U.S. heads into Thanksgiving with highest COVID-19 death toll in over 6 months

Americans defied pleas from state and local officials to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic, triggering fresh warnings from health officials with the release of vaccines still weeks away at the earliest.

Death toll reached 2,157 on Tuesday, while hospitalizations reached a record 88,000 on Wednesday

Travellers pass through Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of U.S. Thanksgiving on Wednesday. Health officials urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible this year as the COVID-19 spike worsens. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Americans defied pleas from state and local officials to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic, triggering fresh warnings from health officials with the release of vaccines still weeks away at the earliest.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden joined in the calls for safety, urging people to forgo big family gatherings, wear protective masks and maintain physical distancing.

"I know we can and we will beat this virus," Biden said in a speech delivered in a near-empty Wilmington, Del., theatre to a handful of staffers and reporters wearing masks sitting inside physically distanced circles on the floor. Biden did not wear a mask.

"Life is going to return to normal. I promise you. This will happen. This will not last forever," said the 78-year-old Democrat, who has promised to make fighting the pandemic his top priority upon taking office on Jan. 20.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden delivers a Thanksgiving address at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. 'Life is going to return to normal. I promise you,' he said. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 for the first time since May this week. Hospitalizations reached a record 88,000 on Wednesday as the country recorded 2.3 million new infections in the past two weeks.

Spiraling infections 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.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans disregarded official warnings and traveled for Thanksgiving. According to Transportation Security Administration figures, more Americans travelled last weekend, around three million, than any weekend since March.

Nearly one 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.

Since the global pandemic began, the U.S. totals of nearly 260,000 deaths and 12.6 million infections lead the world and "all the Thanksgiving travel ensures no one will catch us, either," said Dr. Tatiana Prowell of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"The U.S. 'each person for himself' mindset is killing hundreds of thousands of us. Devastating to watch," Prowell said on Twitter.

Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington, D.C., 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.

'Slow process' predicted for vaccine deployment

With caseloads soaring, more than half the nation's governors imposed or reimposed statewide measures this month. But despite more stringent face-mask requirements, curfews and limits on bars and restaurants, the metrics of the virus have only worsened.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the need to "hang in there a bit longer" on wearing masks, maintaining distance and avoiding crowds, especially indoors.

WATCH | Millions of Americans defy advice to avoid Thanksgiving travel:

Millions of Americans defy advice to avoid Thanksgiving travel

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
There are fears that Thanksgiving could become a coronavirus super-spreading event, as millions of Americans defy warnings and travel to visit family.

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

Outgoing President Donald Trump has remained largely silent on the virus surge, making a one-minute appearance in the White House briefing room on Tuesday to talk about the stock market.

On Wednesday evening, the White House press secretary's office issued an annual Thanksgiving proclamation from the president that called for Americans to "gather, in homes and places of worship," for the holiday, contradicting the pleas from federal public health officials. The statement included some sections addressing the pandemic.

Meanwhile, school districts across the United States face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed.

Many parents are balking at online instruction, seeing it as inferior to classroom learning and disruptive to life at home and work. Other parents worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely amid a raging pandemic. Teachers say they are not comfortable teaching in person, fearing infection.

"Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it's the wrong decision," said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 educational services in Chandler, Ariz.

WATCH | Biker rally, government skepticism shape virus scene in Dakotas:

North, South Dakota resist COVID-19 restrictions despite infection rates

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
North and South Dakota have some of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the world, but governors of both states have been resisting restrictions.

But help may be coming with vaccines showing promise.

Officials from the U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed program told reporters Tuesday they plan to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide in an initial distribution after the first one is cleared by regulators for emergency use, which could happen as soon as Dec. 10.

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

The first shipments will be directed to high-risk groups at designated locations, such as front-line health-care workers at hospitals. Federal and state officials are still figuring out exactly how to prioritize those most at risk, including the elderly, prison inmates and homeless people. 

People wait in long lines for coronavius tests at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday in San Fernando, Calif. The state shattered its previous single-day COVID-19 record with over 20,500 new cases recorded on Nov. 23. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

But most people will probably have to wait months for shots to become widely available. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also each require two doses, meaning people will have to go back for a second shot after three and four weeks, respectively, to get the full protection.

Experts say the logistical challenges of the biggest vaccination campaign in U.S. history and public fear and misinformation could hinder the effort and kick the end of the pandemic further down the road.

"It's going to be a slow process and it's going to be a process with ups and downs, like we've seen already," said Dr. Bill Moss, an infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News

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