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.
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.
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.”
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. (cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19).
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
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
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
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
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.