Health officials plead for caution ahead of Thanksgiving as coronavirus cases spike

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In an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, said he understands that many Americans are experiencing “covid fatigue” after months of pandemic restrictions, now tightening again in many places. But traveling over the holidays and ignoring public health guidelines are “going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now,” he said.

Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the White House’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine effort, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that about 70 percent of the American population will need to be vaccinated for true herd immunity to occur. That will probably happen around May, he said, based on health officials’ current plans.

“Most people need to be immunized before we can go back to a normal life,” he said.

Some on the front lines of the country’s pandemic response are not sure months of messaging have gotten through to the public, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans against Thanksgiving travel and get-togethers just days ago, as many people’s plans were already set.

“Absolutely not,” Utah physician Sean Callahan said when asked if he thinks the urgency of the country’s situation has sunk in. He said that soaring caseloads are already straining the quality of care at the University of Utah, where he works in one of the hospital’s intensive care units and is an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care.

Callahan said he is concerned that nurses and physicians are already being asked to treat patients outside their usual areas of expertise. He thinks the problem will only worsen.

“I’m worried that we are going to be asking a lot of providers to do things that are probably outside of their comfort zone, and care is going to suffer, because we’re stretched and doing things we should not be doing,” he said in an interview Sunday.

The pressure on health-care resources has spurred some leaders to take new measures. Los Angeles County — home to 10 million people — became the latest to announce new business restrictions on Sunday, ordering restaurants and bars to shift to takeout, drive-through and delivery only. In Utah, Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) said earlier this month that he was mandating face coverings statewide in public settings and for people within six feet of anyone outside their household. The reversal, following months of reluctance, came after hospitals warned that they may have to ration care.

Now holiday travel and gatherings threaten to make health-care workers’ jobs even harder.

“If you look at the map of spread across the country, you can see the risk; it’s very visible. And moving through airports or travel hubs, I think that will increase people’s risk,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Even if they’re driving from point to point, unfortunately, we don’t know if we’re infected when we walk into a gathering.”

He referred to recent data released by the CDC that said most infections are spread by people who are not displaying symptoms.

“The message for everyone is: You can’t assume you don’t have the virus, and you can’t assume the people whose homes you’re about to enter don’t have the virus at this point in our pandemic,” Inglesby said.

For those who plan to travel and be with others for the holiday, he recommended keeping gatherings small, spending as much time outdoors as possible, keeping mealtimes short, wearing masks indoors and removing masks only while eating.

More than 1 million people went through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in airports nationwide on Friday, according to data released daily by the agency, and more than 980,000 travelers were screened Saturday. The number of travelers screened Friday was the second-highest single-day rush since March 16.

The country’s top health officials are telling people not to let their guard down and to continue heeding calls to socially distance, even as they are full of optimism about vaccine candidates.

“Traditionally and historically, highly efficacious and effective vaccines have crushed epidemics like smallpox and polio and measles,” Fauci told NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” “We can do that with the vaccines that are going to be coming online. So we should make them be … an incentive to have us double down even more with public health measures until we get the full component of the help that’s on its way.”

Slaoui, the Operation Warp Speed adviser, said Sunday that the federal government will be ready to start shipping vaccines within 24 hours after a candidate receives emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

He noted that the CDC and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) must review the data and recommend who should get immunized first.

“We will have the vaccines there the next day after approval, and, hopefully, people will start to be immunized, I would say, within 48 hours from the approval,” Slaoui said on ABC News’s “This Week.”

He was referring to a several-step process for the vaccine rollout. Once the FDA authorizes a vaccine, the government plans to “preposition” doses to sites that states have already designated as the places where shots will be given first. That is expected to happen within 24 hours of FDA action.

A day or two after the FDA action, ACIP is expected to meet and vote on final recommendations for who should get the vaccine first. Those recommendations can be sent immediately to the CDC director, and once the director signs off on them, the vaccination process can begin.

Pfizer filed for emergency authorization for its vaccine on Friday. The FDA has announced that a committee of external advisers will meet Dec. 10 to make recommendations to the agency on whether to authorize Pfizer’s vaccine. Slaoui said the advisers will meet Dec. 17 to review the shot developed by Moderna, which has not yet filed for clearance for its vaccine.

Laurie McGinley and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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