CDC head estimates COVID-19 cases 10x higher than official counts

Agency also reports pregnant women more likely to become very ill

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said his agency now believes that, for every American who tested positive for COVID-19 this spring, there were another 10 whose cases went undiagnosed.

The eye-popping figure came the same day that the Atlanta-based federal agency acknowledged for the first time that pregnant women are at an elevated risk of severe illness due to the virus.

On a call with reporters, CDC Director Robert Redfield said between 5% and 8% of Americans are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, which means the vast majority of the population is still vulnerable to the virus.

“This pandemic is not over,” he said.

The estimate is based on recent blood samples, collected from lab tests from across the U.S., that contained antibodies for the virus, according to Redfield.

The CDC’s current COVID-19 tally lists 2.3 million confirmed cases in the U.S. Redfield’s math suggests the true infection rate is upward of 20 million.

In Georgia, that could mean as many as 710,000 people have suffered from the virus. The state Department of Public Health has, so far, confirmed 71,000 COVID-19 cases in Georgia.

Infections rates in Georgia have jumped in recent weeks as the state has reopened its economy. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that the number of infections is growing fastest among adults under 30.

Redfield said the CDC is closely monitoring rising infection rates across the Southeast and Southwest and discussing new ways to reach out to young people, including via the social media platform TikTok.

He raised concerns about what could occur this fall and winter, when infection rates are projected to climb.

“A significant majority of the American public, probably greater than 90%, hasn’t experienced this virus yet and remains susceptible,” said Redfield.

The CDC has come under fire for its missteps during the pandemic, particularly its botched roll-out of early test kits and confusing data reporting. Some critics have specifically targeted Redfield, saying he's been largely absent from the national stage and too willing to bend to the White House's political whims.

For his part, Redfield insisted on Thursday that he wasn’t downplaying the recent spike in infections around the country.

“We’re not talking about a second wave right now,” he said. “We’re still in the first wave.”

The CDC also released a report that found that moms-to-be who are infected with the coronavirus are more likely to be hospitalized, admitted to intensive care units or put on ventilators than women who are not pregnant.

Limited data is available, but expectant mothers do not appear to be a higher risk of death from COVID-19, according to the agency.

Still, the CDC’s Dana Meaney-Delman said pregnant women need to “take precautions with regard to the number of people they come in contact with,” in addition to wearing face coverings and social distancing.

Denise Jamieson, chair of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, said the new CDC study is “the most compelling evidence to date that pregnant women are at an increased risk.”

Doctors had long suspected that women who are pregnant are more vulnerable to serious illness from the coronavirus, based on similar experiences with infectious diseases such as H1N1 and seasonal influenza.

Pregnancy data related to COVID-19 has so far been spotty, and it’s often difficult to determine which hospitalizations were due to COVID or pregnancy-related complications.

Jamieson said the results of the study elevate the importance of advising pregnant women on how to avoid infection. She said policymakers should also put expectant mothers “in a higher priority group” for receiving the coronavirus vaccine once one is found.

The CDC made other updates Thursday to its list of groups that are at most risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

The agency has for months labeled people 65 and older as the most vulnerable. That’s been replaced by a broader warning that risk increases steadily as adults age.

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