This week on Facing the Future, we spoke with Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, one of the world’s leading experts on infectious disease and epidemiology. Osterholm is the Director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He was also one of six Biden transition team COVID-19 policy advisors who recently called for the President’s administration to make a major shift in strategy for managing the pandemic, accepting the ‘new normal’ that the virus will be with us for a long time, we will not eradicate it, and we cannot be in a constant state of emergency. Osterholm and his colleagues are also calling for a major investment in the nation’s public health infrastructure coming out of this pandemic, where some of the unanticipated weaknesses in our system hampered the response.
We focus on the pandemic from time to time on Facing the Future because of its enormous impact on our economy and our federal budget.
Later on in the program, Concord Coalition Policy Director Tori Gorman reviewed where the federal budget deficit stands at this point in the fiscal year, and what tasks, obstacles, and options remain for Congress in getting a federal budget and major spending priorities approved in an election year.
Osterholm said it is time for the federal government to shift its focus from emergency measures aimed at preventing further spread of disease to managing the virus over the long term. This includes making major investments in the nation’s health care infrastructure, such as attracting more personnel and improving public health information systems. Ultimately, Osterholm said medical treatments will also improve and make the disease more manageable.
“What we need are vaccines that have much more durable immunity long-term; they have a broader breadth of immunity so if new variants emerge, they will still be effective. Much like we are trying to achieve with universal flu vaccines,” said Osterholm. “If we had this conversation in the early 1980's and we talked about HIV, it would be a death sentence. Today, HIV is a manageable, chronic disease for many people. With the [COVID] drug therapies we are looking at going forward, they can be highly effective, once someone is infected, in reducing the likelihood of severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
“But to do that,” Osterholm continued, “we need a comprehensive testing system that everyone has ready access to, that can quickly give back a result, so we know that they’re infected with COVID, and we can get these drugs to them. Which means the drugs have to be available and they have to be in the system so it doesn’t take days or weeks if at all to get them. If we can do these two things – improve on our vaccines and surely improve on how we deal with therapy – we can do a lot of what we accomplished with HIV. We can turn a very bad situation into a manageable one.”
Osterholm said the U.S. and the rest of the world economy still have yet to feel the most severe economic impact of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, and everyone should keep a very close eye on what is happening now in China.
“China right now is on the brink of potential major failure. Omicron has so changed the transmission characteristics of this virus, meaning, much more highly infectious,” said Osterholm. “China, with their draconian public health approach to dealing with COVID, has done a pretty good job of controlling it for the last two years since Wuhan. It has meant shutting down, locking down major metropolitan areas of millions of people for weeks at a time, with very few cases. Their numbers are a lot better than ours, but it came with a real cost. Their zero COVID policy cannot be sustained.”
Osterholm continued, “Omicron is the wind. You can deflect it, but you can’t stop it. I think what you are going to see happen over the course of the next 6-8 weeks is in China there will be more and more widespread Omicron transmission. Because of their zero COVID policy they are going to try to shut things down, major geographic areas. With that they are going to shut down manufacturing, many of the supply chains that the world depends on will be unavailable more so than at any time during the pandemic.”
Such a scenario would have severe repercussions for the U.S. economy, further straining the ability of many businesses to keep up with demand and ratcheting up inflationary pressures. This could also have another major impact on the federal budget and cause deficits to swell.
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.