A leading expert on pandemics is warning Americans that this isn’t going to get better anytime soon.
If anything, the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is about to get a whole lot worse.
“In terms of what hurt, pain, suffering, death has happened so far is really just beginning,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told podcaster Joe Rogan.
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He warned there’s “months to come” and that it will be “at least ten to fifteen times worse than the worst seasonal flu year we see.”
And that means the world needs to brace for a massive toll.
“We conservatively estimate that this could require 48 million hospitalizations, 96 million cases actually occurring, over 480,000 deaths that can occur over the next three to seven months with this situation,” he said. “This is not one to take lightly.”
But despite the dire warnings and predictions, he doesn’t want people to act out of fear.
“My job isn’t to scare you out of your wits,” he told Rogan. “It’s to scare you into your wits.”
He said we went from having no cases in the United States to many cases in a matter of weeks.
And in Italy, he said, the disease has spread even more rapidly. Doctors there have told him they have to make the grim call on who gets the limited resources they have.
In other words, he said, doctors are “deciding who they are going to let die.”
Osterholm calls himself a “medical detective.” He’s investigated SARS and MERS pandemics around the world, and tries to stop major pandemics from happening.
And he sounded the alarm on the potential for a massive outbreak years ago.
“This is a critical point in our history,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2015. “Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose.”
He made the same point in his 2017 book, “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Deadly Germs.”
Now, it seems, that warning has gone unheeded.
“We are worse off today than we were in 2017 because the health care system is stretched thinner now than ever,” he said at a recent New America think tank event. “There is no excess capacity. And public health funding has been cut under this administration.”
But he also said there are steps that can still be taken to help cut the risks now.
“First of all, we have to utilize the health services we have in different ways, meaning we will need to stop elective surgeries,” he said at that event. “Anybody who is not severely ill with other conditions will not be hospitalized.”
That would free up space for the expected surge of people with coronavirus infections.
In addition, he said steps must be taken now to protect the healthcare workers on the front lines of the battle against the infection – that includes putting patients into wards, or together in large rooms, rather than in one or two patients per room.
And he told KTSP in Minneapolis that people need to be careful going out in public, because avoiding the disease isn’t simply a matter of washing your hands.
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“Just breathing the air near someone who’s infected makes this challenging,” Osterholm said. “It does spread through the air and so, even if you are more than 6 feet away from someone, the virus is very contagious.”
He told Rogan that limited contact will help – and said people with preexisting health conditions, including obesity, should be especially cautious.
But even in the best-case scenario, he warned we need to prepare for a long battle.
“Right now we’re approaching this like it’s the Washington, D.C., blizzard: For a couple of days we’re shut down,” he said on CNBC. “This is actually a coronavirus winter and we’re in the first week.”