Whether you enjoyed your weekend or sheltered in place wearing personal protective equipment, you may have missed the news that officials are preparing to clear four dozen people who had direct or indirect contact with Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan after he’d begun shedding the virus, but before he was finally admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
The 21 days since doctors belatedly diagnosed Duncan marks the end of Ebola’s incubation period, and none of these contacts—including family members who’d been caring for him in very close quarters after he’d become gravely ill—has developed any symptoms of the disease.
That’s mostly just good news for the people in quarantine, and the city of Dallas. But it should also mark a turning point in the political fight surrounding Ebola, which last week saw Republicans make the strategic decision to embrace undisguised appeals to panic and paranoia. Contrast the fate of Duncan’s family, which was locked in a small apartment saturated with Duncan’s bodily fluids, with what Senator Rand Paul told Bloomberg News while campaigning for Scott Brown in New Hampshire last week.
I think from the very beginning they haven’t been completely forthright with us. They’ve so wanted to downplay this that they really I don’t think have been very accurate in their description of the disease. For example, they say, “Don’t worry, it’s only mixture of bodily fluids through direct contact.” So what are you thinking? I’m thinking like AIDS, you don’t get AIDS at a cocktail party, so my level of alarm goes down. And if I am treating somebody or looking at them around, I’m thinking, oh no it’s like AIDS, I am not going to get it. But it really isn’t like AIDS. And then they’ll say in a little lower voice, “Oh, but direct contact can be three feet from somebody.” But if you ask any American on the street, “Do you think direct contact is standing three feet from somebody?” Because they so much wanted to downplay that “We were in charge, we know everything about this,” I think they made mistakes in not really being accurate about talking about the disease.
He said something similar to a group of college students, to whom he described Ebola as "incredibly contagious." This is a strange statement in many ways, because the AIDS comparison is a straw man, and Paul basically admits it’s a straw man. He never quite puts the words in the mouths of government officials, and instead sets up his own false interpretation of their statements in order to knock it down. While it’s clearly true that the Obama administration would have been insanely reckless to tell people they can avoid Ebola the same way they avoid HIV, it never did anything like this. The consistent message from the administration has been that people infected with Ebola are not contagious if they're asymptomatic, but that anyone who has been in contact with a symptomatic person should go into quarantine. Needless to say, there is no mandatory or quasi-mandatory AIDS quarantine, and doctors who treat AIDS patients don’t need to don hazmat suits first.
It would be one thing if Paul was trying to advise the public, however clumsily, not to conclude that Ebola is less infectious than it is. But instead, he suggested that people ought to be nervous about picking it up at generic social gatherings. Washington is famous for its cozy cocktail parties, but I’ve never heard of one where a guest was conspicuously unable to control multiple bodily functions next to the punch bowl, after which everyone else in attendance was placed into a three-week quarantine.
By contrast, the conditions in that Dallas apartment were genuinely harrowing, according to reports, and yet Duncan’s family hasn't acquired the virus.
Paul, who likes to tout his medical credentials, knows that the likelihood of picking up Ebola at a cocktail party is infinitesimal, but he served up that possibility anyhow, on a campaign stop. He’s also probably running for president. In the latter capacity, he likes to claim that Hillary Clinton’s response to the attack on an American facility in Benghazi, Libya, ought to disqualify her own expected presidential candidacy or “preclude her from holding any office.” Kentucky has somehow emerged as the only state in the country where candidates must pass a hostile pundit test before their candidacies are deemed qualified. Kentucky's Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes learned this the hard way after she refused to say that she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s a weird test, and I don’t care for it. But Clinton failed. Grimes failed. Can a politician who’s willing to whip up a public health panic for partisan gain pass?