University of Minnesota Alumni Association


And Then it Happened

For nearly 30 years, the U of M's Dr. Michael Osterholm has been warning anyone who would listen about the risks of a worldwide pandemic. And then it happened.

Photo Credit: Nate Ryan

On an afternoon in mid-March, Mike Osterholm (M.S. ’78, Ph.D. ’80, M.P.H. ’80) wraps up a radio interview with WCCO’s Chad Hartman, steps out of his office for a quick bathroom break and sees me waiting. He reaches out his hand to shake mine, catches himself, and offers his elbow instead. Once he’s left, his secretary asks, “Did he just shake your hand?”

For all of his knowledge, one of the nation’s leading experts on infectious diseases is still struggling to adapt to the new normal like any of us. Forgive him. He’s been busy.

Since inexplicable clusters of viral pneumonia began appearing in China in late December, Osterholm has been in constant demand. Regional, national, and international media—including CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and even irreverent comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan—have sought him out. The Washington Post and New York Times have published his op-eds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the World Health Organization (WHO) all seek his counsel. So do the White House and officials from other governments. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has even adopted some of his catchphrases, telling Minnesotans, “This is not a blizzard but a Minnesota winter.”

Osterholm, the McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health and director of the U of M’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), has deep knowledge of infectious diseases, a long track record of being ahead of the curve in understanding their impact, and a decided knack for distilling complex situations into comprehensible terms. Along the way, Osterholm has also raised visibility for the University of Minnesota as a source of credible, reliable information at the heart of a global pandemic.

An image from Osterholm’s Dec 17, 2019 speech titled “Preparing for the Next Epidemic,” which he delivered at the Healthy Futures Summit at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health

After excusing himself for a moment, Osterholm steps back into the room, makes a quick call to check in with U of M President Joan Gabel regarding the CDC’s latest directives, and then meets with me for a scheduled interview, slotted in before a call with the Washington Post. Seated in C316 Mayo at a conference table strewn with stacks of papers and a laptop open before him, he’s cordial, engaging, and charming, yet a bit weary, resorting on occasion to sound bites. At one point, when I ask him about his background, he hands me a copy of his book Deadliest Enemy: Our War against Killer Germs and says, “It’s all in here.”

Indeed, it is. Three years ago, Osterholm laid out the unfolding scenario of a global influenza pandemic originating in China that portended the current COVID-19 situation with eerie accuracy. Though Osterholm did not know when such a pandemic would occur, he was certain it would. “Pandemic influenza is absolutely inevitable,” he told local news organization MinnPost when the book was published. “It’s going to happen.”

Osterholm wrote in Deadliest Enemy, “When [a pandemic] happens, it will spread before we realize what is happening. ... And unless we are prepared, it would be like trying to contain the wind…Infectious disease is the deadliest enemy faced by all of humankind.”

His book was not the first time Osterholm had sounded the alarm about a pandemic sweeping the world. Fifteen years ago, he wrote in the international policy magazine Foreign Affairs, “Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose.” He followed that up with similar warnings in the New England Journal of Medicine and the British journal Nature before publishing Deadliest Enemy in 2017

Though some have criticized Osterholm over the years for his doomsday predictions and attempted to dismiss his dire warnings, he has proven over and over again to be prescient on the subject. In 1982, as chief of the Acute Disease Epidemiology Section at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), he published a paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases about the relationship between tampons and toxic shock syndrome that exposed the “wrong conclusions” the CDC had made on the subject, which he claimed caused serious illnesses and deaths. Two years later, he contradicted President Reagan’s Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler’s assertion there would soon be an AIDS vaccine, saying he didn’t think it would happen in his lifetime. “I was one of the first to come out and say HIV was going to be a major tragedy,” Osterholm says.

And so it’s gone throughout his career: Osterholm as oracle, issuing unpopular prophesies about food-borne diseases, antibiotic resistance, bioterrorism, and infectious agents such as Ebola and Zika, many of which have in turn played out. He also forecast the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, would become a global pandemic a month before the WHO declared it one.

A coworker needlepointed one of his quotes on a small pillow and it sits on a bookshelf behind him: “Right is right even if nobody is right. And wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong.”

“We just need to tell the truth,” Osterholm says.

Osterholm founded CIDRAP, part of the U of M’s Office of the Vice President for Research, in 2001. He wanted to ground policy in solid science, with the mission “to prevent illness and death from targeted infectious disease threats through research and the translation of scientific information into real-world, practical applications, policies, and solutions.”

