Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who famously predicted a global pandemic years ago, is Minnesota's best-known science geek, with an international reputation. Since his prophecy became devastatingly true last year, the self-described "disease detective" has been advising President Joe Biden's team on how to combat COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci relies on him to bounce ideas back and forth, too. And his popular new podcast has cemented his status as a public-health celebrity, with the What Would Osterholm Do? T-shirts to prove it. Weekly episodes reveal a softer side to the blunt, serious scientist, nicknamed "Bad News Mike" by his detractors.
Osterholm has long used his position to inform and influence. He alerted Congress to the dangers of a viral pandemic that would overwhelm hospitals, kill millions and devastate the global economy back in 2005, when he was new to his current role as director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). He appears in the national press any time there's a large disease outbreak, such as the Ebola and Zika scares of recent years. But last March, with his CIDRAP-sponsored "The Osterholm Update: COVID-19," he began to speak directly to the public.
In hourlong episodes, Osterholm serves up the science on everything from testing protocols to virus variants. He uses statistics and analytics to "scare us into our wits, not out of them," as he's fond of saying. But he also plays a less-expected role of collective healer, offering sympathy for lives and livelihoods lost, for families fractured and other social ills the virus has wrought. One moment he's explaining herd immunity; the next he's reading poetry.
"This isn't a pandemic of just a virus," he explains. "This is a pandemic of emotion. This is a pandemic of pain and suffering that has to do with lost jobs and lost persons. … This is not just a public health journey. This is really a personal journey for all of us."
Science and connection
Osterholm has spent decades investigating disease outbreaks, from toxic shock to hepatitis B to AIDS to foodborne illnesses, including 15 years as Minnesota's state epidemiologist. This experience honed his ability to synthesize data into insight almost instinctively, the way a center fielder finds the spot where a fly ball will meet his glove.
Though Osterholm's career has taken him around the globe in the course of advising multiple presidential administrations and even the late King Hussein of Jordan, his roots are in the small farming community of Waukon, Iowa. Growing up, his interests in science and mysteries coalesced by reading the Annals of Medicine column in the New Yorker. The wife of the local newspaper's publisher, who employed Osterholm's father, passed issues of the magazine along to him.
One fall night, when Osterholm was a senior in high school, he came home to find his father, a violent alcoholic, had beaten his mother. Osterholm ousted him from the house and the family never saw him again. That winter, his mother was too poor to outfit six children in snow boots, so some trudged to school wearing shoes wrapped in bread sacks.
But a $50 gift from the newspaper publisher's wife, along with assurances that Christmas would not have to be like this again, brought new boots and a sense of optimism he's carried with him ever since.
Osterholm recently shared this story on the podcast, in sharp contrast to how he can sometimes sound like a human spreadsheet as he spits out statistics on daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The podcast has shown Minnesotans — and those far beyond — a more human side to a man many know only as a wonk. At times, Osterholm resembles a charismatic preacher, imploring his followers to "stop swapping air" to avoid a coronavirus infection, or sharing how he teared up watching the first American health care worker get vaccinated on TV. He's veered into folksy, once reciting the lyrics to "Rainbow Connection" and, another time, answering a listener's query about the safety of gifting her usual Christmas krumkake. (Yes, so long as there's a contactless drop-off.) He even broadcast his annual tradition of reading "The Polar Express" to his now-adult children and young grandchildren.
Before President Biden's inauguration, when there was scant national acknowledgment of the virus' human toll, Osterholm helped fill the gap. On air, he pays tribute to those who have died of COVID-19. He's also established a fund to support the families of health care workers who lost their lives to the virus with the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation. Each week on "The Osterholm Update," he buoys his audience with listener-supplied acts of kindness, such as the story of a girl with Down syndrome who spreads socially distant cheer by biking around greeting her neighbors.
In a recent interview, Fauci calls Osterholm "a very important presence in the entire arena of global health and pandemic outbreaks" and says he earned his reputation for his depth and breadth of knowledge of, and experience with, so many types of disease outbreaks, as well as his good judgment.
Dr. Kristine Moore, CIDRAP's medical director, says her longtime colleague distinguishes himself from his peers with his excellent communication skills, which also make podcasting a natural fit.
"He can take complex ideas and break them down in a way that people can easily grasp," she says. "He also speaks from the heart, which I think people relate to. He always tells the truth, and people really appreciate that — they know they can trust him."
Osterholm frequently acknowledges how much his listeners' engagement has benefited him: "Here's this epidemiologist, this science egghead, and you've given me a sense of connection, which I believe is so essential at times like these," he says on a recent episode. "You are not just the receivers of this, you are truly part of the family."
The long game
Osterholm has enough fervent fans that some of the podcast-themed merch has already sold out. ("That was not my idea — I protested loudly," Osterholm says of the T-shirts, pins and mugs. He relented, knowing sales could help fund the constant free news stream CIDRAP puts out.)
Of course Osterholm is also used to his share of criticism, but one thing he didn't anticipate about the pandemic's arrival is the degree of vilification scientists have faced. "Death threats are just a way of life," he says.
But, professionally, Osterholm plays the long game. It's an approach he espouses personally, too, through a lifelong devotion to distance swimming. Three times he's attempted to swim the English Channel, once coming quite close to his goal.
"I tend to approach a lot of what I do from that same mind-set: You got to get through right now, but what's the long term?" he says.
And he wants to make sure we understand the long game we're playing with infectious diseases is nowhere near its end.
"This is not the big one," he said of our current circumstance. "If we have another 1918-like influenza pandemic, that could be much more severe than this."
If this prediction also comes true, hopefully we will cultivate the same sense of community Osterholm's podcast has created to help ourselves get through it.