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'Could get considerably worse' | 1-on-1 with President-elect Biden's COVID-19 advisor

While the U.S. breaks coronavirus records, a new administration prepares to take on the pandemic. Dr. Osterholm believes they'll use science as their currency.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is facing record levels of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Johns Hopkins reported a record 3,124 deaths on Wednesday. But in a glimmer of good news, the FDA is expected to follow the recommendation of an advisory panel that suggested they approve the Pfizer vaccine.

While all of this is happening, a new presidential administration is preparing to take the reins.

Dr. Michael Osterholm is part of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), and one of the country's top infectious disease experts. 

He sat down with Verify investigative journalist Gabe Cohen to talk about vaccines, Christmas travel, the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic, and what the next year could look like in the race for herd immunity.

Gabe: The death toll on Wednesday, Nov. 9 surpassed the number of people killed on 9/11. How bad could this get in the next few weeks?

Dr. Osterholm: "We’re really in uncharted territory. It's going to be largely dependent on what we, as individuals living out in our communities, do to reduce our risk. My big concern is that if we go ahead with Christmas as normal, as many people are now planning to do, and we bring families together from distant locations, we have Christmas parties, holiday events in general, I think things could get considerably worse."

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We were looking at 3,000 people dead on Wednesday -- do you think that number could climb and be even more severe in days in the future?

"Absolutely, it can. It's going to be dependent in part, again, on what we do with our activities and behaviors right now. Remember that the deaths that are going to occur over the next two to three weeks are pretty much already in the pipeline, meaning these are people who are infected already. There are people who are just now going to be hospitalized, and then subsequently die one to two weeks after that. So we can't really impact this number in any meaningful way for probably another two to three weeks. But then at that point, hopefully, we will see a change in case numbers and in the number of deaths."

Should cities and states put in harsher restrictions ahead of Christmas, given the travel we saw ahead of Thanksgiving? 

"I don't know what kind of conditions you can put into place that, frankly, would stop people from traveling and stop people from having family events. I mean, let's be honest, there's no way to regulate family events. If people want to get together, they're going to get together. And so all we can do is appeal to the fact that we want them to be around next year for Christmas, that we want them to be with us.

I can tell you, having dealt with a number of situations following Thanksgiving, you don't think it'll ever happen to you. But it does. I have dealt with too many situations where a mom or dad or grandpa or grandma are now dead as a result of a Thanksgiving Day event. People have to just keep that in mind when they're talking about getting together for Christmas."

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Reports indicate that the Trump administration turned down Pfizer for an additional 100 million doses of their vaccine over the summer. If that's true, what would that mean for the number of vaccines that we actually have?

"We're all going to be looking at the total number of vaccines available over the course of the next two to three months. What I mean by vaccines, I'm talking about different companies. And then within each company, we're going to see how much vaccine we get."

Do you think Americans should be preparing for a vaccine shortage come spring?

"I can't say that there will be a vaccine shortage. I think, again, it's going to be dependent on just what can get delivered. And it's going to depend a lot on how many Americans take the vaccine. 

My big fear continues to be that after the early adopters — the people who really want it in the first quarter of the year — we're going to see recommendations for vaccinating other populations that then won't come forward because of their fears about the safety of the vaccines. And that's where, now, we have a lot of work to do to help bring an understanding to these people about what these vaccines mean and the safety we know about them."

President-elect Biden has said that the current administration does not have a detailed plan for vaccine distribution. Is that what you've seen?

"I have not seen any plans. I'm not part of any of the transition team activity. I think President-elect Biden's statement stands for what it is. So I take it that that's exactly what's happened."

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Do you think we can reach herd immunity without a pediatric vaccine?

"It'll be a challenge to get herd immunity without a pediatric vaccine. But I'm actually confident we're going to have a pediatric vaccine coming out. I don't have any idea [when] at this point. Surely the research is going on right now."

Do you support incentivizing people to get the vaccine, perhaps even paying them to get vaccinated?

"You know, I have not even thought about that. I think at this point, trying to prevent a serious disease, a fatal disease, should be the motivation that we should use for moving these vaccines forward. So in terms of any other programs, at this point, I think that's very premature to consider."

Setting aside vaccines and mask mandates, what do you think the Biden administration needs to do on day one to stop these surges?

"Actually, we're providing that kind of advice to the incoming administration. At this point, I don't really have anything else to say other than that, and we know that the transition team is considering the input from our group on a daily basis."

President-elect Biden is 78 years old. Are you advising him to get this vaccine as soon as it is available, maybe even in the next couple weeks?

"I don't provide any of that kind of input into the campaign. They have their own medical experts that are working with the president-elect. I know him to be a very responsible man, so I'm certain he will get his vaccine when it's his time to get it."

What would be your message to folks out there who wonder if anything will change over the next couple months?

"I'm confident that the incoming administration will use science as its currency for determining what to do and how to do it. And I think that's a very, very important message, that the incoming administration does understand the importance of facts and science."

You can watch the full interview with Dr. Osterholm below.

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