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WATCH: Your questions about COVID-19 and the holiday season, answered

Amid the holiday season, the temptation is high for family and friends to gather with one another. But coronavirus is spreading unchecked in almost every state and just two weeks after Thanksgiving, the country has hit another grim milestone — more than 3,000 Americans died of COVID-19 on Wednesday, surpassing fatalities suffered on D-Day as well as the attacks on September 11, 2001.

A COVID-19 vaccine may soon be approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but that doesn’t mean Americans should ignore the public health measures necessary to limit transmission of the virus, said Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and a former president of the American Public Health Association. She emphasized that “all of our lives are precious,” and Americans should keep doing their part to protect those around them by wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings with those outside of their homes.

With PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz, Jones answered viewer questions about everything from the vaccine rollout process to the risk of gathering with loved ones amid the ongoing pandemic.

How Americans and U.S. lawmakers can mitigate COVID-19 risk

What’s unfolding right now across the country “is going to be the darkest part of the pandemic,” Jones said of the spike in coronavirus cases that the U.S. is currently experiencing. She warned that without proper mitigation efforts in place, the country could be headed for a “worse and worse” outbreak in the coming weeks. The timing coincides with the holiday season and with colder weather, when groups of people would normally bet gathering indoors.

Jones likened the U.S. government’s lagging public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic to a house fire that was never contained: “Now we have a whole nation on fire and we haven’t tried to put any lids on it.”

While Americans can do their part to contain the virus by wearing masks and socially distancing, Jones said the government should also take steps to mitigate the worsening spread of COVID-19 by passing legislation to fund more testing and allow nonessential workers to stay home from work.

Jones stressed that earlier and stronger government intervention in the COVID-19 crisis could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Why an effective COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t erase the need for public health precautions

Even if a vaccine is approved by the FDA, Jones said, the U.S. should not lose sight of public health strategies. “The vaccine in the face of widespread…raging virus around us is still not going to be as protective as people want. We have to put the fire out and then we can protect,” Jones said.

She added that there are a lot of questions about the COVID-19 vaccine that remain unanswered. It’s still not known, for example, whether some participants in the vaccine trials got the virus but remained asymptomatic, meaning they could still spread COVID-19 to other people, despite showing no symptoms.

“It’s possible that the vaccine could actually increase the number of asymptomatic spreaders that we have in the population,” Jones warned.

She also said that while the vaccine is being hailed as the “light at the end of the tunnel,” it’s still going to be a while before Americans can let their guard down. “It’s a very good thing, but it’s not going to be the answer even in six months,” Jones said of a coronavirus vaccine. “Right now, I am planning to keep my mask on for another year through December of 2021.”

When could the U.S. achieve herd immunity?

Some experts estimate that at least 70 percent of the population needs to be immune to the coronavirus in order to achieve herd immunity, but Jones said that a COVID-19 vaccine may not necessarily guarantee recipients immunity for a prolonged period of time.

“We don’t know how much antibody needs to be out there for people to really be immune,” said Jones, who noted that the average vaccine trial participant has only tested for the COVID-19 antibodies after two months.

The hope is that a vaccine will give recipients immunity for at least a year, she added, and that sometime between June and September the U.S. could hit the 70 percent mark. But she cautioned that this means that Americans shouldn’t put their masks aside or stop being careful “until we have as near to 100 percent vaccination as we could get,” Jones said.

How to talk to skeptical friends and family about COVID-19

When speaking to family members who don’t recognize the severity of the virus, Jones encouraged folks to ask loved ones “to honor the fact that it’s important” to them, and point to case statistics in states where they may be traveling.

She also said it was important to consider how stretched thin the U.S. health care system is currently: “The hospitals are full to bursting and health care workers are getting sick and dying. So the thing is, you don’t want to stress the system beyond repair.”

“This is a serious thing. All of us, if we are human, are vulnerable to this infection right now,” Jones said, adding that talking to health care workers or other Americans who have been affected by the virus could drive home a message about the virus’ severity to skeptical family and friends.

“If you need convincing, think about how you would feel if you are in the hospital alone and the last thing you saw is a light coming to intubate you, and there was no family around you. Or think about if that were your mother or your father or your sister or brother, your child. This is serious,” she said.