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Infectious Disease Doctor Says Preventing Spread Of Coronavirus Is 'About Life And Death'06:56
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As some Americans rally against stay-at-home orders, Dr. Michael Osterholm says these protesters need to understand preventing the spread of the coronavirus is “about life and death” (Jeff Chiu/AP)
As some Americans rally against stay-at-home orders, Dr. Michael Osterholm says these protesters need to understand preventing the spread of the coronavirus is “about life and death” (Jeff Chiu/AP)

As some Americans rally against stay-at-home orders, Dr. Michael Osterholm says these protesters need to understand preventing the spread of the coronavirus is “about life and death”

While he predicts the virus has infected nearly 5% of the U.S. population so far, he also thinks the percentage of infected Americans could increase to 50% to 60% over the next 12 to 18 months. The number of serious illnesses and deaths will also hike, says Osterholm, who serves as director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota.

The political and economic issues fueling protests are valid but opening up the economy won’t help experts figure out creative solutions to get through this crisis, he says.

“We're all trying to work out, how do we thread the rope through the needle so that we don't shut down our economy?” he says. “But at the same time, we don't let this virus run willy nilly in our communities and cause what will be many, many thousands of deaths and serious illnesses.”

A new study from Harvard University estimates the amount of testing needs to triple before safely reopening the economy. Osterholm says testing has been misunderstood by many people, including leaders making national recommendations.

The U.S. is testing 150,000 people per day. There have been fewer than 4 million tests in total, despite President Trump's promise that 27 million would be done by the end of March.

It’s too late to test our way out of this crisis, he says. When the coronavirus first struck in China, the country could meet the demand for the chemicals that make the tests, called reagents.

“But once this virus spread around the world and the whole world became a COVID fire, we need now to test literally billions of people,” he says. “And the resources for making these reagents, the chemicals that run the test, is just not there.”

To make enough reagents to meet testing demand, new facilities need to be built, he says. This won’t happen overnight, he says — and there hasn’t been a coordinated effort to build new facilities at all.

Osterholm says he predicted this situation weeks ago and thinks the reagents for antibody tests will run out globally within three to four weeks.

Aside from testing, he says other methods of preventing the spread include syndromic surveillance, looking out for indicators of the virus before a diagnosis is made. Identifying hotspots, looking at when cases slow down in an area and monitoring hospital capacity are also important, he says.

“We have to come up with other ways. Testing itself is not going to be the key,” he says. “We do need testing. We need to know if we're seeing case numbers increase in our communities, but this idea of doing all this extra testing is just not a reality.”

Measures such as limiting domestic travel to certain areas need to be on the table, he says. Looking for a solution for the next few weeks is important, but he says we need to plan for the next 12 to 18 months.

Giving some young, low-risk people the opportunity to go back into the workforce is part of the solution, he says.

“We need creative solutions like this, where we take the best of what we can do in public health, reduce serious illness and at the same time, maintain society as we know it,” he says.

Many people look at antibody tests as a long-term solution, but this method can result in a false-positive — and give people a flawed sense of security.

Antibody tests face the same challenges as the virus-detection test, he says. On top of the shortage of reagents and inaccurate results, many tests on the market are faulty due to lack of oversight.

“This is not an easy answer, an easy solution. I understand why people are basically grabbing for these kinds of solutions,” he says, “but we just have to face the reality that antibody testing as we now have it is not going to be a magic bullet.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 20, 2020.

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