Posts Categorized: Driftless Stories

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Dr. Michael Osterholm / Photo courtesy Stuart Isett

Perhaps you’ve seen his name in the news: Dr. Michael Osterholm. The nationally renowned epidemiologist has been quoted or published in media outlets across the nation – from New York Times to Oprah – in regards to COVID-19 and other epidemics and disease-related news. He’s one of the many scientists who have been busy studying, researching, reporting facts, and trying to help the world deal with this outbreak.

And he happens to be from Northeast Iowa.

Dr. Osterholm is a Waukon native. He graduated from Waukon High School in 1971, and got a degree in biology – and a second in political science – from Luther College in Decorah in 1975. He then went on to earn two master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and, finally, a doctorate in environmental health in 1980. After working at the Minnesota Department of Health as a graduate student, then as Minnesota’s state epidemiologist for 15 years, he eventually founded the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in 2001, which he continues to lead.

But how does one follow that path from Northeast Iowa? Epidemiology isn’t a profession you see on a regular basis around here.

According to Dr. Osterholm, epidemiology is basically “medical detective work,” and it’s something that has intrigued him ever since junior high (you’ll hear more about that below). Despite his fame in the field, and now, in the nation, he’s maintained his Midwestern accent and mannerisms – he even thanked me for my time, when he was clearly the one with a tighter schedule. He only had 15 minutes to spare for this interview before Zooming in on at least three more talks that day.

Read on to see all the topics we crammed in to that quarter of an hour – Dr. Osterholm’s background, Zoom sessions, thoughts on COVID-19, and how he likes to keep in touch, even through a pandemic.

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm:

Why did you decide to get into epidemiology?

What happened was I had a close relationship with the woman married to the owner of the Waukon Newspaper, Laverne Hull. She was a real renaissance of a woman. She worked at the newspaper – really, she was part owner too – was multi-lingual – spoke French and English – had a masters in journalism, and subscribed to the New Yorker. She was someone who had a major influence on my life. She would give me these New Yorkers when she was done reading. There was a series of articles in there called the “Annals of Medicine” by Berton Roueché. And Berton Roueché was someone who was a constant storyteller. He would take these outbreak investigations and write them up as kind of “who done it” stories. I loved reading these, even when I was in seventh and eighth grade. Whenever she would get done with a copy, I would quick run and get it. So I even knew back in junior high that I wanted to be a medical detective. So that’s what I pursued.

Has it been as exciting as you thought it would be in seventh and eighth grade?

I had no idea – it was one of those things. It’s like me asking you what your life’s going to be like when you’re 60. It’s just one turn after another. The thing that was most remarkable is that Berton Roueché actually wrote up an outbreak investigation that I led in Southwestern Minnesota back in the 1980s. A thing called thyrotoxicosis, and it was his very last story he wrote before he died. I was able to tell him how he influenced my life, and say “thank you” for all he did for me.

And now we have COVID-19, a type of virus you predicted would happen in our lifetime in your 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Realistically, how long do you think we’ve got to go before we can be together again, COVID-19 carefree?

We just don’t know yet – clearly it’s going to be challenging in the coming months because we don’t really understand yet how well vaccines will work, we don’t know when people will actually get a vaccine, and how durable the immunity is, meaning will it last for a certain period of time. We just don’t know yet.

What are some things we can all do in order to get there faster?

So, it’s all about distancing, which is a very hard thing to get across to people. You know, it’s basically sharing the air with someone, someone who could be putting the virus out into that air. When you’re indoors, it’s very difficult to distance. Outdoors is easier, but it’s still a challenge.

And masking?

Masking is something everyone should do. I think anything we can do right now to minimize the risk of transmission, we should consider. We still don’t know how well it works; it’s likely just a thing that’s another layer, in effect. Distancing is still by far the most important thing you can do, but also just being aware of being in crowds – in the sense that it’s not just how far away you are from someone, but if I go and spend three hours indoors and I’m more than six feet away from someone, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be safe there. We have many outbreaks right now – bars and restaurants, funerals, weddings, family reunions, school-based activities that are indoors. All of these have led to big outbreaks, right here in the Midwest.

Do you think any number is safe? Less than 25? Less than 10?

There’s nothing magical about 10. It’s more about who your bubble’s with. For example, my partner and I are very bubbled together. So, you know, we can do whatever we want. People who are living together in one building – they can get together pretty routinely if they don’t have outside contact.

