Dr. Fauci: US may see ‘surge upon surge’ of virus this winter

COVID-19 vaccines inspire hope, but virus spread worsening before they’re publicly available

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" to discuss the worsening coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and what to expect in terms of vaccination.

As the U.S. settles deeper into the holiday season, so too is it settling into a dangerous trend of coronavirus spread.

All across the country, COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are on the rise. Some experts have even labeled the country’s current virus surge as a “third wave of COVID.”

Read more: Much of US experiencing ‘severe’ virus outbreaks amid ‘third COVID wave,’ researchers say

In Michigan, reports of daily new coronavirus cases have been consistently breaking record after record in recent weeks. With cases and hospitalizations up, hospitals and health care workers are concerned about becoming overwhelmed with both a lack of capacity and lack of manpower.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that by the end of the week, 22 percent of hospitals (nearly 1,400) expect to face a staffing shortage.

Health care workers and leaders are concerned about the current trend of the virus particularly amid the holiday season -- which experts have warned might trigger a surge like the one we’re seeing now. The cold winter months are pushing people indoors, where the airborne virus can spread easier than outdoors. Combined with indoor holiday gatherings and celebrations, people are more likely to be close enough to transmit the virus with ease this season compared to the summer months.

Millions of Americans traveled on and around Thanksgiving last week, even after the government’s top health agency urged residents to stay home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Officials say that as of Sunday, just two full days since Thanksgiving, the country has seen an increase of over 360,000 new COVID-19 cases nationwide, in addition to over 2,700 new deaths -- and this rise does not include potential infections that could have taken place amid holiday celebrations.

The true impact that the Thanksgiving holiday might have on coronavirus trends will not be known for weeks, but health experts worry that those trends will not be headed in a good direction anytime soon.

“We’re in the middle of a steep slope,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. He was referring to the country’s current battle with increased coronavirus spread. You can watch the entire interview in the video player above.

Fauci says that with outbreaks such as the one we’re experiencing now, it typically takes at least 3-5 weeks for the curve of infections to flatten. Due to December holidays approaching within that timeframe, Fauci says the country may see a coronavirus surge “superpose” the surge that we are “already in.”

The doctor is urging Americans and state and local governments to continue practicing mitigation tactics such as mask wearing, distancing and avoiding crowds to help prevent the spread of the virus. Fauci says these methods have proven effective, and that they will be necessary to maintain at least through the end of 2020.

“It is not too late at all for us to do something about this,” Fauci said Sunday of the country’s response to the virus. He says that if mitigation protocols are in place, promising COVID-19 vaccines that are nearing approval indicate that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Drug companies Pfizer and Moderna have both developed promising COVID-19 vaccines -- each with about 95 percent effectiveness -- that are nearing approval for public use.

Pfizer formally requested an emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine on Nov. 20. If approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 10 as anticipated, the head of Operation Warp Speed said they hope to distribute 6.8 million doses to the states within 24 hours. So, in theory, those first vaccinations could be delivered and administered as soon as Dec. 12.

Moderna officials also say they expect to have doses available in December as manufacturing of the vaccine is underway. Moderna is still waiting for some data, but the company says it could apply for emergency use authorization as early as this week.

Still, even when a vaccine is approved, there will not be enough doses available to administer vaccinations to all 300 million Americans at one time. For this reason, vaccinations will be disseminated in several “rounds,” prioritizing those most at risk in the early rounds, and becoming more widely available throughout 2021.

Frontline health care workers are expected to be among one of the first priority groups to receive a vaccine once it is approved. Given the sheer number of health care workers in the U.S., though, Dr. Fauci says administering vaccines to frontline health care workers will also be carried out in graduated steps.

CDC members are meeting this week to determine best practices for disseminating COVID vaccines, including who should be considered first priority to receive them. Fauci says that once the federal government transports the vaccines to individual states, it then becomes the responsibility of the states to determine who receives those initial doses -- but he also says the CDC will be providing the states with strong recommendations for how to move forward.

Related: Details on when COVID-19 vaccine could be made public for use

While it’s not totally clear who will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and when, it is likely that school-aged children will be among the last groups in the U.S. to receive them. In fact, Fauci says “it will be months” before children are considered for the vaccine.

He says that with a new vaccine, it’s important to ensure it has a certain degree of efficacy in adults before administering it to children and pregnant women, who are especially “vulnerable.” Once the vaccine has proven safe and effective for adults, experts can then begin clinical trials with children and start the process of approving the vaccination for school-aged kids -- a process that Fauci says will likely begin in January.

As the country awaits a widely-available COVID vaccine, Fauci is urging Americans to continue taking steps to limit exposure to and the spread of coronavirus amid the nationwide outbreak.

“So if we could hang together as a country and do these kinds of things to blunt these surges, until we get a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated, we can get through this,” Fauci said Sunday. “There really is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.