Michael T. Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. A renowned epidemiologist who is advising governments worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic, Osterholm is a passionate angler who grew up trout fishing in northeast Iowa.
In the interview below, he talks about Minnesota’s May 9 fishing opener and suggests ways anglers can protect themselves while traveling to and from state lakes and rivers and while on the water.
Q: You’re a fly fisherman now, but as a boy you fished trout with bait. Did you love fishing from the outset?
A: Growing up in Waukon, Iowa, I started with night crawlers and a spinning rod. Waters I fished included Waterloo Creek, not far from Dorchester, Iowa. Forty years later I bought property on that creek and also Duck Creek and Brook Creek. Calling it Prairie Song Farm, I did extensive rehabilitation of those streams to benefit trout and to improve my fishing.
Q: Do you recommend that Minnesotans fish beginning on opening weekend?
A: People can’t stay locked down forever. COVID-19 prevention is very important in the current environment. But mental health is also important. As we get into summer, we’re going to see more people going into public places from the various stay-at-home orders. Just as we’re learning how to die from this virus, we’re going to have to learn how to live with it. So, yes, getting outdoors is important. And especially for many Minnesotans, fishing is important.
Q: Does it make a difference as a matter of protection against the virus whether someone fishes, say, in the metro, or near it, or on a lake Up North?
A: It doesn’t matter where you fish. You could fish on a dock or in a boat. What matters is distance from other people. The standard is a minimum of 6 feet.
Q: Would you fish in a boat with someone not from your household?
A: That’s something that would be OK, assuming no one involved is ill or has symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 or has been exposed to someone who has been sick. The virus doesn’t last long outdoors. Put it this way, if I had a choice between going to a public place or event or going fishing with my neighbor, I’d go fishing, hands down.
Q: Would you ride in the same vehicle with a person outside your household while headed to a lake or river?
A: A boat is one thing, because you’re outdoors. I’d be less inclined to be in a vehicle, closed in. Someone can spread the infection without knowing they’re infected. This disease is easily transmitted. Studies show a single infected person can fill up a closed-in room with the virus by just breathing.
Q: What about participating with friends at an outdoor fish fry?
A: Again, from a mental health standpoint, that type of activity is important. Especially if people keep their distances from one another and are outdoors, the risk of virus transmission is very low.
Q: While traveling, should anglers wear masks when they stop for bait or gas?
A: If it’s the anglers we’re talking about and they weren’t sick when they left home and they don’t have serious underlying health issues then the mask isn’t going to help them much. Cloth masks aren’t very effective in this case. N-95 masks are very effective, but few people have them. By the way, the underlying disease problems we worry about include heart disease, kidney disease and other health problems, and obesity — these, either combined with or independent of older age, predispose people to serious problems if they contract the virus.
Q: What about wearing gloves in the same situations?
A: Hand washing is great, always and regularly. And not touching your face. But I wouldn’t wear gloves. Environmental contact isn’t the main issue with COVID-19. It’s the air you breath and keeping a reasonable distance from one another.
Q: Some rural communities worry that a summer influx of tourists, beginning with the fishing opener, might overwhelm smaller health care systems if travelers get sick. Do you see that as a problem?
A: Generally, no. This is not an illness that knocks you off your feet in a few hours. Most people who are healthy when they head up north or wherever they’re going will be able to get home if they get sick while traveling. It’s not like you’ll be taken to an emergency room, in most cases.
Q: Is it fair to consider the threat from coronavirus as one that is likely to continue in varying degrees of seriousness and reach, rather than one that might end abruptly, barring development of a vaccine? The issue is important because anglers, cabin owners and vacationers are needed by resorts and other businesses in outstate Minnesota to survive economically, just as anglers, cabin owners and vacationers need access to those areas for their mental health, among other reasons.
A: Yes, we could be having this same conversation a year from now, or more. Typically, these viruses take 18 months to two years to run their courses. Balance, therefore, in people’s lives is important and will become more so. Maintaining our mental health while continuing to protect ourselves as best we can from the virus is the challenge.
Q: You’ve said previously this virus likely will eventually infect 60 to 70 % of the population before it has run its course — again, assuming no quick turnaround on a vaccine.
A: The virus will keep trying to transmit until we get to those percentages, in all likelihood. How much we can mitigate it, especially for vulnerable populations, until a vaccine is developed is the question. And I am optimistic we’ll get a vaccine one day. I’m just not sure how well it will work.
Until then, we’re likely to see an ebb and flow of cases. If you’re younger, while serious illness and even death can occur, it’s very rare. If you’re older and/or have serious underlying health issues, the threat is obviously greater. But even for this population, or for most of it, the option can’t be a total lockdown forever. Mental health, as I’ve said, is important, too.
That’s why, if you ask me what I dream about after a bad day, I’ll say, “Going fishing.”