The CDC Is Carefully Controlling How Scared You Are About Ebola
The Obama administration tries to strike a balance between vigilance and fear.
As the Obama administration dramatically scales up its response to the Ebola outbreak, it is trying to navigate a tricky course: Can officials increase public vigilance about the deadly virus without inciting a panic?
That challenge has been evident in almost every public pronouncement from the administration in recent weeks–from President Obama on down–as the government seeks to simultaneously emphasize the seriousness of the epidemic while projecting confidence that it can be contained and ultimately halted.
"Ebola is scary. It's a deadly disease. But we know how to stop it," Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, said during a briefing Wednesday.
It's a succinct message that Frieden has delivered countless times in the past two weeks, as he has become the most familiar face of the Obama administration's public response. Since the first U.S. diagnosis of Ebola was confirmed last week, Frieden and other officials have conducted briefings and television interviews on a near-daily basis.
Frieden, 53, has served as the CDC chief since 2009, when Obama plucked him from the Department of Health in New York City. There he was the crusader who convinced Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch his aggressive public battles against smoking and trans fat.
Frieden is not excitable in public; he speaks calmly and clearly, sticking to an even pitch and avoiding the familiar political image of the whip-smart fast-talker.
Ernest DelBuono, head of the crisis practice at the communications firm Levick, praised Frieden's performance thus far.
"It's sort of a dry, factual delivery, which is good in the case of a crisis," DelBuono said. "You don't want someone who is inspirational. People just want to hear the facts right now."
DelBuono said he advises clients in a public-health emergency to project "confidence, control, and compassion."
Frieden has gotten solid marks, but the Obama administration has drawn criticism in other areas of its Ebola response.
International groups wanted the U.S. to step in sooner to help fight the outbreak in West Africa, while more recently some Republicans have called on the administration to ban travel from the most affected countries.
Frieden and other officials have said such a move would be counterproductive, citing lessons learned from the SARS outbreak a decade ago.
"The SARS outbreak cost the world more than $40 billion, but it wasn't to control the outbreak," Frieden said Wednesday. "Those were costs from unnecessary and ineffective travel restrictions and trade changes that could have been avoided."
The government announced Wednesday that it was stepping up protective measures at five airports, where authorities will screen travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea with targeted questions and fever checks.
But officials acknowledged that action was taken not only to stop the spread of the disease but simply to make people feel safer.
"That extra layer is something that I think would alleviate some of the fears of the American people and might catch that very, very rare person who actually slips through the exit screening," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on MSNBC on Thursday. "So that's the reason why it's being implemented, for those reasons."
And Frieden made sure to warn people that yes, they will see people sick at the airport, and no, they probably won't have Ebola, even if they are arriving from West Africa.
"We know that over the past couple of months, about one out of every 500 travelers boarding a plane in West Africa has had a fever," he said. "Most of those had malaria. None of those, as far as we know, have been diagnosed with Ebola."
So in a "See something, say something" age, the CDC does not want airport travelers to report anyone they see coughing or sneezing to the authorities. But it does want to know about anyone traveling from West Africa who may have come into contact with Ebola.
Frieden has said previously it is good if health workers are fearful of Ebola because it will prompt them to be on high alert screening patients who may be at risk.
The message, it seems to be, is this: Be afraid of Ebola. Just not too afraid.