Virus Expert Just Gave This Essential COVID Update
Here is how to stay safe.
Renowned virus expert Michael Osterholm gave a virus update on the latest edition of his podcast, urging everyone six months and older to get the vaccine, since cases are rising dangerously. "Let me emphasize we're not going back to the first three years of the pandemic, but we are experiencing something that had not necessarily been anticipated or clearly at least described to the public that was going to happen," he said of the new wave. "We are in interesting times. I also want to just acknowledge that even though this is not the same kind of picture we saw three years ago, the deaths were still seeing, the hospitalizations we're seeing, are still real challenges we can never, ever forget. These are not numbers. These are real people. There are mothers or fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our grandparents, friends and colleagues. And that means that it continues to touch us even though we wish it would go away." Read on for how he says to stay safe.
In the podcast, Michael Osterholm sheds light on the complexities surrounding the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and gives a reason for the rising cases. "We have multiple things happening at the same time. We've got issues with regard to the virus and its change over time. Mutations, the things that we worry about with new variants and sub variants. And we also have human immunity which is waning over time," he says.
Despite widespread transmission, the impact of the disease seems to be lower than before, prompting communities to question the current situation. "What we're dealing with right now is widespread transmission and a lower impact of disease. Please don't get me wrong in the sense of saying don't worry about it. I think we have to." Wastewater data has provided invaluable insight into the virus's spread, as it captures the presence of the virus without relying on individual testing. The transmission rates may be resembling previous waves, but the severe outcomes are not as prevalent.
Although lower than at the previous heights of the pandemic, " current hospitalizations are set at about 16,000. And while I recognize deaths are a lagging indicator and can be expected to increase, they currently are below 900 a week. So overall, I would say that right now the virus is having no problem whatsoever finding host to infect or reinfect. Clearly, there's a lot of transmission that's happening and it's important to keep that in mind, especially if you or a loved one are at higher risk for severe outcomes," he said.
"I'm changing my behavior and I surely am recommending that to those close to me," said Osterholm. At the time, he was having trouble scheduling his vaccine appointment. "The rollout surely has been challenging. I know of many people who have been waiting to get this dose of vaccine who actually have visits scheduled to receive it, only to learn that, oh, never mind, we don't really have it. So that's one thing that will impact my overall behavior going forward. If I get that dose of vaccine and then wait ten days to two weeks for it really to kick in, I'm going to feel very different than I feel right now. In the meantime, I actually am using my N95 in any settings with additional people nearby. I'm minimizing my contacts in public settings. All my presentations or meetings are in Zoom."
Osterholm had a bad case of lingering COVID and says "I am counting on this new vaccine dose to be very important in protecting me against any type of serious illness and even having a real impact on my risk for developing another lingering or long COVID event. So I think this is a temporary measure. No one is telling people you're going to be locked up for a days ahead. But for those who are at increased risk of serious illness, avoid, if you can, the kind of risk exposure, whether it be family, friends, whoever, until you can get that dose of vaccine and then give yourself 10 to 14 days for that to kick in and you will truly, truly increase your protection against this infection in such a way that you probably can go back into the public settings, feel comfortable having dinner parties at your home again or wherever you want to go. That's where I'm at right now."
Osterholm mentions that hospitalizations and deaths are not the only severe outcomes of COVID-19. There's Long COVID, which continues to be a concern—symptoms that include fatigue, brain fog and post-exertional malaise that may never go away. Osterholm emphasizes that Long COVID can manifest after a second or third episode of infection even if it didn't occur after the first. He presents this as a significant point, suggesting that even if individuals have had COVID-19 before and did not experience Long COVID, they are not necessarily immune to its effects upon re-infection.
While discussing the acute phase of the disease, Osterholm highlights that even if individuals don't require hospitalization, many feel extremely unwell. He notes that several people have reported feeling bedridden for 5 to 7 days, feeling as if they are on the brink of death even if they aren't actually at risk. While he doesn't directly tie this to Long COVID in that statement, it underscores the severity and lasting impacts of the infection.
Osterholm has a clear stance about the new vaccine, recommended for those 6 months and up: "I strongly support that recommendation." He explained the rationale, emphasizing that many detractors might not fully understand the risks associated with the infection. Despite the controversy surrounding it, Osterholm has eagerly awaited the updated vaccine's availability and expressed his relief at being able to receive the updated vaccine. In urging everyone eligible to get vaccinated, he voiced his approval for the broad recommendation and expressed relief that even children over six months could now receive the vaccine due to ongoing outbreaks in daycare settings. Delving into the broad recommendation, Osterholm asserted, "I can understand why people may have been surprised by the broad recommendation." He mentioned points from the ACIP meeting, highlighting the proven efficacy of vaccines in preventing serious illness and death across age groups. Offering a staggering fact, Osterholm pointed out, "Think about that one half of all the children who have died 6 to 23 months of age have occurred in kids that had no underlying risk factor." The risk doesn't diminish significantly even in older age groups.
Discussing the impact on children, Osterholm laid out a grim picture: "If you look at the course of the pandemic in kids 0 to 17 years of age, in 2020, 199 children in that age group died." Unfortunately, the numbers rose dramatically to 612 deaths in 2021 and 748 deaths in 2022. Despite a reduced death count in 2023, severe illnesses in children have surged. He contrasted these figures with influenza, a disease that, while serious, hasn't claimed as many children's lives as COVID-19. Drawing a parallel to influenza, Osterholm pointed out the fluctuating death rates over the years, emphasizing that influenza's worst years haven't matched the fatalities seen with COVID in children. He stressed, "I don't hear anybody complaining about the influenza vaccine recommendation for kids. I don't hear about it." With the inability to predict which children will face severe COVID, Osterholm couldn't fathom objections to vaccinating children against the virus.
"We are in a very confusing time with COVID. So if you're feeling confused, welcome to the crowd. Now, that doesn't mean it's acceptable, but it means that we're all trying to work through what does this increased transmission really all about? Why? What do I have to worry about in terms of not only getting infected, but what the serious outcomes could be if I do get infected?" He added: "Please anyone six months of age and older avail yourself to the new vaccine. It is, in fact one that will help reduce the risk of you having serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths, and also developing potential long COVID, at least for some months after receipt. Having protection from that vaccine right now could be the difference between a serious illness dying versus having a milder illness and being inconvenienced, but surely not at risk of something much, much worse."