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Michael Lewis' 'The Premonition' Is A Sweeping Indictment Of The CDC

May 3, 2021
Originally published on May 3, 2021 7:05 am

Much has been written about how the pandemic came to be, but not so well known are the details about how it was able to spread so quickly in the United States.

Author Michael Lewis has written a new book, The Premonition, that fills in those blanks. And it is a sweeping indictment of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lewis, also author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short, says a public health doctor in California named Charity Dean is one of the people who saw the real danger of the virus before the rest of the country did.

"No one should have to be as brave as Charity Dean was as a local public health officer. To do her job, she had to be brave in a way that brought tears to my eyes," Lewis tell NPR. "And when I first met her, I realized I had a character because all over her house were like these Post-it notes reminding her to be brave, like ... 'courage is a muscle memory' or 'the tallest oak in the forest was once just a little nut.' She had all these kind of inspirational things. And when you get into the story of what Charity Dean ... had to do on the ground, your hair stands up on the back of your neck."

Lewis writes about how Dean tried and tried to get the state officials around her to look at the data and act to make sure the virus didn't spread. She put it all on the line, her reputation, her job. And across the country, there was another group of doctors led by Carter Mescher trying to do the same thing at the federal level.

"It was incredible to me that there was this kind of secret group of seven doctors — they called themselves the Wolverines — who were positioned in interesting places in and around the federal government, who had been together for the better part of 15 years and who had come together whenever there was a threat of a disease outbreak to help organize the country's response," Lewis says.

But by 2020, the Trump administration had disbanded the pandemic response unit and these doctors were forced to go rogue. A mutual acquaintance put Charity Dean in touch with Carter Mescher.

"And Charity picked up all of Carter Mescher's analysis. And she said it was like pouring water on a dying plant, that it was the first person she met who was thinking about this threat the way she was thinking about it," Lewis says. "And so she's very soon on the private calls. ... Think of her as an actual battlefield commander. She's in the war, in the trenches, as if she's figured out in the course of her career in public health that there are no generals or the generals don't understand how the, how the battle's fought. And she's going to have to kind of organize the strategy on the field."

In January and February of 2020, hundreds of Americans in Wuhan, China, were flown back to the U.S. Considering how many people had died of COVID-19 in China at that point, it would have made sense to test those Americans who were coming back. But according to Lewis and his sources, then-CDC Director Robert Redfield refused to test them, saying it would amount to doing research on imprisoned persons.

"Redfield is a particularly egregious example, but he's an expression of a much bigger problem. And if you just say, 'oh, it's the Trump administration' or 'oh, it's Robert Redfield,' you're missing the bigger picture," Lewis says. "And the bigger picture is we as a society have allowed institutions like the CDC to become very politicized. And this is a larger pattern in the U.S. government. More and more jobs being politicized, more and more people in these jobs being on shorter, tighter leashes. More the kind of person who ends up in the job being someone who is politically pleasing to whoever happens to be in the White House. And so ... the conditions for Robert Redfield being in that job were created long ago."

Lewis says he reached out to the CDC for comment, but the CDC wouldn't speak to him.

"So what I did was guerilla journalism," he says. "I interviewed individuals who were willing to talk to me either on background or off the record. And a couple people were on the record. But the CDC itself, I was told would not — didn't want to talk to me."

According to Lewis' reporting, the CDC basically had two positions on the pandemic early on. Early on it was that there was nothing to see here — that this is not a big deal. It's being overblown. And then there was this very quick pivot when it started spreading in the U.S. and the position became it's too late and there's nothing we can do.

"Charity Dean said the great shame of their behavior was they waited so long that we were never in a position to contain it," Lewis says. "They pretended it wasn't important until it was too late. That it could have been contained the way it was contained, say, by Australia. There were things we could do, many, many. And [if] they'd been more aggressive right up front. Many, many thousands of Americans would be alive today who are not."

According to Lewis, the tragedy that became the American coronavirus pandemic was a perfect storm of the reaction of the president at the time, Donald Trump, the long history of politicization of the CDC and the lack of a public health care system all coming together.

"I think all my characters would say that because of the way we fail to govern ourselves, the way we fail to create a system, this would have been pretty bad under almost any administration and that it would have exposed the holes in the system and the weaknesses in the system, the absence of the system," Lewis says.

Lewis followed these doctors inside and outside the federal government for many months as they tried to raise alarm bells and demand the kind of interventions that would have saved lives. But for him, Charity Dean stands apart for what she was willing to risk.

"You can't believe what we are requiring of these people," Lewis says. "And to me, there was something just unbelievably moving about this woman who had decided that even though she herself was full of fears for all kinds of good reasons, had willed herself to be brave for the sake of other people's lives. And that had saved all these lives because she'd insisted on this trait in herself."

It's a trait that the system not only didn't reward, it punished.

"In the pandemic, you saw this. Charity would tell you — and I think it's true — that the pandemic has created a kind of selective pressure on our public health officers," Lewis says. "And it's removed the brave ones. The brave ones have all got their heads chopped off. So it's sort of institutionalized a cowardice that we're going to need to face up to so that this business of punishing people who are doing their damnedest to try to save us from ourselves has got to stop."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Much has been written about how the pandemic came to be. Not so well-known are the details about how it was able to spread so quickly here in the U.S. Author Michael Lewis has written a new book that fills in those blanks. It's called "The Premonition." And one of the people who sees the real danger of the virus before the rest of the country is a public health doctor in California named Charity Dean.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No one should have to be as brave as Charity Dean was as a global public health officer. To do her job, she had to be brave in a way that brought tears to my eyes. And that - and when I first met her, I realized I had a character because all over her house were, like, these Post-it notes reminding her to be brave. Like, it was - one said, courage is a muscle memory. Or the tallest oak in the forest was once just a little nut. She had all these kind of inspirational things. And when you get into the story of what Charity Dean had to do on the ground, your hair stands up on the back of your neck.

