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Air travel reaches a pandemic-era record despite concerns over a coronavirus variant

Travelers wait in line at ticketing at Terminal 4 in Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., on March 11, 2021. (CNN photo)

(CNN) — More than a million passengers have traveled through U.S. airports daily for at least 11 days in a row, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration — at a time that experts say cases of a dangerous variant are climbing across the country.

The TSA says it screened 1,543,115 people at airports nationwide on Sunday, a pandemic-era record that topped a record set only two days earlier.

“What we’re doing is essentially spreading the B.1.1.7 variant across the nation,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN on Sunday.

The spread of variants, in combination with the still small percentage of fully vaccinated Americans, is why experts have stressed state leaders should not be lifting COVID-19 measures just yet — and Americans should be doubling down on safety measures, to avoid another surge of the virus.

But while at least a dozen governors have eased restrictions this month and cases across the U.S. are no longer seeing the steep declines recorded earlier this year, one expert says it’s unlikely the U.S. will see another COVID-19 surge.

That’s because the number of prior infections and now vaccinations in the U.S. have begun to form “enough of a backstop” to prevent another spike, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“I think what you could see is a plateauing for a period of time before we continue on a downward decline — in large part because B.1.1.7 is becoming more prevalent, in large part because we’re pulling back too quickly, with respect to taking off our masks and lifting the mitigation,” he said.

Other experts have said that plateauing of cases the U.S. is reporting could serve as a predictor for another surge. Emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN last week she believes the U.S. could be on the cusp of another surge.

Others say it’s hard to predict what will happen.

“It’s very hard to say,” Hotez told CNN. “We’re in a race, that’s what it comes down to. We’ve gotten a single dose (of COVID-19 vaccine) into about a quarter of the U.S. population … and it could go either way right now.

“This is why it’s really important for the governors to stay the course and to implement masks and social distancing.”

Spring breakers worry officials

Some travelers have landed in popular spring break destinations like Florida, where local officials say the vacationers have been more than they can handle.

After Miami Beach police struggled with overwhelming crowds of mostly-maskless partiers over the weekend, the city commission on Sunday extended an emergency order. A curfew was declared for the city entertainment district from 8 p.m. Thursday through March 30. Bridges and causeways into the city will be closed at night on those days.

Mayor Dan Gelber noted the curfew means not only that people may not be out on the streets, but also that bars and restaurants must close as well.

Florida has so far reported the highest number of cases of the B.1.1.7 variant — which experts say is highly contagious and potentially more deadly — in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I wish that folks would at least mask up,” emergency physician Dr. Megan Ranney told CNN Sunday, referring to the spring break crowds. “I expect that very few of those young adults have been vaccinated and watching them gather together in those crowds, even outside, gives me fear that they’re going to bring that B.1.1.7 variant back to their home state and spread it.”

Other experts have voiced the same concern, warning all the returning vacationers could help fuel COVID-19 surges in other parts of the country, especially now that vaccination numbers are still so low.

The CDC currently continues to recommend that Americans delay travel. And earlier this month, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned that every time travel escalates, a spike in infections tend to follow, citing July 4, Labor Day and the winter holiday season.

“We are very worried about transmissible variants. A lot of them have come through our travel corridors, so we’re being extra cautious right now with travel,” Walensky had told CNN.

Vaccine hesitancy is ‘worrisome,’ governor says

So far, more than 81.4 million Americans have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. That’s roughly 24.5% of the U.S. population.

More than 44 million — about 13.3% of the population — have been fully vaccinated, the data shows.

While the number continues to climb and leaders across the country employ more methods to get shots into arms faster — like opening more mass vaccination sites and expanding eligibility requirements — challenges still lie in the way of getting the country to herd immunity.

Those challenges include vaccine hesitancy and political divisions. A recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS shows that while 92% of Democrats say they have gotten a dose of the vaccine or plan to get one, that falls to 50% among Republicans.

When asked why he believed there is skepticism among Republicans, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told CNN he thought it is a “natural resistance to government and skepticism of it.”

“The hesitancy is worrisome not just here, but all across the country, and I expect as a country we’ll get to 50% vaccination rate of the population. But we’re going to have a harder time getting from 50% to 70%. And it’s about overcoming the skepticism, it is about education … but it’s also confidence,” he said.

As more Americans see others get the vaccine, the governor said he expects the acceptance rate of vaccines to go up.

In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson said late last week that while he encourages everyone to get vaccinated, “there’s still going to be a certain amount of people that’s not going to take the vaccine and they have every right to do that.”

“We got to do a better job of making sure everybody understands the importance of the vaccine, and yet maintain the respect of people that don’t want to take a vaccine, and it is going to be a challenge to see how many people we can get done, but we’re going to do everything we can.”

New York City high schools reopen

New York City public high schools reopened to students on Monday morning, welcoming some students back to in-person learning about a year after schools first closed because of COVID-19.

The majority of high school students in the nation’s largest school district will continue remote instruction. But as many as 55,000 students between grades 9 and 12 who previously opted for in-person learning were expected to return Monday, officials said earlier this month. That’s about 20% of the district’s high school enrollment, CNN affiliate WABC reported.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio greeted students at the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice Monday morning.

New data on AstraZeneca vaccine

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca is expected to apply in the next few weeks for emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.

The vaccine showed 79% efficacy against symptomatic disease and 100% efficacy against severe disease and hospitalization in a new, U.S.-based clinical trial, the company said Monday.

The findings from the new Phase 3 trial, which included more than 32,000 participants, could boost confidence in the vaccine, which was originally developed by the University of Oxford.

Many European countries paused their rollout over a small number of blood clot concerns — going against the advice of international medical agencies as the continent confronts a third wave of infections fueled by variants of the virus.

The trial showed that the vaccine was well-tolerated and identified no safety concerns, the company said. An independent committee “found no increased risk of thrombosis or events characterised by thrombosis among the 21,583 participants receiving at least one dose of the vaccine,” according to AstraZeneca.

The new data came from a Phase 3 clinical trial conducted in the U.covis, Chile and Peru. AstraZeneca says it plans to submit the findings to a scientific journal for peer review.

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