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Experts Warn COVID-19 Cases May Surge After Thanksgiving Gatherings


What makes a vaccine so pressing? The U.S. has seen more than 13 million documented cases of the coronavirus to date, and we're now adding more than 150,000 new cases each day. And experts are warning of another surge in cases after millions of Americans ignored the CDC's plea to just stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci over the weekend on ABC's "This Week."


ANTHONY FAUCI: We may see a surge upon a surge. You know, we don't want to frighten people, but that's just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and as we began traveling. And they've happened. It's going to happen again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to explain. Hey there.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the big picture now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over?

AUBREY: You know, it's a pretty dire picture. If you look at the map, much of the country is in the orange or red zone. Los Angeles County is under a stay-at-home advisory beginning today. And many places are tightening restrictions. The U.S. is averaging about 1,500 deaths per day. That's about a death every minute. Hospitalizations have doubled over the last month to more than 93,000 people. And Judy Guzman-Cottrill, a physician at Oregon Health & Science University, says hospital resources around the country are stretched thin.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: You know, it's just so worrisome, really, frankly, a scary situation for doctors and nurses to be in, to know that if more people come in sick with whatever their sickness is who need emergency health care are all going to be delayed. And in several cities, children's hospitals are now taking care of adults with COVID.

AUBREY: She points to St. Louis and Salt Lake City.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A death every minute. It's clearly taking a toll on front-line health workers. What are they telling you?

AUBREY: You know, I've spoken to nurses, caregivers in some of the hardest hit areas, and there's a lot of concern about burnout, Lulu, as front-line workers are really being pushed to exhaustion. I spoke to a physician with Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, Sarah Richards. In addition to treating patients, she also has a role looking out for staff well-being. And right now, the ICUs in the five county metro Omaha Healthcare Coalition are nearing 80% capacity.

SARAH RICHARDS: Things are just so raw and emotional. And we're just - need to just be human at this point and actually show our feelings. The entire team is just tired because there just is no end in sight. I keep telling my colleagues, like, when is somebody going to pinch me so that I can wake up from this nightmare?

AUBREY: And as we head into another holiday month, we're likely to continue to see surges in cases.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, that raises the question about this past holiday weekend. There were all these images of crowded airports. People did gather, and they did travel for Thanksgiving despite an advisory from the CDC to stay home. I mean, what do you think we can expect?

AUBREY: The day before Thanksgiving was reportedly the busiest air travel day since the pandemic started. And many experts, including physician Judy Gruzman-Cottrill, say they won't be surprised to see cases linked to this holiday. She says it has not helped that people in positions of power have been putting out competing messages.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: Many people in the general public are really confused by the mixed messages that they're hearing from various people. And the timing of the Supreme Court voting that places of worship do not have to have a limit on the number of people who come to worship in person, that just goes against science.

AUBREY: She says limiting capacity at indoor gatherings is one key to slowing the spread.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when will we know the extent of the spread of the virus linked to the Thanksgiving holiday?

AUBREY: You know, the incubation period for the virus is two to 14 days, but most people who get sick develop symptoms about five or six days after exposure. I asked former CDC Director Tom Frieden about this.

TOM FRIEDEN: So if there was a lot of spread around Thanksgiving, we'll be seeing that around a week or two or three into December and onward. Unfortunately, we have far too much spread in the United States. And because of that, December is likely to be a hard month.

AUBREY: And if you did travel, experts say it would be wise to limit your contacts with others for the next two weeks in case you were exposed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So what's going on in New York then? Because the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, announced some schools in the city will reopen next week. That's a lot of whiplash in New York.

AUBREY: Yeah, certainly a shift. Now, it's not all schools, as you say. New York will start with elementary school students. And I think given the fact the virus is circulating so widely, Lulu, some people may be scratching their heads at this decision. But there's a lot of pressure on school systems to open, given the toll the closures have on learning, also on kids' mental health. And a growing number of public health experts say it's the right thing to do if - and this is a big if - communities take other steps to slow the spread. Dr. Anthony Fauci outlined the approach yesterday on ABC.


FAUCI: The default position should be to try as best as possible to keep the children in school or to get them back to school. The best way is to get the community level of spread low. So if you mitigate the things that you know are causing spread - the bars, the restaurants - those are the things that drive the community spread, not the schools.

AUBREY: Fauci has been a big fan of takeout, but he says full capacity indoor dining, not good. And in fact, in England, where they've aimed to keep schools open, but they've closed pubs and restaurants, the number of new daily cases has declined overall in recent weeks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. I want to end on some good news because we all need some good news. There's a lot of hope that we could have a vaccine in a matter of weeks. More promising news this morning. What is the latest on the timing of the COVID-19 vaccines?

AUBREY: Yeah, lots happening on the vaccine front - right? - including the news out this morning from Moderna. But even if there is a vaccine approved in the coming weeks, it will be many, many months before everyone can be vaccinated. And there's still no data yet to show if a vaccine will be safe and effective in children. I spoke to the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she told me it's key to include some young children in the vaccine trials, so we can start to answer that question.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you very much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Lulu.


Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.