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Experts say a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to holiday travel has arrived. Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
  • Experts say the post-holiday COVID-19 surge has arrived, driving up the number of cases as well as deaths.
  • They add that the new virus variants that have shown up in nine U.S. states aren’t a big factor yet, but they could be down the road.
  • Experts say the holiday surge emphasizes how important it is to speed up the pace of vaccinations.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, the country’s top hot spot may not be the state you think of first.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s Arizona.

The state is averaging 131 new cases per 100,000 people per day, far outpacing neighboring California.

Experts say a lack of a statewide mask mandate and few restrictions on restaurants, bars, and large gatherings have fueled the increase in cases.

Now the state is also dealing with a surge on top of a surge.

“Thanksgiving just threw gas on the fire and really got us going into that exponential growth curve,” said Will Humble, MPH, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

“Combined with the Christmas parties and the New Year’s parties and all of the social mixing that happened over that 10-day period, it’s had an enormous impact,” Humble told Healthline. “For the past week, we’ve been the top, the worst in the world.”

And Arizona is just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past week, the United States has averaged more than 246,000 new cases per day. Deaths have hovered between 3,000 and 4,000 per day.

The uptick in numbers comes after repeated warnings for the public to stay home and avoid social gatherings during the holiday season were ignored.

A survey conducted just before Christmas by the Clinical Excellence Research Center at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California found that 34 percent of the respondents acknowledged they were planning indoor gatherings.

Many expected to have 11 or more people in attendance.

The coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom, which scientists say is far more contagious, has been discovered in at least nine U.S. states so far.

The CDC says it has received 76 reports of cases with the strain known as B.1.1.7 so far, but the actual number may be much higher.

“We’re not testing enough for this variant to be sure,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline. “But in some places where they have been testing, they don’t find that it is even close to dominant. It’s down around 6 percent.”

“So it’s out there, starting to circulate, but we think by far the majority, the lion’s share of the cases we’re seeing, have to do with human behaviors,” Schaffner added.

“We’re not wearing the masks, not social distancing. It’s traveling, having family get-togethers, parties, those kinds of things,” he said.

The consequences of this latest surge are deadly.

The latest estimate from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts that more than 567,000 people will have died from COVID-19 by April 1 if current trends continue.

That means another 180,000 people could die over the next 10 weeks.

“What we’re seeing from the data coming in to us is that the numbers are going to go up,” said Ali Mokdad, PhD, a professor of health metrics sciences at the IHME.

“Some of the local and state governments have dialed back some of the mandates. It’s overwhelming our hospitals and exhausting the medical staff,” Mokdad told Healthline.

“Unfortunately, the vaccine is not going very well. We haven’t done a good job figuring out the delays and understanding what the problems are with the rollout,” he added.

“I think this has turned out to be substantially more complicated than first thought,” Schaffner said.

“The vaccine handling is tough. There are forms to fill out. You have to enter everybody into the vaccine registry. You give the shot, you have to watch them for 15 to 30 minutes and be prepared to treat an allergic reaction. You have to have the resources, people, and money,” he said.

On Monday, Arizona opened a transformed State Farm Stadium as a massive 24/7 vaccination site.

When it’s fully operational, the goal is to vaccinate 6,000 Arizonans a day.

On Friday, Los Angeles County in California will follow suit.

Dodger Stadium will convert from a mass testing site to a mass vaccination site.

It had been used to administer more than 1 million COVID-19 tests since May.

Once it’s up and running, officials expect to be able to vaccinate 12,000 people a day.

It’s a plan that’s being repeated around the country at football stadiums and ballparks. The parking lot at Disneyland in California is already operating as a mass vaccination site.

The goal is to get the vaccines out of freezers and into arms.

“Our only way to get out of this is to get the vaccinations as soon as possible and do it as fast as you can,” Mokdad explained. “It’s a race against time.”

Robert Kaplan, PhD, who is the director of research at the Clinical Excellence Research Center at Stanford, said the vaccines are part of why we could be looking at the final surge in this pandemic.

“We’re starting to vaccinate people. It’s accelerating extremely slowly, but it is happening,” Kaplan told Healthline.

“There’s a multiplier effect,” he added. “The CDC estimates that for each known infection, there are about eight people who have been infected but are not in the database because they haven’t had a PCR test.”

“So there’s an increasing number of people getting immunized, and there’s a lag between now and the next big gathering holiday,” he noted.