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As U.S. coronavirus cases soar toward 200,000 a day, holiday travel is surging

Despite surging coronavirus cases and warnings from officials across the country, many travelers were seen at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 20. (Video: AP)

Total coronavirus infections in the United States have topped 12 million, and cases are approaching 200,000 in a day, as health experts warn of an alarming new stage in the pandemic’s spread while Americans embark on holiday travel that could seed more outbreaks.

A fall wave of the virus ushered in by colder weather is only worsening, outpacing expansions in testing and making new nationwide records routine. The country passed 11 million cases just a week ago, and daily infections are on track to double since Nov. 4, when they exceeded 100,000 for the first time.

As Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, put it recently on MSNBC: “It’s almost exponential when you compare the curves in the spring and the curves in the summer with the inflection of the curve where we are right now."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended against traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving, using its first news briefing in months to sound alarms over the massive case rise reported in the past week. The United States has surpassed a quarter-million deaths related to covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But more than 1 million people still passed through the country’s airports Friday in the second-highest single-day rush of travelers since the start of the pandemic, even as air travel has dropped dramatically over this time last year. On the same date in 2019, more than 2.5 million people traveled through U.S. airports.

The data on Transportation Security Administration screenings shows that many Americans are heeding calls for caution. But the fallout from this week is expected to amp up pressure on hospitals and health-care workers at a critical time in the pandemic. Hospitalizations have soared to all-time highs, pushing state after state to enact new restrictions such as mask mandates, curfews and renewed business shutdowns.

“The scary news is that this week will probably have the highest amount of travel we have seen since the pandemic began,” said Christopher Worsham, a critical care physician and research fellow at Harvard Medical School.

He said he is more worried about what will happen when travelers get to their destinations — and as people from different households gather indoors, where the virus can spread more easily, often with more vulnerable older family members. Worsham said he has been hearing about people being treated as “the bad guy” for trying to keep their relatives and communities safe.

“We have to remember that the virus does not care that it is the holidays, that you are family, and that you have already gone a long time without seeing one another. If given opportunities to spread, the virus will spread,” he said.

Anthony S. Fauci, the United States' top infectious-disease specialist, said on Oct. 15 that there is some risk for people gathering for Thanksgiving. (Video: Reuters)

Some passengers are facing crowded terminals as they wait to board flights. Video of busy seating areas at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport made the rounds on social media on Friday, as travelers said that the CDC’s guidance a day earlier had either not registered or made no difference in their decision-making.

“I have a life to live and things to do, so we take necessary precautions,” Curt Vurpillat, who was heading to Chicago, told news outlet AZFamily.

Brandi McRae, an IT asset and capacity manager from South Florida, told The Washington Post she was alarmed to see long security lines and tightly packed clusters of people in the corridors of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Saturday morning.

“It was a bit overwhelming,” said McRae, 31. “It was less crowded as I walked to my gate, but all I could think was that there would be very little way for so many people to remain distanced.”

McRae said she wasn’t originally planning to fly during the holiday week, but that the stress of the presidential election made her eager to spend time with family in Lumberton, N.C. She booked a last-minute flight — her first since March, she said.

McRae’s family plans to limit the Thanksgiving celebration to a small group, she said, and she intends to wear a mask.

“It seems extreme,” she said, “but it seems like the best measure against spreading anything I could possibly have picked up during travel.”

Among the surge of people flying: college students, many of whom will finish out the fall semester from home. Very few schools are mandating coronavirus testing for students leaving campus pre-Thanksgiving, said Chris Marsicano, an education studies professor at Davidson College who leads an initiative examining how colleges are grappling with the pandemic.

Airports are all but certain to get more crowded in the coming days. The TSA usually offers estimates on how many passengers they expect to screen during Thanksgiving week — last year the agency reported record numbers — but declined to do so this year “due to the many complex factors that could affect those numbers during this pandemic,” an agency representative told The Post.

Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has been urging families to weigh the costs and benefits of their plans to get together.

“When you think of the holiday season, and the congregating indoors at what are innocent, lovely functions like meals with family and friends, you’ve got to at least think in terms of evaluating,” he said on MSNBC.

“Do you have people in your family that are elderly that might have underlying conditions, like someone on chemotherapy or other things that weaken their immune system?” he said. “Do you really want to get a crowd of 10, 15, 20 people, many of whom are coming in from places where they’ve gone through crowded airports to planes, getting into the house?”

Those set to travel anyway are taking precautions — and worrying.

Tiana Camacho, a 29-year-old voice actor in Burbank, Calif., is preparing to fly on Sunday to Boise for a medical procedure. She’s donating urgently needed stem cells to a leukemia patient, she said, and found that facilities in California were booked.

She will head out wearing a mask and a face shield, she said — “doubling up on protection because I really think that I need it because of how insane everything is,” she said. She was thinking Saturday about the videos she had seen on Twitter of airports packed with holiday crowds.

She wishes people wouldn’t travel, “putting everyone at risk,” unless they absolutely have to. “If this wasn’t a life-or-death situation, I wouldn’t be flying out,” she said. “I’d be staying home.”