One resident sorts her free groceries while another works in the pantry of the Fourth Presbyterian Church amid the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Doctors urge caution to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks as cases surge across the country after a plateau lasting nearly three weeks and Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family next week.
According to a CNBC analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, the US reported a seven-day average of nearly 95,000 new Covid infections on Thursday, up 31% over the past two weeks. Cases across the country declined for weeks this fall before fluctuating between 70,000 and 75,000 a day from late October, more than 50% less than the peak of the delta surge that devastated the US this summer.
But as the holiday season approaches and the cold weather pushes more people to meet indoors, public health officials are hoping to mitigate another record-breaking wave of Covid this winter. Last Christmas preceded the country’s worst spike in covid ever, with cases peaking at more than 250,000 a day on Jan. 11. Deaths from the virus also hit a pandemic high of around 3,400 a day in early 2021.
The combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and plummeting temperatures makes this time of year “the perfect storm” for Covid, said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief infectious disease at Northwell Health in New York, told CNBC.
Infectious disease specialists largely agree that it is safe to celebrate the holidays with friends and family as long as everyone is vaccinated against Covid. However, a new study from Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center found that half of respondents would not ask about guests’ vaccination status at their gatherings, and about 54% said they would not require unvaccinated party-goers to test negative for the virus will.
“I wouldn’t allow anyone to go to Thanksgiving if they weren’t vaccinated,” Farber said. “I think that should be the price you pay.”
As the effectiveness of Covid vaccine doses has been shown to wear off over time, Farber advised fully vaccinated individuals to get their booster vaccinations for extra protection during the holidays. The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved the Pfizer and Moderna booster vaccinations for all adults in the United States.
People vaccinated in the earliest stages of introduction are prone to breakthrough infections, said Dr. Reynold Panettieri, Vice Chancellor of Translational Medicine and Science at Rutgers University.
“I expect we’ll see an upward trend in and around the holidays just because people get together with more exposures,” said Panettieri. He noted, however, that advances in vaccination and treatment options mean that an outbreak this winter “will now be far from what it was before”.
A downward trend in Covid hospital admissions and deaths, which typically delays reported case numbers for a few weeks or more as people contract the virus and then get sick enough to need urgent help, is showing signs of flattening. About 48,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with the virus, the same level as two weeks ago, based on a seven-day average from Health Department data. And the daily average of roughly 1,200 reported deaths tracked by Hopkins is showing signs of an increase after barely changing for two weeks.
Outbreaks in the Midwest and Northeast, where cases have increased 56% and 47% in the past two weeks, seem to be driving the national numbers. Hospital admissions there rose by 20% and 7%, respectively.
The very dense cities of the northeast and the colder temperatures of the Midwest – compared to the south, where the falls have collapsed with more pleasant weather – could help explain these regional differences, Panettieri noted.
“The weather is driving people indoors and interest in more indoor activity could certainly add to the experience,” said Panettieri.
Panettieri said those who gather for Thanksgiving should know if their fellow attendees took care to avoid exposure to Covid, in addition to getting vaccinations and refreshments. But even with the risk of another outbreak this winter, advances in vaccinations and natural immunity in those infected with Covid during the delta surge have made the US “much better” this Thanksgiving than it did last, Dr. Arturo Casadevall, Chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNBC in an email.
“Of course, if people have any respiratory symptoms like colds or flu-like illnesses, they need to rule out COVID-19 by getting tested before meeting with loved ones,” Casadevall wrote. “Common sense, caution, and vaccinations are great recipes for a safer vacation.”