US hits record 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases as hospitals are further strained

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 30: In an aerial view from a drone, cars are lined up at Dodger Stadium for COVID-19 testing on the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend on November 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Health officials in Los Angeles County have issued a new limited stay-at-home order in effect for the next three weeks amid a surge in coronavirus cases. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Hospitals across the US are being put under immense pressure as the nation continues to hit record levels of new COVID-19 cases.

“We’re seeing day-by-day increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19, both those who are a little bit sick and those who are really sick,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, a CNN medical analyst and director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

“As that happens, our hospitals are filling up, and our workers are getting sick. Our floors are short on techs, on respiratory therapists, on nurses,” said Ranney, adding, “We are on the verge of being in a crisis state.”

Rhode Island’s not alone. More than 101,200 COVID-19 patients were in US hospitals on Friday — a record high, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And hospital systems — and health care workers — are approaching their breaking points.

“Everywhere we’re seeing a surge,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine. “And the biggest problem when you have a surge is, it’s not the space, it’s not the stuff, it’s actually the staff. Staff are tired, sick and I’m worried we’re running out of staff to take care of patients.”

Experts also fear a potential surge of infections linked to Thanksgiving gatherings that will further stress hospitals and frontline health workers.

“It is tough and exhausting to work in the hospital right now,” Ranney said. “It’s frustrating and we’re worried that we’re going to start losing staff not just to the virus, but to burnout and emotional exhaustion as well.”

As of Friday the US averaged 182,633 daily new cases over the last week — a record high for the country, according to Johns Hopkins University data. And the average number of daily COVID-19 deaths across a week hit 2,010 on Friday, the highest its been since April.

The US recorded 227,885 cases on Friday alone, the highest one-day count of the pandemic.

There is good news: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) vaccine advisers are scheduled to meet to discuss Pfizer’s and Moderna’s applications for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their COVID-19 vaccines, which some state leaders say they’re expecting to get the first doses of in the coming weeks.

But health officials warn that while some Americans may receive a vaccine by the end of the year, the country likely won’t see any meaningful impacts until late spring.

In the meantime, experts project an incredibly challenging next few months.

Stay-at-home order for San Francisco Bay Area counties

More than 278,800 people have lost their lives to the virus in the US since the pandemic began. More than 10,000 of those were recorded in the four days since the beginning of December, with more than 2,500 daily deaths reported across the US each day.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday called the accelerating pandemic “the greatest threat to life in Los Angeles that we have ever faced.” Hospitalizations in Los Angeles County have tripled in the last week, he said, and the county will likely run out of beds in two to four weeks if cases continue climbing.

Officials in the San Francisco Bay Area issued a stay-at-home order Friday, restricting the activities of more than 5.8 million people in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. The order effects the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco and the city of Berkeley.

It will go into effect Sunday and remain in place until at least January 4, according to Contra Costa Health Director Dr. Chris Farnitano.

The announcement came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a stay-at-home order for regions where the capacity of hospital intensive care units drops below 15%.

While the Bay Area has not met that threshold, officials warned they’re seeing evidence of transmission over Thanksgiving weekend that could fuel a surge in their community.

“I don’t think we can wait for the state’s new restrictions to go into effect later this month,” Farnitano said Friday. “We must act swiftly to save as many lives as we can. This is an emergency.”

The Bay Area’s not alone. Southern California is reporting just 13.1% ICU availability, and the state Department of Health confirmed Saturday morning that if the region remained under 15% after Saturday, new restrictions could go into effect Sunday evening. The San Joaquin Valley Region also fell below 15% on Friday evening.

“It really is time for us to pull back on the activity and see if we can turn this thing around before hospitals get overwhelmed,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, the chairman of the department of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, pointing out California has had a “better than average performance” throughout the pandemic.

“I see other parts of the country that are still open, even though the case rates and hospitalization rates are far worse than here,” he told CNN. “So I think we’re acting correctly.”

On Saturday, the state reported a record high of 25,068 new cases.

Here’s when most Americans will begin getting vaccinated

Dr. AnthonyFauci told CNN Friday night that healthy, non-elderly Americans with no known underlying health conditions will likely start getting vaccinated in late March to early April.

“The quickeryou get the overwhelming majority of the country vaccinated, the quicker you’re going to have that umbrella of herd immunity — which would be so, so important in bringing the level of that virus way, way down to below the threatening level,” Fauci said.

Earlier this week, vaccine advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted 13-1 to recommend that both health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities be first in line for any vaccines that get the green light from the FDA.

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday the FDA will consider emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine after the meeting of its outside advisory committee on December 10, with consideration of the Moderna vaccine not far behind.

According to Giroir, at least 20 million Americans are expected to be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month.

However, a CNN analysis of state plans shows all will fall short of what they need to fully vaccinate health care workers and long term care residents. Nationwide, those groups included in the first batch of Americans add up to about 24 million people.

“It’s going to be very challenging. Distribution is going to be crucial,” former FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told CNN Saturday, adding, that it will fall to the states to set priorities for who should get vaccinated first.

On top of that, the first vaccines require two doses, so officials will also need to keep track of how many doses each individual has received.

“This is going to be almost as hard as making the vaccine itself,” Hamburg said.

Face masks remain critical tools

But the start of vaccinations will not mean an end to COVID-19, health officials warn.

Leading public health officials in the US have emphasized masks will continue to play a crucial role in helping curb the spread of the virus — and save lives — in the coming months.

Even the people who get vaccinated earliest will need to continue to take precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, Fauci told CNN Friday.

That’s because clinical trials of the two vaccines under consideration for emergency use authorization in the US show they were about 95% effective in protecting against symptomatic disease. That does not mean, however, that vaccinated individuals cannot become infected and then spread the virus.

“There may be half the country that is still not vaccinated which means there is a lot of virus floating around there, and even if you are vaccinated, you may be protected against getting sick, but you may not be protected from infection,” said Fauci.

According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), if 95% of Americans wore masks, about 66,000 lives could be saved by April 1.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper this week, President-elect Joe Biden said that on his first day in office he’d ask all Americans to wear masks in public for 100 days to combat the spread of the virus.

“Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction,” Biden said.