Two days after Florida’s gubernatorial debate turned into “Fangate,” Gov. Rick Scott convened a press conference in Dania Beach to talk about a more serious subject: Ebola.
The Republican incumbent assured reporters that Florida was prepared for a potential health crisis — and repeated calls for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to contact passengers on a plane that stopped at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after carrying a nurse later diagnosed with Ebola.
“The CDC and the federal government have already failed to get ahead of the spread of Ebola in Texas, and we’re not going to let that happen in Florida,” Scott said.
But some observers say the news conference Friday was about more than emerging health concerns, pointing out that no cases of Ebola have been reported in Florida, and healthcare professionals consider it highly unlikely that any Fort Lauderdale passengers caught the virus.
“He’s playing politics with fear,” said Charles Zelden, a professor of history, law and politics at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “He’s following the Republican Party playbook, which is to scare people into voting — and he’s trying his darndest to put Fangate behind him.”
Advisors close to Scott’s campaign have been privately urging him to focus on Ebola, in part to showcase his leadership skills during a razor-tight gubernatorial race. His public schedule, which has been practically empty for the past three months, reflects that advice. The entries for at least four days this week included calls on Ebola preparedness, records show.
Scott became more involved after learning that a plane that carried nurse Amber Joy Vinson from Cleveland to Dallas on Monday later stopped in Fort Lauderdale. Vinson was diagnosed with Ebola on Tuesday. On Thursday, he addressed the situation on live TV with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
At the press conference Friday near the Fort Lauderdale airport, Scott said the federal government needed to do more to prevent Ebola in Florida.
He said the CDC had provided only three of 30 testing kits that state leaders requested, and had not yet given Florida the green light to spend about $7 million in federal funds on protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Scott said his administration would take its own steps to guard against a possible outbreak. He said that the Florida National Guard was already working to create rapid-response teams and that nearly four dozen Florida hospitals had so far completed mandatory Ebola training.
Scott does not plan to designate any specific Florida hospitals to treat potential Ebola cases, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done in New York.
“I think right now we should expect every hospital can handle an Ebola patient,” he said.
Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, the chief of emergency medicine for the Broward Health hospital system and the EMS medical director for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said his healthcare systems were on heightened alert. But El Sanadi said it was “highly unlikely” that any passengers on the flight to Fort Lauderdale had caught Ebola.
“Ebola is a virus just like any other virus,” he said. “It doesn’t live on its own. It has to live in a host. That’s why I can say with certainty that on a tray table or armrest, it cannot live on its own.”
Later in the day, Jackson Health System Chief Medical Officer Michael Butler told hospital trustees that the fear of Ebola should be put in proper perspective.
“This is not something you have to worry about when you go to the grocery store or anywhere else in this country,” Butler said. “People are much more fearful about this than they are about things that will get them, like the flu.”
During Wednesday’s debate, Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist commended Scott for his response to the Ebola concerns.
But University of Tampa political science and communications professor Scott Paine said Scott is in a tough spot.
“It’s a Catch-22 for a candidate this close to an election,” Paine said. “The candidate will be criticized for exploiting something like [Ebola]. But failing to act may also be a failure of leadership.”
The Scott campaign called any criticism “absurd.”
“The governor is doing his job and providing leadership during a difficult time,” spokesman Greg Blair said.
He isn’t the only candidate for elected office talking about Ebola.
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat seeking reelection, recently called on the federal government to impose travel restrictions from the U.S. to some West African countries.
His Republican challenger, Carlos Curbelo, called the virus a “serious threat” and asked President Barack Obama to take more decisive action.
Florida’s two U.S. senators weighed in, too, with Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, asking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a limited travel ban. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio published an essay on CNN.com called “Five Steps to Beat Ebola.”
The Obama administration responded to some of those concerns Friday by tapping Ron Klain to be the country’s Ebola czar. Klain is a former chief of staff to two Democratic vice presidents who advised Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount.
Miami Herald reporter Daniel Chang contributed to this report. This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.