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The Politics of Disease: Ebola Shows Worst and Now Best of Washington

Posted By Zara Day and Emily Holubowich of Cavarocchi Ruscio Dennis Associates, LLC, Thursday, November 20, 2014
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Emily Holubowich, MPP is the “Washington representative” of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, leading our advocacy efforts in the nation’s capital. Zara Day, JD, MPH has closely monitored for CSTE the evolving Ebola debate during her fall internship with CRD Associates. She will begin studying for the bar examination full-time this winter.

America’s epidemiologists have worked tirelessly for months both domestically and abroad to track and fight the spread of Ebola Virus Disease. Meanwhile here at home, the response by politicians and pundits has been counterproductive at best and harmful at worst. With the mid-term elections now out of the way, the Ebola debate in Washington has thankfully turned a corner toward tempered, responsible, and most importantly, bipartisan discussion.

The tipping point in responsible governing was the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday, November 12—after the election results were long in. Appropriators invited federal agency officials and practitioners to discuss the administration’s emergency supplemental spending request of $6.2 billion to support ongoing efforts to contain and eliminate the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. During the hearing, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson emphasized the important need for the United States to continue leading the global health response to the outbreak. Officials across government sectors seem to be largely in agreement: the best way to protect the United States is to face the virus at its epicenter in West Africa.

CSTE submitted an official statement for the record to inform the committee’s deliberations. In it, we shared data from our most recent workforce assessment and highlighted the need to invest in workforce capacity and public health infrastructure, more broadly.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were full of praise for the “conciliatory” and “bipartisan” tone of the deliberations. Unlike previous, pre-election Ebola hearings filled with rhetoric and finger pointing, lawmakers were deeply engaged and committed to understanding the government’s role in the West African and stateside Ebola efforts. Of course, the hearing wasn’t completely free of contention: Quarantine and travel bans, the vaccine development pipeline, accessibility and availability of personal protective equipment, and the role of the newly appointed (and noticeably absent from the hearing) Ebola czar, Ron Klain were hot-button issues.

On the recurring issue of quarantine and visa policies specifically, witnesses presented a united front: the United States should not set a harmful, international precedent by blocking from our borders individuals travelling from affected nations. Secretary Jeh Johnson noted that enormous steps have already been taken to protect the United States from travel by potentially infected individuals. There are presently no direct flights from Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia to the United States, and all individuals flying from these countries are now required to travel to one of five major airports with screening facilities.

On a related note, you may recall CSTE issued a press release supporting the federal government’s quarantine policy amid public confusion and some states’ knee-jerk policy reactions that were not rooted in scientific evidence.

Now that the political dust has settled, lawmakers are engaged and committed in bolstering efforts to end the current Ebola crisis. Although current efforts seem to be having positive impacts, a recent outbreak in Mali will be enormous cause for concern if it can’t be contained. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that at least one senator mentioned the following statistic for context at last week’s hearing: There has only been one death (now two, with the recent passing of Dr. Martin Salia) in the United States due to Ebola while thousands die from the flu.

CSTE will continue to monitor the Ebola debate in Washington and promote the important role of applied epidemiologists in protecting our nation from both communicable and non-communicable health threats.

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