CDC Director, Dr. Robert Redfield, testifies during a US Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine Covid-19, focusing on an update on the federal response in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2020. (ALEX EDELMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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 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 [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."