COVID-19 cases are climbing nationally as the U.S. barrels into its second holiday season during the pandemic, with most families planning this year to gather for Thanksgiving.

The U.S. is in better shape than at this point last year, when authorities confirmed well over 160,000 COVID-19 cases every day.

The daily average of new cases stands below 100,000 and almost 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. They can “feel good about enjoying a typical” holiday season, top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said this week.

But with millions still unvaccinated and cases rising, experts are urging Americans, particularly the unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and vulnerable, to exercise caution when gathering with others.

“There is concern that the rate of infection spreading is already so high as we head into the holiday season,” said Amber D’Souza, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We’re definitely headed into our next surge,” she added.

Nationally, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases is nearing 95,000, a 33 percent increase from two weeks prior, according to data from The New York Times. In the past two weeks, cases have increased in 39 states and D.C., and they have doubled in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Certain areas like the Midwest, New England and the Southwest in particular are dealing with surges.

The daily average of about 48,000 hospital admissions is flat from two weeks ago, while the 1,100 fatalities per day has dipped by 1 percent.

The case upticks come as many across the country plan for intergenerational gatherings next week, prompting public health experts to call on Americans to consider safety measures for their events.

The risk of different Thanksgiving gatherings vary, as indoor events are more dicey than outdoor and including unvaccinated guests poses more danger than limiting to fully vaccinated attendees. In the end, experts said it ultimately depends on how much risk individuals want to take.

Researchers, including Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have developed a tool to help figure out the localized risk that at least one infected person will be at an event.

For events with 50 people, the calculator shows eight states have counties with an at least 95 percent risk level.

“Even if we are fatigued, the reality is that cases are rising, and there remains far too many individuals who are unvaccinated, and that is contributing to increased spread as well as severe outcomes,” said Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“I think we should all be concerned that the things that we hold dear, that we enjoy doing may inadvertently lead to increases in cases and severe outcomes,” he added.

About 57 million people aged 12 and older remain unvaccinated and at higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, in addition to ending up hospitalized or killed by the virus.

Still, experts don’t expect any potential surge to reach the levels of last year with the majority of the country having immunity against the virus.

Almost 196 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and 32 million have received a booster dose, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. Among adults aged 65 and older who are more at risk for severe illness, 86.2 percent are fully vaccinated and 38 percent have gotten their booster.

Even with most Americans protected with the vaccine, however, the shots are not 100 percent effective, meaning breakthrough cases can still emerge. Experts also said waning immunity from the vaccine over time and high community transmission could lead to more breakthrough cases.

Although it’s too late to initiate any vaccinations to be fully protected by Thanksgiving next week, experts said hosts and visitors can still take precautions to mitigate spread during the holiday, including having attendees take rapid tests, hosting events outdoors and increasing ventilation.

Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said even people going to fully vaccinated events can take steps to protect attendees.

“I think that extra layer of doing a rapid test or something or other activities to try to help you make doubly sure that your dinner doesn’t become a superspreading event is – still worth doing,” he said.

Older, immunocompromised and other vulnerable people should “really consider a safety plan,” he said, while adding “but I don’t think that safety plan has to be: call off the gathering altogether.”

The U.S. has already made booster shots available to these at-risk populations in recent months, and the Food and Drug Administration expanded booster authorization for all adults on Friday.

The CDC’s holiday guidance updated last month suggests for all eligible people to get vaccinated in order to protect those who can’t, such as children, and those at risk.

For children aged 5 to 11, the Pfizer vaccine recently became available earlier this month so a vast majority will not be fully vaccinated by next week. Children younger than 5 are still not eligible for a shot.

To protect these children, Lori Handy, the medical director of infection prevention and control at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recommended implementing additional “layers of protection” and ensuring that those with exposures or symptoms do not attend.

For children at risk due to medical conditions, she said it’s “time to kind of be mama bear and protect your kids for a bit more this pandemic.”

“I would recommend people be as cautious as possible,” she said. “Find ways to get joy and happiness in the holiday season, but don’t overdo it with very large gatherings where you could regret that event.”

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Fauci: Don’t ‘prematurely’ end mask mandates

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

 

© Greg Nash

Top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci warned on Monday about “prematurely” dropping mask mandates as Washington, D.C., lifts its requirement for indoor masking despite opposition from the city’s council members.

President Biden’s chief medical adviser told NPR’s “Morning Edition” that the city’s move “adds an extra degree of risk” as the country sees rising cases and hospitalization while it heads into the holiday season.

“When you have a dynamic like that … you really gotta be careful,” he said. “Masks are not going to be forever for sure. The more people that get vaccinated, the more people that get boosted, the lower the level of infection in the community will be, and then you start thinking about pulling back on masks.”

“But you don’t want to do it prematurely,” he added. “As much as you’d like to do it, you’ve got to be careful.”

Fauci pointed to the national increase in cases, citing that they are up 29 percent from two weeks earlier. Hospitalizations have ticked up 6 percent, while deaths still are decreasing, although he cautioned fatalities are “usually a lagging indicator.”

What’s next: When asked about when mask mandates can end, Fauci said it’s “tough to predict” but he hopes it’s “as we get through the winter and into the spring.”

“But you can’t guarantee it,” he added. “This virus has fooled us before. It’s a very wily virus — this delta variant.

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RIGHTS GROUPS PRESS BIDEN ON INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WAIVER FOR COVID-19 VACCINE

More than a dozen medical and human rights groups have teamed up to call on President Biden to take action supporting an intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, seeking to keep pressure on the administration in an effort to improve global access to the shots.

The 15 organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Public Citizen, sent a letter to the White House on Friday requesting Biden’s “personal engagement” on the matter. The groups are pushing for a temporary waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to boost production and supplies for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.

The groups said they’re “very disappointed” with the Biden administration for its lack of action, beyond the president’s May endorsement, “as millions die or become seriously ill waiting for effective vaccines and treatments.”

The administration has previously declared its support for an intellectual property waiver for the COVID-19 vaccines in May. The White House also called on all WTO members to back an intellectual property waiver for the vaccines last month.

But the organizations said in the letter that there’s been “no progress on enacting it.”

The groups called for movement on this waiver at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference slated for the end of this month.

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French prime minister tests positive for Covid-19 as Coronavirus cases climb

The office of France’s prime minister confirmed early this morning that he has tested positive for Covid-19, hours after returning from a visit to neighbouring Belgium and just as France is seeing a nationwide resurgence of infections.

Jean Castex will adapt his schedule for the coming 10 days to continue his activities in isolation, his office said.

Officials at the prime minister’s headquarters did not comment on whether Mr Castex has any virus symptoms.

One of Castex’s daughters tested positive on Monday after her father returned from a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo in Brussels, and Castex himself then took two tests that were both positive, his office said.

De Croo’s office said he will be tested on Tuesday and will self-isolate while awaiting the result, according to Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.

While 75 per cent of France’s population is vaccinated, the number of virus infections has risen quickly in recent weeks.

Hospital admissions and deaths linked to the virus are also rising in France, though are so far well below the crisis levels of earlier surges.

French President Emmanuel Macron contracted Covid-19 last December, and other government ministers have also had the virus.