Above photo: Nathaniel St. Clair.
Twelve months ago, Dr. Michael Osterholm was interviewed on the Joe Rogan Program. At the time, he warned that anywhere from 400,000 to 1.5 million Americans would die of COVID and that the pandemic would last for many years and significantly impact our lives. So far, his predictions have been eerily accurate.
Today, Dr. Osterholm is warning that a “Category 5 COVID-hurricane” is on the horizon, with the B117/UK Variant posing the greatest threat. As positive cases and deaths decline, he warns that the media has been negligent in their overly positive reporting.
Indeed, the scientific community is engaged in an important debate. On one side, we have scientists who believe enough Americans have been infected and, as a result, have developed enough immunity to avoid a serious surge. Moreover, this group insists that enough Americans have been vaccinated (combined with the number infected) that we shouldn’t worry about a major surge in cases or deaths due to the B117 variant.
On the other side, Dr. Osterholm and others argue that not enough Americans have been infected or vaccinated. Consequently, the new variants, particularly the B117/UK variant, will cause a spike in cases and deaths in the next 6–14 weeks. If Dr. Osterholm is correct, we have no time to waste and should prepare for the coming hurricane. According to him, the most important factor is time. If the government wastes it, we’ll pay a severe price.
To be clear, most epidemiologists agree that the B117 variant is serious, but there is significant disagreement about how the variant’s spread will play out over the next several months. In other words, contrary to mainstream reporting, a debate exists, and it would be untrue to argue otherwise. One side, the ‘No Surge’ side, has been featured prominently in the mainstream media. The other group, the ‘Big Surge’ side, wants us to prepare right now. This is a difficult issue for obvious reasons. The ‘Big Surge’ side worries that each day wasted will cost thousands of lives, whereas the ‘No Surge’ side argues that drastic measures are unnecessary.
The ‘No Surge’ ilk believes that enough immunity has been reached through infection and vaccination to stop the major infection or a surge in new variants. So far, around 80 million Americans have been infected with COVID, or about 25% of the total U.S. population. In some areas of the U.S., the rate is higher, but the rate is also much lower in many locations. As of last week, more than 63 million doses have been administered, reaching 13.1% of the total U.S. population. Even if we combine the two numbers, there’s absolutely no justification for suggesting that in of itself is enough to cause a herd immunity-like effect in slowing the rate of transmission.
In terms of what to expect, Dr. Osterholm recently said:
Just remember that on January 22nd, the CDC published a model in the MMWR that actually addresses their concern about what B117 will do in terms of increase per what it has done in Europe and the Middle East. They were the ones that came forward and said, look at what this might do and this surge effort in March. If we look at what’s happening in Europe and the Middle East, it’s very clear that this has had a tremendous impact there after it started out much like it has started in the United States, meaning that there were weeks where we have seen lower level transmission with a gradual increase. This past Tuesday, CDC reported that among the B117 variants in the United States there had been twelve hundred and seventy-seven such variants reported from forty-two states. If one looks at the B1351 variant from South Africa where we’ve had 19 reported cases in 10 states. And P1, the Brazilian variant, we’ve seen three cases reported in two states. Clearly, the activity is with the B117. Places like California and Florida are really at the top of that list. Florida is now reporting four hundred sixteen such cases. California, one hundred and eighty-six. Do I believe that they’re representative of what’s happening out there? No, we know we have underreporting occurring, a lack of sequencing. But just as was predicted two weeks ago, we’re beginning to see the number of B117 variants double about every ten days. This is exactly what happened in Europe before we saw the major surges. So if we look at the UK, where today 80 percent of the isolates are B117. Their cases do continue to decline. But remember, they’ve been in a lockdown now since before Christmas, a real lockdown. Their peak average seven-day new cases back then were at sixty thousand cases a day. Today they’re at thirteen thousand two hundred after that lockdown. They’re ready to start relaxing a bit of that. But again, it shows you what it took to drive that surge down. Denmark is another country where we’ve seen 42.5 percent of their samples are B117 now, up from 30 percent the week before that and 19 percent two weeks before that. At this point, they, too, are seeing this challenge with B117. And I could go through the laundry list of other countries. I won’t because it’s the same story where this starts to transmit, it spreads. It causes severe problems. The data are clear now that there is, in fact, evidence of increased severe disease. What we have to understand right now is what we will be seeing in these next weeks ahead . . . You have to understand some of the most vocal people right now who are critical of this idea that there will be a surge with B117 are the same people who early in the pandemic were critical that covid-19 was going to be a problem at all and actually said so publicly on many occasions and indicated that influenza would continue to be the most important infectious disease we’d have in the upcoming months. And I’m telling you right now, everything in my public health background, my training, and 45 years of in the trenches tells me that this is going to be a big peak.
Furthermore, Dr. Osterholm has argued that everyone should immediately receive at least one dose of the vaccine regardless of age. This policy prescription is connected to his predictions concerning the B117 variant and its potential to cause severe illness and death. We could potentially save thousands of lives if more people are vaccinated immediately, even with one dose. According to Dr. Osterholm, our primary goal should be to decrease and avoid serious cases/severe diseases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The longer the U.S. government waits, the less time we’ll have to prepare for the surge. He’s worried that when the B117 surge occurs and we haven’t done anything to protect those 65 years old and up, epidemiologists and government officials will get asked why and won’t have a good answer. In short, we have no time to waste.
Another issue I’ve written about over the past year has been the concept of ‘Vaccine Nationalism,’ which refers to wealthier countries acquiring robust access to vaccines, whereas poorer countries lack availability. Dr. Osterholm and others have been very clear: the U.S. cannot control the pandemic with vaccines if the rest of the world is a “house on fire” with infections and a lack of vaccines. New variants will develop in the “house on fire” countries, spread to countries and regions that have been robustly vaccinated (North America, Europe, Japan, etc.), and potentially defeat the vaccines’ immune protection. In the end, we shouldn’t forget that the effort to vaccinate the rest of the world is both moral and strategic.
As far as double masking is concerned, Dr. Osterholm remains skeptical. For him, as far as masks are concerned, fit and filtration are the most important factors. In some cases, double masking could improve respiratory protection performance, but it’s not entirely clear. Instead, people should seek tight-fitting masks, like a good pair of swim goggles. That’s most helpful.
According to Dr. Osterholm, the media has been negligent in their reporting of this issue. After examining the CDC’s study, he insists that it’s unclear whether or not there’s a solid answer on the issue of double masking. His biggest criticism of the CDC study is that it didn’t examine time and exposure. The amount of time, or exposure to an infected environment, is critical. For Dr. Osterholm, distancing remains the key factor. Masking is just one part of the equation. Yes, a better fitting masking is important, but most critically, people must distance themselves until they’re vaccinated.
He’s not the only renowned epidemiologist sounding the alarm. However, their warnings don’t much matter: the U.S. government, corporate media, the private sector, and most ordinary Americans have given up on the pandemic. They gave up months ago. Now, they’re pushing for reopenings (again) and praising a return to “normal.”
Unfortunately, for Dr. Osterholm and those who’ve followed him since the beginning of the pandemic, his public health recommendations and policy suggestions have been all but ignored. Hence, we can only expect that his most dire predictions will, once again, come true.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center located in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.