As US COVID-19 deaths near 200,000, CDC reverses itself again

Patient with tracheostomy and ventilator
Patient with tracheostomy and ventilator

PongMoji / iStock

Today the United States edged close to the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus as the drop in new COVID-19 cases seen in recent weeks across the country appears to be ending and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) again waffles on guidance, this time regarding the mode of virus spread.

The current US totals stand at 6,831,222 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 199,766 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 online tracker.

After a steady decline in new cases from the peak of well over 60,000 a day in July, a Reuters analysis shows that US officials reported a 17% increase in the number of new infections last week compared with the previous 7 days. The country is averaging more than 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.

Public health experts have been predicting that cases will rise as the school year kicks into gear and colder weather drives people indoors.

Among the states reporting increases in new cases in the past 7 days are Wisconsin, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa.

New controversy over CDC guidance

As the country faces the prospect of another surge in cases, a new controversy erupted today over the latest change in the official COVID-19 guidance from the CDC. The controversy involves the agency's position on how the coronavirus is transmitted from person to person.

On Friday, the CDC posted updated guidance on its website that said the coronavirus can spread through both large droplets and small particles, such as those in aerosols, and that airborne particles that form when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes can remain suspended in the air, be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet.

The guidance indicated that this is the main way the virus spreads, and suggested indoor spaces without good ventilation may increase the risk of spread. The previous guidance had focused on the virus spreading via respiratory droplets between people within 6 feet of contact.

But earlier today, the new guidance was taken down from the CDC website, with an accompanying note that said "A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency's official website. CDC is currently updating its recommendation regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted."

Whatever the reason for the change, it comes amid growing concern that the agency's messaging on the coronavirus is being shaped by political considerations. Last week, the CDC reversed coronavirus testing guidance on its website that had been updated in August with new recommendations made by political appointees in the Trump administration. Those recommendations had suggested that people who were exposed to an infected person but weren't showing symptoms don't necessarily need to be tested.

Last week the CDC clarified that such close contacts do need to be tested, which reflects guidance on its site before the August changes.

White House: Some could be immunized by end of year

In vaccine-related developments, the chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's effort to speed up development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, told CNBC this morning that the United States could immunize Americans who are most susceptible to the coronavirus by the end of the year if a vaccine is approved, or granted emergency use authorization, before then.

"We are already stockpiling small amounts if vaccine doses that could become readily available in November or December," Moncef Slaoui, PhD, said.

Under that scenario, according to Slaoui, most of the elderly and frontline workers could receive the vaccine in January 2021, and the rest of the country would get immunized in February, March, and April.

Last week, CDC Director Robert Redfield told US lawmakers on Capitol Hill that most of the American public likely wouldn't receive a COVID-19 vaccine until next spring or summer. President Trump later said Redfield had incorrect information, and has suggested on several occasions that a vaccine could be approved by the end of October, a claim he repeated this morning on Fox News.

Slaoui has previously said that it's unlikely that any of the three vaccine candidates in phase 3 trials would have enough efficacy and safety data by the end of October.

California deaths, schools opening in NYC

In other US news:

  • California became the fourth state to surpass 15,000 COVID-19 deaths, along with Texas, New York, and New Jersey, according to the Los Angeles Times. But an analysis by Kaiser Health News, which found that deaths in California were up by 13% from March through July compared with the same period in previous years, suggests that COVID-19 deaths in the state may be undercounted. California has more than 785,000 coronavirus cases, more than any other state.

  • Schools in New York City opened today for preschoolers and children with advanced disabilities. In-person learning was initially supposed to begin for the city's 1.1 million public school students on Sep 10, but under the new plan, elementary students will begin on Sep 29, and high school students will return on Oct 1.

  • The National Medical Association, an organization of African American physicians, has created its own expert panel to independently evaluate regulatory decisions about COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, Stat News reports. The group says it's concerned that recent decisions by the Food and Drug Administration regarding COVID-19 treatments have been "unduly influenced" by politics.

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