The United States’ leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned in a Sunday Meet the Press interview that another surge of Covid-19 cases “super-imposed on that surge that we’re already in” might be coming, in large part due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
Public health experts have been warning Americans of the risk of congregating for the holiday as the US experiences its worst Covid-19 surge yet — Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN Tuesday that Thanksgiving could become “the mother of all superspreader events.” Despite these warnings, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) figures suggest that more than 1 million Americans traveled by plane last Wednesday alone, the highest number since the pandemic began, and many more likely drove to spend Thanksgiving with family.
Already, the US is setting grim new case records — the surge Fauci referred to — and given it takes an average of five to six days for an infected person to display symptoms, new cases due to Thanksgiving infections should begin appearing late this week.
But, as Vox’s German Lopez explained earlier this month, it may be several weeks before the full impact of Thanksgiving celebrations is understood:
With the coronavirus, it takes some time — days, maybe weeks — for someone to go from getting infected to actually getting tested. Then it can take days or weeks for that person to end up at a hospital with serious symptoms. Deaths can take even longer, if treatment fails. All this data is like light from another galaxy that takes time to travel to our eyes: It’s reflective of infections that happened weeks ago, not today or yesterday.
On Friday, the US reported an all-time high of 205,460 new Covid-19 cases in a single day, according to data from the New York Times. Friday was also the first day ever that the US saw more than 200,000 cases, less than a month after it crossed the 100,000 daily case mark for the first time on November 4. On average, the country has reported more than 162,000 cases a day for the last week.
Despite these grim numbers, Fauci told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I don’t want to frighten people, except to say it is not too late at all to do something about this.” Basic public health practices, Fauci said — mask wearing, distancing, and avoiding large gatherings — remain crucial to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump, who himself became infected in early October, has largely ceded the field when it comes to combating the spread of the virus. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the virus and encouraged people to interact with one another as they did before the pandemic, even as Covid-19 ravages the country and Trump’s own White House and presidential campaign.
Since Election Day, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and presidential son Donald Trump Jr. have all tested positive for Covid-19, as well as at least 10 others in the president’s orbit, according to a New York Times tally.
A number of promising vaccines are on the way
The extent of Trump’s engagement with the issue appears to be a fixation on taking credit for recent good news on the vaccine front.
“Another Vaccine just announced. This time by Moderna, 95% effective,” Trump tweeted on November 16. “For those great ‘historians’, please remember that these great discoveries, which will end the China Plague, all took place on my watch!”
Another Vaccine just announced. This time by Moderna, 95% effective. For those great “historians”, please remember that these great discoveries, which will end the China Plague, all took place on my watch!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 16, 2020
Separately, Trump told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo in a Sunday interview — his first since losing the election — that “I came up with vaccines that people didn’t think we’d have for five years,” an entirely untrue claim.
In short, according to Vox’s Dylan Scott, as the pandemic is “entering its most dangerous period to date, the country’s current leadership — which we are stuck with until January 20 — does not appear to have any plans to do anything about it.”
Trump’s credit-grabbing aside, however, vaccines from AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer — all of which have recently reported positive findings from clinical trials — do present a degree of hope, albeit still distant.
According to White House testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir in a Sunday interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, the US “should have enough vaccine by the end of the year to immunize 20 million Americans and we have to immunize for impact. But the American people have to do the right things until we get that vaccine widely distributed.”
There are still hurdles left to clear in the vaccine race. As Vox’s Umair Irfan explains, clinical trials still need to conclude, and the vaccines still need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, though Moderna and Pfizer both hope to receive emergency use authorizations, or EUAs, allowing their vaccines to be used without full approval.
Even with a EUA, however, there are still logistics questions. Irfan explains:
Once a vaccine gets approved, a global supply chain, from the glass vials that hold the vaccine to the syringes used to inject them, needs to spool up to make huge quantities of the vaccine. Manufacturers will also have to ensure that vaccines remain intact and under strict temperature controls from the factory to the hospitals and clinics where they will be used. The process of manufacturing, distributing, and administering a vaccine could take months.
It’s also important to remember that a vaccine is not enough on its own to end the pandemic. Measures like social distancing, good hygiene, and wearing face masks will remain essential to control the spread of Covid-19 until a vaccine is widely available. Public acceptance will also be a major issue, and health officials will have to overcome a rising wave of vaccine hesitancy.
All of that is in the future, though — and US Covid-19 hospitalizations are still rising in the present. As of Saturday, more than 91,000 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 — the most ever — and hospitals in some parts of the country are at capacity.
In Wisconsin, increasingly overwhelmed health care workers at the University of Wisconsin published an open letter to residents of the state: “Without immediate change,” they wrote, “our hospitals will be too full to treat all of those with the virus and those with other illnesses or injuries. Soon you or someone you love may need us, but we won’t be able to provide the life-saving care you need, whether for COVID-19, cancer, heart disease or other urgent conditions. As health care providers, we are terrified of that becoming reality.”
As far back as May this year — distant history, in pandemic terms — Dr. Rick Bright, who previously led a US vaccine research agency and now serves on President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, warned that “without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.”
Now, that dark winter looks to have arrived.