You’ve said numerous times you prefer to say physical distancing instead of social distancing – because we still must remain social through COVID-19. We love that. What are your favorite physical distancing activities that still allow you to be social?

 I don’t think there’s been a time in my adult life when social closeness has been more important. So I make sure I see my kids on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and be with them outdoors. I’ll give them each a 30-second hug, then back away at that point, and maintain at least a 10-foot distance outdoors. I go out for walks with my partner frequently in a park near where I live, and feel very comfortable holding her hand as we walk around the park and just staying, you know, at least 10 feet away from everybody outside and I don’t have any concerns at all.

Along those lines, how do you keep in touch with your relatives who are far away? Do you Zoom with them?

I Zoom with them a lot. And for work, too. I work with more than 30 people with our center, and we have our routine Zoom calls. I will often spend eight to 10 hours a day on Zoom.

Whoa, that’s got to be exhausting.

Yeah, it is. I mean, I’m giving a talk here in just a few minutes, and this will be my third talk of the day. And I’ve got three more to go yet before I’m done.

Yeah, you are highly sought after, I imagine.

Well, I can’t say that (laughs). Everything is virtual for me now. I haven’t left Minneapolis since March, which is a big change for me. I’m usually a 200,000-mile-a-year flier, but I haven’t been on a plane since March.

Do you miss it?

Ah, you know… I don’t. I miss the contact with all my friends and family that I once had, but I think travel is something you realize – once you’re not doing it – what it feels like to get off the gerbil wheel.

The theme of this issue of Inspire(d) is “Look for the Bright Spots”. Have you found some bright spots to these past months? Any you could share?

You know, I do a weekly podcast, The Osterholm Update: COVID-19. And with that, we have many thousands of people who download it and listen to it each week. The response we’ve gotten from this podcast… the feedback has been nothing short of remarkable. And it’s been a really positive thing to see all the acts of kindness that people do and follow up on. So I have to say that has probably been one of the really special things. There have been so many people that have done so many kind things. I think that we must not forget that despite what’s going on with this virus right now, there’s a tremendous amount of good in the world.

Find the Osterholm Update: COVID-19 podcast at www.cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19/podcasts-webinars or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or on YouTube.

GrandPad

With one swipe, GrandPad allows seniors to stay connected with family and friends / Photo courtesy GrandPad

The GrandPad tablet delivers telehealth for homebound, and creates an innovative spark for rural entrepreneurs.

By Maggie Sonnek

When Scott Lien and his family traded in one adventure for another, leaving behind their beloved sky blue Victorian house in Wabasha, Minnesota, they silently promised they’d be back.

And 25 years later, they were. In March 2020, the Liens shuttled back to the Midwest from Silicon Valley, where Scott had taken the leadership helm at a handful of corporations. Returning with a newfound perspective gained from travel and experience, he was surprised to find storefronts along the town’s main corridor empty and boarded up. That’s when he decided to combine his love of rural America with his knowledge and innovation for entrepreneurship.

Scott and Isaac Lien (far left and far right) with two of GrandPad’s oldest employees,
another father-son team, Elmer and Richard Thill / Photos courtesy GrandPad

In 2013, Scott and his then-college-aged son Isaac wanted to stay connected to Marlys Lien, the duo’s mother and grandmother. While Scott and Isaac were in Silicon Valley, Marlys lived 2,000 miles away in Decorah, Scott’s hometown. GrandPad, a tablet sans complicated features, was born. Designed specifically for seniors, the tablet has fun games, customized music, and apps, plus large buttons paired with an intuitive interface to make chatting with friends and family a breeze. But, Scott, who now splits his time between Silicon Valley and Wabasha, learned that in the Midwest, attracting funding from investors is anything but a breeze.

“The Midwest is quite risk adverse,” he says. “And, because nearly 90 percent of startups fail in the first three years, local investors don’t jump on board right away. The majority of capital comes from the coasts.”

The data backs this up. According to the Center of Rural Development, less than one percent of all venture capital goes to rural startups. And, in 2017, five metro areas (San Francisco, New York City, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles) accounted for nearly 80 percent of all venture capital investment nationwide. While innovation has concentrated in major urban hubs, rural economies have lacked the entrepreneurship to spark economic growth.

But, with remote work on the rise – this trend has grown by 173 percent since 2005, according to the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a national non-profit that aims to foster sustainable economic success in rural America – more families are swapping crowds and congestion for chickens and country roads.

