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With the holidays coming, COVID cases likely to surge during 'six weeks of superspreader events'

In other coronavirus news: Trump gets fact-checked on masks, Pfizer's vaccine won't come until after Election Day, and Hawaii says aloha to tourists.
Diners eat outdoors in plastic tents at a restaurant in New York on Thursday.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Thanksgiving kicks off the annual season of celebration, but it will be no holiday for the coronavirus.

With the United States climbing toward what epidemiologists are calling a third peak of pandemic infections, public health experts fear gatherings of families and friends could make an already bad situation worse.

“Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, we’re having what I see as potentially six weeks of superspreader events, right, in which we’re going to be getting together with family and friends,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious diseases expert at the Emory University School of Medicine, warned. “And we can see a lot of disease happening.”

Del Rio sounded the alarm during an NBC News Facebook Live interview with Dr. John Torres, NBC News contributor, as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surged past 8 million and deaths due to the coronavirus climbed to a world-leading 218,097.

“So, I’m really worried that we are facing some of the toughest times in this pandemic in our country,” del Rio said.

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He said President Donald Trump was sending the wrong message to Americans with his cavalier attitude toward COVID-19, his repeated boasts about being "immune" since he was released from the hospital and his refusal to consistently wear a mask at public events and campaign rallies.

“The president got infected and did remarkably well for his age,” del Rio said of Trump, who is 74. “He was treated with everything but the kitchen sink, but he’s recovered. He’s done well. So the president at this point in time is saying, ‘Hey, this is no big deal. If you get infected, nothing happens.’”

In other coronavirus news:

  • Trump made the inaccurate claim that "85 percent of the people wearing masks" still catch the coronavirus, during an interview Thursday on the Fox Business Network. He cited as evidence a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. But a day earlier, the CDC tweeted that “the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect.”
  • While the White House has been pushing for approval of a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, the drugmaker Pfizer said it will not apply for emergency use authorization for its vaccine candidate until at least the third week of November. "We are operating at the speed of science," Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla said.
  • The federal budget deficit under Trump hit an all-time high of $3.1 trillion in the 2020 budget year as the pandemic shrank tax revenues and government spending soared. That's more than double the previous record set in 2009 when the Obama administration shored-up the banking system to limit damage from the recession that began on President George W. Bush's watch.

  • Eight million Americans have slipped into poverty as a result of the pandemic, according to a new study.
  • Hawaii is saying aloha to tourists again, but only if they test negative before they get on the plane.
  • The Navajo Nation in Arizona is using the sun and the wind to power the digital tablets hard-pressed students on the reservation are using for virtual education due to the pandemic.
  • A rare and potentially deadly coronavirus complication that was reported in children has been showing up in adults, doctors are warning.
  • Hockey has been "benched" for two weeks in New Hampshire after at least 158 infections were traced to indoor rinks.

Many of the new infections erupted in Midwestern states, such as Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, that have been reporting record numbers of Covid-19 cases.

“What’s happening in the Upper Midwest is just a harbinger of things to come in the rest of the country,” Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times.

Other public health experts warned those numbers will climb even higher as the weather gets colder.

“It’s not just places like Alaska or Idaho where winter comes early,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It could even be places like Chicago where gatherings move indoors as the weather gets colder. It doesn’t have to be super cold. It just has to be cold enough you don’t want to be outside.”

While Europe is now being battered by the second wave of pandemic infections, “we never got out of the first wave,” Khan said.

“A second wave would imply that we were able to get the number of cases down to near zero,” Khan said. “Some countries like South Korea and even China have managed to eliminate almost all their cases, and you could argue that New York City was able to consistently get their positivity rate near zero. Unfortunately, it’s heading in the wrong direction now.”

New York’s rate of new infections was 1.12 percent, the fourth lowest in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo has had to impose a COVID-19 clampdown in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and in parts of Rockland County where worrisome clusters of new cases have appeared mostly in Orthodox-Jewish neighborhoods where support for mask-wearing and social distancing has been lax.

“I liken fighting COVID to playing whack-a-mole,” Dr. David L. Battinelli, the chief medical officer at Northwell Health, said. “Every time you think it’s gone, it pops up again. That’s because it’s never gone.”

When the number of COVID-19 cases suddenly exploded in March, “we did what we were supposed to do, which was isolate and quarantine,” Battinelli said. “But then it quieted down and people misinterpreted that and decided it was gone. But it never went away, we just learned how to keep it at bay. We were opening up because we found out that by masking, by social distancing, by washing hands and maintaining good hygiene, we could slow the spread.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned that it could take at least two years before this pandemic has run its course, Battinelli said.

“It was always assumed that if we became lax about masking and distancing, we would see new cases,” he said.

So if there is a fourth peak of COVID-19 infections, which part of the U.S. would be hit first?

“Any place anybody takes their masks off,” Battinelli replied.

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