'Right now, I'm scared,' CDC head says as she warns of potential 4th pandemic surge in U.S.

·4 min read
CDC director Rochelle Walensky, seen here last December, says she's scared and feels a sense of 'impending doom' based on a new uptick in COVID-19 cases. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)
CDC director Rochelle Walensky, seen here last December, says she's scared and feels a sense of 'impending doom' based on a new uptick in COVID-19 cases. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)

This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians.

What's new

U.S. officials issued what was intended to be a sobering warning Monday that the COVID-19 pandemic could still get a whole lot worse.

Their unusually emotional message carried obvious international implications, especially given that the U.S. has already vaccinated its citizens at a rate triple Canada's.

The theme of a White House briefing Monday was that this is a terrible time for the country to let down its guard and reopen as some states are doing.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control, Rochelle Walensky, said she plans to speak with state governors Tuesday to encourage continued mask-wearing and physical distancing.

She said U.S. case loads had risen 10 per cent in a week, and hospitalizations and deaths are ticking up again. She said the country is on the same trajectory as some European countries were a few weeks ago before they hurtled into their latest wave.

"We are not powerless; we can change this trajectory of the pandemic," she said. "But it will take all of us recommitting to following public health-prevention strategies."

Walensky said she was pleading with Americans as a physician who had seen the death and human suffering caused by COVID-19, and as a wife, mother and daughter.

"I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom," she said as she went off script.

"We have so much to look forward to ... so much reason for hope, but right now, I'm scared."

When later asked to elaborate on her reference to "impending doom," Walensky said:

"We know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw in the summer and the winter again."

Cases are still way down in the U.S. since January. What has the CDC worried is a 10 per cent uptick last week, along with more hospitalizations. It sees the coming days as a race between vaccinations and a new pandemic wave.
Cases are still way down in the U.S. since January. What has the CDC worried is a 10 per cent uptick last week, along with more hospitalizations. It sees the coming days as a race between vaccinations and a new pandemic wave. (U.S. Centers For Disease Control)

It's an abrupt change in tone after weeks of growing confidence in the U.S. The country is expecting to have vaccines for 90 per cent of its adults by the end of April and for all adults in May.

Numerous states have already dropped restrictions.

Yet the federal government is telling states it's too soon to do that: only 15 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated, while the virus continued to kill 1,000 Americans per day last week as case numbers rose to 63,000 a day.

Why it matters to Canada

Any U.S. setback would hold a series of cross-border consequences. Starting with the obvious point involving public health: that the virus and its new variants are outpacing vaccinations.

It's especially true in places with a slower vaccination rollout.

It could also have repercussions on the economic recovery and on cross-border travel. Businesses and politicians have been urging governments, without success so far, to define a plan for reopening the border.

Some of the states experiencing the worst surges happen to be near the Canadian border, including New York, and Michigan, which has seen its case totals more than triple in a single month.

The virus is still infecting, and killing, a far higher proportion of Americans than Canadians, although the gap had been narrowing in recent weeks with cases growing faster in Canada.

Lots of states have eased restrictions. However, Miami subsequently imposed a local curfew, for public health reasons, during spring break festivities seen here earlier this month.
Lots of states have eased restrictions. However, Miami subsequently imposed a local curfew, for public health reasons, during spring break festivities seen here earlier this month. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a chief medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, said that if this recent spike turns into another wave, it's because Americans let their guard down too soon. "We're essentially pleading," he said.

What's the good news

At the same news conference, officials delivered encouraging details on a new CDC study showing vaccines performing extraordinarily well in limiting infection and transmission.

This is atop clinical trials that, Fauci said, showed 100 per cent effectiveness in avoiding hospitalization and death from vaccines approved in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Another Biden adviser, Andy Slavitt, said Monday: "Hope is around the corner. But we're not there yet… The worst thing we could do now would be to let up. We cannot get complacent. We cannot let our guard down."