For Dr. Michael Osterholm, coronavirus is personal. He has friends who have become severely ill, and knows others who have died from the virus. He hasn’t seen his five grandchildren since early March and misses them desperately. While FaceTime and Zoom calls have helped to ease the pain of the separation, they are not the same. Still, Osterholm said he doesn’t expect to see his grandkids anytime soon because, as a man in his late 60s, he would likely be at high risk if he contracted the illness.
For Osterholm, one of the country’s leading infectious disease epidemiologists who has long warned aboutthe risk of pandemics, COVID-19 is also a professional concern. He said he believes we have to reopen the economy, but has some of the same apprehensions as those of the White House coronavirus task force, who recently testified before a Senate committee.
“I think the reopening is a hodgepodge of just wanting to get by this,” said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Believing that if we just get into the summer, everything will go away, the businesses will start to come back, and they don’t have a sense of where we’re going.”
Although Osterholm said he doesn’t think it is ethical to allow uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, he acknowledged that it is not reasonable for society to stay on lockdown until a vaccine is developed.
But in the rush to get back to business, governors are not meeting criteria that are necessary to keep people safe, according to Osterholm. Before reopening, he said, there should be a decrease in new coronavirus cases for at least 14 days, health care workers should have adequate personal protective equipment, and hospitals should have enough surge capacity to handle a sudden spike in infections.
The frequency of virus testing and contact tracing are nowhere near the levels that a group of bipartisan experts has recommended in order to begin securely opening up sectors of society. There is also the critical question about states' ability to reestablish lockdowns and business closures in the future, if necessary.
“If you’re gonna ring a bell, you’d better have a way to unring it,” Osterholm said. “I don’t see anybody right now elaborating on, well, what happens if cases go up four-fold in a two-week period? Will we reestablish these measures that we’ve had in place?”
Osterholm said he thinks another vital point has been missed, too.
“We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic. We’re in the second inning of a nine inning situation where only 5 to 20% of the U.S. population has yet been infected,” he said.
The virus will not slow down until about 60 to 70% of the public is infected — thereby creating herd immunity — or until an effective vaccine is developed, he added.
Osterholm and his colleagues are uncertain about the course COVID-19 will take in the future. In a recent report, they presented three potential scenarios for the pandemic: a series of smaller waves of ongoing infections, a devastating resurgence of infections with a massive peak in the fall or winter (much like the 1918 influenza pandemic) or a “slow burn of ongoing transmission.”
As for the path forward, he said what will be required is managing the spread — figuring out how best to prevent those from getting infected who would be most at risk, while slowly opening things up for the rest of the population.
Osterholm lamented the lack of what he called “straight talk” from U.S. leaders, which he said has only confused the public. To cope with the painful times ahead, “we need an FDR fireside chat approach. We need a Winston Churchill who will be honest and say these are the challenges we have,” he explained. “We have to stop promising people everything will be okay, because that’s not going to be the case.”
Ultimately, he said he believes we will get through the crisis, but exactly how we get through it will be the measure used by his grandchildren, and future generations who judge our response.