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Who is Rochelle Walensky? Incoming CDC chief warns of ‘dark weeks’ and 500,000 Covid-19 deaths in US by mid-Feb

Rochelle Walensky's projection comes even as experts have warned that the UK coronavirus variant will likely become the dominant strain in the US by March and worsen the pandemic
 Incoming CDC chief Dr Rochelle Walensky (Getty Images)
Incoming CDC chief Dr Rochelle Walensky (Getty Images)

Nearly 400,000 Americans have lost their lives to coronavirus in less than a year. Another 100,000 people could die in just another month. Dr Rochelle Walensky, the incoming director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director warned that the pandemic could get worse and she expects that the US will reach 500,000 Covid-19 deaths by mid-February.

“By the middle of February, we expect half a million deaths in this country. That doesn’t speak to the tens of thousands of people who are living with a yet uncharacterized syndrome after they’ve recovered. And we still yet haven’t seen the ramifications of what happened from the holiday travel, from holiday gathering in terms of high rates of hospitalizations and the deaths thereafter. So, yes, I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” Walensky told CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’.”

Selected by President-elect Joe Biden to lead the CDC, Walensky is currently serving as the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “I acknowledge that our team of scientists will have to work very hard to restore public trust in the CDC, at home and abroad, because it has been undermined over the last year,” she recently wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times. 

Dr Walensky’s research interests have focused on HIV/AIDS policy and cost-effective strategies of HIV care (Getty Images)

Walensky’s research interests have focused on HIV/AIDS policy and cost-effective strategies of HIV care in the US and in resource-limited settings. She is internationally recognized for motivating US policy toward the promotion of routine HIV screening and for her work on effective and efficient strategies of HIV care in South Africa. She has also been an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNAIDS.

Originally from Maryland, she received her bachelor of arts degree from Washington University in St Louis, her MD from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and her masters in public health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Walensky said that one of the things she will advocate for is to make sure that the US has a better surveillance system when asked why the US lacks one to detect “which virus, which mutation and where it is.” “I think this really just gets to the resources that are necessary in this country for an adequate public health infrastructure at baseline and one for an infrastructure when we are in the middle of a pandemic. We didn’t have one at baseline and we certainly don’t have one now during a pandemic. And one of the things I’m really going to advocate for, and I know the president-elect is advocating for, is to make sure that we have the resources for our public health system so that we can do the surveillance that is necessary for that testing,” she replied.

Over 397,530 Americans have died from coronavirus as of January 18 and more than 23,928,640 Covid-19 cases have been reported, according to the John Hopkins tracker. 

Over 23,928,640 Covid-19 cases have been reported in the US so far (Getty Images)

The CDC’s latest national ensemble forecast predicts that 16,200 to 29,600 new deaths will likely be reported in the week ending February 6, 2021. The national ensemble predicts that a total of 440,000 to 477,000 Covid-19 deaths will be reported by this date.

An ensemble forecast combines each of the independently developed forecasts into one aggregate forecast to improve prediction over the next 4 weeks. 

US Covid-19 forecast (CDC)

The projections come even as experts have warned that the coronavirus variant first discovered in the UK will likely become the dominant strain in the US this March and worsen the Covid-19 pandemic if more steps are not taken to mitigate the spread. The modeled trajectory of this variant in the US exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, it noted. Currently, 88 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in the US, but experts warn there are likely more undetected cases. 

“Modeling data indicate that B.1.1.7 has the potential to increase the US pandemic trajectory in the coming months. CDC’s system for genomic surveillance and the effort to expand sequencing will increase the availability of timely US genomic surveillance data,” the report stated. 

Cases of the UK variant of Covid-19 in the US (CDC)

According to the authors, while at present, there is no known difference in clinical outcomes associated, a higher rate of transmission will lead to more cases, increasing the number of persons overall who need clinical care, exacerbating the burden on an already strained health care system, and resulting in more deaths. 

The researchers have called for even more rigorous combined implementation of vaccination and mitigation measures (such as social distancing, masking, and hand hygiene) to control the spread of the virus. They believe these measures will be more effective if they are instituted sooner rather than later to slow the initial spread of the B.1.1.7 variant. 

The CDC has recommended even more rigorous combined implementation of vaccination and mitigation measures, which includes distancing, masking and hand hygiene (Getty Images)

“The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants universal and increased compliance with mitigation strategies, including distancing and masking. Efforts to prepare the healthcare system for further surges in cases are warranted. Increased transmissibility also means that higher than anticipated vaccination coverage must be attained to achieve the same level of disease control to protect the public compared with less transmissible variants,” suggested the CDC. 

Walensky, meanwhile, emphasized that viruses mutating is not a new thing, but when it happens scientists and health experts worry about whether they have increased transmissibility, and whether they have increased morbidity and mortality. “So far, the one from the UK looks like it is more transmissible. We don’t have any more information about whether it evades our vaccines. We have indication that it likely does not. But what increased transmissibility means is there are more cases and therefore more deaths. There are certainly further studies that are looking at the South Africa strain, at the Brazil strain and other strains in Nigeria,” she said. 

According to Walensky, what this demonstrates “is our need to be vigilant and to have resources to do the surveillance, to make sure we understand what strains are here and whether we have increased transmissibility in vaccine.”