Battling Ebola Without a Surgeon General

A strange set of circumstances has brought Thomas Frieden, the director of CDC, into the national spotlight.

Writing for The Atlantic in 2011, CDC director Thomas Frieden weighed in on the release of Contagion, the modestly successful Matt Damon flick about the outbreak of a deadly and mysterious virus. After clarifying that the movie is not a documentary, Frieden comments:

Contagion shows that fear is also contagious. To address concerns, it's crucial that government promptly communicates what we know, what we don't know, and what we're doing to find out.

With all due respect to Steven Soderbergh, Frieden has come a long way from piggybacking a PSA to a medical thriller to becoming the most prominent face of the ongoing Ebola crisis in the United States. On Thursday, Frieden stood before Congress to face Republican ire for perceived missteps in the CDC's response to the first American cases. (It's easy to imagine that Frieden could find inspiration in this week's release of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.)

Nevertheless, his profile is rising. On Thursday, The New York Times published one of those character studies in which Frieden was described by colleagues as a "tactical commander," "a honey badger," and "not a warm and fuzzy guy." In a classic flourish, Frieden's lunch, which was eaten at his desk, was duly documented as consisting of "sliced red peppers, peeled Asian pears and a plate of Trader Joe’s mojito salmon."

What was left out was the fact that the recent spotlight on Frieden (along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) comes at the expense of attention that might have otherwise gone to the United States Surgeon General. As many have pointed out, the nation's top medical post has sat vacant for over a year as the Senate refuses to vote on whether to confirm Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, whom the president nominated last November.

Depending on whom you ask, the reasons for the opposition have to do with Murthy's youth (he is 36), his positions on gun control (pro), or the environment in Washington, D.C. (constantly static). In the meantime, Frieden is not only running point on the agency's response to Ebola, but also the public front.