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Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm Predicts Pandemics

The infectious disease expert wants us to better prepare to help future generations

By Laura McCallum

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has been called Dr. Doom. The nationally-known infectious disease expert based in Minnesota has been predicting a global pandemic for decades, including in his 2017 book "Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs." And he says the current coronavirus pandemic isn't even the big one, compared to a global flu pandemic that could be even more virulent. 

As the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Osterholm, 67, has been a strong voice during the pandemic, appearing in every major national news outlet to advocate for better public health preparedness. The former Minnesota state epidemiologist was named to President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board. He's also a grandfather of five children between the ages of three and 10, and has been candid about how hard it was to go months without seeing them this year. 

Next Avenue: You're a boomer. You haven't slowed down at all. You're probably working more than ever because of the demand right now. So what does aging mean to you?

Michael Osterholm: I've always ascribed to the belief that youth is not a time of life, it's a state of mind. And I've tried my life to be young — and not physically young, I understand I can't have any impact on that — but the joy of life, the fun of life, the humor of life, the kindness of life. And I think that this pandemic has been a challenge in that regard. 

I do a podcast weekly where I really try to emphasize the issue of kindness and empathy and understanding and helping people who are lonely. At the same time, I've never before in my career received the hateful threatening communications I have from people who don't know me, but had just believed that I'm part of the deep state or somehow harming them because of what I do about the pandemic.

"If I could take just one of these heavy, heavy boulders of a pandemic off your shoulder, as a dad and a grandfather, that's probably the most important thing I can do."

In some ways, do you feel like you've been preparing your whole life for this, for this moment? You knew it was coming.

The irony of all this is that this is not the big one. 

I've heard you say that, and that's probably horrifying to people. This is bad enough.

When you think about the impact that a 1918-like influenza pandemic could have, where the number of deaths are greatly increased in those eighteen to thirty years of age, and that the number of deaths would be substantially higher than they even are with this one. And then you think about the fact that today for the eight billion people on the earth that we're trying to feed, there are twenty-three billion chickens alive right now on the earth. Roughly one third of all birds on the earth are chickens and where that protein production is at also happens to coincide where a lot of the swine production is to also feed that population.

There are over 390 million pigs on the face of the earth right now. Well, when you put those birds and those pigs together, and in general proximity, the avian strains of influenza in those chickens are the ones that will one day become one of them, an influenza pandemic virus, meaning a human transmitted virus that will kill lots of people. Pigs are the mixing vessel for both bird viruses and human viruses. 

1918 pandemics are not done. They're going to happen again and again. And so if we think this one was bad — it is bad, when you look at all the deaths and the cases, it's horrible — but it's not what it's going to be, if we had a severe influenza pandemic, which I'm unfortunately confident we will. 

And that's where aging comes in. Because I've never had more motivation or more reason to want to understand what I and my other colleagues of my age are leaving our kids and grandkids.

We know we're leaving them a pile of debt that is unimaginable, but do we have to leave them a world that is also so incredibly vulnerable to the next pandemic? And I think age brings that out in you in a way of saying, 'I want to leave my kids something that is a real value of much more than even money.' If I could take just one of these heavy, heavy boulders of a pandemic off your shoulder, as a dad and a grandfather, that's probably the most important thing I can do.

I wanted to ask you about your kids and grandkids. I know that's a really bright spot in your life, except it's hard right now. Is it still the case that you haven't seen them since March?

"There's nothing less joyous than a beautiful wedding that then is followed several weeks later by more than one funeral."

No, actually, I have, and this is where science and reality hit a common place. Kind of like chocolate and peanut butter running into each other in the hallway. I now feel quite confident that this is not like a game of tag, where I just walked by somebody who's infected and I'm it. So now, I see the kids, I will see them outdoors, a quick hug of thirty seconds or so, and then distance in an outdoor environment. And when you do that, you can be very safe relative to getting an infectious dose. 

As you've talked about, we know more about the disease and how it's spread. And at this point in the pandemic, knowing what we know, what do older adults need to know about how they can stay safe? Eighty percent of the COVID-19 deaths have been people over sixty.

It's all about sharing air with someone who's infected. So by distancing yourself from someone and not sharing the air either because you're outdoors and the virus, if we're in that air, dissipates quickly, and you're not going to be breathing in the virus, or if you're indoors, you're largely dealing with someone who has also, like you, been bubbled or not likely to have been exposed. So that's the challenge that families often have. 

One of the largest segments of the pandemic today revolves around family or friends, funerals, weddings, family reunions, get togethers at restaurants and bars. That's one of the things you have to avoid, which of course, most people say, 'I can't avoid a funeral.' Well, you know, there's nothing worse than one funeral creating three more. And that's what's happened. There's nothing less joyous than a beautiful wedding that then is followed several weeks later by more than one funeral. And I think that's the message we have to get across to people.

For an older person who's in assisted living or in a group setting, how do they emotionally handle this?

That's where we need to spend so much more time reaching out. That's why I try to talk about in my podcast a lot just how to connect and call people, even if they aren't somebody you would routinely call, just call to see how they're doing. This is a time to build new relationships, even at a distance. This is where actually the internet connection becomes very important. If you can't touch physically, please touch emotionally. And I think that is such a very important point.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

I would make certain that everyone's very best hour they ever spent was the last hour of their life. We all talk about how we want to live, but we should also be talking about how we want to die. We need to be able to talk about living and dying with the same joyful sense of reality.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

It is a gift to be able to age living towards a dream. It is a need to age meeting everyday demands, and it is a sin to age by wondering how I'll get through the next day. I've learned that we all ought to be trying to figure out how we want to age by living our dreams. And I think I'm more than ever so acutely aware of that, when I see so many who are in that second and third category.

Photograph of Laura McCallum
Laura McCallum is the former Health and Caregiving Editor for Next Avenue. She is a longtime journalist who worked at MPR News for nearly 27 years. Read More
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