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‘Darkest part of the pandemic’ is approaching, says public health expert

As the coronavirus surges across much of the United States, infection rates are particularly high in some less-populated Western and Midwestern states, including Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Amna Nawaz talks to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota about the crisis -- and how to address it.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's talk more now about that surge we just heard about in North Dakota, Montana, and many other states, and what can be done as the country is back to coping with 70,000 new cases a day.

    Dr. Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and he joins me now.

    Dr. Osterholm, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Help us understand now. The majority of states are seeing another increase in cases, new record daily highs in some places. Why is this happening right now?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, we actually have a convergence of factors that are making for what is, I think, going to be the darkest part of the pandemic over the course of the next 12 weeks.

    First of all, pandemic fatigue, as was described in this report, is happening. Many people who believed that — in April and May that they had to take steps to keep from getting infected and did, and didn't get infected, thought, well, you know, we have kind of dodged this bullet, have now, by Labor Day, become to the point of where, this — I'm done with the virus, even though the virus is not done with them.

    Then we have a growing segment of the population that I characterize as having pandemic anger. They don't believe that the pandemic is real. They think it's a hoax. They think it's politically motivated.

    And when you put that together then with indoor air, meaning more people are now spending time inside, where we know the transmission of the virus is greatly enhanced, we're really seeing the perfect storm.

    People don't understand that weddings, funerals, family reunions, class reunions, city meetings, all of these things are now playing into the transmission of this virus.

    And last, but not least, is bars and restaurants, which we're opening up more of, not closing them down. We see tremendous transmission in these areas.

    So, when you add this together, I don't see anything — unless the U.S. population decides that they're going to reconsider how to approach this virus, I think between now and the holidays, we're going to have by far the largest number of cases we have seen to date.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you say the darkest days are ahead, that phrase sticks out to me. What does that mean? What does that look like in the weeks ahead, especially, as you mentioned, holidays are coming up?

    People may be traveling and gathering in larger numbers.

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, first of all, we're going to see these large numbers.

    And we already saw this past summer what it looks like to have 70,000 cases a day. And it's horrible, even when it was only in a few states where they were really in trouble. Now we're going to see many more states are going to be in trouble. And the numbers are going to go much higher.

    On top of that, when you listen to the very excellent reports you just had, they talked about opening up new beds. You know, the big problem in this country isn't going to be about new beds. We can get those. What we're running out of are people who have expertise in intensive care medicine, doctors, nurses, the support teams.

    And when you don't have that kind of expertise at hand, even though you may have a bed, you're not getting the care that may necessarily save your life. And so expect to see not only severe illnesses increasing, and the number of people in ICUs, but expect to see the deaths increase.

    And that's what's going to be a challenge for us. And then, as you said, we're getting closer to the holidays. And I have said for months this is our COVID year. Expect it to be different. Don't try to make it like last year or, hopefully, it'll be like next year.

    And I think that, based on the number of experiences that I have personally been involved with where young adults take home the virus to mom and dad, grandpa and grandma, uncle Bill and aunt Jane for some kind of celebration, only to have them become infected and be dead three weeks later, we don't want that to happen at the holidays.

    So that means you're going to have to really all reconsider, how do we do the holidays? Is it time to go home? We all want to see our loved ones. But we have to ask ourselves, if we really love them, what are we going to do to help protect particularly those who are older who have underlying health problems? This is going to be a huge challenge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about the message coming from the administration, because we hear them saying again and again, help is around the corner, just hang on, stay with us, the vaccine is coming.

    Secretary of HHS Azar said just yesterday, hang in there, we are so close, is the phrase he used.

    When it comes to the vaccine or the end of this pandemic in some way, are we that close?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, I kind of liken it to be sitting on one side of the Grand Canyon looking across. If you're considering flying in an airplane, that's close. But that's a big, big ditch to get across.

    And, right now, we're not going to see any meaningful impact with the vaccine for months. Before a vaccine could be approved, and then even the first doses roll out to those at highest risk, most notably, health care workers, and then for the rest of the general public to be offered a vaccine, we're talking well into the second, maybe even the third quarter of next year.

    We don't have any new magic drugs coming, in contrast to what's been said. Even if we find the monoclonal antibodies to be helpful, we can only treat a very, very small percentage of people who might get infected.

    So, when you add this all up, we're still in it for the long haul. And, somehow, we have got to have the general public understand that.

    I think, right now, one of the most important medicine since we could buy for this country is an FDR moment. We need leadership that will sit down and tell us what is happening, where are we going, what's our plan to get there, not sugarcoat it, not over-scare people. Just tell them the truth.

    And, right now, we just don't have that happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Osterholm, very quickly, before we go, in just a few seconds, you heard the latest criticism from President Trump of Dr. Fauci, saying he and other experts are idiots, that Fauci has been a disaster.

    What's the impact of that kind of language right now?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    I'm not sure it has much impact, actually. I think it's all baked into the system already.

    Those who know of the incredible leadership that Tony Fauci has provided this country understand, well, what does that comment mean?

    To those that don't agree with him, it only reinforces something that's not true. So, I think we in public health are just going to keep doing our job. I don't care how many threats we get. I don't care how many people say negative things. Our job is to save lives. And that's what we're trying to do.

    And it may be very well your life that we're going to save one day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Michael Osterholm joining us again tonight.

    Thank you so much for being with us.

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Thank you.

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