With vaccines within reach, U.S. braces for post-Thanksgiving coronavirus surge

Doina Chiacu and Peter Szekely
·3 min read

By Doina Chiacu and Peter Szekely

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - After a Thanksgiving weekend when the number of people traveling through U.S. airports reached its highest since mid-March, a top government official said on Monday some Americans could begin receiving coronavirus vaccinations before Christmas.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine could be authorized and shipped within days of a Dec. 10 meeting of outside advisers to the Food and Drug Administration tasked with reviewing trial data and recommending whether it warrants approval. A vaccine from Moderna Inc could follow a week later, he said, after the company announced on Monday that it would apply for U.S. and European emergency authorization.

"So we could be seeing both of these vaccines out and getting into people's arms before Christmas," Azar said on CBS' "This Morning."

The federal government will ship the vaccines. State governors will decide how they are distributed within their states.

"They will be determining which groups to be prioritized," Azar said, adding that he and Vice President Mike Pence will speak to all the nation's governors later on Monday to discuss the vaccines and how to prioritize them for distribution.

The United States has reported more than 4 million new COVID-19 cases so far in November and more than 35,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to a Reuters tally. Hospitalizations are at a pandemic high and deaths the most in six months.

THANKSGIVING SURGE

As the virus rages across the country, overwhelming hospital systems and pushing already exhausted medical staff near a breaking point, U.S. officials pleaded with Americans to avoid travel and limit social gatherings as the nation entered the winter holiday season. Many appear to have disregarded those pleas over the long Thanksgiving weekend as the Transportation Security Administration screened 1.18 million airline passengers on Sunday, the highest since mid-March.

That number is still about 60% lower than the comparable day last year when 2.88 million passengers were screened, the highest ever recorded by the agency.

"There almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel," Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's top infectious diseases experts, told ABC's "This Week" program on Sunday.

With the latest wave of the virus spiking across the country and no federal blueprint to combat it, more than 20 states have issued new or revamped restrictions on businesses, schools and social life.

But in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course on Sunday, announcing that public schools would start to reopen for in-class instruction five days a week for students who want to attend full time. Previously, students were offered a mix of online and in-person instruction.

The schools in the country's largest system were closed less than two weeks ago after the citywide rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive exceeded a 3% benchmark agreed to by the mayor and the teachers' union.

De Blasio said schools would begin to reopen for in-person learning on Dec. 7, starting with elementary schools for students whose parents agree to a weekly testing regimen for the novel coronavirus.

On Monday, the mayor said he hoped to reopen middle school and high school buildings early next year, as the schools system needed time to ramp up its testing program, which will be done weekly instead of monthly.

"We've proven the schools could be extraordinarily safe, and the schools are some of the safest places to be right now in New York City," de Blasio told CNN.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Bill Berkrot)