Families like the Olsons. Two hundred miles straight north of Wabasha, Jon and Hallie and their three kids spend time playing in their rugged, homemade treehouse and feeding their cluster of chickens. In 2019, Jon, an engineer, began working remotely. That allowed the Olsons to trade in their Minneapolis bungalow for a custom-built home in northern Minnesota that sits on five acres of wooded beauty.

“We feel so lucky to be where we are. The kids can spend hours outside,” 38-year-old Hallie says. “And, with COVID-19, we don’t feel as restricted in what we can and can’t do.”

Mark Rembert, Head of the Rural Innovation Network at the CORI, says while it could be months before we know the pandemic’s impact on urban and rural areas, COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the appeal, necessity, and feasibility of living in a big city.

“We don’t know yet if an increase in remote work will result in people leaving big cities,” Mark says. “But, surveys have shown that many people who live in metro areas would actually prefer to live in rural spaces. Remote working could create opportunities for more people to make that move.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to bring a job with you – like Jon did – than to hang out a shingle. But entrepreneur and business leader Scott says now is the time for innovators to open up shop small towns.

“This is an opportunity for rural America to shine. We need to ask what we’re doing to make our small towns attractive,” says Lien, who, during his career has held leadership roles at Best Buy, Bank of America, and Intuit. “In Minnesota, we can’t change the weather, so instead, we celebrate it. Let’s soar with our strengths and try to turn the downfalls into positive attributes.”

Taking risks and forging ahead with entrepreneurship and innovation, especially in rural areas, is key to creating dynamic, progressive small towns.

“There is a fantastic labor force in rural areas,” Scott says, noting that even though GrandPad was founded in California, he specifically engages employees from Midwest towns. “Lots of the employees we’ve hired have been out of the workforce for a while and aren’t necessarily looking for a job; think empty nesters and stay-at-home-parents. They’ve made the assumption that fulfilling, well-paying jobs are only available in large cities. And, because they don’t want to commit to a long commute or relocate, they assume their choices are limited.”

That’s where GrandPad really shines. Employees are hired – by referrals from current team members only – to work a flexible schedule from home.

Member experience agent Lori Lechtenberg, who lives outside of Decorah says, “I can be in my home chatting with people across the globe. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“We’re creating long-term, durable, high-paying jobs,” Scott explains. “And, most importantly, these positions are family-oriented.”

Indeed, family is the main reason why Anna Arens applied to GrandPad after receiving a referral. Anna worked in healthcare at Mayo Clinic for 12 years when her husband, a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army, learned he’d be deployed overseas to Syria for one year. With three young kids at home, Anna knew her current schedule wouldn’t adhere well to her husband’s absence.

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anna Arens works from her home office / Photo courtesy Anna Arens

“I needed to find a job that offered flexible hours without a commute,” Anna says, noting that the options are limited in a small town. Since accepting her role as member experience agent at GrandPad three years ago, she’s been encouraged to put her family first.

“Scott expresses to us that when we’re able to take care of our homes and families first, we do our jobs better. Because of that mentality, I’m able to be more present in my life.”

Anne Meurer, also an agent at GrandPad, accepted her job just before the global pandemic surged across the country in the spring of 2020.

“I was able to be home with our kids and help them with online learning,” she recalls. “I would sit at my desk and they’d sit on the floor next to me.”

After working in government administration for several years, Anne craved a job that better aligned with her life. More than just a steady paycheck and paid holidays, she wanted meaning and mission from her employer.

“I wanted something more rewarding. When I learned about GrandPad, I was all-in,” says Anne. “I was born into a family of five living generations and was fortunate enough to grow close to my Great Grandma Jean. I truly learned the importance of our elders and grandparents.”

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anne Meuer works from her home office / Photo courtesy of Anne Meuer

Member experience agents like Lori, Anna, and Anne develop deep and substantial relationships with GrandPad users. Like, calling seniors on their birthdays type of exchange.

“Our clients rely on us when they need help with a specific app on the tablet or when they’re lonely,” Anne says. “And, there’s always someone there…always a friendly voice on the other line.”

Throughout the global pandemic, several home health agencies and healthcare companies have turned to GrandPad to facilitate video visits. The company began offering expanded capabilities, like GrandPad Daily Connect. This remote care solution delivers data – like blood pressure and heart rate – to remote caregivers who can detect abnormalities and coordinate further care.

