To Best Fight Ebola, We Need A Surgeon General


Now that a health care worker in Dallas has become the first person to contract Ebola on U.S. soil, Americans are even more concerned about the potential spread of the deadly virus within our borders. Although federal health officials have repeatedly assured the public that the U.S. is well equipped to prevent a potential Ebola outbreak, there is one shortcoming that lawmakers and voters alike are concerned about: The lack of a central authority to coordinate the national response.

The director of the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), Thomas Frieden, has stepped in as the main spokesperson relaying the latest Ebola updates to the public. And, according to the White House, a homeland security adviser named Lisa Monaco has been overseeing the inter-agency response to the virus and periodically briefing the president. But the country doesn’t currently have a surgeon general, the public health leader that often serves in a leadership role during public health outbreaks.

That may be leading to some confusion. Nurses, for instance, say they haven’t been getting consistent information about what they’re supposed to do to treat a potential case of Ebola. And two-thirds of Americans say they’re worried about a widespread Ebola epidemic in this country, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“The surgeon general is America’s doctor, delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand,” former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin recently explained. “Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.”

Some Republican lawmakers agree, and have argued that it’s not clear who exactly is supposed to lead the national effort against Ebola. “I would say, we don’t know exactly who’s in charge,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “There has to be some kind of czar.”

McCain’s colleagues, however, are the primary reason that the country doesn’t currently have a surgeon general. Exactly one year ago, President Obama nominated Vivek Murthy to fill that empty position, but GOP lawmakers blocked Murthy from being confirmed because he has publicly stated that gun violence represents a public health threat. Even though that’s a very common stance among medical professionals — and Murthy testified before a Senate committee to assure lawmakers that he would not use the Surgeon General’s office as a “bully pulpit” for gun control — pressure from the National Rifle Association ultimately derailed Murthy’s nomination.

In light of the recent news about Ebola, some Americans are hoping that Congress will reconsider. More than 70,000 people have signed onto an online petition urging elected officials to stand up to the NRA and confirm Murthy as the new surgeon general.

“The federal official that should be leading the charge to educate the American people and medical establishment to keep us all safe is NRA-blocked surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy,” the petition reads. “It is more important than ever that we have a level-headed surgeon general in place who can calmly communicate with the American people.”

A recent MSNBC op-ed penned by anchor Krystal Ball and producer Anne Thompson makes a similar argument, pointing out that former U.S. Surgeon Generals have fulfilled that role during previous public health outbreaks. “When faced with the threat of bird-flu for example, the surgeon general at the time, Richard Carmona, talked to the public about prevention, pressured drug makers to ramp up production of effective treatments. He also educated us on risks associated with the disease and kept us updated on its status,” they write.

Murthy’s confirmation perhaps wouldn’t make Republicans feel any safer, however. Previous polling has found that public confidence about the government’s ability to prevent an Ebola outbreak is divided along party lines. And although several GOP leaders have pressured Obama to appoint a public health expert to oversee the nation’s response to Ebola, they’ve put forth a list of suggestions of people who all served in the George W. Bush administration.

Note: Vivek Murthy founded Doctors for America, which is a project of the Center for American Progress. CAP’s sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, houses ThinkProgress.