The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday warned of a feeling of “impending doom” over rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths and issued an emotional plea for Americans who have not yet been vaccinated to “hold on a little longer” and do their part to help reduce the virus’ spread.
“When I first started at the CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing by White House’s COVID-19 team on Monday. “Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen. I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope,” she said, noting that three effective vaccines against the virus are making their way into arms. “But right now I’m scared.”
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have increased in the previous week, Walensky said.
The seven-day average of new cases in the United States is slightly less than about 60,000 per day, which is about a 10 percent increase compared to the previous seven-day period, Walensky said. Hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus have also increased, and Walensky noted that on Sunday, the US surpassed 30 million total cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic.
When a reporter later asked her to clarify her feeling of “impending doom,” Walensky said the country has seen a steady rise in cases in the past couple of weeks, an uptick that in previous months of the pandemic has indicated an incoming surge.
“We know that cases sometimes can be a week or two behind, the behaviors that lead to those cases, the mixing that leads to those cases,” she said. “We know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw over the summer and over the winter again.”
In an address Monday afternoon, President Biden said he shares the concerns expressed by Walensky and urged Americans to continue engaging in the public health measures that help reduce the spread of the virus.
“The war against COVID-19 is far from won,” Biden said. “This is deadly serious. If we let our guard down now, we can see the virus getting worse, not better. People are letting up on precautions, which is a very bad thing.”
He also urged governors of some states that have removed mask-wearing requirements to reinstate the measures.
“Please, this is not politics, reinstate the mandate if you let it down,” he said.
Biden’s pleas came as he announced new efforts to expand vaccine access, including that 90 percent of American adults will be eligible to get a vaccine in three weeks and that his administration will more than double the number of pharmacies where shots are available.
During the briefing earlier Monday, Walensky appeared to become emotional as she reflected on her experience as the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital during the earlier months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she treated patients who were alone at the end of their lives.
Walensky said she knows what it’s like to be a doctor standing in a patient room, the last person to touch someone’s loved one because they couldn’t be there, worried whether there are enough resources to take care of every patient, and making heartbreaking decisions over prioritizing equipment.
“I’m speaking today not necessarily as your CDC director, not only as your CDC director, but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, to ask you to just please hold on a little while longer,” she said. “I so badly want to be done. I know you all so badly want to be done. We are just almost there, but not quite yet. And so, I’m asking you just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can, so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends.”
In a reflection of the national trend, Massachusetts is currently seeing an uptick in cases, with the average number of new infections at its highest since mid-February.
Public health officials have expressed concerns over the trajectory of the pandemic in the state even as vaccinations continue. They pointed to a number of factors that could be driving infections: increased circulation of a more-contagious variant of the coronavirus; pandemic fatigue, and springtime optimism that have led the public to be less vigilant; and Governor Charlie Baker’s continued loosening of public health guidelines.
Walensky said that she would be speaking to governors on Tuesday “to try and reinforce the need for urgent restrictions, to not open up.”
Dr. Scott Gottleib, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a tweet Sunday that Massachusetts is among the states that represent the “greatest concern.”
Walensky on Monday explained that the trajectory of the virus in the country looks similar to the way it has progressed in other European countries like Germany, Italy, and France, which have generally trended ahead of the US in COVID-19 metrics. The US is currently where those countries were just a few weeks ago, she said.
“Since that time, those countries have experienced a consistent and worrying spike in cases,” she said.
Walensky called on Americans to recommit to public health prevention measures to help stop the spread of the virus and on elected officials and community leaders to “sound the alarm” and carry the message into their communities.
She added that there are also reasons to be hopeful as vaccinations ramp up across the country and cited a newly released CDC study that found two doses of the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna provide as much as 90 percent protection against infection in real-world conditions.
“We do not have the luxury of inaction,” Walensky said. “For the health of our country, we must work together now to prevent a fourth surge.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top health infectious disease expert, echoed Walensky’s comments at the briefing, urging Americans to “hang in there.”
“We really need to hold on to the public health measures as we get more and more people, from 2- to 3-plus million people vaccinated every day. It will be a race between the vaccine and what’s going on with the dynamics of the outbreak, and we can win this by just hanging in there a bit longer.”
Dasia Moore of the Globe staff contributed to this report.