The US reported 181,490 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a third daily rise in a row, as hospitalisations hit a record for a 16th day in succession, at 89,959.
There were 2,297 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, the largest single-day rise since May, bringing the pandemic toll to 262,065 out of nearly 12.8m cases. The death rate is still lower than in the spring.
The alarming numbers were reported as millions of Americans defied official advice to travel and gather for Thanksgiving.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday, Joe Biden appealed for resilience and sympathised with those contemplating a holiday without loved ones.
“I know this time of year can be especially difficult,” said the president-elect, whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash in December 1972. “Believe me, I know. I remember that first Thanksgiving. The empty chair, silence that takes your breath away. It’s really hard to care. It’s hard to give thanks … It’s so hard to hope, to understand.
“I’ll be thinking and praying for each and every one of you this Thanksgiving.”
Biden’s transition team were unable to coordinate with federal authorities for two weeks after the election was called, as Donald Trump refused to concede. The president still has not taken that step, but has allowed transition funds to be released.
Biden heralded the approach of apparently effective vaccines. The US was “on track for the first immunisations to begin by late December, early January”, he said.
“We’ll need to put in place a distribution plan to get the entire country immunised as soon as possible, which we will do. It’s going to take time. And hopefully the news of the vaccine will serve as incentive to every American to take simple steps to get control of the virus.”
Biden listed such steps, including wearing a mask, social distancing and more, which the Trump administration has been loath to seek to enforce, even at its own events. Trump, members of his family, aides and senior Republicans have fallen sick.
“There’s real hope,” Biden insisted. “Tangible hope.”
Later, in Washington, the newly 6-3 conservative supreme court sided with religious communities who sued to block New York state Covid restrictions on attendance at houses of worship. Amy Coney Barrett, the devout Catholic justice who replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month, sided with other conservatives on the ruling.
Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel of America, told the Associated Press: “This is an historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the constitution.”
On Wednesday, New York saw more than 6,000 daily Covid cases for the first time since late April. Pennsylvania recorded more than 7,000 cases, its second-highest total since the pandemic began. Massachusetts and Nevada saw record case numbers.
In Wyoming, the Republican governor, Mark Gordon, has opposed a mask mandate. On Wednesday, it was announced that he had tested positive.
US airports saw around 900,000 to 1 million people a day pass through checkpoints from Friday to Tuesday, down around 60% from last year but some of the biggest crowds seen since the pandemic took hold. Typically, more Americans drive for Thanksgiving than fly.
Officials – among them New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo – have been forced to cancel their own Thanksgiving plans in order to set an example. One who did not, Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, issued an apology on Wednesday.
Having asked city staff and residents to avoid holiday travel, Hancock flew to Mississippi to spend the holiday with his wife and youngest daughter.
“I made my decision as a husband and father,” he said, “and for those who are angry and disappointed, I humbly ask you to forgive decisions that are born of my heart and not my head.”