Public health ‘rock star’ from Iowa gives us straight talk

April 22, 2020 8:00 am

Dr. Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

In the world of contagions, epidemics and vaccines, there are not many true rock stars.

There is, of course, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His face is recognizable worldwide from his television briefings on the coronavirus epidemic sweeping the globe.

Another is Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. His assistance is routinely sought by world leaders when a new pathogen threatens.

Because of his expertise, Osterholm has been frequently invited by journalists to offer his analysis and insights into COVID-19 — the disease that has driven millions of us into our homes to wait out the pandemic and that has killed 40,000 Americans in just seven weeks.

Osterholm deserves our attention because this 67-year-old scientist is a wonderful Iowa success story — the product of the schools in Waukon and a graduate of nearby Luther College.

He is not one who beats around the bush. He praises the work hospital medical staffs and the nation’s governors have done to fight coronavirus. However, you won’t hear him heaping praise on the response by the Trump administration.

Dr. Michael Osterholm (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

“You can’t go from ‘It’s not a problem’ to ‘It’s war’ in two weeks without everyone understanding how you got there and what it means,” Osterholm told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last month.

“I think it’s human nature to not want to believe this,” he said. “Even looking at the leadership in this White House, (they) didn’t believe it for many weeks that this was coming.”

But in January, weeks ahead of the World Health Organization, Osterholm warned that he believed the virus would turn into a global epidemic.

“But even then, people were somehow wanting to believe this was a low-risk situation,” he told the Star-Tribune. “That was one of the things that was hard for me, continually hearing from Washington, from the administration, (that) this was low-risk. … I’m sitting here saying, ‘No, no, no.’”

An ongoing problem, in Osterholm’s view, is the absence of a clear national goal.

“What’s our goal?” he asked. “Is it to prevent everybody from getting infected? Is it to prevent people from being in the hospital? Is it to keep the economy at least viable? We don’t have a goal. That’s one of the challenges at the national level.”

Osterholm said the United States cannot shelter in place for the 18 months it might take to develop a vaccine to stop the spread of the virus.

“One of the messages we have to give is getting people back to the middle. … We need to think about what we might see when we loosen up society again, knowing that transmission will occur.”

The nation needs to protect its most vulnerable people, he said, and officials need to continue emphasizing the need for social distancing for months to come.

“We don’t want people to be isolated, (but we have to) keep the hospitals from being overrun. We keep doing that until we get a vaccine. It won’t be perfect. Some people will get sick, some may die. But it’s a way to get us to a place where (we can live with COVID-19).”

Americans are really concerned and scared, but they are not panicking, he said.

“They just want you to tell it to them, what you know and what you don’t know,” Osterholm said. “We need the straight-talk express right now. … We just need to tell the truth. I worry that the truth is being lost in the politics of the moment.”

Osterholm’s friendship with another Iowan who made a difference 

Through the years, one focus of Osterholm’s work has been the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the culprit behind AIDS.

His work connected him with his Iowa roots 30 years ago when he became friends with Barbara Fassbinder, a nurse from Monona, located about 25 miles south of Waukon, Osterholm’s hometown.

Fassbinder had the unfortunate distinction of being the first health care professional in the United States documented to become infected with AIDS on the job. It occurred in August 1986 while she was working in a hospital emergency room in Prairie du Chien, Wis., when a young man was brought in in severe respiratory distress.

Latex gloves are now part of the standard protective gear that doctors and nurses wear in hospitals and clinics. But in 1986, such precautions were not routine, and Fassbinder was not wearing gloves when she helped treat this patient.

During the resuscitation efforts, she pressed gauze to stop the bleeding after removing a small medical line from an artery. During that common medical procedure, the man’s blood apparently soaked through the gauze and entered Fassbinder’s hand through small nicks left on her fingers from a weekend of gardening.

The patient died, and an autopsy found he had AIDS. The emergency room staff received blood tests, and Fassbinder’s came back positive. She had been infected with HIV.

Before her death in 1994 at the age of 40, Fassbinder went public with details of her infection. She made numerous presentations to health care audiences, sharing the stage with Osterholm at some.

She warned doctors and nurses about the need for precautions to protect themselves from AIDS. She talked with other groups about the need to support AIDS patients and their families.

A tribute in a medical journal after her death said of this hospital hero, “Mostly she urged compassion for patients, understanding — as many did not — that the real enemy is the disease.”

When she was laid to rest in the cemetery at Monona, the pallbearers included Michael Osterholm, the guy from Waukon.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].