Ebola czar faces trial by fire

Ebola czar faces trial by fire
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The White House's new Ebola czar is taking the helm at a crucial time.

After weeks of mounting worries about Ebola, the infection of two Dallas healthcare workers is casting doubt on the readiness of the healthcare system to deal with the virus.

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Veteran Democratic operative Ron Klain will start overseeing the government's response to Ebola next week, making him the bridge between the White House, Capitol Hill and public health agencies.

With the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) warning of more cases, Klain is likely to be at the center of the storm for weeks to come.

The Obama administration, battered by the crisis in the run-up to the midterm elections, needs Klain to hit the ground running on several tasks.

1) Restoring public confidence

The administration's credibility took a hit this week with the Ebola diagnoses of Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, two Dallas nurses who cared for index patient Thomas Eric Duncan before his death on Oct. 8.

News that Vinson traveled on a commercial flight only raised further questions about how well the CDC was responding to the emergency in Texas.

Klain, a former vice presidential chief of staff, can start by pursing a more pro-active, transparent approach. Even if that doesn't settle public fears, it could help soften the media spotlight and give heath officials more space to work.

"What we're looking for here is an implementation expert," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of Klain.

2) Fighting the momentum for a travel ban

The number of lawmakers supporting travel restrictions on West Africa surged this week, with dozens of Republicans and handful of vulnerable Democrats endorsing a ban.

With endangered incumbents like Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganThe Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control Tillis wins North Carolina Senate primary Coronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 MORE (D-N.C.) on board will make it difficult for the White House to completely dismiss flight ban proposals, which also enjoy overwhelming public support.

The administration is not giving in to pressure, but it will be up to Klain to convince the skeptics.

"I just do not understand … [why] we cannot look at one's travel history and say, 'No, you're not coming here, not until this situation is resolved,' " House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told government witnesses on Thursday.

"You're right, [the epidemic] needs to be solved in Africa, but until then we should not be letting these people in, period."

3) Limiting new U.S. cases

If and when Ebola arises next in the United States, Klain's biggest challenge will be avoiding missteps that would put family members, healthcare workers and the public at risk.

That will require assisting hospitals and healthcare workers so that they can learn to spot and properly contain people who might be infected with the virus.

In that vein, Klain will face pressure to ensure hospitals with the best training in infectious diseases have enough capacity to deal with more patients.

4) Accelerating the response in West Africa

As the only leader tasked with overseeing the Ebola response full-time, Klain will need to balance domestic concerns with redoubling the fight against Ebola in West Africa. 

The administration has said repeatedly that the only way to end the risk to Americans is by stopping Ebola at its source.

But with global health officials admitting on Friday that they botched their response on Africa, pressure is growing on the United States to get it right.

The need for a sustained effort is apparent when considering the math: the CDC estimates that Ebola cases could top 1.4 million by the end of January if the virus continues to outpace efforts to fight it.

The volunteer organization leading Ebola care in West Africa also said it had "reached [its] ceiling" this week.

"[Governments and international groups] are deploying as we speak, but we still don't see the results on the field," said Brice de le Vingne, director of operations for Medecins San Frontieres.

"The speed of the deployment is still lower than the speed of the epidemic, and that is problematic."

5) Winning over Capitol Hill

Klain's appointment was welcomed by Democrats, but Republicans were swift to criticize the former Biden adviser for his background in politics and lack of medical expertise.

While hardly unexpected before an election, the perception that Klain was picked for political reasons could make it difficult for him to seek funding from Congress for the Ebola response.

The administration has not decided if more money is necessary, Earnest said Friday while poking fun at the backlash to Klain’s appointment.

"That's a shocking development there," he told reporters. "Three weeks before an Election Day, and Republicans are seeking to score political points. Stop the presses!"