Osterholm on the fourth COVID-19 wave, schools reopening and vaccine safety

Michael Osterholm, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota speaks at a press conference April 22 with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
Glen Stubbe | AP 2020

The delta variant of COVID-19 continues to race across the country, and in northeastern and northwestern Minnesota, hospitals are warning that the growing number of COVID-19 patients could push beyond their capacity.

Meanwhile, pediatric health care experts are concerned that opening schools for in-person learning this fall may lead to greater spread of the coronavirus, especially considering that some school districts aren’t mandating masks.

Where are we headed next in the COVID-19 pandemic? Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the current spike in delta cases may continue into October or beyond.

Osterholm told host Cathy Wurzer that this wave of the pandemic in the U.S. is composed of a series of regional epidemics, which are sustaining the length of the wave.

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And the return to in-person learning will likely lead to even more infections, Osterholm warned: “I have no doubt we’re going to have a whole series of school outbreaks,” he said. “The situation we have with school children this year is very different than we had last year. This delta variant has fundamentally changed the whole situation in terms of transmission.

A year ago, SARS-CoV-2 “was not well-transmitted between kids,” Osterholm explained, but now, “Kids are now just as likely to get infected as are adults, and they’re just as likely to transmit it.”

“No one wants our kids to have to do distance learning … but the kids’ safety has to be first,” Osterholm said, emphasizing that school guidelines from before the emergence of the delta variant must be updated.

Osterholm recommended universal masking with N95 or KN95 masks in schools; vaccinations for all eligible students, staff and family; better air ventilation in classrooms with HEPA filters; and at least 6 feet of social distancing between students.

Osterholm firmly reiterated the importance and safety of vaccination against COVID-19, debunking Minnesota state Sen. Jim Abeler’s claim that more than 200 Minnesotans have died from receiving the COVID-19 vaccines, which he made at an anti-mask rally Saturday.

“The senator’s wrong, and he knows it. It’s just not true,” Osterholm said.

According to Osterholm, Abeler’s claim is an “abuse” of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national effort to detect potential safety problems in vaccines.

Any adverse health outcome following vaccination, even if ultimately unrelated, can be reported to VAERS for further investigation. Osterholm said Abeler was mischaracterizing deaths in the system unrelated to vaccines.

“I can say safely at this point in Minnesota, no one has died from receiving the COVID vaccine. No one,” Osterholm said. “These vaccines are safer than aspirin.”

Osterholm expressed optimism that breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people will become less prevalent as researchers learn how to administer the new vaccines more effectively.

For example, after further research into the COVID-19 vaccines, “Now what we’re realizing is it’s likely that this is going to be a three-dose regimen,” Osterholm said.

Osterholm reminded listeners that the vast majority of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Vaccines remain the overwhelming tool to stop the pandemic, Osterholm said.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.