Holiday Travel Spreading COVID Will Make Start of 2021 'Rough': WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove

2021 will be a "difficult year" despite the rollout of mass vaccination programs, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official said Sunday.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for the coronavirus pandemic, told CNN: "I think it's going to be a difficult year ahead and we're going to have to have patience and stay the course."

Kerkhove said people mixing and ignoring public health guidance in many countries over the holiday period could produce a rise in cases in the early part of 2021.

"We're in for a bit of a rough start to 2021," Van Kerkhove said. The "movement and the behavior of people" over Christmas and New Year's is "going to make the first three months of 2021 quite difficult in terms of increased transmission, hospitalizations and deaths."

The WHO official's comments come as U.S. airports recorded their busiest day of the pandemic over the weekend, The New York Times reported. Data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shows that 1,192,881 passengers passed though security checkpoints on Saturday.

While this figure is almost half what was recorded on the same date a year ago—before COVID-19 had taken hold in the United States—it is still the highest since the pandemic began.

The TSA has recorded more than 16.3 million crossings through its checkpoints since December 18, which is significantly lower than the figure of more than 35.4 million recorded during the same period a year ago.

Public health officials urged people not to travel over the Christmas period with the United States in the midst of a third major wave of COVID-19 infections. But experts say that any noticeable post-holiday spike in infections may not appear until mid-January due to the lag between people becoming infected and showing symptoms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert, told NBC News: "Things are bad enough as they are right now but they could get worse in the next couple of weeks."

On January 3, the U.S. reported more than 201,000 new coronavirus cases and over 1,350 deaths, according to The New York Times COVID-19 tracker. Meanwhile, more than 125,000 people were hospitalized with the disease across the country.

Van Kerkhove said that the rollout of mass vaccinations would not immediately put an end to the pandemic in many countries.

"I think it's going to be frustrating and slow to roll out—slower than anyone would like," she said. "The first six months of the year are going to be painful for people because they just want it to be done and we really need people to have the patience to get through it."

According to the WHO expert, the public will still need to practice social distancing and wear masks well into 2021, although some countries could return to something resembling normality by the summer or fall.

World Health Organization's Maria van Kerkhove
World Health Organization's technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, Maria van Kerkhove gestures during an interview with AFP in Geneva on October 13, 2020. RICHARD JUILLIART/AFP via Getty Images