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COVID-19 Vaccines Are Coming To The U.S., But Health Officials Still Urge Caution


So that is the good news. And it comes as the U.S. is rapidly approaching yet another horrific milestone - 300,000 deaths from COVID-19. In the next few months, experts tell us, it will be worse before it gets better. Dr. Michael Osterholm is an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He's also a member of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The vaccine is, of course, good news. In the meantime, we know that the pandemic is worsening. We've discussed for months how this winter would see an enormous spike in coronavirus cases and deaths. How much of those predictions tracked with the numbers that we're seeing?

OSTERHOLM: This is, by far, the most serious public health moment that we've had since 1918. This disease has now become the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. Our hospitals in many locations cannot provide additional care because they just don't have the health care workers to do it. And so the degree to which this pandemic continues to worsen is going to be largely dependent on how we as a public respond. And Thanksgiving, we saw a major increase in exposures occurring around Thanksgiving Day events. I worry very much that we're going to see the same thing with Christmas, which will then just really amplify the challenges that we have with cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what needs to happen? I mean, do you think that we need to get back to lockdowns? I mean, we are already seeing them in certain parts of the country.

OSTERHOLM: Well, all 50 states right now are having to respond to this. I think we just have to keep informing and hopefully appealing in a meaningful way to the public to understand a lot of this pandemic is still in our control. If we, in fact, don't swap air with others, meaning we don't put ourselves in a place where we are breathing the air that somebody else has just breathed out who's not a member of our pod, our family, that means we can do a lot to reduce the number of new cases. This is going to be hard for Christmas. It's going to be personally hard for myself and my family that this is the first time in 38 years that we won't be together. I think that's a hard message for people to hear. But unless you've been podded up for 10 to 14 days, meaning you've not had exposure to anyone else and no one is coming to this event where they may have been exposed, you just can't get together at Christmas or you pose the risk of not having someone around for next Christmas because they all have contracted the virus and potentially died.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That puts a lot in the individual's hands, you know. But Dr. Fauci finally said what for many people has been obvious, which is close the bars and open the schools, which means that there are certain places that are vectors of disease that remain open and other places that perhaps society needs to have open that remain closed. I mean, is there not a tactic that can be taken that will allow certain things to remain open but that there will be direction given by states and by the federal government?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, there is no one magic bullet. Just shutting down one thing doesn't, in and of itself, end the pandemic transmission. We have seen many locations, whether they'd be in the home, they'd be around weddings and funerals, they'd be around birthday parties. I mean, I have done the laundry list of all of these. I have said over and over again, if we don't swap air with others, meaning we don't put ourselves in harm's way to be in contact with others, we do that physical distancing, we stay at home - if we do that, that's the thing that will really drive case numbers down. And whether that's meaning that I'm not attending a public event of some kind, I'm not going to a holiday party, I'm not going to a bar or restaurant, then that's how this virus transmission will be reduced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The public information here in the United States has been confusing and contradictory. As we hear elsewhere in the program, local public health officials have been hounded out of their jobs. At the top, the message has been politicized, and it depends where you are what kind of message you're getting from your local government.

OSTERHOLM: I fully agree with that. I think the message, again, comes across over and over again, if you put yourself in harm's way being at a bar or restaurant, if it's open, then, in fact, that's a challenge. If all bars and restaurants were closed, however - I just want to emphasize that as much as that will help reduce the transmission of the virus, it won't stop it. None of the Thanksgiving Day events that I'm aware of having to do with a bar or restaurant - and it would be shortsighted in our part to have an easy fix and just say if we just shut down something or some location, that that will stop the transmission.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Thank you very much.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.