And then it happened

Michael Osterholm gazes toward the skyline.

Three years ago, Michael Osterholm laid out in a book the 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.

“When [a pandemic] happens,” Osterholm wrote, “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.”

Now that COVID-19 has emerged as that enemy, 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 repeatedly. The Washington Post and New York Times have published his op-eds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization all seek his counsel.

Osterholm 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, he has raised visibility for the University of Minnesota and the School of Public Health (SPH) as a source of credible, reliable information at the heart of a global pandemic.

A teacher and a mentor

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Luther College, Osterholm 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 founded the U of M’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) 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.”

I wish I had 10 Michaels to raise the profile of the importance of prevention around the planet.

Throughout his long tenure, Osterholm has taught. He’s a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health and 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.

“Mike’s been able to train many people in a variety of roles to work in different capacities,” says Kristen Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division at MDH.

Back in 1989, as an SPH graduate student, Ehresmann became a research assistant under Osterholm at the MDH. Three decades later, she’s leading what she calls “the guts of the response” to COVID-19. She’s quoted nearly daily in the media, offering both cautions and explanations. 

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.

Finnegan has been especially proud of Osterholm’s role lately. He says, “I wish I had 10 Michaels to raise the profile of the importance of prevention around the planet.”

Explore the CIDRAP COVID-19 podcasts.