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Virus Expert Just Issued This "Critical" Warning

Death rates are still relatively high.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

COVID cases are declining nationwide after a huge surge this winter. But health experts warn that we've been here before, and there's still a lot of work to do to manage COVID in the U.S. "We all may feel like the pandemic is slowing down and that we're coming back to some new sense of normal," said epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm on the latest episode of his podcast. "The challenges that we're now facing actually remind me of drinking from two fire hoses, not just one." Osterholm went on to detail how the new public-health guidance on living with the pandemic can be improved, and what the future might bring. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

COVID Deaths Are Still Relatively High

Infected patient in quarantine lying in bed in hospital, coronavirus concept.
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Osterholm noted that average daily COVID deaths are still higher than at an equivalent point of the last surge. More than 1,800 are being reported each day. "We are undoubtedly in a better position than we were at this time last month when the number was approaching 2,700," said Osterholm. "However, we clearly have a lot of room for improvement in this area. In fact, we've once again found ourselves on the Washington Post list of 12 countries with the highest per capita death rates over the past week." The reason: A relatively low vaccination and booster rate.

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2

"No Telling What The Future Might Bring"

doctor show corona or covid-19 blooding tube wearing ppe suit and face mask in hospital
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"While I fully recognize that these trends almost feel like a breath of fresh air, I still find myself sleeping with one eye open," said Osterholm. "We've been on the back side of surges before, as I've said, there's no telling what the future might bring. So I'm happy that the activity is turning downward in the US. I'll be even happier if these trends continue. But no matter what happens, I think there's still a lot of work to be done. And we must expect that new variants will be part of our future."

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3

New CDC Recommendations Might Be Too Little, Too Late

Patient arriving at medical clinic and being called by the doctor using face mask.
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Last week, the CDC changed its guidance for when face masking and other preventative measures are necessary. Areas of "high COVID" are now determined by the number of hospital beds and personnel available, not just the raw number of cases. The problem with this, said Osterholm, is that hospitalization rates lag behind the actual time COVID is spreading widely in a community. "The metrics related to hospitalizations and staffed beds correlate with transmission events that happened two to three weeks earlier and do not reflect the state of transmission in real time," said Osterholm. "Whenever mitigation measures are put in place, deaths will continue to increase before leveling off. To really control transmission, we need to catch it before hospitalizations are too high, because we know they will continue to increase after mitigation measures are put into place."

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4

High-Quality Masks Essential

Woman working textile factory during the COVID-19 pandemic and fixing her facemask
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"If we're going to recommend masking as a coronavirus mitigation strategy, we need to focus on messaging the need for high quality masks that offer respiratory protection. I cannot say this enough," said Osterholm. "We continue to see so many people who wear face cloth covers and surgical masks, which likely have very little protection for that individual from either transmitting the virus or becoming infected."

The CDC still says cloth masks are OK. "Their point of using whatever feels most comfortable for you is like saying the swim goggles you should use are those that are most comfortable for you, even though they leak water the entire time you're using them," said Osterholm. "That just doesn't make sense." He said official recommendations should specify high-quality masks like N95s or KN95s.

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5

Vaccine Recommendations Should Change

Nurse with face mask sitting at home with senior woman and injecting covid 19 vaccine.
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"We have to stop defining fully vaccinated as having two doses of vaccine, when we know three doses are critical throughout all ages," said Osterholm. "Until that definition has changed, we will continue to see such confusion about, 'How many doses of vaccine do I need?'" 

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6

Testing Must Improve

Woman taking COVID test.
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Osterholm praised President Biden's "Test to Treat" initiative, which is intended to have rapid testing available at pharmacies around the country, along with free antiviral pills for those who test positive. The problem, he said: Current rapid tests aren't sensitive enough to catch all cases, and better ones are needed. "The problem I have with this—and this is a problem that no one seems to want to address—is that these lateral flow tests are only 40%, 60% sensitive in a single test," said Osterholm. "That means 40% to 60% of people who are infected would go home without a drug because they'd have a negative test.  We need to have highly sensitive tests." 

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7

How to Stay Safe Out There

Woman Washing her hands with soap and water at home bathroom
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Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael
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