Much of the US continues to report an upward trend in coronavirus cases, with 59,494 new cases reported nationwide on Wednesday alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
As of Thursday morning, the nation is now averaging 52,345 new cases a day, up 16% from the previous week, a trend that concerns health experts as we head into the cooler months.
"This is a very ominous sign. I think we're in for a pretty bad fall and winter," said Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.
"This is the time when we could be entering one of the worst periods of our epidemic and one of our worst periods in modern American public health," he said. "I'm very worried for the nation."
Thirty-five states are showing increases in new COVID-19 cases greater than 10% over the last week compared to the week prior. Only three states -- Louisiana, Kentucky and Vermont -- are showing decreases in new cases greater than 10% this week compared to the week before. The remaining 12 states -- Hawaii, California, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Massachusetts and Maine -- are holding steady.
Since Sunday, 21 states have hit their peak 7-day average of new cases since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins data, those being Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
That kind of spread is "quite concerning," Dr. Anthony Fauci said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday.
"The issue is that as we enter, as we are now, in the cooler season of the fall and ultimately the colder season of the winter, you don't want to be in that compromised position where your baseline daily infection is high and you are increasing as opposed to going in the other direction," Fauci said.
Overall, the virus has infected more than 7.9 million people in the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 217,000 people have died, a number that will continue to rise. A new ensemble forecast published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects between 229,000 and 240,000 will have died by November 7.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's technical lead for coronavirus, told CNN's Alisyn Camerota on Thursday that the "alarming situation" in the US and Europe -- where cases are also rising -- "can be turned around."
"We need to think about what we need to do as individuals," she said, "and how each of the decisions that we make can actually contribute to bringing this pandemic to an end."
Herd immunity is not the way out of pandemic, experts say
A vaccine is still the best way to bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts say, adding that pursuing herd immunity would be dangerous.
The idea of letting the virus run unchecked through communities "misses the basic point that we're all connected," former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Thomas Frieden told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
Frieden was responding to recent efforts to promote herd immunity as an answer to COVID-19. The idea is being pushed by those eager to stop the economic damage the pandemic has caused.
A vaccine could be available to some groups by the end of the year. But some politicians hoping to reverse the economic havoc from the pandemic have embraced the idea of letting the virus spread until enough people have been infected and developed immunity that there is nowhere for it to spread next.
White House senior administration officials, in a call with reporters Monday, discussed a controversial declaration written by scientists that advocates such an approach.
But the idea is "a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence" that risks "significant morbidity and mortality across the whole population," 80 scientists from around the world wrote in an open letter.
"Any infection anywhere is potentially a threat somewhere else because even if you feel fine and get over it with no problems, no long-term consequences, you might spread it to someone who dies from it. And that's what we're seeing all over the country," Frieden said.
It is impossible to keep only the vulnerable protected from the spread, Frieden said. And letting the virus run rampant would likely lead to recurring epidemics because there is no evidence that people are protected long-term after they have been infected, according to the letter.
The best way to achieve widespread immunity, Frieden said, will be through a vaccine.
"The concept (of herd immunity) really comes from vaccines," Frieden said. "When you vaccinate enough people, the disease stops spreading, and that might be 60%, 80%, 90% for different diseases."
Frieden's comments were echoed Thursday by the WHO's Van Kerkhove, who said that allowing the virus to spread for the sake of herd immunity would lead to "unnecessary cases" and "unnecessary deaths."
"This is not a strategy for this virus," she said, "because there is so much that we can do.
Sacrificing Thanksgiving gatherings
Gathering around the table for a Thanksgiving meal may be a "sacred part of the American tradition," but Fauci told O'Donnell that the holiday may have to look very different this year.
"You may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering, unless you're pretty certain that the people that you're dealing with are not infected. Either they've been very recently tested, or they're living a lifestyle in which they don't have any interaction with anybody except you and your family," he said.
Small gatherings are becoming a growing source of coronavirus spread, said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield during a call with the nation's governors on Tuesday. Audio of the call was obtained by CNN.
"What we're seeing as the increasing threat right now is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings," Redfield said. "Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it's really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting."
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, said Wednesday he'd advise people to consider not having indoor Thanksgiving dinners with others who aren't in their immediate household.
"If you're lucky enough to live in a part of the country where the weather will be moderate in November, do an outdoor Thanksgiving. (But) I think in the ... places in the country where the winter comes early, I think you have to really be careful," Reiner told CNN's "New Day."
"Next year is going to be much better. Let's get through this, and let's get through it safely."
Political leaders and other officials at risk
The daily dealings of some politicians have been impacted as they have been exposed to the virus' spread.
President Donald Trump is no longer a transmission risk after contracting the virus, Fauci said Wednesday, but the people around him may still be.
"I can't vouch for anybody else that's there -- whether they've been tested or whether they've been careful in their interactions with people," Fauci told CBS Evening News anchor Norah O'Donnell on Wednesday.
He also warned that just because the President fared well after his illness, doesn't mean that others will have the same experience.
State leaders in Tennessee and Indiana are now evaluating their own interactions with virus.
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box on Wednesday said that she, an adult daughter and 23-month-old grandson have tested positive for COVID-19. The health commissioner added she participated in contact tracing but explained she's not been in close contact with anyone except her immediate family.
And Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he expects to be tested "on a regular basis" over the next few days following the news that a member of his security detail tested positive.
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