WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading infectious disease expert, warned that the travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday could make the current surge in Covid-19 cases even worse as the country heads into December.
Appearing Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press," Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said public health officials "tried to get the word out for people, as difficult as it is, to really not have large gatherings" during the holiday because of concerns that the celebrations could aggravate the spread of the coronavirus.
"What we expect, unfortunately, as we go for the next couple of weeks into December is that we might see a surge superimposed on the surge we are already in," he said.
"I don't want to frighten people except to say it's not too late at all for us to do something about this," he added, urging people to be careful when they travel back home and upon arriving and to take proven steps like social distancing and wearing masks.
It can sometimes take two weeks for infected people to develop symptoms, and asymptomatic people can spread the virus without knowing they have it. Fauci said the "dynamics of an outbreak" show a three- to five-week lag between serious mitigation efforts and the actual curbing of infection rates.
While the first wave of vaccinations could start in the U.S. within a matter of weeks, Fauci said that, for now, "we are going to have to make decisions as a nation, state, city and family that we are in a very difficult time, and we're going to have to do the kinds of restrictions of things we would have liked to have done, particularly in this holiday season, because we're entering into what's really a precarious situation."
Covid-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. have been accelerating in recent weeks. More than 4 million cases and 35,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus in November. Overall, the U.S. has had 13.3 million coronavirus cases and 267,000 deaths attributable to the virus, according to an NBC News analysis.
Despite a mid-November warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraging Americans not to travel during Thanksgiving, air travel broke pandemic records, with 6.8 million people traveling through airports in the seven days ahead of the holiday.
Fauci said he is concerned about the country's hospitals, saying he got calls Saturday night from colleagues nationwide "pleading for advice" amid the "significant stresses on the hospital and health care delivery systems."
While he explicitly said he was not calling for a national lockdown, Fauci said that at the local level, people could "blunt" the surge's effects on the hospital system by taking mitigation steps "short of locking down so we don't precipitate the necessity of locking down."
Public health officials and the federal government are planning to begin the first wave of vaccinations in December. Fauci said that while the "exact" recommendations for scheduling groups to be vaccinated have not been finalized, "health care workers are going to be among" those first in line.
He pointed to the country's success in distributing annual flu vaccines as "the reason we should feel more confident" about the ability to send the needed vaccine across America.
"The part about 300 million doses getting shipped is going to get taken care of by people who know how to do that," he said. "The part at the distal end, namely, getting it into people's arms, is going to be more challenging than a regular flu season. It would be foolish to deny that. But I think it's going to be able to get done because the local people have done that in the past. Hopefully, they'll get the resources to help them to do that."