Throughout the pandemic, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has delivered daily briefings to state residents, along with various high-ranking medical officials. He appears here with Kristen Ehresmann (M.P.H. ’90), director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division at the MDH. Osterholm both taught Ehresmann and hired her for her first job.
Photo Credit: Peter Callaghan/MinnPost

On March 13, with new information on the coronavirus emerging by the hour, CIDRAP launched an online COVID-19 Resource Center to provide accurate and upto-date information for public health experts, business leaders, government officials, and the general public. It was quickly recognized as an authoritative and comprehensive resource, drawing between 500,000 and 750,000 users daily, according to Osterholm. CIDRAP has continued to publish throughout the pandemic, compiling the latest scientific information from around the world. (

Osterholm’s fascination with infectious diseases dates back to his youth in Waukon, Iowa, during the ’60s when he regularly read “The Annals of Science” column in The New Yorker about science detectives solving medical mysteries. He decided that was the career for him before he even knew the word “epidemiologist.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Luther College, he did his graduate work at the University. He began working at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) as a graduate student in 1975 and rose to the level of state epidemiologist in 1984, a position he held for 15 years. He has served as special advisor to the national Health and Human Services secretary on bioterrorism and public health preparedness under the George W. Bush administration, been appointed to the interim management team of the CDC, sat on the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, and is currently a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Throughout, Osterholm has taught. He holds the title of Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health and is an adjunct professor in the medical school. “The single most important thing I do is teaching, which I’ve been doing for 44 years,” he says.

Another major contribution Osterholm in particular and the School of Public Health in general have made to help combat this pandemic are the students who have been taught at the University.

“You can’t have only vision—you need boots on the ground to implement it,” says Kristen Ehresmann (M.P.H. ’90), director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division at the MDH. “Mike’s been able to train many people in a variety of roles to work in different capacities.”

She’s one of them. Back in 1989, as an SPH graduate student, Ehresmann applied for a position as a research assistant under Osterholm at the MDH. “I waited all day for his phone call, sitting on the floor of my living room,” she says with a laugh. It finally came, and the position was hers. “I remember having lunch with my dad, saying, ‘I wonder if I get my foot in the door at the health department, if it could be a good thing?’ Here I am, 30 years later as the head of infectious diseases.”

In her role, Ehresmann leads MDH’s operations, what she calls “the guts of the response” to COVID-19. She’s quoted nearly daily in the media, offering both cautions and explanations. Throughout, Osterholm has been both mentor—sharing ideas and offering encouragement to her during their regular talks—and model. “Mike is really good at explaining things in the media,” she says. “That has been my goal: to emulate him in that way.”

Ehresmann has been perhaps the most visible among SPH alumni in the media after Osterholm, but many others have been on the front lines these past few months. Jill DeBoer (B.A. ’84, M.P.H. ’90) has been working long days, seven days a week since January in her dual role as deputy director of CIDRAP and director of the University’s Health Emergency Response Office. She likens the latter to air traffic control. “When there’s a health issue on campus, we address all aspects of it,” she says.

That has made her an essential aide-de-camp for President Gabel in directing the University’s evolving response to the coronavirus. DeBoer credits her education in community health, community organization, and epidemiology with preparing her for the moment. “I use those skills every day,” she says.

Like Ehresmann, DeBoer also points to her work with the MDH as a graduate student in the late ’80s, where she met Osterholm the first week and had the chance to work on issues such as AIDS and bioterrorism. “Everything in my career leads back to that opportunity to finish my degree in public health and that first student placement,” she says.

And the School of Public Health’s reach extends far beyond the state’s borders. With more than 11,000 living alumni around the world, it’s not surprising they are also engaged in fighting COVID-19. Sara Ann Palmer (B.A.S. ’05, B.S. ’05, M.P.H. ’19), for example, is an infection preventionist at McKenzie County Healthcare, leading the critical access hospital’s preparation for COVID-19 in rural western North Dakota. Nathan Kemp (B.S. ’13, M.P.H. ’19) is an epidemiologist at the MDH who has been fielding calls on the department’s hotline, providing accurate information to the public. Teigan Dwyer (M.P.H. ’17) has worked with WHO in Geneva and New York assembling its daily report, which is the most downloaded document on the organization’s website.

As a master’s student, Dwyer says he gained valuable skills during an assignment managing research in Tanzania. “The discrepancies between what we learn in class and what’s feasible didn’t hit me until then,” he says. “Right now, in a pandemic situation, it’s so relevant to what we’re doing. We don’t have time to prepare studies.”

In addition to Osterholm and Ehresmann, media have sought out at least a dozen more SPH alumni and faculty to interpret and analyze various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic. A group of faculty and students have also worked with the MDH on models employing the most recent data to map and predict the spread of the pandemic to help hospitals prepare for potential spikes.

SPH Dean John Finnegan says it’s not surprising that health authorities and the public are looking to the University for this expertise or that U of M alumni are fortifying the ranks of those responding to the pandemic. Even though SPH was not founded until 1944, Finnegan traces the University’s influence on public health matters back to 1873, when it hired Charles Hewitt, a Civil War physician, to teach the subject, the first such academic appointment in the United States. “We’re a top 10 school of public health—right there with Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Michigan—producing 350 to 400 graduates a year who are the next generation of health care professionals,” he says.

Finnegan has been especially proud of Osterholm’s role lately. Considering the breadth of Osterholm’s career and his consistent call for preparedness, Finnegan adds, “I wish I had 10 Michaels to raise the profile of the importance of prevention around the planet.”

John Rosengren is a Pulitzer-nominated writer working in Minneapolis. He has just released his debut novel, A Clean Heart.

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