December is deadliest month since pandemic began; January projections ‘nightmarish’

December has been the nation’s deadliest month since the Covid-19 pandemic’s start — with more than 63,000 Americans lost to the virus in the past 26 days.

In comparison, the entire month of November saw about 36,964 deaths.

The grim death toll comes on the heels of several brutal months for the US, with Covid-19 ravaging communities from coast to coast, crippling hospital systems and prompting new widespread restrictions. The authorization of two Covid-19 vaccines earlier in December offered some hope of a light at the end of the tunnel — but experts continue to warn that while the end is in sight, the pandemic is not over and another surge stemming from Christmas travel and gatherings could be on its way.

More than 616,000 people were screened at TSA checkpoints across the country on Christmas Day alone, and hundreds of thousands more traveled in the days leading up to the holiday. Numbers are expected to climb again this weekend.

“The individuals who are traveling, they probably are not going camping in the wilderness. Probably they are going to see loved ones and having dinner without wearing masks, crowded indoors for prolonged periods of time,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN. “There are many people who may have Covid-19 and not know it and then spread it to their loved ones, and then they’re going to go back to their home communities and then infect others unknowingly.”

“What I worry about is those same individuals are then going to be in the hospitals, in the ICUs in two to three weeks’ time,” she added. “I just really worry about this surge that we’re going to see and how quickly we’re going to surpass that 400,000 deaths number.”

Nearly 332,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. Another 193,000 could lose their lives over the next two months, according to predictions from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“The projections are just nightmarish,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine. “People can still save the lives of their loved ones by practicing that social distancing and masks. And remember, vaccines are around the corner.”

Covid-19 hospitalization numbers across the US are already at record-high levels. On Saturday, the country recorded its fifth-highest number of hospitalizations — with more than 117,300 Covid-19 patients nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Another surge of cases and hospitalizations will, inevitably, mean more deaths — on top of an already devastating death toll.

Vaccine roll-out slow in some places, expert says

Nearly 2 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 9.5 million doses have been distributed.

Those numbers now include both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. And while there are lags in data reporting, some experts say vaccine distribution isn’t going as quickly as officials had hoped.

“It seems like it’s (vaccine distribution) moving a little slower every time we come back to it,” said Dr. Esther Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. “It’s just a very complicated thing. At every step, there’s complexity and there’s possibility for delay, whether it’s individual state planning, allocation, training, supply of vaccine, storage… there (are) just so many factors at this stage.”

“We need to be prepared for the fact that it is going to be a slow roll-out in many places and that it will not change our behaviors or necessarily the trajectory of the pandemic in this country in the short term,” Choo said.

Choo’s words echo a number of other experts who have warned the American public not to let their guard down as vaccinations begin and to continue following public health measures including wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and gatherings, and regularly washing their hands.

It likely won’t be until summer that vaccines are widely available and begin to make a meaningful impact on the pandemic’s course, officials have said. Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates about 70% to 85% of the population needs to get vaccinated against Covid-19 for the country to achieve herd immunity.

Expert: Testing requirements won’t help control Covid-19 variant spread

The CDC also announced last week new testing requirements for travelers arriving from the UK, which will go into effect Monday.

Passengers must have a negative PCR or antigen test within 72 hours of boarding a flight from the UK to the US, along with documentation of their laboratory results. Airlines will be required to confirm the test prior to the flight.

This comes after the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant first detected in the UK, which health officials say “has been predicted to potentially be more rapidly transmissible.” Since the discovery of the variant, more than 40 countries have restricted travel from the UK and in some cases, travel from other countries that have documented cases with the variant.

But one expert says the new testing requirements for travelers into the US have not been implemented quickly enough to be effective against a reported variant.

“It makes sense that for any place that’s experiencing a regional spike in cases that we put new measures in place,” emergency medicine physician Dr. Richina Bicette told CNN. “But if they’re trying to make sure that the virus isn’t imported to the United States, these measures are going to have no effect on that whatsoever.”

“The CDC requirements don’t take place until Monday,” Bicette added. “Until that time, there have been thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people that have traveled into the US from the UK. So there’s a high probability that the new variant is already in the United States and we just don’t know.”

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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