After weeks of infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm warning Americans of the "darkest days" of the pandemic yet to come, Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education on Wednesday announced new guidance that encourages schools to get as many students as possible back in the classroom for in-person instruction.
Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy at the University of Minnesota who was a member of President Joe Biden's coronavirus advisory panel prior to his inauguration, has been sounding the alarm about what he believes will be a major surge in disease in the next 14 weeks.
Osterholm's Monday appearance on CBS This Morning focused almost entirely on the threat of the B.1.1.7. variant that led to strict lockdowns in the United Kingdom.
"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 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."
Walz said that the numbers in Minnesota right now do not warrant schools remaining in distance-learning only mode, and though he admitted "we're not out of the woods yet," the situation in the state right now is such that "we're in a position to make this move that mitigates the risk to as close to zero as we can get it."
There were fewer than 54,000 cases and 989 deaths nationwide on Monday, the lowest totals since October and November, respectively. In Minnesota, the numbers have remained at much lower levels than during the October-November spike that saw the number of people with COVID-19 hospitalized exceed 1,800.
The peak in Minnesota during the fall caused a great deal of strain on the state's hospital capacity, forcing some patients to be moved around hospitals across the state due to limited supplies of open beds and available staff to treat patients.
Minnesota Department of Health also worried about variants
"We are concerned that we could see the variant B117 (the U.K. variant) become more prevalent or even dominant in Minnesota and that that could lead to a surge in cases. That’s why we’re keeping a close watch on the situation through our laboratory and epidemiological work," a MDH spokesperson told BMTN Tuesday.
"However, we do have two weapons against this threat: Our continued use of preventive measures like wearing masks and physical distancing and the continuing roll-out of vaccines. It’s so important for each of us to use these tools to do our part to keep the virus, no matter which strain, in check."
Osterholm isn't alone in thinking the virus will for surge in the coming weeks.
"We're in a lull now as cases are going down. These new variants are more infectious," said Dr. David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, on CBS This Morning on Tuesday. "We're going to have an increase in the number of cases over the next several weeks from these variants and it certainly is scary the suffering they could cause."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has also said that the B.1.1.7. variant could become the dominant strain in America by the end of March.