Michael Lewis' 'The Premonition' Is A Sweeping Indictment Of The CDC In a new book, author Michael Lewis writes about public health officers who tried to get others to look at the data on COVID-19 and act to make sure the virus didn't spread.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/991570372/992993680" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Michael Lewis' 'The Premonition' Is A Sweeping Indictment Of The CDC

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/991570372/992993680" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.