Disease Expert Warns: Overwhelming Omicron Surge Could Make it Difficult to Keep Schools, ‘Everyday Life’ Operating in January

Amid a record surge of COVID cases across the country and evolving CDC guidance surrounding both shortened isolation periods for Americans who test positive and eliminating the need to test negative before returning to work, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, appeared on MSNBC Thursday with a dire prediction of how the latest variant could escalate so quickly in the coming weeks that it could disrupt daily life through January:

“Right now we have a very imperfect situation that is going to require some very imperfect responses,” Osterholm said on Dec. 30, the day after America recorded more than 465,000 new COVID cases. “Over the next three to four weeks, we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically that we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating.” 

Asked specifically if this unprecedented Omicron surge could threaten the reopening of schools during the first week of the new year, Osterholm said the situation may have less to do with student safety than a profound disruption to the available teacher workforce: “It’s not even a function of ‘Should they delay [reopening schools] because of kids getting sick?’ I worry very much that even with vaccinated teachers, we still could have breakthrough infections; we’re going to have a hard time staffing our schools in the next three to four weeks. 

“All of society is going to be pressured by this – it’s health care, big box stores that are actually considering closing or have closed because they can’t find enough workers to actually be at work. From the school standpoint, we know schools are a place where this virus can spread, it will spread, kids will get it there, kids will bring it home, kids will take it to school, teachers will get sick …  I think the next month is unparalleled in the kinds of decisions we [will] have to make and schools will be one of them.” 

Get our latest updates on COVID and education policy by signing up for our daily briefing. Some of our recent coverage about students and schools:

— Child Trauma: 1 in 450 youth have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID (Read more)

— Students Thrown Off Track: Over 1 million high school grads skipped college in 2020. Only a tiny fraction re-enrolled in 2021 (Read more)  

— Learning Recovery: Districts are receiving billions for academic recovery, but some parents struggle to find tutoring for their children (Read more)

— Parents Wary of Vaccinating: With nearly half of parents expected to forgo child COVID shots, schools brace for new wave of vaccine hesitancy (Read more)

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