PLYMOUTH, New Hampshire -- Rand Paul had a message for students at Plymouth State University who had gathered for a pizza party with the Kentucky senator on Thursday: Ebola is coming for us all and the government is hiding the truth about the deadly disease.
Paul, a likely 2016 GOP presidential contender, told the students the GOP stands for privacy rights and due process and that young people should give the party a second look. But the standout portion was an extended diatribe against the federal government for allegedly spreading misinformation about the risk of Ebola infection.
“This thing is incredibly contagious,” Paul said. “People are getting it, fully gowned, masked, and must be getting a very tiny inoculum and they’re still getting it. And then you lose more confidence because they’re telling you stuff that may not be exactly valid and they’re downplaying it so much that it doesn’t appear that they’re really being honest about it.”
Paul’s remarks were hardly out of place among Republican politicians these days. With just over two weeks until the election, the campaign trail has become a hot incubator for Ebola fears, which have turned into the election issue du jour in races around the country.
Health experts in and out of the government have cautioned against panic, however, arguing that Ebola does not pose a serious danger to the average American because it requires direct contact with infected bodily fluids of patients who are showing symptoms and because officials are able to quickly isolate patients who contract the disease.
Experts have said that health workers with direct contact with victims are more vulnerable as they handle patients when they are at their most contagious. Two nurses who treated a man infected with Ebola after a trip to Liberia have been diagnosed with the disease this week. One traveled to Ohio by plane before returning to Dallas, a trip CDC director Thomas Frieden has said should not have happened, and officials are examining her fellow passengers even as they say it’s unlikely they were at serious risk as she was not showing symptoms at the time.
Contra Paul, Frieden warned before the latest diagnosis that he "unfortunately would not be surprised if we did see additional [Ebola] cases in healthcare workers" based on their level of exposure. The CDC is currently working to implement stricter safety guidelines.
But as Americans in Ohio, Texas and elsewhere grow more fearful of an Ebola spread, an impending election is a perfect formula for escalating fears.
Republicans have a motive to play up the danger and bash the administration as ineffective in order to frighten voters. President Obama and Democratic politicians have an incentive to play up the government response in order to guard against attacks that they’re not taking it seriously enough. Voters can expect plenty of more speeches like Paul’s before Nov. 4.
Scott Brown, the Republican nominee for Senate in New Hampshire. has made it arguably his number one issue in recent days.
“[Obama’s] team said we’re going to stop it in its tracks and it’s not going to be anything we need to worry about,” Brown said at an event in Hampstead on Wednesday. “Well sure, we’ve had one person die, we’ve had two infected now. His own CDC director says it could be like the AIDS epidemic.”
Brown's solution is to seal the Mexican border in order to prevent Ebola-infected migrants (along with ISIS terrorists, another favorite campaign topic) from illegally entering the country. While experts say it’s an extremely unlikely scenario – no cases have been discovered in Central America – candidates are filling debates with lurid images of disease and devastation.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have an Ebola outbreak,” North Carolina Republican Senate nominee Thom Tillis said in a debate last week. “We have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it."
Paul, along with Republicans like Speaker John Boehner, is calling on the administration to consider travel bans for afflicted countries in Africa, moves that public health officials have advised against out of fear they could cripple already strained governments and spread the disease even faster.
“Is this going to be a terrible thing that runs throughout the United States, I think nobody knows,” Paul said on Thursday. “But it is a very dangerous situation that the president ought to be a little more focused on and everyone shouldn’t be out spouting platitudes about hey we don’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt so we're going to let everybody continue to travel as if nothing’s going on.”