Osterholm joins Biden's COVID task force, hopes to work with Trump team

Michael Osterholm, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota speaks at a press conference on April 22 with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Osterholm has been named to President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board.
Glen Stubbe | AP Photo file

President-elect Joe Biden cautions that Americans still face a dark winter and need to be aggressive about mask wearing and social distancing as infections of COVID-19 continue to surge around the country.

Biden commented after meeting for the first time with his newly formed coronavirus advisory board. A prominent Minnesota infectious disease expert has been chosen as a member of that task force — Dr. Michael Osterholm, who is currently the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Osterholm joined MPR News host Steven John on Monday’s All Things Considered to talk about the task force’s plan to fight the virus, the latest on vaccine development and where we are now with the pandemic.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full interview or read the edited transcript below. The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What is the game plan going forward with the new task force?

It's really premature for me to comment much, as we just had our first meeting. But I'm very pleased and quite impressed with the fact that there is a comprehensive response being considered, and all aspects of what we need to do to deal with COVID-19. And I think that came out loud and clear today in our first meeting, and in particular with other members of the task force that have been invited to participate.

I have worked with many of them in the past. They do, actually, really cover a wide variety of different topic areas with regard to COVID-19 and how we're going to deal with it from a standpoint of science, public policy, how we're going to roll out vaccines, etc. So again, I'm very encouraged by what I've seen so far.

Biden says he'll require face masks on federal property and interstate transit and wants to use the War Powers Act to increase production of personal protection equipment. What do you make of his plan so far?

It's going right to the heart of the challenges we have with COVID-19. We all recognize that he will not assume office until January, and between now and then are going to be the darkest days of the pandemic. I have said that for some weeks, that the case numbers we saw late summer would not prevail over time.

When we were at 32,000 cases a day in the United States, people thought that maybe things were going to start going away. As you saw, we're now at 125,000 cases per day. We're seeing hospitals right now completely overwhelmed in a number of states, right here in the state of Minnesota being one of them.

And those numbers are going to increase substantially over the course of the next two to three months in terms of hospitalizations, deaths, etc. So, we have a real challenge in front of us. If we just listen and act on the public health recommendations of [social] distancing, don't swap air with anyone else except your immediate family, and if we just did that alone, that would have a tremendous impact on reducing the number of new infections and what is now unfolding.

How does Biden’s new task force that you are a member of work with the current president's task force on COVID-19?

I can't comment on that. Again, that is something that the transition team is working on with the current administration. It's our hope that the current administration will collaborate and cooperate. You know, we're all in this together right now.

And there clearly is a great deal of expertise within our federal government. Many people in the community are well aware of the names that are frequently cited with that expertise. So, I can only hope that that's what's going to happen. And we'll all make every effort we can to make that work.

Pfizer said Monday thatearly results of its coronavirus vaccine suggest the shots may be 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. What should we be making of that news?

First of all, it is good news that this vaccine was found to be 90 percent effective. But how good that news is yet to be determined. What I mean by that is that what we don't know — was that preventing 90 percent of illnesses characterized by fever, cough and upset stomachs, or was that 90 percent protection against severe disease, hospitalization and even deaths?

And none of those data were available to us to assess just how well the vaccine worked against severe disease. That's what we're trying to really limit. And we know from the influenza world that we use vaccines for those who are most at risk of serious illness, older populations, people with increased body mass indexes, but [these groups of people are] also where the vaccines don't work as well.

So our challenge is going to be waiting to see when the rest of the data become available and what that means. The other thing we're going to be obviously looking at down the road, and something that no company could look at yet, is the durability of the immunity — what is it like one years, two years and three years out? Are we going to need to use booster doses in future years? That should not be a reason not to use the vaccine now, but that will also have tremendous public health implications.

What does Pfizer’s news say about when a vaccine might be available?

We have some very dark months ahead of us. And part of that is because we won't really see vaccine be available in any real material way for at least through the end of this year into next year. At this point — even Pfizer, if in fact its vaccine ultimately is approved and is made available in our communities — most of the vaccine will come through the first second and third quarters of next year, which means we really have to deal with this pandemic for weeks and months to come without a vaccine tool.

So that's great news to have [a vaccine]. It will surely be important in the long run of how we deal with this. But right now, the immediate challenge we have of the next several months is without a vaccine.

What's the new task force’s plan for the next meetings?

I can't comment right now on what the internal workings will be, that still all being worked out. But they really have an outstanding team of experts in the area of administration and public policy. So I'm confident that the advisory task force will in fact be very active, and I look forward to working with them in terms of developing what I call realistic approaches to dealing with this pandemic.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signals tightening up the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. Is there anything beyond a lockdown that the state can do to help curb the spread of the virus?

First of all, we are seeing explosive growth [in case counts]. There was a time when 300 to 400 cases a day were a large number in Minnesota. When you look over the weekend, we almost got to [6,000] new cases on Sunday, our hospitalizations are going up dramatically, our severely ill individuals are increasing dramatically. And this is just beginning to really light up.

In terms of what the governor can do, I think that obviously public health practice works best when the public itself is part of the solution, and they want to be part of the solution. Right now, because of pandemic fatigue, where people just have assumed “I'm done with the virus,” even though the virus isn't done with them, they're in public places, bars, restaurants, gymnasium, churches, family reunions, weddings, funerals — I can go down the laundry list of all the things we're seeing major outbreaks occur. And then we have those who bring it home.

If someone from the family brings the virus into the house unknowingly, that's a horrible outcome. And so at this point, I think the governor is looking at all the possible tools that he has to try to maintain our lives as we know them from an economic standpoint, and at the same time, deal with this pandemic.

But let me make it very clear: Those who distinguish we have to choose between the economy and the public health — that's an absolutely false distinction. When you see our towns, our cities or counties, our state overrun with this virus, we see hospitals not able to provide critical care that should be provided because they're overrun, that has a tremendous impact on the economy. So we have got to find a way to maximize our health and maximize our economies.

How we do that would surely be enhanced if we had federal support. Right now, we need the kind of supplemental support out here to deal with this, which unfortunately Washington has not been able to put together for the recent months.

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