With the coronavirus surging, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came as the White House coronavirus task force held a briefing for the first time in months.
“From very early in this pandemic, at the President’s direction, we have followed an approach to this pandemic that was federally supported, state managed, and locally executed. And to that end, this past Monday, we completed our 41st conference call with all of the nation’s governors — every state, every territory. And there, we spoke about our current circumstances where we see cases and hospitalizations rising, but we also continue to speak to them about — about the expansion of testing, the availability of supplies, and our ongoing efforts to continue to drive forward toward the development and the distribution of a vaccine for the American people,” Pence said. “As we gather here today, with cases and hospitalizations rising across the country, President Trump directed us to host this briefing, to describe the ongoing work of our task force and our partnership with state and local officials and our partners in the private sector to continue to put the health of America first.
“… we approach this moment with the confidence of experience. We know the American people know what to do. We have forged a partnership that is truly seamless with state and local health authorities. And as we’ll describe to you today, we’ve continued to work seven days a week, all throughout this year and up to this very moment, to make sure the American people have access to the healthcare that we’d want any member of our family to have as we meet this pandemic.
“Now, cases are rising throughout the country. Positivity in the last 30 days has risen from an average of 5 percent to 10 percent. And to that end, we’ve continued the mobilization that began at President Trump’s direction early this year. We increased testing from a standing start in the month of February to now, as of today, we’ve completed more than 170 million tests, and we continue to approve new tests, including an at- home test that the FDA just recently approved. And we’re distributing more than 150 million Binax tests to schools and nursing homes around America as we speak.”
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.
The positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus — has taken on a more prominent role in the nation's response to the crisis in recent days.
New York City shut down in-person classes in the nation's largest school system this week after the positivity rate surpassed 3%. That angered families who believe it is too stringent a standard and question why bars and restaurants can remain open.
The positivity rate has soared to record levels all around the nation. South Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming's rate are all averaging above 50%, and the national average is now 10%.
Health experts caution that there are weaknesses in the positivity data because states calculate the rate differently. But they say the overall trend is not in dispute, and it indicates severe spread and, in many places, insufficient testing.
PREPARED TO FIGHT
Pence said that with 10 months of fighting the virus, the government is better equipped than it has ever been at address this surge.
“As we gather, more than 140 clinical trials for therapeutics continue to be underway, but effective therapies are already available and are widely known among the American people,” Pence said. “And for those over the age of 70, we’re proud to report that we actually have decreased the fatality rate by more than 70 percent since those heartbreaking days of April.
“…I was at FEMA today and received a detailed briefing about our distribution plans. And I asked General Perna to come here today to make that presentation to the American people. And it is, in a very real sense, putting us in a position that literally, the day after one of these vaccines is approved, we’ll be shipping vaccines to the American people. And within a day after that, we’ll be seeing those vaccines injected into Americans with a particular focus on those most vulnerable and those that are providing healthcare to the American people.”
FOLLOW SAFETY GUIDELINES
Dr. Deborah Birx offered a slide presentation to hammer home the reasons why vigilance is required.
“The next slide really shows the country as a whole and why we’re asking every American to remain vigilant, to do those things that we have been asking you all to do: to wear a mask, to physically distance, to continue your hand hygiene, but really, in this moment of bringing people together, to really limit interactions indoors to immediate households when we see this level of community spread,” she said. “Behind this level of community spread is a lot of asymptomatic cases. People are spreading the virus because they don’t know they’re infected with the virus, and so people are coming together indoors. Everyone looks healthy, but among those individuals could be individuals that already are infected, have no symptoms, and are unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
“It is because of this asymptomatic spread that we have asked people to wear a mask indoors and to ask people to wear a mask when among others. But sometimes when we go indoors and we’re with friends and family, we just assume that if you look okay, you are okay. And now we know that over 50 percent of the individuals, particularly among those under 35, many could be infected and unknowingly spreading the virus.”
Pence added the federal government is closely monitoring hospitals at the local level.
“We are — want the American people to know that we have — we have eyes on your local hospital,” Pence said. “We know about admissions. We know about the availability of ICU beds. And we know about supplies.”
Dr, Anthony Fauci explained that two vaccines, one by Moderna and one by Pfizer, have completed trials with a efficy point that is “extraordinary.” He also sought to debunk concerns that the speed at which the vaccines were developed may have compromised safety.
“The process of the speed did not compromise at all safety, nor did it compromise scientific integrity. It was a reflection of the extraordinary scientific advances in these types of vaccines, which allowed us to do things in months that actually took years before,” Fauci said. “So I really want to settle that concern that people have about that.”
Fauci said that with the vaccine approaching, now is the time to double down on safety measures, which will help the vaccine stem the tide once it arrives.
“We’ll be getting vaccine doses into people at high priority at the end of December. We’re not talking about shutting down the country. We’re not talking about locking down. We’re talking about intensifying the simple public health measures that we all talk about: mask wearing, stay being distanced, avoiding congregate settings, doing things to the extent that we can outdoors versus indoors. If we do that, we’ll be able to hold things off until the vaccine comes,” Fauci said. “Now, I’ve used that metaphor that “the cavalry is on the way.” If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting; you keep going until the cavalry gets here, and then you might even want to continue fighting.”