The greatest damage the Ebola virus has been causing in the U.S. so far has been to everyone’s credibility and trust.
It started when public health officials’ confident predictions that we were prepared for Ebola were undermined by the apparent bungling of a Dallas hospital. It sent home a man with early warning signs of Ebola, then saw him return days later and deathly ill.
Since then, we’ve been in an Ebola free-for-all of grandstanding, political pandering, and misinformed and downright crazy speculation.
There’s the Kansas City area doctor who went on a nationally syndicated radio show recently claiming there were people with Ebola right here in town who’ve been “disappeared.” Why, he’d heard it from a friend working at a local hospital that a man bleeding from every orifice had been admitted as a possible Ebola case yet was gone the following day.
“These patients are disappearing,” the doctor said. “They’re doing something with the patients, and God knows where they’re going.”
Hundreds, he said, even thousands in the U.S. may already have the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be covering this up to avoid panic, he supposed.
CDC director Tom Frieden has been the model of calm, reasoned medical orthodoxy addressing Ebola. But his mild manner may not be playing well in the overheated tropics of cable news. Recently, noted infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, with a Brooklyn-bred air of confidence and authority, seems to be sharing more of the federal spokesman duties.
But no one at NIH or CDC is a match for professional politicians.
Two of the best, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, jointly came up with their own rules — far tougher than anything from the CDC — for quarantining people as they arrive from Ebola-plagued countries of Africa. Unnecessary and counterproductive, public health experts said. But, hey, it plays well as the kind of “common sense” solution politicians offer.
Although much news coverage has been responsible, some media have fueled anxieties with what-if scenarios about Ebola going airborne like common colds. Meanwhile, bloggers and tweeters spread rumors with reckless abandon.
When such rumors gain currency, suspicious people may start asking: Why aren’t we reporting this? Which raises the question: If we try to remain credible, will you still trust us?
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