Nov. 25 (Reuters) — Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 for the first time since May and with hospitals across the country already full, portending a surge in mortalities to come as the coronavirus pandemic casts a shadow over the holiday season.

The death toll reached 2,157 on Tuesday — one person every 40 seconds — with another 170,000 people infected, numbers that experts say could grow with millions of Americans disregarding official warnings and traveling for Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday.

The deadliest day in more than six months was still short of the record of 2,806 deaths on April 14, in the early stages of the pandemic, according to a Reuters tally of official data. That one-day figure is sometimes reported higher due to a backlog of deaths that were not compiled until April 14.

With U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 reaching a record high of 87,000 on Tuesday, the nation's leading infectious diseases official urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the need to "hang in there a bit longer" on wearing masks, maintaining distance and avoiding crowds, especially indoors.

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"If we do those things, we're going to get through it. So that's my final plea before the holiday," Fauci told the ABC News program "Good Morning America" on Wednesday.

Families with university students have been forced to evaluate the risk of reuniting for Thanksgiving.

Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington wearing an N95 mask and a face shield and checked into a hotel for 14 days, quarantining to protect her parents and grandparents.

"She was returning to a vulnerable set of people. We didn't trust that a test was enough," said her mother, Cynthia Wimer.

Others are just staying put.

Luke Burke, studying at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey until his roommate tested positive last week.

"I'm sorry I can't be there with my parents, but it's the right thing to do," Burke said.

Meanwhile school districts across the United States face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed.

Many parents are balking at online instruction, while others worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely. Teachers say they are not comfortable teaching in person.

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"Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it's the wrong decision," said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educational services in Chandler, Arizona.

Help may be coming with vaccines showing promise.

Officials from the U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed program told reporters on Tuesday they plan to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide in an initial distribution after the first one is cleared by regulators for emergency use, which could happen as soon as Dec. 10.

If all goes well, 40 million doses will be distributed by the end of the year, they said.

A Food and Drug Administration ruling on emergency use for Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine is expected on Dec. 10.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to make fighting the pandemic his top priority upon taking office on Jan. 20 and will give a speech on the topic on Wednesday.

Fauci said on C-SPAN on Wednesday he had been in contact with Biden's staff and was willing to serve on any task force.

Outgoing President Donald Trump has remained largely silent on the subject, making a one-minute appearance in the White House briefing room on Tuesday to talk about the stock market.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Lisa Shumaker, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Kristina Cooke, Benjamin Lesser, M.B. Pell and Simon Lewis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)