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Author Michael Lewis Finds Heroes, Villains in Pandemic

His book 'The Premonition,' amounts to an indictment of the CDC's response
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 4, 2021 10:45 AM CDT

(Newser) – Those familiar with the books of Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side, etc.) know that he loves finding a hero "who gives a defiant middle finger to the conventional wisdom," writes Jennifer Szalai in the New York Times. His latest book, The Premonition, follows that pattern on the most timely of subjects—the pandemic. More specifically, he takes a critical look at the US response to the outbreak, or lack thereof, in the early days. Coverage:

  • His heroes: Lewis writes of a small group of public health officials who recognized the pandemic's threat early and fought against bureaucratic inertia on the local, state, and federal levels. The main one in the book is Dr. Charity Dean, formerly the assistant director of the California Department of Public Health. "No one should have to be as brave as Charity Dean was as a local public health officer," Lewis tells NPR. "To do her job, she had to be brave in a way that brought tears to my eyes."

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  • The Wolverines: Lewis also writes of a group of seven doctors nicknamed the Wolverines in various positions of the federal government. They worked in the White House together previously, "stayed in contact and kind of helped the country navigate ... various previous disease outbreaks," Lewis tells 60 Minutes. "But they weren't in the decision-making apparatus in the US government." A mutual contact put Dean in touch with one of the seven, Carter Mescher, and she joined their private strategy calls, per NPR. They had to go "rogue," says Lewis.
  • Laying blame: The CDC doesn't come off well in the book, notes the Wall Street Journal. Lewis' reporting asserts that the agency downplayed initial reports out of China—Mescher and others were monitoring the reports with growing alarm, resorting to Google Translate to get body counts—and missed the chance to contain the outbreak early. "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, per NPR. "They pretended it wasn't important until it was too late."
  • Blame, II: Lewis faults former CDC chief Robert Redfield in particular, writing that he refused to test Americans returning from China for the virus when the pandemic was just starting. Redfield is an "egregious example, but he's an expression of a much bigger problem," Lewis tells NPR. "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."
  • Frustrations: Szalai's review of the book ticks off some of the frustrations of those profiled. Lewis "describes a health care system whose for-profit operations are so entrenched that hospitals last spring couldn't even avail themselves of a nonprofit lab that was faster and free, because the hospital computers were incapable of coding for a $0 test." Then there was the lab awaiting a shipment of special nasal swabs for testing, only to receive ordinary Q-Tips.
(Read more Michael Lewis stories.)

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