We're only a few days into 2021, but already, the outlook is not so good in terms of the coronavirus pandemic. In December, new COVID infections in the U.S. rose more than 40 percent from November, which had seen more than twice as many cases as any previous month, according to a USA Today analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. Similarly, the country reported more than 77,500 deaths in December, which is more than 16,800 deaths above the previous record set in April. But according to Anthony Fauci, MD, we're poised to outdo those records again this month. Appearing on ABC News' This Week on Sunday, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) stated that we had not yet hit a turning point in the pandemic. During his interview with Martha Raddatz, Fauci said the five words about COVID-19 numbers no one wants to hear: "I think we just have to assume that it's going to be worse." Here are the main reasons Fauci cited for the current surge in case numbers, and for tell-tale signs you could be sick, check out This Is the "Strongest, Most Consistent" Sign You Have COVID, Study Says.
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There's inconsistency on public health measures.
Fauci began by accepting that the current figure of 350,000 deaths was in excess of what he had expected. "But, you know, that's what happens when you're in a situation where you have surges related to so many factors," he said, noting the first of which is "inconsistent adhering to the public health measures." A lack of a unifying response to COVID—and on masks in particular—has been an issue Fauci has brought up numerous times throughout the pandemic. And for more on how to make the most of your PPE, check out Wearing This Mask Could Be Worse Than No Mask at All, Study Says.
Winter is forcing people indoors.
Fauci explained that the impact of the virus had likely worsened over the winter—as similar viruses always do—because the weather has more people spending time inside, where ventilation is an issue. He said that "the winter months coming in right now, with the cold allowing people, or essentially forcing people, to do most of their things indoors as opposed to outdoors" is another factor leading to our current COVID surge.
This is particularly relevant as recent research from the U.K.'s Department of Health and Social Care points out that being in a room with fresh air circulating can reduce infection risk by up to 70 percent. And for another practice you may not be considering, check out If You're Not Doing This, Your Mask Won't Protect You, Study Says.
The holiday season resulted in more travel.
The triple holiday period—Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, followed by New Year's—is also likely to have driven case numbers up, according to Fauci, who noted "traveling associated with the holiday season" is part of what's made "for a situation that is really terrible." While travel was down across the U.S. overall this year, air travel around the country around the holidays was at its highest level since before the pandemic started. According to AAA, as many as 85 million Americans planned to travel over Christmas, with 1.2 million being screened at airports on Dec. 23, the TSA said.
The holidays also led to different households mixing in close proximity indoors. In regards to mixing households, Fauci previously said on CNN's State of The Union on Sunday, Dec. 27: "As much as we advise against it, nonetheless it happens and that's one of the reasons why we're concerned about that being a real risk situation for the spread of infection." And for more regular coronavirus updates, sign up for our daily newsletter.
But Fauci says we can turn it around.
Fauci accepted the gravity of the current situation, but stressed that the tactics needed for combating the virus were within our control. "To have 300,000 cases in a given day and between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths per day is just terrible," he said. "It's something that we absolutely got to grasp and get our arms around and turn that inflection down by very intensive adherence to the public health measures uniformly throughout the country with no exceptions." As Fauci has said time and time again, those are: wearing a mask, spending time outdoors versus indoors, washing your hands, maintaining social distance, and avoiding crowds.
He also struck a note of optimism about the rollout of the vaccine, giving a historical example for context of when a smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947 was limited to two deaths. "New York City in March and April of 1947 vaccinated 6,350,000 people; 5 million of which they did in two weeks. I was a six-year-old boy who was one of those who got vaccinated. So, if New York City can do 5 million in two weeks, the United States could do a million a day. We can do it." And for more on the latest in the fight against COVID-19, check out These States Have Had the Slowest Vaccine Rollout.