Months ago, University of Minnesota infectious diseases expert Dr. Michael Osterholm warned of a significant COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. that would be fueled by more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2.
The ominous tone that Osterholm has been preaching with for months is now being echoed by CDC Director Rochelle Wolensky, who during a White House COVID-19 Response briefing Monday morning said she’s “scared” and has a sense of “impending doom” about the trajectory of the pandemic in America, with the country currently in a race to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even when it was not the news you wanted to hear. Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth and I have to hope and trust you will listen,” said Wolensky.
“I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”
She continued: “The trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S. looks similar to many other countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy and France looked like just a few weeks ago. And since that time, those countries have experienced a consistent and worrying spike in cases. We are not powerless. We can change this trajectory of the pandemic, but it will take all of us recommitting to following the public health prevention strategies consistently while we work to get the American public vaccinated.”
The U.S. has had a 10% increase in cases week-over-week, while hospitalizations, which lag behind case increases, have risen to about 4,800 per day nationally from 4,600 per day a week ago. Deaths, which lag behind hospital admissions, are also up approximately 3% nationally to around 1,000 per day, according to the CDC.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared,” said Wolensky.
“We are just almost there, but not quite yet. And so I am asking you to just hold on a little bit longer, to get vaccinated when you can so that all the people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends.”
Minnesota is among the states seeing an increasing level of cases and hospitalizations. The state health department reported 1,550 new cases Monday. Minnesota’s 7-day rolling average is up to 1,406 cases per day after dipping to a low point of 742 cases per day on Mar. 5.
Hospital admissions were around 220 in early March. The state reported Monday that through Sunday there were 343 people with COVID-19 hospitalized, including 88 in intensive care.
Wolensky warned: “I’m calling on every single one of you to sound the alarm, to carry these messages into your community,” she said. “We do not have the luxury of inaction. For the health of our country, we must work together now to prevent a fourth surge.”
Caveat: France, Italy not as far along as U.S. in vaccine rollout
While Wolensky cited the rise in cases in Western Europe as the reason for her alarm, the U.S. does have an advantage over many of these nations as they are much further behind in their vaccine rollout compared to here.
A country much further along in its vaccine rollout, the United Kingdom, has seen case numbers stabilize significantly during March.
It’s also the case that the United States is less densely populated than the U.K., France, Germany, and Italy, which gives it an advantage at reducing COVID transmission.
French hospitals are once again facing immense pressure, according to The Associated Press, though vaccine deployment has ramped up significantly in the past week after a slow rollout. In Italy, only people over the age of 80 or with essential jobs are eligible for the vaccine, meaning only approximately 5% of the nation’s population is fully vaccinated, Johns Hopkins University reports.
Comparatively, 28.2% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose and more than 15% are fully vaccinated. Through Mar. 27, Minnesota reported that 1,609,277 people have received at least 1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while 990,854 people have completed both doses of vaccine that are required for the vaccines’ maximum effect.
What’s more is that 81% of Minnesota’s age 65-plus population has received at least one shot, meaning the bulk of the state’s most vulnerable people have added protection against the disease.
And on Tuesday, all Minnesotans at least 16 years old will be eligible to receive a vaccine, though people with essential jobs and/or underlying medical conditions will be prioritized over healthy, young people.
Walz’s mid-February response to Osterholm’s warning
Osterholm, on Feb. 15, appeared on CBS This Morning and focused almost entirely on the threat of the B.1.1.7. variant that led to strict lockdowns in the United Kingdom, and which is now thought to be behind the March spike in Minnesota.
“The next 14 weeks I think will be the worst of the pandemic. People don’t want to hear that,” said Osterholm. “But if we look at what these variants are doing, particularly this one from the United Kingdom, and see what it did in Europe, see what it’s done in the Middle East, it’s now beginning to start that here in the United States. We are going to see that unfold.”
Osterholm added that he expected “very dark days” by the end of March.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was asked about Osterholm’s forecast two days later, and said: “I respect Dr. Osterholm greatly and he has been a huge component helping us understand,” Walz said. “That is not CDC’s position. It is not the models we are using, IMHE, Mayo…we’re not necessarily seeing that. He is not wrong that the variants pose a potential threat.”