More than a million people were screened at US airports to celebrate Thanksgiving holiday with their families despite warnings that mass travel could significantly worsen the pandemic.

Travelers wearing protective face masks and face shields to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease  hug after departing a flight at the airport in Denver, Colorado, US on November 24, 2020
Travelers wearing protective face masks and face shields to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease hug after departing a flight at the airport in Denver, Colorado, US on November 24, 2020 (Reuters)

Millions of Americans have defied public health guidelines to spend a subdued Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends as coronavirus deaths surged worldwide.

More than a million people were screened at US airports on Wednesday – the fifth straight day with roughly that number of air travelers bent on enjoying one of the biggest US annual celebrations.

The exodus came despite warnings that mass travel threatens to significantly worsen the pandemic in the country hit hardest, with a six-month high of more than 2,400 deaths registered in just the past 24 hours.

The holiday is being celebrated at a time of severe economic strain for millions of Americans. More than 20 million people are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, and a fresh wave of layoffs is expected as governors impose business restrictions in a bid to tamp down spiraling infections, and with additional aid from Congress nowhere in sight.

Many Americans have not seen their loved ones for months and see the annual get-together as important enough to outweigh the possible risks. Nearly 40 percent plan to attend a "risky gathering" during the holiday season, either in excess of 10 people or with people from outside their household, and a third will not require masks of their guests, according to a national survey by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Many others have canceled travel plans and will instead connect with loved ones over FaceTime or Zoom.

President-elect Joe Biden offered a message of hope however in a Thanksgiving video address that rallied Americans to pull together to defeat the outbreak.

"I know better days are coming, I know how bright our future is. I know the 21st Century is going to be an American century," he said.

Vaccine breakthroughs have raised hopes for an end to the outbreak but much of the world faces a gloomy winter dampened by lockdowns, economic anxiety and devastating loss.

Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said he was expecting "a surge superimposed upon a surge" caused by the big holiday getaway.

President Donald Trump, for his part, spent the day golfing at a course he owns in Virginia, taking time out to attack Biden's record-setting winning vote count in the election earlier this month.

READ MORE: Detroit honours US Covid-19 victims with public park memorial

Thanksgiving "gift" 

Globally, more than 60 million infections and 1.4 million deaths have been recorded since the new coronavirus emerged in China late last year, according to a tally compiled by AFP from official sources.

Despite the burst of travel in America – still far below last year's Thanksgiving numbers – pandemic restrictions meant that there was a resolute, stoical undercurrent to this year's festivities.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, a cherished tradition nearly a century old featuring giant balloons and colorful floats, went ahead in a truncated made-for-TV celebration across just one city block, with no crowds and much of it pre-recorded.

Biden described how he normally travels to the New England coast for a big family feast, but would be staying home in Delaware this year for a small get-together.

"I know this isn't the way many of us hoped we'd spend our holiday. We know that a small act of staying home is a gift to our fellow Americans," he said in his video message, posted to social media.

On radio and TV, chefs have been making suggestions on scaling down meals for smaller gatherings, or even sharing bits of what they cook and leaving it on the doorstep of friends and family, so it at least feels like a shared meal.

READ MORE: Midwestern hotspots push US Covid-19 death toll near 190,000

Tangible hope 

The New York Times asked readers to state in six words or less what they were grateful for and published some of these lines as Americans tried to make the best of the holiday.

"A furtive hug with a friend," one entry reads.

"Windows have never been so important," said another.

America's political divisions were also evident.

Trump's White House has urged "all Americans to gather, in homes and places of worship," despite the health risk.

But Biden has been calling on people to hunker down and keep observing health guidelines until a vaccine becomes available.

"There is real hope, tangible hope. So hang on. Don't let yourself surrender to the fatigue," Biden said on Wednesday.

Hopes faltered slightly however when British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, one of three firms that have reported their vaccine to be ready, said further research was needed after questions emerged over the protection it offers.

The manufacturer initially said its vaccine was 70 percent effective, but then said it was 90 percent effective when an initial half-dose then a full dose was given.

US scientists said the higher rate came during tests in people aged 55 and under.

While low-income frontline workers often face the biggest risks from the virus, it has also run rampant through the world's wealthiest and most powerful.

On Thursday, Sweden's Prince Carl Philip and his wife Princess Sofia went into self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, the palace said.

READ MORE: US shutdowns cost $169B but saved 29,000 lives

Source: TRTWorld and agencies