Despite weeks of increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, U.S. air travel hit a pandemic record this weekend as Americans crisscrossed the country for the holidays — a sign, some public health experts warn, that yet another surge could be on the horizon.
The Transportation Security Administration said Monday it had screened 1,284,599 passengers Sunday. Travel is down 55 to 65% compared with before the coronavirus pandemic, but Sunday marked the highest number of travelers since mid-March and the sixth time in 10 days the daily volume exceeded 1 million.
With more than 110,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN he feared the peril that could stem from widespread holiday travel and gatherings.
“We very well might see a post-seasonal in the sense of Christmas-New Year’s surge and as I’ve described it, a surge upon a surge,” he said Sunday.
As a year like no other draws to a close, the United States finds itself experiencing dueling realities: Vaccinations are underway, offering hope of an end to the pandemic, yet infections, hospitalizations and deaths have reached record levels that could be exacerbated by holiday celebrations.
Nearly 16 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are scheduled for distribution over the next week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The supply will cover almost 5% of the country and represents enough first doses for about three-quarters of the medical workers and nursing home residents and staff, according to a Washington Post analysis.
At the same time, about 200,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported daily in recent weeks, with a record high of 252,431 on Dec. 17. The nation’s overall caseload surpassed 19 million Sunday, even as the holidays were expected to cause a lag in reporting. Hospitalizations have exceeded 100,000 since the start of December and hit a peak of 119,000 on Dec. 23. Deaths are averaging more than 2,000 a day, with the most ever reported — 3,406 fatalities — on Dec. 17.
Fauci said he believes the worst of the pandemic lies ahead, especially following the winter holiday season. He said an increase in cases could overwhelm already stressed health care systems.
“If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for the good, warm purposes of being together for the holidays – it’s very tough for people to not do that,” Fauci said on CNN.
He added that he was worried it “might actually get worse,” in the next few weeks, echoing comments from President-elect Joe Biden, who said last week that “our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us.”
Also causing concern: a new variant of the virus documented in several European countries and in Australia, Canada, Japan and Lebanon. Although the variant is not believed to be more deadly or cause more severe illness, it appears to spread more rapidly. In the United Kingdom, where it was first detected, officials reported a record 41,385 new coronavirus cases Monday.
“This very high level of infection is of growing concern at a time when our hospitals are at their most vulnerable, with new admissions rising in many regions,” Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said in a statement. “We have all made huge sacrifices this year but we must all continue to play our part in stopping the spread of the virus which is still replicating fast.”
The CDC has said the variant may be circulating in the United States, although it has yet to be identified with genetic testing.
Some states have been reporting worrisome trends. In New York, an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced a statewide positivity rate of 8.3% — the highest since May. The governor said authorities are studying the dramatic rise to determine “what the uptick in that number actually means” and whether it may have been skewed by the holidays.
California, the new national hotspot, continues to lead all states in new infections, virus hospitalizations and reported deaths. State officials delivered a glimmer of good news on Monday, tempered with a warning.
The number of coronavirus patients admitted to hospitals is plateauing in much of the state, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said. A notable exception is Southern California – especially Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Newsom and the head of the state’s health department attributed the leveling-off to stay-at-home orders in place for much of the state, which officials said are likely to be extended.
“We’re pleased to see a little bit of a plateau,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said. “The trends have started to come down a bit, but it’s not enough. We need people to not let up their guard.”
California’s record-shattering surge of new cases and hospitalizations emerged in the weeks following Thanksgiving, a stark warning of the consequences of widespread travel and gathering. For that same reason, officials expect the coming weeks to be just as difficult.
“We’re worried not just about what’s happened over the last couple weeks, but really what’s going to happen when we see the cases from the Christmas holiday and Hanukkah, coming up now with the New Year’s celebrations,” Ghaly said.
With New Year’s Eve looming, the CDC on Monday reiterated calls for Americans to celebrate the holidays at home. The agency repeated earlier warnings that travel and gatherings could increase the risk of transmission, suggesting people host virtual countdowns or ring in the new year as a neighborhood, with families celebrating in front of their homes.
“The safest way to celebrate the new year is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you or virtually with friends and family,” the CDC said in guidance posted on its website. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”
The Washington Post’s Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.
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