MARTIN: Lewis writes about how Dean tried and tried to get the state officials around her to look at the data and act to make sure the virus didn't spread. She put it all on the line, her reputation, her job. Meanwhile, across the country, there was another group of doctors led by Carter Mescher trying to do the same thing at the federal level.

LEWIS: It was incredible to me that there was this kind of secret group of seven doctors - they called themselves the Wolverines - who were positioned in interesting places in and around the federal government, who had been together for the better part of 15 years and who had come together whenever there was a threat of a disease outbreak to help organize the country's response.

MARTIN: But by 2020, the Trump administration had disbanded the pandemic response unit. And these doctors were forced to sort of go rogue. A mutual acquaintance put Charity Dean in touch with Carter Mescher.

LEWIS: Charity picked up all of Carter Mescher's analysis, and she said it was like pouring water on a dying plant, that she - it was the first person she met who was thinking about this threat the way she was thinking about it. And so she's very soon on the private calls that the seven doctors have, calls that, sometimes, the Trump administration is lurking on. And it's almost like - think of her as an actual battlefield commander. She's in the war, in the trenches, as if she's figured out in the course of her career in public health that there are no generals, or the generals don't understand how the battle's fought. And she's going to have to kind of organize the strategy on the field.

MARTIN: The book is a sweeping indictment of the Centers for Disease Control. For example, in January and February of last year, hundreds of Americans in Wuhan, China, were flown back to the U.S. Considering how many people had died of COVID-19 in China at that point, it would've made sense to test those Americans who were coming back. But according to Michael Lewis and his sources, then CDC director Robert Redfield refused to test them, saying it would amount to doing research on imprisoned persons.

LEWIS: Redfield is a particularly egregious example, but he's an expression of a much bigger problem. And if you just say, oh, it's the Trump administration or oh, it's Robert Redfield, you're missing the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is we as a society have allowed institutions like the CDC to become very politicized. And this is a larger pattern in the U.S. government - more and more jobs being politicized, more and more people in these jobs being on shorter, tighter leashes, more the kind of person who ends up in the job being someone who is politically pleasing to whoever happens to be in the White House. And so it create - the conditions for Robert Redfield being in that job were created long ago.

MARTIN: Did you ever reach out to him for his response?

LEWIS: I reached out to the CDC, but the CDC wouldn't speak to me. So what I did was guerilla journalism. I interviewed individuals who were willing to talk to me either on background or off the record. And a couple people were on the record. But the CDC itself, I was told, would not - didn't want to talk to me.

MARTIN: It's interesting - according to to your reporting, the CDC basically had two positions on the pandemic. Early on, it was, nothing to see here. This is not a big deal. It's being overblown. And then there was this pivot when it started spreading in the U.S. And the position became, it's too late. There's nothing we can do. Is that a fair characterization?

LEWIS: It's a very fair description. And it's not my - it's Charity Dean's observation. She said the great shame of their behavior was they waited so long that we were never in a position to contain it. They pretended it wasn't important until it was too late. It could've been contained the way it was contained, say, by Australia. There were things we could do - many, many - and if they'd been more aggressive right up front, many, many thousands of Americans would be alive today who are not.

MARTIN: So it's this perfect storm of horrible conditions with the executive who's sitting in the Oval Office at the time, President Trump, the long history of politicization of the CDC. It all sort of comes together to create the tragedy that became the American COVID pandemic

LEWIS: And the lack of a public health care system. I mean, that's just - this is disconnectedness, the fact that we just didn't have a thing that you needed to fight a virus. So yes, it's a perfect storm. But I think all my characters would say that because of the way we've failed to govern ourselves, the way we failed to create a system, this would've been pretty bad under almost any administration and that it would've exposed the holes in the system and the weaknesses in the system, the absence of the system.

MARTIN: Michael Lewis followed these doctors inside and outside of the federal government for many months as they tried to raise alarm bells and demand the kind of interventions that would've saved lives. But for him, Charity Dean stands apart for what she was willing to risk.

LEWIS: You can't believe what we are requiring of these people. And to me, there was something just unbelievably moving about this woman who had decided that even though she herself was full of fears for all kinds of good reasons, had willed herself to be brave for the sake of other people's lives and that had saved all these lives because she'd insisted on this trait in herself.

MARTIN: A trait, though, the system didn't reward, either.

LEWIS: The system not only didn't reward. The system punished. And in the pandemic, you saw this. Charity would tell you - and I think it's true - that the pandemic has created a kind of selective pressure on our public health officers. And it's removed the brave ones. The brave ones have all got their heads chopped off. So it's sort of - it's sort of institutionalized a cowardice that we're going to need to face up to. So this business of punishing people who are doing their damnedest to try to save us from ourselves has got to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS REMO'S "THOROUGHFARE HIKE")

MARTIN: Michael Lewis' new book is called "The Premonition: A Pandemic Story." It is out tomorrow. And just a note - we did attempt to reach out to Dr. Redfield. All of those attempts were unsuccessful.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS REMO'S "THOROUGHFARE HIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.