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Michael Hiltzik

Why don't we have an Ebola 'czar,' Sen. McCain? Because of the NRA

Why doesn't the US have a healthcare czar, Sen. McCain? Because the NRA quashed the appointment.

Donning the mantle of the nation's scaremonger-in-chief, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., appeared Sunday morning on CNN to weigh in on the latest Ebola news. The nugget he and host Candy Crowley were chewing over was that a healthcare worker who had been helping to care for Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient who died Wednesday in Dallas, has contracted the disease despite wearing protective gear. 

Prompted by Crowley, McCain complained, "We were told there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States and obviously that's not correct." He said, "There has to be some kind of czar" to manage the disease in the U.S. "I'd like to know who's in charge, among other things."

These statements are evidence as good as you'll ever find of the viral outbreak of fatuous misinformation and opportunistic alarmism that has reduced governing in Washington to a bedridden wreck. Let's unpack them.

To begin with, it's unclear who told Sen. McCain "there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States." The most categorical statements that have come from the White House, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the current outbreak are that the risk to the public is "minimal." That assessment is still true. If Sen. McCain's constituents are "not comforted," as he said, one reason is the fact-free utterances of people like him, midwifed by CNN.

Both the NIH and CDC have issued detailed protocols for identification and treatment of possible Ebola patients in the U.S. The NIH information is here. The CDC, on its Ebola page, states, "Although the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is very low, CDC and partners are taking precautions to prevent this from happening."

Obviously that's very different from saying "there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States"; it's an acknowledgment that there could be cases, and a discussion of how to identify and manage them. No credible professionals have come forward to challenge the CDC assessment that the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is "very low."

Turning to McCain's call for an Ebola "czar," and leaving aside his own earlier grousing that the Obama administration has "more czars than the Romanovs," traditionally the nation's public health "czar" is the surgeon general. The surgeon general is the federal officer best positioned to communicate down-to-earth realities about public health issues -- think of C. Everett Koop's campaign against smoking -- in judicious terms, quelling unnecessary alarms.

At the moment, we don't have a surgeon general. And for that, blame belongs to the fourth branch of government, the National Rifle Assn.

The NRA has put the kibosh on Dr. Vivek Murthy, whom President Obama nominated to the post last November, after the resignation of Surgeon Gen. Regina Benjamin. The NRA's complaint was that Murthy called guns "a health care issue" in a 2012 tweet. It's worth noting that the tweet came out almost two months, to the day, before the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which Adam Lanza's gunfire took the lives of 20 children and six adults. One might take Murthy's comment as, if anything, a grotesque understatement.

The NRA's position sealed the opposition to Murthy's confirmation among Senate Republicans and red-state Democrats. The appointment has been hanging in limbo ever since. During his TV appearance Sunday, did McCain call for action on Murthy's nomination? No. It never came up.

Can any rational person really disagree that guns are a healthcare issue? In the average year, nearly 32,000 people die from gunshots in the U.S. and another 75,000 are injured. Number of deaths from Ebola in the U.S.: one.

Sen. McCain's home state of Arizona, where he says his constituents are "not comforted" about Ebola, boasts the eighth-highest rate of deaths by firearms in the nation, 14.6 per 100,000 residents. Number of Arizona deaths from Ebola, per 100,000: zero.

Arizona has no prohibitions on assault rifles, magazine capacities or open carry. It does, however, have Sen. McCain, to distract its residents from the real threats to their health by pointing them toward a pseudothreat.

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