Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm issued dire warnings about the potential spread of the new, more contagious Covid-19 variants, saying that they could produce a surge of cases in the United States to levels “we have not seen yet in this country.”
Dr. Osterholm, who is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Biden’s transition team advising on coronavirus, told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd that he expects to see cases of the new Covid-19 variants to surge “in the next six to 14 weeks.” As a result, he said the US may need to execute a major shift its vaccine strategy, focusing on administering the first dose of the vaccine to as many people as possible instead of trying to get people their second doses.
“We still want to get two doses in everyone, but I think right now, in advance of this surge, we need to get as many one-doses in as many people over 65 as we possibly can, to reduce serious illness and deaths that are going to occur over the weeks ahead,” Osterholm said.
Osterholm predicted that B117, the more contagious strain of the virus that is sweeping England and has been found in pockets of the United States, will become the dominant strain of the virus in the country. “If we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tell us we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” he said. “That hurricane is coming. We have to understand that because of this surge, we do have to call an audible.”
The epidemiologist said if we see a surge of the new variant this spring, it will be worse than the previous surges. “We saw our health care system literally on the edge of not being able to provide care,” Osterholm said. “Imagine if we have what has happened in England, twice as many of those cases. That’s what we have to prepare for now.”
There is one bit of good news with the strain from England, however. So far the vaccines seem to be relatively effective in combatting B117. “Fortunately, that [B117 strain] has not shown its ability to evade the protection from the vaccine,” he said. “But its ability to cause many more infections and much more serious illness is there.”
Other variants, such as those seen in South Africa and Brazil, Osterholm said, present other potential concerns because they “may, in fact, lead to evasion of the immune protection from either natural disease or from [the] vaccine.” But, Osterholm pointed out, in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial in South Africa, “No one who had the variant infection who was vaccinated died. So it may actually attenuate the serious illness and not just fully prevent it.”
Osterholm stressed that he knows many are feeling pandemic fatigue as well as economic strain, which has led some states to loosen restrictions on activities like indoor dining. But with the new virus strains, Osterholm believes those openings will soon be reversed. “As fast as we’re opening restaurants, we’re likely going to be closing them in the near term,” he said.
So how can you protect yourself? Osterholm recommended focusing on simple things you can do, like wearing a mask that fits and wearing it properly. “One thing that’s really, to me, very important is we see up to 25% of people who wear [their mask] under their nose,” he said. “You know, that’s like fixing three of the five doors in your submarine… We’ve got to get people to start using these right. That would help right there tremendously.”