Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that he is "not surprised" that the coronavirus pandemic is still raging one year later. He also believes that the country is in a "whole new ballgame" in terms of dealing with the virus, given the new variants of COVID-19 that have cropped up in recent months.
"We are, I think for the moment, in the eye of a hurricane with regard to the good news, the vaccine's coming, but the big challenge [is] with this new variant that has arrived here from Europe," Osterholm told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett in an interview, in reference to the variant. "But beyond that, it's all going to be about the variants and the vaccine, and that will determine where we're going to be next year, the year after, and the year after that."
Osterholm noted that B117 is more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19 and causes more serious adverse health reactions, adding that studies show that that there has been an increase in serious illness in younger people in Europe. Osterholm spoke with Garrett for this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast.
Highlights from this week's episode:
- Michael Osterholm on the B117 variant of COVID-19: "We are I think for the moment in the eye of a hurricane with regard to the good news, the vaccine's is coming, but the big challenge [is] with this new variant that has arrived here from Europe."
- Reopening schools: "I know that people have made commitments, our elected officials have made commitments to get these schools opened up. I hope they take a pause and just at least look at these data that are showing that this may not be the time to open schools."
- Mitigating the spread: "We are within weeks to months of getting most of this country vaccinated. Wouldn't you want not to be the person who dies two weeks before they're supposed to get their dose of vaccine? That I think is the message we have to get across."
- Politics of the virus: "You have to look at these viruses almost like gravity. You may not like it, you may not want to deal with it, but you are going to deal with it, because gravity can't be easily dismissed."
Osterholm said that he previously would have supported at least opening schools in the U.S. for grades K-8, but data from Europe shows schools ended up closing in November, December and January because of the spread of the variant.
"I know that people have made commitments, our elected officials have made commitments to get these schools opened up. I hope they take a pause and just at least look at these data that are showing that this may not be the time to open schools," Osterholm said. "And it's not anything they did wrong from before. If we hadn't had B117, I'd be sitting here saying open up K-8 at least. Now I think we have to take a pause and really re-look at this very seriously."
Osterholm also said that there have been peaks and valleys in the number of new coronavirus cases per day over the past year, but there are "shifting baselines each time," where "the highs get higher and the lows get higher."
"The vaccines are coming; that could surely drive that low down much more quickly. The problem is between the time now that we're going to see an additional vaccine amount available to really start vaccinating a much larger segment of our population beyond the 12% we've vaccinated now — we're going to see this B117 surge occur," Osterholm predicted.
He urged people to continue to take the virus seriously, and try to mitigate the spread as much as possible in the final weeks before most of the country is vaccinated.
"We are within weeks to months of getting most of this country vaccinated. Wouldn't you want not to be the person who dies two weeks before they're supposed to get their dose of vaccine? That, I think, is the message we have to get across," he said. "We're not asking you to do this for another year, we're not asking you to do this forever: we're asking you as a part of our community save yourself until you can get your vaccine."
Osterholm, who has served in some capacity in the past five presidential administrations, said that he was not a partisan actor but saw his duty to "be a soldier in the public health army."
"I'm agnostic on the politics; I'm absolute on the science," he said. And one thing he implicitly cautioned against is dropping COVID safety precautions like masking and social distancing mandates too early.
"You have to look at these viruses almost like gravity. You may not like it, you may not want to deal with it, but you are going to deal with it, because gravity can't be easily dismissed. These viruses are the same way," Osterholm said.
Osterholm indicated that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and "we could have some very, very bright days ahead of us." But he worried about what it would mean if significant numbers of Americans.
"If we see 30, 35% of people not willing to get the vaccine, we could still see ongoing transmission challenges well through the next year," he said.
For more of Major's conversation with Osterholm, download "The Takeout" podcast on Art19, iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).
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