Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs in April 2010 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In his eight seasons of hosting Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe has done numerous grimy difficult jobs. However, after a recent Facebook post, it’s clear there’s one job Rowe should avoid: epidemiologist. His attempts to do the job have misrepresented the work and advice of one of America’s leading infectious experts. 

A fan challenged Rowe over his decision to film his TV program and make speeches in COVID hotspots such as Georgia and Tennessee. To be fair to Rowe, his travels and work are not in violation of state health orders, and he’s taking precautions such as social distancing and wearing a mask. If Rowe had provided this answer, he would have been fine. However, Rowe had to go further than that. 

Beyond his TV show, he has a reputation as an Internet folk philosopher. Rowe offered his philosophical approach to COVID using a notable epidemiologist as the basis for his decision.    

He cites Dr. Michael Osterholm. He says Osterholm is “the only expert I know of who hasn’t walked back his numbers, reconsidered his position, or moved the goalposts with regard to what we must do, what we can do, and what he expects to happen next. I say all of this because Dr. Osterholm publicly predicted – in early March – that we could conservatively see over 100 million COVID cases in this country, with a very strong possibility of 480,000 fatalities – even if we successfully ‘flattened the curve…'”  

Rowe’s philosophical conclusion is: “By late April, I had come to accept Dr. Osterholm’s predictions as a matter of fact. Since then, I’ve had three full months to come to terms with the fact that, a) I am probably going to get COVID-19 at some point, b), I am almost certainly going to survive it, and c), I might very well give it to someone else.”  

The problem according to Rowe is that millions of Americans haven’t accepted that reality of death, disease, and infections and that we need to get on with it and just accept our eventual infection with COVID-19, hope for our survival, and live with the results of our spreading the virus to others. 

In all fairness to Rowe, he’s not reckless, as evidenced by his incorporation of masks and social distancing. The question isn’t whether he’s a horrible person, but whether he’s accurately represented the science as explained by Dr. Osterholm.  

Rowe stated what Osterholm said in March of this year. The most likely source for that was Osterholm’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. Reviewing the transcript, there are some critical differences between what Osterholm said and what Rowe thinks he said.

Did Osterholm predict over 100 million infections and 480,000 deaths?

Early in the transcript, Osterholm states, “I brought some numbers. We conservatively estimate that this could require 48 million hospitalizations, 96 million cases actually occurring, over 480,000 deaths that can occur over the next three to seven months with this situation.” 

However, more than thirty-eight minutes in, Osterholm mentions that the projection comes from the American Hospital Association. 

The transcriptionist should have put quotations marks around the information quoted, starting with the phrase, “We conservatively estimate.” That it’s a quotation from someone else would also explain why Osterholm read “48 million” hospitalizations rather than the 4.8 million listed in the actual report. These were not numbers he produced. 

Rowe spent quite a bit of time in his posting touting Osterholm’s credentials as a basis for deciding to accept Dr. Osterholm’s prediction, which wasn’t his. The whole tenor of Osterholm’s message was not to say that COVID-19 had 480,000 inevitable deaths. Instead, he mentioned this potential death count to tell us, “this is not one to take lightly.”  

The 480,000 figure also was not a final bottom line score for COVID deaths. The estimate, as stated originally in the show, was a three-to-seven-month period. Later, Osterholm said between six and twelve months. In the latter case, the death rate would have to accelerate considerably from the 150,000 we’ve seen in the five months for there to be 480,000 deaths on February 26, 2021, 12 months after the presentation. In the former case, it would have to escalate catastrophically for us to have another 330,000 additional deaths by September 26. So the prediction, as Rowe explained it, isn’t the actual prediction. It wasn’t predicted by the person whose authority he’s relying on, and its probably going to be proved inaccurate. 

Has Osterholm’s Advice, Predictions, and Prescriptions Remained Unchanged? 

Rowe credits Osterholm for consistency in the advice, prescriptions, and numbers he’s shared. But how consistent has Osterholm been?

In the Joe Rogan interview, like most of the medical community, Osterholm was down on the idea of masks. He said, “People wear them, they look like they’re doing something, they’re not.” 

However, Osterholm’s view has changed: “I want to make it very clear that I support the use of cloth face coverings by the general public. I wear one myself on the limited occasions I’m out in public. In areas where face coverings are mandated, I expect the public to follow the mandate and wear them.” 

