President Joe Biden on Thursday wished Americans a happy and closer-to-normal Thanksgiving, the second celebrated in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, in remarks welcoming the resumption of holiday traditions in many homes.
In his first holiday message as president, Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, said this year's celebrations were especially meaningful after last year's family separations due to the pandemic.
"This is always a special time in America. But this year, the blessings of Thanksgiving are especially meaningful," the president said in a prerecorded video message released by the White House.
"As we give thanks for what we have, we also keep in our hearts those who we lost, and those who have lost so much. And those who have an empty seat at their kitchen table or their dining room table this year because of this virus or another cruel twist of fate or accident. We pray for them," the president said.
Jill Biden added: "After being apart last year, we have a new appreciation for those little moments we can't plan or replicate. The music of laughter in a warm, full kitchen, the thump of small feet making big sounds, the circle of faces crowded around our dining room table, glowing in the candlelight."
Many families and friends who stayed apart last year have been able to reunite for the holiday this year thanks to the prevalence of the Covid-19 vaccines. About 60% of the eligible population in the US have been fully vaccinated.
Soon after the video was released on Twitter, the president called Al Roker at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from the first family's holiday stay in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Shut out a year ago, spectators again lined the route as about 8,000 participants joined the parade and marching bands from around the country played. Parade employees and volunteers had to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and wear masks.
"My message is after two years, you're back, America's back," Biden told Roker, who was among the hosts of the parade. "There's nothing we're unable to overcome, Al, and you're one of the reasons for that, pal. You're always up. You're always rooting."
The president's remarks came as Covid infection rates climb again in parts of the midwest and north-east, with health workers and hospital systems saying they are preparing for an influx of Covid patients due to holiday travel.
"It is a race against time," said Kyle Enfield, the associate chief medical officer of critical care at University of Virginia Health.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,000 people are dying from the virus each day. The country is averaging 95,000 new cases a day, an increase of about 25% over the past two weeks.
Michigan leads the country in recent cases per capita, according to the New York Times tracker, with the state averaging more than 8,000 new cases a day. New cases are up more than 80% in Massachusetts and 70% in Illinois. Colorado and Arizona are also under pressure.
There have been twice the number of Covid deaths this year than in 2020. Officials have warned that total US deaths from the virus may reach 1m by March.
As families gathered, many for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, health officials have pleaded with unvaccinated people not to travel. Last week, the Transportation Security Administration said it expected that about 20 million passengers would fly over the holiday, or about 6 million fewer than 2019.
But health experts are broadly optimistic that despite rising infections, the take-up of vaccines will not lead to a surge in mortality.
"It gives me a little bit of hope that we're seeing some breakthrough infections that are not as severe as the ones that we've seen in the past," Emily Rubin, a critical care physician at Massachusetts general hospital, told the Guardian.
"But I think that the next couple of days and weeks are really going to be telling for what the real impact is going to be."
In addition to pushing vaccination booster shots, the Biden administration has earmarked $10bn in new spending on new and experimental Covid-19 treatments that could help about 30% of adults who remained unvaccinated.
The administration recently signed a $5.25bn deal with Pfizer for its experimental pill to treat Covid infections and agreed to pay $1bn for a monoclonal antibody treatment from GlaxoSmithKline in addition to deals with Merck and Eli Lilly for their Covid medicines.