GrandPad Daily Connect, a remote care solution, delivers data to remote caregivers / Photo courtesy GrandPad

Meanwhile, GrandPad users – and their families – continue to express their gratitude to agents for this tool that not only keeps them connected during COVID, but staves off loneliness too.

One family member notes, “Mom could no longer use her computer with passwords. The GrandPad allows her to stay in touch with her contacts. It has been a lifesaver for our family!”

We asked Scott how other entrepreneurs and innovators can take hold of this pivotal moment for small towns.

“Keep investing in your communities,” he encourages. “Read the local paper. Talk to your neighbors. Be kind.”

Investing in his own community, Scott leased a space, bought some paint and fresh carpet, and hung a bright, shiny GrandPad sign in the window. Used for demos, videos, training sessions, and as an optional shared workspace for employees, this is Scott’s way of shining a light on rural America. In the small town of Wabasha, in the Midwest, in the U.S., GrandPad is open for business.


Maggie, her husband Eric and their three kids love living in their small town of Wabasha. When she’s not writing, Maggie is packing lunches, helping kids with homework, or (after bedtime) binge-watching shows on Netflix.

Holiday + Winter Inspire(d) – Read it Online Here!

Holiday + Winter Inspire(d)

The Holiday + Winter Inspire(d) is about Looking for the Bright Spots in every day – even through the darkest days of winter. Inside, you’ll find tons of inspiration to make the most of this time of year – and lives:

Focus on Mental Health • GrandPad • Make the Most of Winter • Pete Espinosa • Adrian Lipscombe • Cross Stitch Gnome Card • Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm • Ferndale Market • Moxi + Riedell Skates • End-of-Life Doula • Probit – Ruth Woldum • More!

Read the whole thing online here!

A note from Aryn:

You know those winter days when you head out for a walk and the sun is shining…and you tilt your face up to meet it and it feels like everything is going to be alright?

This is feeling we’d like to encourage you to find in your day-to-day lives – even when the sun isn’t shining (and everything doesn’t feel alright). We want you to Look for the Bright Spots everywhere.

2020 has been a year where we’ve had to frequently reinvent ourselves.

How we communicate: We found platforms like Zoom to stay social, something that is more important than ever, according to nationally renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm. I got to chat on the phone with him for 15 minutes to talk COVID-19, Zoom, and how his path took him from Waukon, Iowa, to his current role at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. See the interview on page 29. For our relatives who have a little more trouble with tech, or needed a little more help on a regular basis, we turned to devices like GrandPad, based out of Wabasha, Minnesota. Decorah native Scott Lien and his son created a tablet purposefully sans complicated features – but with large, easy-to-use buttons and instant access to online help (pg 14).

How we think: We have had to dig deep to find positivity this year. And we’ll have to keep digging. Learn some strategies from regional mental health counselors like Olivia Lynn Schnur, who joins us as a new contributor this issue, plus tips on staying positive from yours truly, too. I’ve spent more than 13 years running Inspire(d), and it’s offered a great foundation for keeping on the sunny side of life. I’d love to help you do the same (pg 33).

How we find joy: Contributor Erin Dorbin found it in a pair of super colorful and totally awesome roller skates – Moxi’s Lollys. Then she discovered they were made right here in the Driftless Region at Riedell Skates Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota. It led her down a path of a pretty darn cool collaboration, and the story of how roller skating popularity has surged across the nation during this pandemic.

How we live: We carry on, Building Community, like Pete Espinosa and Adrian Lipscombe. And how we die: Kristine Jepsen takes on this important topic about choice and comfort, end-of-life doulas, and how we need to be having these conversations.

Through it all, we find the Bright Spots. Making the most out of winter and holidays, cozy reading, cross stitching, kits in the mail, cooking a big fancy meal just because, and small town charm.

Speaking of, every issue, we hope to get suggestions for probituaries. This issue, we got a few from a Decorah resident, and we reached out to one: Ruth Woldum. She agreed to be featured, and not long later, we got an email from her granddaughter…Britney Bakken! The same woman who interviewed her grandfather in the Summer/Fall issue! We had no idea that Ruth was her grandmother (on the other side of the family), and we all laughed at how perfectly “small town” this coincidence was!

Finding creative ways to overcome the challenges of the year has definitely highlighted bright spots for me. That said, I am looking forward to next year with…what else?…hope and optimism! As we come to a close with 2020 and take tentative steps into 2021, let’s keep looking for the Bright Spots.

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols