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The Coronavirus Plus the Flu Could Equal a Devastating Fall and Winter, CDC Director Says

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Summer has just begun, but health officials are already warning Americans that the fall and winter months ahead will likely be challenging. Once flu season begins, the U.S. will have to worry about not one, but two contagious viruses.

“The real risk is that we’re going to have two circulating respiratory pathogens at the same time,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a TIME 100 Talks discussion with senior health writer Alice Park. “We know flu by itself can cause substantial morbidity and mortality and hospital utilization,” especially for elderly people and those who have underlying health conditions. With the new coronavirus wreaking devastation in these groups and others, “this could be really a very, very difficult situation.”

Getting a flu vaccine is one way to help prevent influenza. But even though flu vaccines are safe and often quite effective, they aren’t very popular. “Historically, less than half of Americans get flu vaccines,” Redfield said. “This is the year that I’m asking the American public to seriously reconsider, because that decision may make available a hospital bed for somebody else that really needs it for COVID.”

So far this summer, as states have begun to reopen, Redfield said more than 100 counties in the U.S. are “what we consider [coronavirus] hot spots” and “experiencing higher transmission rates than we would like to see.” In response, he said, the CDC is sending teams to those areas and working with state and local health officials to understand how those cases are spreading and how best to contain them.

Redfield also denied that the CDC has been sidelined during the pandemic; in previous outbreaks, the CDC has taken a more visible role in holding press conferences to educate and answer questions from the public. “I’d say no,” Redfield said in response to whether the agency has been taking a backseat in guiding the country through the pandemic. “We have a seat at the table in the {White House Coronavirus] Task Force where I represent the CDC…and we are presenting those view and I can tell you those views are heard, and those views are respected.”

Right now, the tools Americans have been using for months—standing six feet apart, wearing face coverings, washing hands regularly—are still the best protections against contracting the virus that causes COVID-19. But by late 2020 or early 2021, that arsenal may realistically include one or more coronavirus vaccines, Redfield said.

That’s an incredibly quick timeline for a vaccine of this kind, and three months ago, Redfield would have called it “highly optimistic.” Now, though, “I think there’s a real probability that we’re going to accomplish that. No one can guarantee it, but the amount of progress that’s been made in recent weeks is substantial.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander@time.com