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A trio of promising coronavirus vaccine candidates has raised hopes that America appears poised to finally turn the corner in the pandemic. But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that there’s still a cold, hard winter ahead.


“December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation, largely because of the stress that it’s going to put on our health care system.”


— Dr. Robert Redfield

That was CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on Wednesday — the same day that the U.K. government granted emergency-use authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer
PFE,
+3.52%

and BioNTech
BNTX,
+6.21%
.
The vaccine is still in Phase 3 trials — as are the vaccine candidates from Moderna
MRNA,
+1.41%

and AstraZeneca
AZN,
+0.77%

  in partnership with Oxford University. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will meet on Dec. 10 to review the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate and possibly issue an emergency-use authorization for the vaccine.

Read more:What we still don’t know about COVID vaccines after the U.K.’s emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate

But this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over — not by a long shot. And Redfield cautioned that the worst days may still be ahead.

The U.S. set another record for COVID-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday with 98,691 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, and more than 270,000 Americans have now died from the virus. Redfield noted that 90% of U.S. hospitals are in “hot zones and red zones,” or areas with high levels of spread. He estimated the health crisis has cost the country at least $8 trillion.

What’s more, the U.S. is reporting between 1,500 and 2,500 COVID-19 deaths a day. And Redfield warned that “I do think unfortunately, before we see February, we could be close to 450,000 Americans [that] have died from this virus.”

Watch him here:

Public-health officials are concerned that the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when an estimated 50 million Americans traveled to see their friends and family, could end up being a superspreader event. And there is grave concern about whether December holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, combined with the colder weather driving people to spend more time indoors (where COVID-19 spreads more easily), could also contribute to a spike in infections.

Read:If you traveled or gathered for Thanksgiving, experts say to get tested soon — here’s how

Read:Thanksgiving is over. Christmas is coming. What now?

“So we are at a very critical time right now about being able to maintain the resilience of our health-care system,” added Redfield, repeating the CDC’s guidance for Americans to wear masks, wash their hands and stay six feet away from anyone who doesn’t live with them.

“These are critical mitigation steps which to many people seem simple, and they don’t really think it can have much of an impact, but the reality is they are very, very powerful tools. They have an enormous impact,” he said. “And right now it is so important that we recommit ourselves to this mitigation as we now begin to turn the corner with the vaccine.”

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