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Experts Believe Holidays Accelerated Pandemic In The U.S.


The U.S. has entered the deadliest days of the pandemic. Despite the vaccine rollout, the coronavirus is spreading faster than before, and it's sickening and killing more people in this country than ever. So how much of what's happening can be blamed on the holidays? And where is this epic public health crisis headed? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into it and joins us now.

Rob, bring us up to date on where the numbers stand.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. Hey, Audie. You know, we've said this many times, but unfortunately, it's true again. The pandemic has just never been this bad. Something like a quarter of a million people are getting infected every day. More than 3,000 are dying every day. Hospitals in some places are being overrun, running out of oxygen and, you know, turning away patients.

We've become kind of numb to all this. But if you stop and think about it, it's just, you know, horrifying. It's like a 9/11 terrorist attack every day. And thousands more, maybe even hundreds of thousands more, could still die. I talked about this with Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: It's going to be pretty bad. It's going to be pretty bad. I think we will continue to average over 200,000 cases per day over the next month. And if we're having 200,000 plus cases per day for the next month, we are going to see thousands of deaths per day. It's grim. It's very, very grim.

STEIN: He estimates that one out of every 50 people is walking around infected with the virus right now.

CORNISH: Do we know how much of this surge is due to the holidays?

STEIN: So, you know, some researchers say it's still a little too early to know for sure. You know, it takes a while to sort of sort things out. But we know lots of people ignored public health warnings and did travel and get together for the holidays. And the bottom line is this probably added fuel to the fire and accelerated the surge that was already raging as the holidays began. Here's Brian Fisher, from the University of Pennsylvania.

BRIAN FISHER: It sort of fueled the fans of the surge - the gatherings and Thanksgiving, and then that sequenced into Christmas. And I think soon we'll see the implications of gathering from New Year's Eve.

CORNISH: The first shots went into arms about - what? - a month ago?

STEIN: Yeah.

CORNISH: And even though the rollout of those vaccines is slower than everyone had hoped...

STEIN: Right.

CORNISH: ...Won't the growing number of vaccinated Americans actually affect all this?

STEIN: Yes, definitely. You know, the vaccines are the end game for this nightmare. And it's - but it's going to take months for enough people to get vaccinated to start to turn things around. That said, all the experts I've been talking to think the pandemic could peak this month in the U.S. and then slowly start to get better, finally, as more people get vaccinated, you know, and as the weather gets warmer. I talked about this with Caitlin Rivers at Johns Hopkins. She says that'll only happen if people keep wearing masks, keep keeping their distance from people they don't live with, states keep imposing restrictions to buy time for enough people to get vaccinated.

CAITLIN RIVERS: I hope that they combine to be enough to really slow things down and start us down the mountain. It takes a long time to get from a bad place to a worse place. And so it will take us a long time again to get from a terrible place to a slightly better place. We have a long road ahead of us, and things are still accelerating right now.

STEIN: You know, and they could accelerate even faster if we let our guard down and if any of those variants that appear to be more contagious take off in the U.S. That's a big wild card that scientists are really worried about right now.

CORNISH: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.