Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Ebola panic infected by politics

The timing of the Ebola panic could hardly have been worse, coming amid the nastiest mid-term election campaign in modern memory.

In an election year, a disease with just three laboratory-confirmed cases in the U.S., with just a single death, gets demagogued into an national epidemic. (Did you notice that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, in search of an issue to eclipse his debate missteps, is suddenly talking Ebola?)

Congressional candidates are going Ebola berserk, as if the disease hysteria was a fungible asset that can be converted into votes. They’ve railed about sending U.S. troops to help set up hospitals in West Africa, worried that the soldiers will come back as living disease vectors. They're using Ebola fear to resurrect nativist sentiments, warning that diseased immigrants will surge across the Mexican border. They’re demanding a ban on travelers from affected African nations. On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio promised he’d introduce travel legislation next month. Despite assertions to the contrary from public health experts, Rubio insisted that his ban represented “the most effective way to combat the deadly virus.” (There are no regularly scheduled direct commercial flights between the U.S. and Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia. I guess we can talk about that after the mid-terms.)

In the meantime, the political frenzy has created all sorts of overwrought reactions. Last week, for instance, a school board in Maine ordered an elementary school teacher to take a 21-day leave of absence because she had just returned from an education conference in Dallas, albeit nowhere near the hospital where the only U.S. cases of the virus had been diagnosed. It was as if Maine had instituted its own travel ban.

In Mississippi, a school principal who had visited Ebola-free Zambia was ordered to take a leave after frightened parents pulled their kids out of school. Similar incidents have been popping up all over. Last week, in Fort Lauderdale, a drunken jerk told to leave a waterside restaurant, according to police, “then licked his own hand and stated ‘I’ve got Ebola’ and began to wipe his saliva-soaked hand on [the bartender].”

When the man appeared for his bail hearing, Broward County Court Judge John Hurley might have overreacted after he read the police report. “This gentleman has claimed he has Ebola,” the judge told the bailiff. “I believe you should clear the courtroom of all the prisoners.” Deputies herded 91 prisoners out of the room. The jail went into lockdown. Fire fighters in hazmat suits escorted the man to a medical examination — where, of course, doctors pronounced him Ebola free.

Broward seems to be particularly susceptible to hazmat hysteria. In 2001, after an actual fatal anthrax attack in Palm Beach County, Broward went into a full-blown panic. During one mad stretch, hazmat teams were answering 15 to 20 calls a day (at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 a run) from folks worried about coffee creamer or artificial sweeteners or baking soda or powder. No anthrax spores were discovered.

Imagine the panic if 2001 had been an election year.