A U.S. medical expert says 2021 will be a better year and while COVID cases continue to rise "this time next year...we'll be in a much, much better situation.

Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Peter Hotez, said in a radio interview early Tuesday that vaccines brought a sense of hope. He said the national vaccination program was complicated and won't come without problems but he was optimistic the spring of 2021 will be much different.

"It's hard to imagine it could get much worse, that is the hope, and I think there is some truth to that," Hotez said. "I think February will be better than January, March will be better than February, I think April will be better than March. With each passing month, you'll see a gradual improvement in the quality of life in this country, but it's not an on or off switch. It will be gradual and people will have to be patient until we get everybody vaccinated."

"I think this time next year, if we have a significant percentage of the population vaccinated we'll be in a much, much better situation," he said. "I think people will be going back to work on a regular basis. Whether or not we'll still need masks or some level of social distancing, that's not impossible. But I think a year from now, life is going to look much better across the country, assuming of course, there's no new escape variance that emerges because of the virus mutation. I think that's pretty unlikely."

The deadliest month might be January and it might eclipse December's death toll of more than 63,000 Americans, according to predictions by other health experts. This is a result of an expected post-Christmas-new-year increase in cases.

"We very well might see a post-seasonal - in the sense of Christmas, New Year - surge," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

The causes will be holiday travel - the highest for all holidays this year - and private gatherings that took place despite warnings. Fauci described the potential rise in cases as a "surge upon a surge."

"If you look at the slope, the incline of cases that we've experienced as we've gone into the late fall and soon to be early winter, it is really quite troubling," he said on CNN.

The number of new deaths will likely increase by between 16,400 and 27,600 in the week ending Jan. 16, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

It predicts 378,000 to 419,000 deaths will be reported by this date. There had been 330,901 deaths in the U.S. as of Sunday. It counted 1,309 new deaths Sunday as well as 18.9 million total cases.

But another 193,000 Americans might lose their lives over the next two months, according to statistical estimates from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

"The projections are just nightmarish," Hotez said. "People can still save the lives of their loved ones by practicing social distancing and masks. And remember, vaccines are around the corner."

The number of hospitalizations are at records. On Saturday, the U.S. recorded its fifth-highest hospitalizations at more than 117,300, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

"When you're dealing with a baseline of 200,000 new cases a day and about 2,000 deaths per day, with the hospitalizations over 120,000, we are really at a very critical point," Fauci said. "As we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse."

The rollout of vaccinations across the country is proceeding cautiously and slowly and that is good, Fauci said.

"I'm pretty confident that as we gain more and more momentum, as we transition from December to January and then February to March, I believe we will catch up with the projection," he said.

One reason for slow vaccine distribution is that it is "very complicated," according to Dr. Esther Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.

"At every step, there's complexity and there's possibility for delay, whether it's individual state planning, allocation, training, supply of vaccine, storage," she said.

"We need to be prepared for the fact that it is going to be a slow rollout in many places and that it will not change our behaviors or necessarily the trajectory of the pandemic in this country in the short term."