 73% of seniors and one in three adults has received at least one shot of vaccine, millions have not, and that could account for the recent plateau, and now the surge in cases.

Walensky said 26% of all sequenced cases are now the B117 variant, “so we’re watching that carefully.”

Real-world evidence published Monday by CDC showed the effectiveness of even a single dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are approved by FDA to be given in two doses.

Fauci shared photos of lung scans that compared a normal, healthy patient with those from a patient he saw during rounds at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, which showed even to the untrained observer the lung damage caused by COVID-19. He emphasized what has been known from the beginning of the pandemic: while for some the virus causes no symptoms or only minimal symptoms, for others the symptoms are severe or deadly.

He agreed with Walenky’s call to maintain public health practices as the vaccination campaign continues. “It will be a race between the vaccine and what’s going on with the dynamics of the outbreak,” he said. “And we can win this by just hanging in there a bit longer.”