CDC director says agency working to boost flu vaccine availability in a time of COVID-19

The U.S. government is working with drug makers to maximize availability of influenza vaccines, worried that a substantial flu season on top of another wave of the novel coronavirus could swamp the health care system this fall, a top U.S. health official said on Thursday.

COVID-19 activity may affect how flu vaccines are given, Robert Redfield says

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield appears at a hearing on COVID-19 response held by the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on labour, health and human services, education and related agencies, in Washington on Thursday. (Al Drago/Reuters)

The U.S. government is working with drug makers to maximize availability of influenza vaccines, worried that a substantial flu season on top of another wave of the novel coronavirus could swamp the health care system this fall, a top U.S. health official said on Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is seeking emergency-use authorization for a test to detect and differentiate flu from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, the agency's director Robert Redfield said in testimony on Thursday at the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee.

"CDC is working with manufacturers to maximize influenza vaccine availability, and with health care providers to develop contingency plans so that people can be vaccinated in a safe environment," Redfield said, adding that ongoing COVID-19 activity may affect when, where and how flu vaccines are given.

U.S. pharmacy chains have been preparing a big push for flu vaccinations when the season kicks off in October, hoping to prevent tens of thousands of serious cases that could coincide with a second wave of coronavirus infections.

The United States has 1,827,425 cases of the novel coronavirus and 106,202 related deaths, Redfield said in the testimony.

"This is the greatest public health challenge we have faced in more than 100 years," he said.

Democrats have raised questions about the CDC's influence within the Trump administration. Redfield has been less visible in public than Anthony Fauci and the White House's coronavirus task force co-ordinator Deborah Birx. Briefings on the coronavirus, once daily, have all but ended.

Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, speaking Thursday at the hearing, questions the CDC's influence within the Trump administration, which has largely left determination of reopening to the 50 states. (Al Drago/Reuters)

News reports have asserted that CDC guidelines have been de-emphasized as Donald Trump has preferred to decentralize authority to the 50 states.

"Not only aren't you driving the bus, but the president seems to have left you at the curb," said the chair of the panel, Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro.

Data collection often not sophisticated

Redfield testified that several states that have moved to resume business activity widely haven't met recommended CDC guidelines.

"It isn't just health versus the economy," he said. "It's health versus health."

Redfield said he hoped for what he characterized as a "goldmine" if the pandemic results in public health infrastructure and computer systems being upgraded across the country to use sophisticated, real-time data.

"I have states that are still collecting data on pen and pencil," the CDC director said.

WATCH l The ins and outs of wearing masks:

An emergency room doctor answers viewer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including what kind of non-medical mask people should wear. 2:46

Some Republicans on the panel criticized CDC for evolving information as the pandemic has progressed, including the virus's fatality rate and what Maryland Rep. Andy Harris called the "cult of masks." Harris wondered about shifting advice regarding who should use cloth masks as opposed to surgical masks, which are deemed more effective in preventing the transmission of the virus.

Redfield said that medical masks are being preserved for the first responder community as much as possible due to their needs, not because cloth masks have proven to be more efficacious from a scientific standpoint.

Agency still working closely with WHO

The veteran U.S. health official was also asked about the large crowds of protesters who have amassed in the wake of George Floyd's death on May 25. Redfield said that those who've participated should "highly consider" getting tested for COVID-19.

"Those individuals that have partaken in these peaceful protests or have been out protesting, and particularly if they're in metropolitan areas that really haven't controlled the outbreak ... we really want those individuals to highly consider being evaluated and get tested," he said.

WATCH l Balancing the urge to speak out with the health risks:

There's concern that anti-racism protesters could spread the coronavirus, which is hitting people of colour disproportionately hard. But some may be willing to risk their health and safety to fight for justice. 2:04

On the international front, Trump over the past several weeks has excoriated the World Health Organization (WHO) response to the virus, accusing it of being too close to China. Trump said last week he will end the U.S. relationship with WHO, though it remains to be seen what transpires in Washington, as it is Congress that appropriates funding for the organization, which also helps co-ordinate global efforts fighting a wide range of infectious diseases.

Redfield said that to date, WHO continues to be a close partner in public health efforts. 

With files from CBC News

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