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States reopening early are 'walking into the mouth of the monster': Former COVID-19 task force member

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Dr. Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy joins Yahoo Finance Live to break down how coronavirus cases are declining and discuss the growing concerns over the spread of the UK COVID-19 variant.

Video Transcript

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ZACK GUZMAN: Welcome into "Yahoo Finance Live." I'm Zack Guzman alongside Akiko Fujita, as we are seeing this rebound in the broader indices continue today as inflation fears cooled a bit. You can see the Dow here up more than 1%. Even the NASDAQ enjoying in the rally, up 0.5%, with CPI numbers coming in roughly as expected, calming investors as stimulus makes its way through the House for a final vote as well.

Coming up on the back half of today's show, we're going to be talking about Sonos. They're on the rise after announcing a move into the portable speaker space. How that plays into the target for that company to double its revenues by 2024. The CEO will join us to break that down. Plus self-driving drones-- self-flying drones, I should say-- in Ghana, delivering crucial COVID vaccines. The CEO of the US company behind that effort will explain how it's all working to reach some of the most remote spots on Earth.

But first, the state of the pandemic back here at home. More states reopening, following the lead set by Texas. In opening up and eliminating capacity restrictions, Maryland, one of the latest states to follow in Texas' footpath there, but medical experts and other governors are warning that it may be too quick, advocating for a more moderate approach. And Akiko and I chatted with the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, who has kept capacity constraints in place, despite the fact that nearby Connecticut has moved to lift those.

Take a listen to what he had to say about that decision and the fight not being over just yet.

PHIL MURPHY: I don't think we're going to be in the end zone any time soon. Having said that, the vaccines work. The weather is getting warmer. The epidemiological curve has crested. Folks continue by the millions to do the right things. I'm pointed toward Memorial Day, we're going to be in a dramatically different place by the end of May. Does that mean that we won or the pandemic is behind us? It does not. But does it mean we could open up and be much more normal than we've been over the past year? Absolutely.

ZACK GUZMAN: So joining us now for more on the right path forward is a former member of President Biden's coronavirus task force, Dr. Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy joins us now. And Dr. Osterholm, it's good to be chatting with you again. I mean, you just heard there some of the caution on the part of Governor Murphy. But as you look at it, you're preaching similar caution here, saying that hospitalizations might be down about 70% since that peak in January, but the variants out there are still very worrisome. So talk to me about the right path forward.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, let me just say that I thought that Governor Murphy's comments were right on the mark. And I congratulate him for his very thoughtful approach to what he's doing here. You know, as I've been saying for recent weeks, we're really in the eye of the hurricane right now. We've been through the front wall. The past year has been dramatic and traumatic.

But at the same time, while we're feeling this good feeling right now, which we should, in the sense that the case numbers have dropped precipitously, hospitalizations have dropped. We've seen this play before where cases have gone up very high and then come back down, then gone back up again. Now, the good news is we have the vaccines. But the bad news, and the reason I say we're in the eye of the hurricane, is we're now beginning to see the emergence of this variant that we call P117.

And the B117 variant in and of itself, which first started spreading in Europe, is showing its head now here. And we're very concerned that it could cause a surge in cases over the course of the next six to 12 weeks. Vaccines are coming, but there won't be enough here in the next six to 12 weeks to really blunt that B117 surge.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, even in the face of that, we saw over the last few days-- a few days ago, the CDC shift its guidelines particularly around people who've already been vaccinated, to say those who have gotten the vaccine don't necessarily need to be wearing masks in indoor settings. How comfortable are you with the changes that have been made, given what you just mentioned and the concerns around these variants?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Well, you said a very important thing. Among those who are vaccinated. And I agree completely with the CDC's approach. I think, if anything, we can extend it even more because these are very good vaccines and they work very well against the B117 variant that I just referred. It's the people who are not vaccinated. It's the people who have not yet had infection and have any protection from previous infection. Those are anywhere from 55% to 60% of our US population. That's where my concern is.

So in opening up, as now the term we, use the challenge with that is that all these other people are likely to be infected. And what we're seeing right now is remarkable. We have an outbreak right here in Minnesota in schoolchildren. And this is moving quickly through school district by school district, from county by county. And it really, in a sense, confirms what we've seen in Europe, where most people forget that much of Europe has been in a lockdown, some very stringent lockdown conditions, since Christmastime, just to get the B117 case numbers down. And so we're now just confronting that for the first time.

And so again, CDC's recommendations are if you've been vaccinated, this is what you can do. This should be all the motivation for why you want to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But if you're not vaccinated, we've got some potentially tough days ahead.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, you've warned about the spread of the UK variant in schools on a number of occasions already. There's a lot of debate happening about whether, in fact, there should be in-person classes. Is it safe to reopen schools without teachers getting vaccinated?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Well, let me just back up and say that what's important to understand is that the epidemiology or the actual occurrence of cases in schools, up until now, really does bear the fact that, particularly for younger kids, schools can open and they can open safely. So that message, which is now what is driving school openings, was correct. What I think is really an important new piece of information is, is that with this new variant we are seeing case numbers in children unlike anything we've seen before.

And so that, in a sense, it's not just about the teachers, which of course are important. It's about the students themselves, and it's about the viruses they now take home that in the past we weren't seeing. And if we, again, follow what has happened in Europe-- and right now everything suggests that that's what's going to happen in North America-- we're going to see dynamic transmission in schools. We're going to see those kids taking the viruses home to their moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandpa and grandmas. And so in a sense it's a new day. This is a very different situation and we have to be alert to it.

So we're not at all chastising those who want to bring us back to school from a public health perspective based on the old data. We're saying you've got to look at the new data and understand what that means.

