Coronavirus updates: Air travel hits pandemic high amid winter holidays

With more than 100,000 people hospitalized, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, told CNN he feared widespread holiday travel and gatherings could cause a “surge upon a surge.”

Here are some significant developments:

  • More than 2 million people have received their first dose of one of the two coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States.
  • After President Trump’s last-minute signing of the coronavirus stimulus bill, which included $600 checks for American households, the House voted to beef up the payments to $2,000. Passage of the measure is uncertain because Senate Republicans have not unified behind the idea.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said stay-at-home orders in the southern part of the state and its Central Valley would “very likely” be extended, as both regions contend with nearly overwhelming levels of hospitalized virus patients.
  • A Walter Reed physician who criticized Trump for greeting supporters while hospitalized with covid-19 said in a tweet that he had worked his last shift at the hospital. “I regret nothing,” wrote the doctor, James Phillips, whose impending removal was reported by news outlets earlier this month.
  • The United Kingdom, where a fast-spreading new variant of the virus was first detected, reported a record 41,385 new cases Monday.
  • A citizen journalist who chronicled the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was sentenced by a Chinese court to four years in prison, underscoring the government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism of its pandemic response.

As a year like no other draws to a close, the United States finds itself experiencing dueling realities: Vaccinations are underway, offering hope of an end to the pandemic, but infections, hospitalizations and deaths have reached record numbers.

Nearly 16 million first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are scheduled for distribution over the next week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The supply will cover almost 5 percent of the country and is enough for about three-quarters of the medical workers and nursing home residents and staff, according to Washington Post analysis.

At the same time, around 200,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported daily in recent weeks, with a record high of 252,431 on Dec. 17. The nation’s overall caseload surpassed 19 million on Sunday. Hospitalizations have exceeded 100,000 since the start of December and hit a peak of 119,000 on Dec. 23. Deaths are averaging more than 2,000 per day; the deadliest day was Dec. 17, with 3,406 fatalities reported.

Amid such a surge, Fauci said he believes the worst of the pandemic is still ahead, especially following the winter holiday season. He said an increase in cases could overwhelm already stressed health-care systems.

“If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for the good, warm purposes of being together for the holidays — it’s very tough for people to not do that,” Fauci said.

He added that he was concerned it “might actually get worse,” in the next few weeks, echoing comments from President-elect Joe Biden, who said last week that “our darkest days in the battle against covid are ahead of us, not behind us.”

With New Year’s Eve looming, the CDC on Monday reiterated calls for Americans to celebrate the holidays at home. The agency repeated earlier warnings that travel and gatherings could increase the risk of transmission, suggesting people host virtual countdowns or cheer the new year as a neighborhood, with families celebrating in front of their homes.

“The safest way to celebrate the new year is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you or virtually with friends and family,” the CDC said in guidance posted on its website. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

In California, the national epicenter that continues to lead all states in new infections, virus hospitalizations and reported deaths, officials delivered a glimmer of good news on Monday, tempered with a foreboding warning.

A majority of the state is seeing the number of coronavirus patients admitted to hospitals plateau, Newsom said at a Monday new conference. A notable exception, he added, is Southern California — especially Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Just in Los Angeles County — the most populous in the country — officials have reported an average of more than 10,000 new infections per day for more than two weeks running.

But in a situation so dire, even the slightest improvement is notable. Newsom and the head of the state’s health department attributed the subtle leveling-off to the stay-at-home orders in place for much of the state.

“We’re pleased to see a little bit of a plateau,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said. “The trends have started to come down a bit, but it’s not enough. We need people to not let up their guard.”

The stay-at-home orders for Southern California and the state’s Central Valley were set to expire on Tuesday, but Newsom said they will “very likely” be extended.

California saw its record-shattering surge of new cases and hospitalizations in the weeks following the Thanksgiving holiday, a stark warning of the consequences of widespread travel and gathering. For that same reason, officials expect the coming weeks to be just as difficult.

“We’re worried not just about what’s happened over the last couple weeks, but really what’s going to happen when we see the cases from the Christmas holiday and Hanukkah, coming up now with the New Year’s celebrations,” Ghaly said.

Newsom, echoing Fauci, described it as “a surge on top of a surge on top of a surge.”

Mid-January, they said, could be a very grim time.

The governor also addressed the local officials who have said they would refuse to enforce the state’s stay-at-home orders, notably the sheriffs in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties. If local governments adopt policies that explicitly defy the orders, they could risk losing state relief funds, Newsom said.

“What more evidence do you need that trying to enforce good behavior will actually save lives?” he said. “It’s a noble and right thing to do.”

Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.

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