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The politics of Ebola: A juggling act in Georgia

October 17, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) — The politics of Ebola is particularly intense in Georgia, home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory Hospital, where doctors have treated multiple Ebola patients. It’s also no coincidence that the political hand-wringing comes alongside competitive races for governor and U.S. Senate.

Republican Senate hopeful David Perdue was among the early advocates for banning travel to the U.S. from the West African region where Ebola has killed more than 4,500 people. And Perdue was quick to blame President Barack Obama after Liberia native Thomas Eric Duncan died in a Dallas hospital. Two nurses who treated Duncan have since been diagnosed with Ebola; one of them is being treated at Emory.

“I think right now we have a lack of leadership in Washington in the White House,” Perdue said Wednesday.

Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn, said she would defer to “the CDC and other scientists and public health practitioners” on how to respond. By late Thursday, after members of Congress had grilled CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden on Capitol Hill, she had a called for “temporary” travel restrictions for everyone except military and aid workers.

She maintained that “public health experts ... are in the best position to guide our response.” But, she added, “Our leaders in Washington must provide clear, bipartisan and strong leadership as well.”

Obama has thus far withstood calls to restrict travel. He appointed Ron Klain — former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden — as “czar” to oversee the U.S. response.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson on Wednesday called Ebola “the greatest threat” to national security, beyond the militant IS group in the Middle East.

“Everybody in America should be aware just to shut a flight off does not stop Ebola. ... We have got to use our American technology, American ingenuity and the CDC right here in Atlanta, Georgia, to stop it” in West Africa, he said.

A day later, Isakson called for a travel ban. “I believe it is an urgent priority for the United States to contain this outbreak at its source,” Isakson said in a statement with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose retirement opens the seat Perdue and Nunn seek.

Democratic Congressmen David Scott and John Barrow also endorsed travel bans, while school leaders in DeKalb County declared they will no longer enroll students from the affected nations without proper medical documentation and permission from the superintendent.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who faces a tough re-election bid, has attempted to reassure residents that hospitals and public health officials are prepared. Deal said he tends to agree with some travel restrictions, but noted, “I don’t have any jurisdiction.”

Deal ran into trouble several days ago, though, when he told the Marietta Daily Journal that “water kills the Ebola virus.” His aides, including Georgia’s top public health officer, explained his remark was based on a briefing in which Deal learned that the virus doesn’t survive for a long period in water. His political opponents pounced anyway.

Democratic challenger Jason Carter said he was “very concerned that the governor is spreading misinformation and seems unprepared to talk about it in a way that will be helpful.” Carter, a state senator from Atlanta and grandson of the former president, has stopped short of backing travel restrictions.

Not all Georgia politicians have handled the matter as a hot potato.

U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Roswell physician and a leading House GOP voice on health matters, issued a measured statement. He said it is “clear that the current procedures and execution of our prevention and response systems have been inadequate.” But he did not specifically mention Obama or seek to place blame.

Deal, meanwhile, acknowledged the political difficulties. “It is a very fine line between being as cautious and extremely cautious with a very, very dangerous virus,” he said, “and, on the other hand, not creating hysteria in the process of doing that.”

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Follow the reporters on Twitter @BillBarrowAP, @KatieFoody and @AP_Christina.

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