Dr. Osterholm: Not Enough Americans Vaccinated to Stop New Surge

Not enough Americans have been vaccinated to “stop the surge” of COVID-19 cases coming from the B.1.1.7 variant of coronavirus that is starting to grow, epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm warned Thursday, pointing to the growing new spread of disease in Europe. 

“If we had another 3 months to get enough people vaccinated, it would be a different story,” Osterholm the director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on CNN’s “New Day.”

“Let me put the vaccination into context,” he added. “It is an incredibly important part of (the fight). But look at the state of Michigan. You can see where they’re at right now. They’ve had over 162 outbreaks in schools over the last week and they’re actually above average in terms of their vaccine program compared to the whole country of the United States. It shows this level of vaccine we have is not going to be nearly enough to be able to stop the surge of the B.1.1.7 coming.”

His comments come as France goes into lockdown again while much of the United States is reopening. In France, about 4% of the population has had vaccines, and in the United States, about 16.5% have had their shots, but Osterholm said he can’t say that the United States is not heading in the same direction. 

“If you actually look at a number of other European countries, particularly Hungary and Poland, we’re seeing a surge,” said Osterholm. “France is in real trouble. It’s going to happen here. It’s the harbinger of things to come.”

Pfizer on Thursday announced that its COVID-19 vaccine remained 91.3% effective after six months and provided some of the first data on how the vaccine can handle the B.1.351 variant that arose in South Africa. Nine of 800 trial participants in that country got sick with COVID, including six infected with B.1.351. However, all were in the placebo group.

It is a “great vaccine,” said Osterholm, but there is still a question over when or if people will need booster shots for their COVID-19 vaccines, and he cast some doubt on media stories reporting that 3 million people are being vaccinated daily. 

“That’s not really quite the story,” he said. “Remember, this is a two-dose regimen, so really, it’s 1.5 million per day.”

In addition, there are still many people ages 65 and old who “have not had a drop of vaccine yet,” and more people need to be protected before the B.1.1.7 surge hits. 

“This B.1.1.7surge is going to happen,” Osterholm said. “It’s not a question of if. It’s going to happen. If you follow what’s happened in the past year, the upper midwest and northeast light up first. They have the first set of cases and the southern sunbelt cases light up next. Even though we’re seeing a few cases in that area, mark my word, we’re going to see more. That’s the key message.”

Meanwhile, he said that at this point it may be wise for more people to have one dose of vaccine and to delay the second dose temporarily until there is much more vaccine in the stockpile, if only to delay the surge that is coming. 

“Denying it is not going to stop it,” said Osterholm. “We’re walking into the mouth of the monster like it’s not here. It’s here. Now is the time to do what we must do to slow down transmission, not open up, and get the vaccine out to more people.”

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