(Adds comment from Los Angeles International Airport spokesman in paragraphs 8-9)
By Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter
Nov 25 (Reuters) - Americans defied pleas from state and local officials to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday in the face of the surging coronavirus pandemic, triggering fresh warnings from health officials with the release of vaccines still weeks away.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden joined in the calls for safety, urging people to forgo big family gatherings, wear protective masks and maintain social distancing.
"I know we can and we will beat this virus," Biden said in a speech delivered in a near-empty Wilmington, Delaware, theater to a handful of staffers and reporters wearing masks and sitting inside socially distanced circles on the floor. Biden did not wear a mask.
"Life is going to return to normal. I promise you. This will happen. This will not last forever," said Biden, a 78-year-old Democrat.
Deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 in a single day for the first time since May on Tuesday and hospitalizations reached a record of more than 89,000 on Wednesday as the country recorded 2.3 million new infections in the past two weeks.
Spiraling infections typically result in a rising death toll weeks later. Coronavirus deaths reached 2,157 on Tuesday - one person every 40 seconds - with another 170,000 people infected, as millions of Americans traveled for Thanksgiving.
Nearly 1 million passengers a day have been screened at airport security checkpoints for the past week, with Sunday's total of 1.047 million being the highest number since the early days of the pandemic in mid-March.
"It's tough. It's a big holiday in the U.S., Thanksgiving. But with the situation that we're in right now, it just seems like the safe play is to not come to the airport, to not travel," Los Angeles International Airport spokesman Charles Pannunzio told Reuters.
"But if you are traveling, we're going to do our best to make the journey safer for you."
'WE WANT TO SEE THE FAMILY'
Daliza Rodriguez, a 33-year-old childhood educator, was traveling to Texas from New York's LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday.
"We know we're taking a risk but we want to see the family, and it has been a long time," she said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible.
"If we do those things, we're going to get through it. So that's my final plea before the holiday," Fauci told the ABC News program "Good Morning America" on Wednesday.
Families with university students have been forced to evaluate the risk of reuniting for Thanksgiving.
Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington wearing an N95 mask and a face shield and checked into a hotel for 14 days, quarantining to protect her parents and grandparents.
"She was returning to a vulnerable set of people. We didn't trust that a test was enough," said her mother, Cynthia Wimer.
Luke Burke, studying at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey until his roommate tested positive last week.
"I'm sorry I can't be there with my parents, but it's the right thing to do," Burke said.
LINES IN NEW YORK CITY
Across New York City, lines at COVID-19 testing sites wrapped around the block on Wednesday, video on Twitter showed. Bundled-up New Yorkers queued up outside clinics in Astoria, Queens, and Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, starting early as 8 a.m.
MG Robinson, a contract analyst at the Office of New York City Comptroller, waited in line for seven hours outside a CityMD clinic in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on Wednesday.
"I woke up at 6 (a.m.) and I got here at 6:30 ... I couldn't even see the front of the line," said Robinson, 30, who is planning to gather with a small group of family members on Thanksgiving.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was criticized after telling a local TV station he had invited his 89-year-old mother and two daughters to Albany for Thanksgiving, since reversed course.
"This is not a normal Thanksgiving, and to act like it's a normal Thanksgiving is to deny the reality of every health expert in the nation," Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday in urging New Yorkers to stay home.
The first COVID-19 vaccines could be weeks away with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration due to rule Dec. 10 on whether to approve Pfizer Inc's vaccine for emergency use.
A second vaccine, manufactured by Moderna Inc, could also be ready for U.S. authorization and distribution within weeks, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said.
The Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed program plans to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide as soon as one is approved.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter, Dan Fastenberg, Nathan Layne, Lisa Lambert, Daniel Trotta and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bill Tarrant, Aurora Ellis and Himani Sarkar)
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