Osterholm: Next 6-12 weeks will be 'darkest' of pandemic

The ominous message comes as Minnesota's case and deaths are increasing.
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Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has now said numerous times on different media platforms that the next 6-12 weeks could be the "darkest" of the pandemic so far in the United States. 

"A month and a half ago my biggest fear is what would happen after Labor Day and through the holidays," Osterholm said Monday morning on WCCO Radio, noting that the United States is seeing "major outbreaks" from people at restaurants, bars, weddings, funerals, class reunions, birthday parties and all kinds of community events that has led to what he calls "an explosion of transmission." 

"The case numbers in that early September appearance were 32,000 (new cases per day) in the country. On Friday they were 70,000, matching the all-time high we had in July. That number is just going to keep skyrocketing," Osterholm said. 

The nationwide spike in cases comes as Minnesota is reaching new heights in disease transmission. Since Sept. 30, the Minnesota Department of Health has reported double-digit deaths on 12 of 19 days. There were double-digit deaths reported just 13 times in the 100 prior days, from June 21 to Sept. 29. 

Since the beginning of October, Minnesota has had 23,678 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That's an average of 1,315 new cases per day. More concerning to public health officials is that despite record levels of testing, the test positivity rate is not declining. 

"It is the result of steady, inexorable spread in communities across the state between people who don't know they've contracted the virus," said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. 

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Pandemic 'fatigue'

Malcolm, like Osterholm, believes pandemic fatigue has set in, which coupled with colder weather and the virus spreading more efficiently indoors, might make the present day outbreaks across the country look tame compared to what could happen in the coming weeks and months. 

"The next 6-12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic," Osterholm said Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press. "Vaccines will not become available in any meaningful way until early third quarter of next year, and even then half the U.S. population at this point is skeptical of even taking the vaccine."

Osterholm criticized the national response to the pandemic, criticizing a claim made by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, who, according to the New York Times, said there is a "likelihood that only 25 or 20 percent of the people need the infection" to achieve herd immunity.

"That 20 percent number is the most amazing combination of pixie dust and pseudo science I have ever seen," said Osterholm. "It is 50-70 percent at minimum. And remember, when we talk about getting to 50-70 percent protection, you can get there with disease, but if that happens there will be lots of deaths and lot of serious illnesses, or we can get there with vaccination and postponing the number of people who get sick until we have the vaccines we have available." 

The ominous prediction from Osterholm comes after Minnesota public health leaders warned of a potential "perfect storm" impacting hospitals. Currently, bed capacity is not an issue at most Minnesota healthcare facilities, but that could be impacted by a variety of factors. 

"Unfortunately, we have the potential for a perfect storm of COVID patients, flu patients, and an increase of patients with medical problems because they have not gotten the care they need,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, the president of Essentia’s East Market, during a press conference last week. 

Staffing shortages are the concern of Hennepin Health CEO Jennifer DeCubellis, who said Friday that healthcare workers who are ill with COVID-19 or exposed to the virus have to quarantine, and the number of hospital beds available statewide is directly tied to how many healthcare workers are available. 

"Bed capacity is not our challenge in Minnesota, it's keeping our hospital systems staffed," DeCubellis said. "Don't delay necessary medical care. Take care of yourselves now so that those critical hospital beds are utilized only when we need them most," she added. 

The darkest stretch of the pandemic so far in Minnesota was mid-April to mid-June, when approximately 1,300 people died from COVID-19. That two-month stretch accounted for more than half of Minnesota's 2,234 confirmed deaths in eight months of dealing with the coronavirus. 

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