Osterholm: Time to reconsider in-person learning at schools due to B.1.1.7 threat

Minnesota is seeing rising cases and hospitalizations, with more kids being infected.
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More warnings from the nation's top infectious disease experts as the B.1.1.7 strain of the coronavirus rapidly spreads through parts of the United States. 

Even as tens of thousands of Minnesotans are vaccinated daily, the B.1.1.7 variant is believed to be the cause of at least 50% of new cases in Minnesota. The state health department has reported more than 2,000 new cases three consecutive days for the first time in more than two months, and the trajectory appears to be accelerating. 

Appearing on NBC's Meet The Press Sunday morning, Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, warned that a fourth surge is just now beginning in America – and states in the Upper Midwest and Northeast are first in line. 

"At this time, we really are in a Category 5 hurricane status with regard to the rest of the world," Osterholm said. "In terms of the U.S., we're just at the beginning of this surge, we haven't even really begun to see it yet." 

The surge is clearly happening in Michigan, where more than 8,400 new cases were reported Saturday. Osterholm called the situation in Michigan a "wake-up call," piggybacking on his Thursday words during a guest appearance on WCCO Radio in which he stated: "Those that don't want to believe it, that's your problem."

He tripled down Monday morning when he said on WCCO Radio that Minnesota isn't far behind Michigan: "I would project right now with where things are at, in 2-3 weeks we could be seeing much higher numbers than our 2,400 cases a day here in Minnesota."

Osterholm is now suggesting that it may no longer be safe for kids to continue in-class learning because the B.1.1.7 variant is more effective at infecting children than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain. 

"Unlike the previous strains of the virus, we didn't see children under 8th grade get infected often or they were not frequently very ill. They didn't transmit to the rest of the community. That's why I was one of those people very strongly supporting reopening in-class learning," he said. 

"These kids now are really major challenges in terms of how they transmit. The fact that I can sit here and talk about 749 schools in Minnesota in the last two weeks now having B.1.1.7 activity, the message is we have to get through this surge, and that means we're going to have to reconsider what we're doing now and how we're doing it."

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there are actually 752 schools reporting COVID-19 cases, though it's not confirmed that every school is dealing with B.1.1.7. 

"Right now, 752 schools have had confirmed COVID-19 cases, but we have not confirmed the B.1.1.7 variant in each of those schools," a spokesperson from the health department told BMTN, while estimating that "more than 50% of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota right now are B.1.1.7." 

Gov. Tim Walz was aware of Osterholm's warning about a potential variant-driven surge as far back as February. A Feb. 17 BMTN article reported on this prediction by Osterholm

Osterholm expects "very dark days" by the end of March, even predicting that schools that are currently bringing kids back for in-person instruction will have a hard time staying in-person when the surge arrives.

"I respect Dr. Osterholm greatly and he has been a huge component helping us understand," Walz began when asked about Osterholm's forecast. "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."

Some schools already taking measures

Around 90% of Minnesota schools returned for in-person instruction by early March, though some have since experienced outbreaks that have forced them back to hybrid or distance learning.

This past week, Alexandria Public Schools notified parents that 7th- through 12th-grade students at Discovery Middle School and Alexandria High School are transitioning to a hybrid model April 7 through the end of the school year due an uptick in cases. Austin Public Schools temporarily moved to a distance learning model on March 11 due to a bus driver COVID outbreak, and has kept grades 7-12 in a hybrid learning mode for the rest of the school year.

Osterholm's appearance on Meet The Press is the latest example of a leading health official expressing concern over the B.1.1.7 variant. This past week, CDC Director Rochelle Wolensky expressed a sense of "impending doom" about a fourth surge, while Minnesota state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield spokes with a less alarming tone.  

"We are experiencing a concerning growth in cases and hospitalizations," Lynfield said Thurday. "We need to act together in our communities to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, including the spread of these variants. These variants are more contagious and the one that is very common – B.1.1.7 – has been associated with causing more severe disease."

Minnesota did not provide a COVID-19 update on Easter Sunday, so Monday's report will include two days of data.  

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