With the coronavirus surging out of control, the nation's top public health agency pleaded with Americans on Thursday not to travel for Thanksgiving and not to spend the holiday with people from outside their household.
The Thanksgiving warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came as the White House coronavirus task force met for the first time in months and Vice President Mike Pence concluded a briefing without responding to questions by reporters or urging Americans not to travel.
Other members of the task force – whose media briefings were a daily fixture during the early days of the outbreak – talked about the progress being made in the development of a vaccine.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech will seek emergency government approval for their coronavirus vaccine on Friday. And infection disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci sought to reassure the public that the vaccine is safe while still encouraging Americans to wear masks.
The CDC's Thanksgiving warning was some of the firmest guidance yet from the government on curtailing traditional gatherings to fight the outbreak.
The CDC issued the recommendations just one week before Thanksgiving, at a time when diagnosed infections, hospitalizations and deaths are skyrocketing across the country. In many areas, the health care system is being squeezed by a combination of sick patients filling up beds and medical workers falling ill themselves.
The CDC's Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz cited more than 1 million new cases in the U.S. over the past week as the reason for the new guidance.
“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household,” she said.
If families do decide to include returning college students, military members or others for turkey and stuffing, the CDC is recommending that the hosts take added precautions: Gatherings should be outdoors if possible, with people keeping 6 feet apart and wearing masks and just one person serving the food.
Whether Americans heed the warning is another matter. The deadly comeback by the virus has been blamed in part on pandemic fatigue, or people getting tired of masks and other precautions. And surges were seen last summer after Memorial Day and July Fourth, despite blunt warnings from health authorities.
The United States has had more than 11 million diagnosed infections and over 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus. CDC scientists believe that somewhere around 40% of people who are infected do not have obvious symptoms but can still spread the virus.
Testing lines grow
Meanwhile, long lines to get tested have reappeared across the U.S. – a reminder that the nation's testing system remains unable to keep pace with the virus. Laboratories warned that continuing shortages of key supplies are likely to create more bottlenecks and delays, especially as cases rise across the nation and people rush to get tested before reuniting with relatives.
“As those cases increase, demand increases and turnaround times may increase,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “So it's like a dog chasing its tail.”
Lines spanned multiple city blocks at testing sites across New York City this week, leaving people waiting three or more hours before they could even enter health clinics. In Los Angeles, thousands lined up outside Dodger Stadium for drive-thru testing.
“This is insane,” said 39-year-old Chaunta Renaud as she entered her fourth hour waiting to enter a so-called rapid testing site in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Renaud and her husband planned to get tested before Thanksgiving, when they will drive to pick up her mother for the holiday. “We got tested before and it wasn't anything like this,” she said.
On the one hand, the fact that testing problems are only now emerging – more than a month into the latest virus surge – is a testament to the country's increased capacity. The U.S. is testing over 1.5 million people per day on average, more than double the rate in July, when many Americans last faced long lines.
But experts like Johns Hopkins University researcher Gigi Gronvall said the U.S. is still falling far short of what's needed to control the virus.
Gronvall said the current testing rate “is on its way, but it's nowhere close to what's needed to shift the course of this epidemic.” Many experts have called for anywhere between 4 million and 15 million daily tests to suppress the virus.
Trump administration officials estimate the U.S. has enough tests this month to screen between 4 million and 5 million people a day. But that doesn't fully reflect real-world conditions. The tests used at most testing sites rely on specialized chemicals and equipment that have been subject to chronic shortages for months.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. official overseeing testing, downplayed reports of lines and delays earlier this week. In some cases, he said, lines are caused by a lack of scheduling by testing locations, which should stagger appointments.
“I'm sure that is going to happen from time to time, but we're aggressively helping states in any way that we can if there are those kinds of issues,” Giroir said Monday.