The United States’ top infectious disease expert has warned that holiday travel could push the country to a “critical point” in the coronavirus pandemic and that the worst may be yet to come.
“I share the concern of President-elect [Joe] Biden that as we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse,” Dr Anthony Fauci told CNN on Sunday.
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Biden, who will take office on January 20, cautioned on Wednesday that the nation’s “darkest days are ahead of us – not behind us”.
In recent weeks, there has been a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths across the country.
The US has recorded an average of 185,903 new infections over the past seven days, while the number of people in hospital with the disease reached 117,344, according to COVID Tracking Project data.
On Sunday, the number of cases recorded in the US topped 19 million as the death toll from the disease surpassed 332,000, both by far the highest totals in the world.
US holiday travel this year was significantly lower than in previous years, but air travel averaged more than one million passengers a day for six consecutive days last week, according to the Transportation Security Agency.
Following last month’s Thanksgiving holiday, US coronavirus cases surged sharply in December, with more than 200,000 new cases and at times more than 3,000 deaths daily.
With intensive care units in many hospitals near capacity, Fauci reiterated that the country might be facing a “surge upon a surge”.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams, in an interview with ABC on Sunday, also said he was “very concerned” about the post-holiday surge.
But with new vaccines now moving across the country – going first to front-line health workers and those in long-term care facilities – Americans have seen a glimmer of hope.
Still, initial vaccine shipments fell short of promises by the federal government.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was among those publicly critical of the process, but on Sunday she pointed to signs of improvement.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” she told CNN, after Trump administration officials apologised for vaccine delivery shortfalls.
“We are making great progress, but we need the federal government to do their part,” she said.
About two million Americans have been vaccinated so far, well below the 20 million the Trump administration has promised by yearend.
But Fauci played down the shortfall as a normal hiccup in a massively ambitious project.
“Whenever you roll out a large programme … like this, in the beginning, it always starts slow and then starts to gain momentum,” he told CNN.
He said he was “pretty confident” that by April all higher-priority people would have been able to get vaccinated, clearing the way for the general population to be inoculated.