WASHINGTON — The nation’s top public health official warned that the United States is not prepared for a flu pandemic, which could be deadlier than the coronavirus — and could strike at the same time, potentially as soon as this fall.
“We’re just not prepared,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was testifying on Capitol Hill before the House Appropriations Committee, in a hearing titled “COVID-19 Response.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“You asked what keeps me up at night,” Redfield told Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a leading Republican on the committee. “I know it’s a pandemic flu,” he said before going on to warn about the nation’s lack of preparedness for precisely such an event.
While the seasonal flu appears every year, generally in the fall, a flu pandemic caused by a new strain of the virus is far more dangerous, because people have no immunity to that strain.
A flu virus that spread across the globe in 1918 caused the worst pandemic of the 20th century. There were others in 1958 and 1968. The most recent flu pandemic was the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak of 2009, which may have killed more than half a million people around the world. The estimated death toll from the coronavirus is around 109,000 in the U.S. and 380,000 worldwide.
Even if the rate of coronavirus infection appears to be slowing for now, it is all but certain that there will be more such outbreaks, especially as human civilization pushes ever deeper into natural habitats like rainforests. Many of the most devastating viral outbreaks in recent years have been zoonotic, meaning that the virus spread from animals to humans.
HIV and Ebola are believed to be among those.
The House Appropriations Committee customarily hears from agency chiefs about their budgetary needs. Redfield accordingly argued that what he said was “inadequate” funding of “core capabilities of public health” would imperil the agency’s ability to track and respond to disease outbreaks in the future. “I have states that are still collecting data on pen and pencil,” Redfield said. He did not disclose which states those were or how prevalent that practice was.
“Getting that data modernization is fundamental,” Redfield said, arguing that antiquated disease-tracking tools have kept his agency from thoroughly grasping the scope of the coronavirus outbreak.
In his own budget proposals, President Trump has tried to cut the budget of the CDC. Congress has prevented him from making those cuts and is all but certain to do so again.
As he has before, Redfield said the lack of preparation could be apparent as soon as next fall, when the coronavirus and influenza could return simultaneously. An influenza outbreak, even short of a pandemic, could strain resources both at the state and federal levels. “If there is substantial COVID-19 and seasonal influenza activity at the same time, this could place a tremendous burden on the health care system and result in many illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths,” Redfield said in his opening statement.
Trump has discounted the notion that the coronavirus will return with the colder weather. If it does, he says, it will be in a much tamer form. Epidemiologists do not believe that will be the case.
Redfield also implied that as devastating as the coronavirus has been, a worse pandemic is bound to come. “You think we weren’t prepared for this?” he mused. “Wait until we have a real global threat for our health security.”