Politics and public health are not supposed to mix, but the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found that party affiliation strongly colors the way people view the government’s handling of the Ebola outbreak.
While 97 percent of Democrats who responded said they had “a lot” or at least “some” confidence in the government’s ability to contain an outbreak in the United States, only 60 percent of independent voters and 56 percent of Republicans expressed such faith. And 14 percent of Republicans said they had “no confidence at all” in the government’s Ebola response. Zero Democrats made that claim.
“I’m not worried it’s going to overtake our country,” said Mike Lepsche, 63, a Republican and retired corrections officer from Woodbury. “It’s just the response by our government was slow.”
As officials in several states sought to answer such complaints by imposing mandatory 21-day quarantines on travelers from West Africa who have had contact with Ebola victims, Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota health experts spent much of Sunday reviewing the state’s Ebola preparedness plan and debating measures to monitor travelers returning to Minnesota.
Dayton and Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger will detail the monitoring efforts in a 1 p.m. news conference Monday.
Sunday’s discussions included a wide group of health officials who “worked on guidelines for monitoring and agreed on key principles including safeguarding the health of Minnesotans and ensuring that an infected person is treated in a way that protects health care professionals,” according to a Sunday statement from the governor’s office.
Few personal fears
Regardless of their opinion about the government’s response, few respondents expressed personal worry about contracting Ebola. Only 18 percent of the 800 likely voters, polled at random Oct. 20-22, said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that they or their families are at risk from Ebola, a virus that has spread primarily in west Africa and caused more than 4,500 deaths. That view didn’t vary by political leaning.
“This is like the fear of flying to me,” said Pam Neary, 59, a Democrat from Afton who served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1993-94. “You have to say to yourself, ‘I don’t think this pilot wants to go down any more than I do, so I’m just going to have to trust him.’ ”
Timing of the poll might have influenced the results, because developments in the Ebola outbreak have changed from day to day. A Liberian who traveled to Texas was the first U.S.-diagnosed case of Ebola, and he died Oct. 8. Two nurses caring for him were infected as well, and one remains hospitalized. But when the poll was conducted, early last week, the outbreak in west Africa showed signs of slowing and people who came in close contact with the infected nurses were showing no signs of illness.
Ads can stoke response
A frenzy of political activity leading up to the November election — including a barrage of campaign ads — could have stoked partisan replies to the poll as well. The faces of Minnesota’s public-health response have been Democrats such as Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, both running for re-election.
Opinions about their performance overall no doubt affect opinions about their performance on Ebola — especially given the partisan culture in contemporary U.S. politics, said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.
“I don’t think it’s [about] public health,” Jacobs said. “Any issue that rises to the top of press coverage, that has in any way a relationship to government, is going to be kind of sliced and diced in a partisan filter.”
Ebola has emerged nationally as a campaign issue, with some Republicans urging President Obama to close U.S. borders to travelers from the three nations — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — at the center of the current outbreak. Democrats have countered that Republican budget cuts might have weakened the federal response to the outbreak.
Health is ‘not partisan’
Chris Anderson of Howard Lake owns an electrical contracting company and a tanning salon; he’s already sore at Franken for supporting Obamacare and its tax increase on tanning, and at Dayton’s Health Department for discouraging youth indoor tanning. But he doesn’t believe politics influenced his judgment, given that Ebola remains a threat in the United States despite efforts to contain it.
“The safety of our country is more important than pretty much anything,” said Anderson, 43. “I think Obama should been the first to act on this. He hasn’t. He hasn’t done his job, in my opinion.”
Anderson was among those who said they are “somewhat” personally concerned, because of the public nature of his work and the mere thought that he could somehow carry the virus to his wife and two daughters.
“I work in the cities every day,” he said. “I’m exposed to a lot of people, a lot of places.”
The worst Ebola outbreak on record has created fear partly because half the people infected in Africa have died from the virus. Of eight patients treated in the United States, only one has died, and U.S. health officials say they’re confident that they could contain an outbreak in this country because the virus only spreads by contact with infected bodily fluids such as blood or saliva. And patients are infectious only when symptoms such as fever emerge, giving authorities an early warning and a better chance to isolate them before they spread the virus.
The election cycle has increased partisan fervor over Ebola, but in the end, influential Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to be vigilant, and to support efforts to contain the outbreak in West Africa before it spreads in a way that makes it harder to track in the U.S., said Michael Osterholm, director of the U’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
“The enemy of good is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s a virus.”
Neary, the retiree from Afton, responded in the poll that she has no concern at all that she or her family are at risk.
Reviewing the handling of the first U.S.-diagnosed case, she said it is clear that hospital and government leaders in Texas made mistakes. But mistakes offer lessons, she said, and she anticipates a much better response in New York, where a doctor who returned from an aid mission in Guinea was hospitalized Thursday with an Ebola infection.
“I’d expect that we learn from the mistakes,” she said. “If we had everything [that went wrong in Texas] repeated again in New York, I’d be pretty darned disappointed.”