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Dr. Michael Osterholm: Relaxing COVID Restrictions As Cases Climb Is Like 'Dismissing Gravity'

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- As COVID-19 restrictions relax, cases are climbing.

State health leaders say one variant is taking over. Up to 60% of Minnesota's infections are now the variant B117, first discovered in the United Kingdom.

Like the warm spring sun shining over the Twin Cities, it's easy to feel that brighter days are ahead, especially for the many who just got a potentially lifesaving shot in the arm. Joellyn Ackerman got vaccinated Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

"I got a big old smile on under these two masks," Ackerman said.

Brandon Hensler also got one of his shots.

"Coming out and walking out with a vaccination card in my hand, it's inspiring," Hensler said. "It feels like a step in the right direction."

The rise in COVID-19 vaccine allotment and widening of eligibility is a big step forward. But the steady rise in COVID cases feels like a step back, and that's giving University of Minnesota professor Dr. Michael Osterholm great concern, especially as some states lift mask mandates and loosen restrictions.

"We've got a bad, bad virus, we've got a lot of people still yet who can be infected despite vaccines arriving, and we are now opening up as if somehow we're done with the virus," Osterholm said on his podcast, "Osterholm Update: COVID-19." "It's like we're dismissing gravity."

Hospital Bed ICU Generic
(credit: CBS)

Hospitalizations are rising in Minnesota as well. On March 1, there were 251 people total hospitalized with 60 in the ICU. On April 1, it's up to 435 hospitalized with more than 105 of them in the ICU.

Another indicator of note is cases per 100,000 people. In mid-February, the number was 13.1 in Minnesota. It's up to 23.3 now -- a number not seen since the huge surge started last October.

"We gotta hang together and get through this, but know we're gonna see a surge of cases," Osterholm said. "How high? I don't know."

It's optimism now being met with caution, as the race to get vaccinated is now being tailed by a highly-transmissible variant.

"I listen to the professionals that do the research, and if they say they're concerned, then I'm gonna be concerned as well," Hensler said.

Despite his grim predictions, Dr. Osterholm is happy with the progress in vaccine distribution nationwide, and expects it to increase in the weeks ahead.

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