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Osterholm: Michigan should serve as COVID warning for rest of US

Cases and hospitalizations have surged in Michigan in recent weeks.

A variant-driven surge of COVID-19 appears to be well underway in Minnesota as the state is reporting rising cases and hospitalizations, including more than 2,140 cases reported Thursday – the first time with more than 2,000 since early January. 

The increasing levels are being fueled by the B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus that was first discovered in the United Kingdom in late 2020, and was confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health last week as being widespread in Minnesota. 

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, believes the world is entering its "darkest days" of the pandemic. 

"These variants have been game-changers. And in particular, right now on an international stage, understand we are entering the darkest days," Osterholm said Thursday on his podcast. "Those that don't want to believe it, that's your problem. If you go look at the numbers, it's painful to see what's happening globally."

"We're not driving this tiger, we're riding it," Osterholm said, noting that Minnesota's cases are up 28% week-over-week – an indicator that Minnesota could be on a similar path that Michigan is currently experiencing from B.1.1.7. 

"If you look at where we are right now with vaccine ... please take a look at Michigan. They've had a 57% increase in daily cases over the past week. They have had a 104% increase in hospitalizations over the past 14 days," he said. 

"If you look at where they're at now and how hospitalization is increasing, it's being driven by young, unvaccinated adults. Often these are the parents of, friends of, or the colleagues of people with kids in schools. Young kids. And this virus is making these people really sick. And it won't be long before we see more cases in those older age groups," warned Osterholm. 

Osterholm has long predicted a significant surge of variant-driven cases in the U.S., even when Gov. Tim Walz publicly said in January that the data and models the state is using didn't project as ominous a tone as the infectious disease expert. 

Michigan's progress with vaccination is similar to Minnesota, according to data from the CDC.

  • Michigan: 28.6% with at least one dose; 17% fully vaccinated
  • Minnesota: 31.5% with at least one dose; 18.8% fully vaccinated
  • National: 29.4% with at least one dose; 16.4% fully vaccinated

The fact that Michigan is seeing explosive growth in new cases and hospitalizations despite vaccination progress serves as a warning to the rest of the country, according to Osterholm. 

"That vaccine isn't slowing things down in Michigan much. It's because there still are so many people who are susceptible to the virus," Osterholm said, noting that approximately 50% of people in the Upper Midwest are still susceptible to the virus. 

"We're going to see a surge of cases. How high? I don't know," he added. "You're seeing what's happening in Michigan right now. At that point we're going to have a challenge."

What Osterholm believes makes the situation in America more ominous is the fact that numerous states, including Minnesota, have or continue to open up businesses, schools and entertainment venues at a greater level than any in the past year of the pandemic. 

"No other country in the world who is facing escalating B.1.1.7 case numbers is loosening everything up," he continued. "Nobody is doing that. The only places that are at all lightening up on their restrictions are countries like the United Kingdom where they've really finally brought it under control, where they've vaccinated a large segment of their population with one dose of vaccine and where they've been in lockdown for many months."

He said the situation in the U.S. is a "perfect storm" for the variant. 

"We've got a bad, bad virus. We got a lot of people still yet who can be infected ... and now we are opening up like we are somehow done with the virus. It's like dismissing gravity." 

The Michigan Department of Health reported 745 COVID-19 hospital admissions (adults) on Feb. 22, with its March 31 report at 2,550 adult admissions – a 242% increase. 

COVID-19 hospital admissions in Minnesota have increased 74.5% in the last month, going from 251 patients on March 1 to 438 on April 1. Minnesota's trend: 

  • March 1: 251 (191 non-ICU, 60 ICU)
  • March 7: 223 (177 non-ICU, 46 ICU)
  • March 13: 255 (194 non-ICU, 61 ICU)
  • March 20: 324 (246 non-ICU, 78 ICU)
  • March 27: 356 (264 non-ICU, 92 ICU)
  • April 1: 438 (330 non-ICU, 105 ICU)

At 438 admissions, it pales in comparison to the late November high point of more than 1,800 people with COVID-19 being cared for in Minnesota hospitals. But as Osterholm said, it's unclear how high the current surge will go. 

The good news is that Minnesota continues to make progress with vaccination, and the vaccines – Pfizer, Modern, and Johnson & Johnson – are known to reduce deaths and illness severity against COVID-19, including the B.1.1.7 variant. 

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