ZACK GUZMAN: And Dr. Osterholm, I mean, the further along we get, the more nuanced, I think, a lot of the reopening discussion might get as well. When you look at it, you know, we were just talking about the CDC guidelines and allowing Americans who have been vaccinated to kind of operate without masks on in non-risk populations. But you yourself also said that you wouldn't want to be caught in a crowded restaurant, too, despite being vaccinated. So talk to me about that and maybe where the risks actually are, and what you meant by that.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: What I'm saying is that if you put yourself into a location where there is lots of virus or potentially lots of virus, then that is really trying to challenge the vaccine. And what I mean by that is these vaccines are really very good. 90% to 95% protection. But that's not perfect. It's not 100%. So right now, until more people get vaccinated, I surely want to go visit my grandchildren. I want to be with family members. I want to be in settings with a small number of people who've also been vaccinated. But I don't want to put myself into a place where there may be lots of virus right now. And that will change as we vaccinate more and more people.

That's why, again, I keep coming back to the one mantra, get vaccinated. If we could, in fact, by May-- and this is where I think Governor Murphy had it right on the mark. It could be a very, very different day if we see a large segment of our population vaccinated by May, then, you know what? It even takes a whole new twist on whether you go into bars or restaurants and lots of people around you.

So you want to not put yourself where there's lots of virus. You want to, basically, protect yourself till then.

ZACK GUZMAN: What it sounds like, then, by that same token, that states that are just getting rid of occupancy constraints across the board would be making a mistake, then. I mean, how do you look at a state like Texas that says we can go full capacity now, and the mask mandate isn't in place? how do you kind of look at that and say, look, this is too soon?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: You know what they're doing? They're literally walking into the mouth of the virus monster. They are. I can't put it any other way. It makes no sense whatsoever. They're putting people in harm's way. And we don't have that much longer to go. That's the whole point of it. You know, do you want to be the person that died from COVID when you were just days from getting your vaccine? No.

And so I think the approach that, as I said, Governor Murphy just articulated, is very thoughtful. It's right on the mark. Hold on. Let's get all this vaccine done. I do believe that this administration will deliver on its promise to have a dose of vaccine, or doses for the American public, by mid- to late spring. I think that's going to happen. And what we want to do is get people there.

Now we have this B117 variant that is spreading rapidly in our country. We're seeing in communities, where it was 1% or 2% of the viruses identified in January, it is now 40% up to 50% of the viruses in these communities. And while we can't say for certain what it's going to do in terms of just how many cases, it is going to cause substantial transmission issues.

So just hold out. Continue to do the things that you've been doing to get you this far and not get infected. And then, by May, when you have your vaccine, we're going to be in a very, very different situation. And that's what we're all trying to get to.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, we're marking one year since the lockdowns this week. And you've heard the criticism before, about how those lockdowns have really hurt the economy. When you look back over the last year, the number of COVID cases in the US, the number of deaths, were lockdowns the right strategy here? Or as we try to apply the lessons of this current pandemic to potentially future ones, is there a more modernized strategy that you think can be applied?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Well, you know, you surely have hit on what is absolutely a critical issue of the impact of what has been called lockdowns. And there's no two ways about it. It's been horrible. Economically, mental health-wise, other health issues, you know, it's been a tragedy. And what we have to do is understand if we're asking the public to do certain things, if we're asking small businesses, large businesses to do things, how do they get reimbursed for that? How do they get held whole? That's going to be a very important point of discussion.

But let me just take the exact situation that's happening not in the United States, but in Europe right now with B117. And while there are countries there that had no interest in lockdowns, including England under the leadership of Boris Johnson, who is absolutely against lockdowns, he himself found that the only way that they could bring B117 under control was to go into complete lockdown. Just this week is the first time that in England, schools opened since before Christmas. Most of England is still in lockdown. And it took that to drive the virus levels down.

And just to give you a sense of what has happened there, even though they were vaccinated and trying to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, in January they hit a point where if the number of hospitalizations there had been translated to the United States, it would have been 195,000 hospitalizations a day. That's what was happening in England.

Well, remember, in our peak in January, we got to 130,000 hospitalizations a day, and we had many of our health care systems that literally were unable to provide good care because they were so overrun. So there, you saw that the only tool that could bring down this huge, huge disease surge was lockdowns.

So I think the point is a very important one. The pain and suffering with these lockdowns have been horrible. But at the same time, it's the one thing that works.

AKIKO FUJITA: And finally, doctor, I'm thinking back to the conversation that was happening around fall last year, which was this dual threat that could potentially emerge between COVID-19 and the flu. We haven't seen the big uptick in flu cases. And I wonder what we have learned about the absence of the flu that can be applied to future scenarios, you know, prep that can be done in terms of pandemics. What's the lesson from the locations of flu that have happened so far in the flu season?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: The lesson is we need a huge dose of humility. As scientists and as the public. And what I mean by that is I actually published a paper last fall saying we probably wouldn't see a flu season this year. Why? Because in past pandemics with influenza, we saw that, basically, flu viruses, other than the pandemic strain, disappeared. We saw that other respiratory pathogens disappeared.

We don't understand why that happens. We don't understand right now why we see the same kinds of problems in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere at the very same time, we don't know why these viruses do exactly what they do. But it's going to be important for us to try to understand that better so we can better respond in the future. So if another influenza pandemic happens or if another coronavirus emerges, it's very possible we won't see other viral respiratory pathogens circulating in the population. And just honestly, we have to say we don't know why.

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, Dr. Michael Osterholm, appreciate you coming back on here to chat with us.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Thanks.

ZACK GUZMAN: Always love getting your take to break down increasingly complicated issues, and love having you on. So please come back and visit us--

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Thank you.

ZACK GUZMAN: --again soon.