A Post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 Surge Has Apparently Arrived Before the Holidays

Experts say Thanksgiving travel and colder weather are helping fuel the current COVID-19 surge. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • The daily average of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has once again topped 100,000.
  • Experts say a post-Thanksgiving surge from holiday travel and gatherings is one factor.
  • They add that colder weather in parts of the country, low vaccination rates in some regions, and fatigue from COVID-19 restrictions are also playing a role.
  • They say it’s too early to tell whether the Omicron variant is partially fueling the current surge.

“Make no mistake about it… this is a true post-Thanksgiving surge.”

That’s how Dr. Mark A. Levine, the commissioner of health for Vermont, described that state’s increase in COVID-19 cases at a news conference earlier this week.

Vermont’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have hit an all-time high, putting a strain on medical facilities. Health officials fear the number of cases may spike even more as they head into the Christmas holiday season.

Vermont is not alone. More than 30 states have seen increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations the past 2 weeks.

In addition, six states — Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois — accounted for the majority of the country’s spike in occupied hospital beds.

The hot spots are scattered, but the numbers are ticking back up.

The nation’s 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases has topped 100,000. In addition, more than 50,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19. The average daily death toll has climbed back above 1,000.

A post-Thanksgiving surge?

“We’re certainly seeing an uptick in the United States and certainly many parts of the world,” said Dr. Robert Cyril Bollinger Jr., a professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland.

“Whether it’s due to Thanksgiving and people gathering or the colder weather forcing people inside where respiratory viruses always increase their transmission. The same thing happened with COVID last year… So, I think we’re starting to see that already,” Bollinger told Healthline.

However, he said there may also be another factor at work: COVID-19 fatigue.

“Fewer people are wearing masks when they’re going in and out of buildings. So I think it’s a combination of things,” he said.

Syra Madad, DHSc, MSc, MCP, the senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals as well as an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Massachusetts, said because of the lag time in reporting, we may not have the full picture of what’s going on right now.

“Our reporting is still catching up to the holiday time frame,” Madad told Healthline. “Things are still in flux. So, it’s still too early to say if we’re experiencing the Thanksgiving surge. But I think we’re probably very close to it.”

Vaccinations a factor

The number of people vaccinated is still playing a role in the surge.

Vermont health officials said that 75 percent of people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Last Thanksgiving, the vaccines were not a factor. This year, more than 200 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated, but tens of millions of others are still not vaccinated.

“The fact that people are vaccinated should really help reduce the burden on the healthcare system as long as there is a high prevalence of vaccines,” Bollinger said. “But unfortunately, in some communities, we have less than 60 percent of the population vaccinated. Until we get more people vaccinated… we’re going to see an increase in cases of hospitalizations.”

Madad said it’s even a problem in New York state, where the number of fully vaccinated adults is high.  

“But when you look at the county by county levels, there are significant numbers where the vaccination rates are still quite poor,” she said. 

Citing the holiday party season, the cold weather, and the emergence of a new coronavirus variant, New York City officials have expanded their vaccine mandates. 

Madad said the moves are out of an abundance of caution.

“Measures that are going to help us prevent further community transmission. More vaccine mandates to keep a lid on the viral spread that’s happening,” she explained.

Is Omicron playing a role?

Experts say we’re still learning about how big a factor the newly detected Omicron variant of the coronavirus will play in the pandemic.

“There are low levels of community transmission, so it’s not nonexistent, but it’s not fueling the current surge we’re in right now,” Madad said. 

“Our surveillance capability has improved since last year. Nationally, we’re sequencing over 10,000 samples per day from all jurisdictions throughout the U.S.,” she explained. “So, we have a better pulse on where the variants are circulating. With that information, we know it’s still Delta about 99 percent.”

“We won’t know if Omicron will be a dominant strain for a few weeks,” said Bollinger.

“I would encourage people to get the booster shot if they’re eligible,” he said. “It was pretty clear from the data from other countries that it reduces your risk. And vaccine immunity wanes over time.”

“We don’t want to see our hospitals overrun. Healthcare workers are burning out, and we’re losing many of them to the stress of this pandemic,” he added. “So, whatever we can do as citizens, we need to do to protect ourselves and our own healthcare institutions.”

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