Americans in holiday rush despite highest COVID-19 death toll in 6 months

(Reuters) -Record hospitalizations and a surging death toll failed to keep Americans from traveling a day before the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, raising fears that the unchecked spread under way is a prelude to further contagion at Christmastime.

FILE PHOTO: Roberto Arias prepares a grave for burial at Woodlawn Cemetery during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Everett, Massachusetts, U.S., May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 for the first time since May and hospitalizations reached a record 87,000 on Tuesday as the country recorded 2.3 million new infections in the past two weeks alone.

Steep surges in cases typically result in a rising death toll weeks later. Coronavirus deaths reached 2,157 on Tuesday – one person every 40 seconds – with another 170,000 people infected, as millions of Americans disregarded official warnings and traveled for Thanksgiving.

Nearly 1 million passengers a day have been screened at airport security checkpoints for the past week, with Sunday’s total of 1.047 million being the highest number since the early days of the pandemic in mid-March.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible and stressed the need to “hang in there a bit longer” on wearing masks, maintaining distance and avoiding crowds, especially indoors.

“If we do those things, we’re going to get through it. So that’s my final plea before the holiday,” Fauci told the ABC News program “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.

Families with university students have been forced to evaluate the risk of reuniting for Thanksgiving.

Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington wearing an N95 mask and a face shield and checked into a hotel for 14 days, quarantining to protect her parents and grandparents.

“She was returning to a vulnerable set of people. We didn’t trust that a test was enough,” said her mother, Cynthia Wimer.

Others are just staying put.

Luke Burke, studying at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey until his roommate tested positive last week.

“I’m sorry I can’t be there with my parents, but it’s the right thing to do,” Burke said.

Across New York City, lines at COVID-19 testing sites wrapped around the block on Wednesday, video on Twitter showed. Bundled New Yorkers queued up outside City MD clinics in Astoria, Queens, and Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, starting early as 8 a.m. as the urgent care chain was planning to close its clinics early on Thanksgiving.

“This is not a normal Thanksgiving, and to act like it’s a normal Thanksgiving is to deny the reality of every health expert in the nation,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice pleaded with his constituents to wear a mask which he called the “only bullet in the gun” until there is a vaccine.

Justice imposed a mask mandate earlier this month and said he has fielded complaints from people ever since.

“Of course it works,” Justice told a news conference, adding that requiring mask-wearing was not an effort to strip anyone of their individual rights. “We don’t want to do that in any way, but you gotta help me. You gotta help me right now.”

The first vaccines could be weeks away with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration due to rule Dec. 10 on whether to approve Pfizer Inc’s vaccine for emergency use.

The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program plans to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide in an initial distribution as soon as one is approved.

If all goes well, 40 million doses will be distributed by the end of the year, they said.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Nathan Layne, Lisa Shumaker, Lisa Lambert and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell

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