He does take a more nuanced views than some and worries about members of the public “using masks to excuse decreasing other crucial, likely more effective, protective steps, like physical distancing.” 

Osterholm has also provided different death numbers. In a June interview with NPR quoted in the Iowa Press-Citizen, he stated, “about 200 million Americans would be infected and between 800,000 and 1.6 million Americans would die from COVID-19 in the next 18 months if we don’t have a successful vaccine or take preventative measures.” 

Additionally, during the Joe Rogan interview, he often compared COVID-19 to the flu. However, in an interview with CBS on July 22, he admitted a shift stating: “This is a coronavirus that is not acting like a flu virus.” 

Osterholm hasn’t been saying the same thing over the last four months, nor should he have been. COVID-19 was unknown to mankind until last year. Until six months ago, all the information we had on it came from a totalitarian regime in China that can’t be trusted. Scientists talking about COVID-19 in the same way they were in March aren’t being consistent, they’re bad scientists. 

Part of the problem goes back to the politicization of science, with many activists (particularly among progressives) treating science as a religion and claiming, “You have to agree to my agenda because science says so.” 

This isn’t how real science works. Science isn’t a religion with a creed. As Osterholm said in his piece on masks, “Science, when done well, can be messy, imperfect, and slower than we wish… Public health policy—including COVID-19 response—should always be informed by the best data available and should evolve with scientific knowledge.” 

Watching science in action is frustrating for the public, and there should be more humility in scientific pronouncements. Reasonable people should understand that real scientists aren’t trying to pull the rug out from under citizens, but rather than better knowledge often leads to a change in guidance. 

Is Osterholm On Board with a Que Sera, Sera Approach to COVID-19 

Rowe takes an approach of whoever’s going to get sick is going to get sick, and whoever’s going to die is going to die. On the other hand, Osterholm is far from shrugging and singing Que Sera, Sera about COVID-19. 

In an interview on July 28 with NPR, he called for “a kind of second lockdown. And this time let’s get it right.” 

This is far from the first time that Osterholm has hinted at a second lockdown. He cites European Countries as evidence for this: “Those countries that were on fire last spring and then did a lockdown are now the ones that have been successfully reopening.Their economies are back, they’re enjoying life — and they’re still maintaining control over the virus.” 

Contrary to what Rowe and others say, COVID-19 deaths aren’t inevitable. Much of Europe has the disease much more in the hand than we do in the States. Outside of Europe, New Zealand had less than two dozen deaths and has so successfully contained the virus; it’s news when they have one positive test among quarantined international travelers. The country has not had a single case of community spread in months and has been enjoying things like six thousand people attending concerts. When I mention New Zealand to those who advocate a “herd immunity” through infections, I’m told that New Zealand will eventually have to pay for not taking that approach. Even the science of herd immunity is a religion, and violating its rules does carry consequences. 

Americans will have a lot of COVID-related deaths over the next six months and a lot of hardships and frustrations, much of it was preventable. Mike Rowe illustrates a big part of why we have this problem. Rowe managed to use Dr. Osterholm’s authority to support a prediction that Ostherholm quoted rather than made. Based on that prediction and a misstatement of Osterholm’s positions, Rowe reached a conclusion totally at odds with Osterholm’s actual view on COVID-19 and how to manage it.

A flawed argument by a Cable TV host wouldn’t be important except he shared it with 5.7 million followers on Facebook, and, as of this writing, they have shared this nearly 170,000 times. It’s very probable that thanks in part to Mr. Rowe, more people are aware of his characterization of Osterholm’s views than of Osterholm’s actual views.

Rowe would do well to consider King David’s wisdom, who didn’t concern himself with matters too profound for him. (Psalm 131:1) And Americans should be sure the people they listen to know what they’re they’re talking about. Rowe has excellent thoughts on education and the need to help kids find blue-collar careers rather than pushing everyone off to college. He knows what he’s talking about on that topic. However, with COVID-19, not so much. 

A study showed New Zealand defeated COVID-19 by its people following guidelines and listening to their health experts. America is losing its battle with COVID-19 by its people rebelliously ignoring the advice from experts. Instead, people use whatever arguments they find to do whatever they want, even if it means relying on the host of Dirty Jobs for guidance. 

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