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US passes 13 million coronavirus cases as pandemic transforms the holidays

A medical staff member talked to a patient at the COVID-19 ICU of United Memorial Medical Center in Houston.
A medical staff member talked to a patient at the COVID-19 ICU of United Memorial Medical Center in Houston.Go Nakamura/Bloomberg

The United States surpassed 13 million known coronavirus cases on Friday, after a Thanksgiving upended by the pandemic and amid a Black Friday hampered by virus fears and capacity limits on stores.

Here are some significant developments:

South Dakota became the latest state where more than one in every 1,000 residents have now died of coronavirus-related causes, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Daily virus deaths in the United States have reached levels not seen since early in the pandemic.

The Transportation Security Administration reported screening 560,902 people on Thanksgiving, about one-third of the nearly 1.6 million screened on the holiday last year.

Traditional Black Friday “doorbuster” sales have mostly moved online, and retailers are staggering their in-store offers to allow for social distancing.

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Questions swirled about the coronavirus vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca with the University of Oxford, one of three early contenders for approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Critics suggested the company was less than transparent and wondered whether its most promising results would survive scrutiny.

A new study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that just 1 in 8 coronavirus infections nationwide were reported through the end of September. While roughly 7.2 million infections were reported in that time frame, the CDC estimates that the true number may have been closer to 52.9 million.

British officials are attempting to swab the entire population of Liverpool to test whether mass screening can help curtail the virus.

Even with several states not reporting their new infections Thursday, the United States still logged more than 127,500 cases, nearly 1,400 new deaths and roughly 90,500 current hospitalizations, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. The impact of the holiday on the virus’s spread may not be apparent until next week, when jurisdictions return to reporting their data regularly and people who may have gotten the virus at family gatherings receive their test results.

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Health officials asked people who gathered with others for Thanksgiving to get tested for the virus. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and health-policy professor at George Washington University, said on CNN that they should spend time outdoors if they’re still around relatives and then self-quarantine when they return home.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted that Christmas and New Year’s celebrations will be as subdued as Thanksgiving.

“If the surge takes a turn of continuing to go up and you have the sustained greater than 100,000 infections a day and 1,300 deaths per day and the count keeps going up and up . . . I don’t see it being any different during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays than during Thanksgiving,” he told USA Today in an article published Friday.

As cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to trend upward, eyes are trained on the possibility that vaccine distribution could begin as soon as December, pending regulatory approval. Amid that hopefulness, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot told Bloomberg News that his company was likely to run a new trial to test the most positive portion of its data, which reported a 90 percent effectiveness when a small group of people mistakenly received only half the initial dose of a two-dose regimen.

Katherine O’Brien, director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals for the World Health Organization, said that while AstraZeneca’s data shows promise, there are many ways the findings could still be undercut and that experts need access to the underlying data to draw conclusions about the trial’s results.

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“It’s too early for us to say anything about what we make of the data and what is needed next,” O’Brien said Friday at a news briefing. “What we really need to see is more than a press release.”

AstraZeneca narrowly avoided another significant problem when suspected North Korean hackers tried to gain access to the company’s internal systems in recent weeks, Reuters reported. The attempts are not believed to have been successful.

Until a vaccine is widely available, government officials across the United States are scrambling to impose new restrictions to curtail the spread while avoiding wholesale shutdowns like those in the spring. In the past week, Nevada, New York and the District of Columbia area, among other regions, have seen tightened rules on public gatherings.

Some jurisdictions implemented especially stringent rules for Thanksgiving weekend, including San Antonio and Bexar County, Tex., where residents are not allowed to gather outside their homes between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless they are traveling to or from a business. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, shut down liquor sales in bars and restaurants on Wednesday night, putting the kibosh on a popular annual nightlife event.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in contrast, on Tuesday extended an executive order that bans city and county governments from enforcing mask ordinances or limits on restaurant capacity.

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But most governors have been striking a cautious tone, urging residents to wear masks and maintain social distance from others, despite pandemic fatigue. On Friday, several governors instructed people not to let their guards down for Black Friday shopping.

“Please support Ohio businesses on #BlackFriday!” tweeted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican. “Online, delivery, or contactless pickup are your safest shopping options, but if you do shop in person, remember that social distancing/mask-wearing are essential! These measures will help prevent #COVID19 spread while you shop.”

Amid the worsening pandemic in the United States, the United Kingdom reported hopeful news about the spread of the virus there. British officials estimated that the virus’s reproduction rate, known as R0 and pronounced “r-naught,” was below zero and falling by up to 2 percent per day. R0 measures how many other people a person with the virus infects on average, and it sheds light on whether an outbreak is worsening in a particular area.

Other countries have announced loosening of restrictions, including Ireland, which will reopen stores, restaurants and gyms next week. Italy is allowing more movement in five regions after hospitalizations gradually declined over the past few days. Officials in France and Britain have said they will ease the rules for the holiday season.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for covid-19, warned that countries should not become lax, even if their case numbers are currently falling.

“What we don’t want to see is situations where you’re moving from a so-called lockdown state to bringing the virus under control to moving to a so-called lockdown state,” she said at the news conference.

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The news was less optimistic in other nations, including one of the last countries to record a coronavirus infection: the Polynesian island of Samoa, which confirmed its first case in a man who had recently returned from Australia.

Iran reported a record number of new infections and partly closed government offices, while Germany became the 12th country to surpass 1 million cases. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is advocating for a European Union-wide ban on ski tourism around Christmas, but other nations have resisted.

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The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Dupree andMiriam Berger contributed to this report.