Robert Redfield, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has issued a stark warning as winter looms and coronavirus hospitalizations surge.
'The reality is, December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,' Redfield said on Wednesday.
'Largely because of the stress it it going to put on our public health system,' he added, speaking during a virtual event with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
'We're potentially looking at another 150,000 to 200,000 people [dying] before we get into February. So this is really a significant time,' Redfield said.
Robert Redfield, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has issued a stark warning as winter looms and coronavirus hospitalizations surge
It came as U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a record for a fourth consecutive day on Tuesday, approaching 100,000, according to a Reuters tally.
On Tuesday, U.S. also recorded its highest single-day death toll since April 30 with 2,597 fatalities, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
At least four states - Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and Oklahoma - reported a record increase in deaths on Wednesday.
In his remarks, Redfield offered a note of hope, saying that rigorous social distancing and mask wearing could slow the spread of the virus.
'We're not defenseless. The truth is, mitigation works,' he said. 'The challenge with this virus is, it's not going to work if half of us do what we need to do. It's not even going to work, probably, if three-quarters do what we need to do.'
'This virus really is going to require all of us to be vigilant,' he added.
Redfield said that 'home gatherings' had now become a major transmission vector for the virus, and noted that it is possible for people who don't feel sick at all to spread the disease.
'The problem with COVID, it's not like flu. It's not like SARS. Its major transmission, particularly in those of us say, under the the age of 45, is it's asymptomatic. So you don't know who's infected and who isn't,' he said.
Redfield admitted that the U.S. was caught on its back-foot by the pandemic.
'This nation was severely under-prepared for this pandemic, I think we got to call it the way it is,' he said. 'When I became CDC director, I wasn't prepared to understand how little investment had been made in the core capabilities of public health, and what it is the premier public health institution in our nation.
'I had some states that their public health contact tracing workforce was less than 50 people, so there's a huge lack of investment, which I hope this pandemic will change that.'
Redfield also hinted that vaccines could be mandated for some industries during the Chamber of Commerce event.
'It will be a decision, I think, each industry will make,' he said.
'I do think there are certain industries where I think it would be important to protect their workforce, and some other industries where it may be important to make sure that they protect their costumers and consumers.'
Redfield said rigorous social distancing and mask wearing could slow the spread of the virus
Meanwhile, the White House coronavirus task force issued one of its strongest warnings yet, saying 'the COVID risk to all Americans is at an historic high,' in its latest situation report to states.
'We are in a very dangerous place,' the task force said in the report, sent to states Tuesday, and obtained by NBC News.
The report is sent every week to U.S. states and regularly paints a much darker picture of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. than is presented by the public faces of President Trump's task force. It warned that the post-Thanksgiving surge of infections and hospitalizations threatens to 'compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall.'
New cases per capita are shown on a gruesome map in the report, in which nearly the entire U.S. appears as one giant hotspot, with 19 states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and New Mexico, ranking as top areas of concern after reporting at least 500 new cases per every 100,000 residents last week.
The White House coronavirus task force's latest report warns that 'the COVID threat to all Americans is at an historic high' as it reveals that 19 US states saw more than 500 new cases for every 100,000 residents last week
A second map from the White House report shows 27 states, including the Dakota, New Mexico and Montana, suffered more than 100 deaths per 100,000 residents last week
A second map shows 27 states, including the Dakotas, New Mexico and Montana, suffered more than 100 deaths per 100,000 residents last week.
'The national daily COVID incidence after Memorial Day, but before the summer surge, was fewer than 25,000 new cases/day and is now more than 180,000 new cases/day; COVID inpatients then were fewer than 30,000 but are now more than 90,000; fatalities have more than doubled,' the White House report says.
The White House task force went so far as to tell local health officials that they 'must' alert the public of the risk of coronavirus directly if state officials don't enact policies and recommendations to protect people from coronavirus, effectively directing health officials to go over the heads of other government authorities.
Climbing deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. underscore the urgent need to get a coronavirus vaccine approved - but Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisors aren't scheduled to decide whether to give emergency authorization to Pfizer's jab until next week, despite the shot getting the green light from officials in the U.K.
'I have no doubt that we're going to see a climbing death toll... and that's a horrific and tragic place to be,' Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the AP.
'It's going to be a very dark couple of weeks.'