Minnesota prof criticizes public health response at COVID-19 lecture

University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm gave a virtual lecture at NYU on Tuesday, Feb. 8, criticizing aspects of the official response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


American epidemiologist Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota at the online event on Feb. 7. (Courtesy of Shiann Stokes)

Shiann Stokes, Staff Writer

University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm criticized the public health system’s reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects during a virtual lecture held by NYU on Tuesday, Feb. 7. The virtual event was moderated by the dean of NYU’s College of Arts and Science, Wendy Suzuki. 

Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and has received the McKnight Presidential Endowment, the highest honor at the Univesity of Minnesota. He was part of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board in 2020, and in 2017 released “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” a book which included a prescient warning that the United States would soon experience a pandemic, and would not be prepared to combat it.

At the talk, Osterholm said that public health officials have done itself a disservice in how it has dealt with respiratory protection, particularly concerning N95 masks. He suggested that disposable N95 masks were made for occupational use, such as in hospitals and other healthcare settings, and said that people need N95 masks that can be washed and reused for personal use. He more broadly criticized some scientific experts’ responses to the virus as sometimes counterproductive.

“We as a scientific community have far overstated what we really know about this virus,” Osterholm said. “We were told over and over again in the first year of the pandemic by the viral geneticists who were telling us what they thought they knew. They referred to these mutational changes as new variants when, really, it was nothing more than just telling you how old the virus was.” 

The Biden administration announced last month that it would allow the national emergency and public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic — which have been in place since early 2020 — to lapse on May 11, 2023. Officials said that as the virus is not as common as it used to be, a shift in policy is warranted. Despite this, Osterholm said the public should expect to see impacts of the virus for many years to come.

Osterholm also spoke on what he believes individuals should do differently if another pandemic occurs, advising that leaders should be more willing to listen to scientists and public health researchers.

“I saw a lot of experts who took positions that weren’t based on science,” Osterholm said. “We rushed to policy judgment not based on science, but because that’s what we said we were going to do.”

Contact Shiann Stokes at [email protected].