Texas' massive screw-up: How Rick Perry failed a basic test on Ebola

The Ebola crisis was supposed to be Perry's moment to shine. Instead he's hoping no one notices the incompetence

By Simon Maloy
Published October 23, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)
Rick Perry                             (AP/Reed Saxon/Tanya Bindra)
Rick Perry (AP/Reed Saxon/Tanya Bindra)

The Ebola situation in the United States seems to be under control, and there’s hope – assuming that no other infections occur – that the issue will cease to be an issue that opportunistic politicians can demagogue in the hopes of (literally) scaring up a few votes for themselves. And that’s a welcome development in terms of both public and political health here in the U.S. An expeditious end to the crisis should also help to restore a certain measure of faith in the public institutions tasked with preserving public health, and whose reputations have suffered some dings over the past few weeks.

But let’s stay on the politics of Ebola for just a little while longer and take a harder look at one person who stood to reap huge political benefits from the crisis, and not through fear-mongering about Ebola-infected terrorists or catching the disease at cocktail parties. I’m talking about Rick Perry, who found himself thrust into the center of the Ebola crisis after Thomas Eric Duncan checked himself into a Dallas hospital with a fever.

If you haven’t heard, Rick Perry is on a “comeback” tour. Heading into the 2016 election cycle, he’s working hard to project the image of a “new” Rick Perry – a bespectacled man of action who gets things done and is nothing like the stumbling boob who flamed out in the 2012 Republican primary. He’s has had great success in appealing to journalists and pundits who love political redemption stories and will help Perry nurture that narrative along.

Along the way, Perry has made a conspicuous effort to present himself as a decisive leader, in contrast to what he says is the dithering and indecisiveness of the Obama administration. When the flood of migrant children coming over the Mexican border became a national issue, Perry responded in grandiose fashion by deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the border to do … something. The troops arrived too late to make any difference and didn’t have an actual job to do, but Perry looked like he was taking tough and decisive action.

And so when Ebola showed up in Dallas, the media were primed to set it up as another leadership challenge for Perry. “The first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States … is a potential health crisis that gives Republican Gov. Rick Perry another real-time leadership test and a chance to look presidential — or ineffective — on a national stage,” the AP wrote. The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board asked readers who was the more effective Ebola leader: Rick Perry or Ted Cruz? (The governor got the nod.)

Perry played the part of the swaggering leader, at first, holding a press conference on Oct. 1 in which he was flanked by Texas health officials and declared, “This is all hands on deck.” Then things started going wrong. Lots of people gave Perry grief for, in the midst of the crisis, jetting off to Europe to give a bunch of speeches and build his foreign policy portfolio ahead of the Republican primaries. But that’s more a question of optics than anything else – it’s the bad policy decisions that are worth criticizing.

Yesterday, the Texas Tribune published an in-depth look at the critical decisions that weren’t made by Texas health officials that resulted in infected healthcare workers roaming the country. According to the Tribune, state health officials had the authority to quarantine health workers who treated the Ebola-infected Mr. Duncan, but they never used it:

Missing from the official talking points is the reality that the state of Texas had full legal power from day one to order travel restrictions or impose quarantines on nurses or other health sector workers — indeed, almost anyone suspected of posing a public health threat — but did not use that power. Seven people were isolated, but not health care workers.

Had the state used its public health powers more robustly, health care workers who treated Duncan might not have been circulating in public, and much of the ensuing panic could have been stilled.

These are the faults and the missteps that the Centers for Disease Control and (by extension) President Obama are taking heat for, even though the bureaucracy under Perry’s direct control contributed to the breakdown:

Amber Vinson, a 29-year-old nurse who treated Duncan, traveled to and from Ohio with permission from public health officials in Texas, who declined her request to send a private plane to fetch her from Cleveland after she learned a co-worker, Nina Pham, had come down with Ebola, her family said in a statement.

And a lab worker who handled Duncan's biological material later boarded a cruise ship without issue or restriction.

When it became known that Texas hadn't taken steps to prevent Vinson, or other hospital workers, from traveling, "it kind of took everybody by surprise, almost like they didn’t think about it," said Polly Price, a professor of law at Emory University. “The thing that gets me is how the federal government gets blamed for that.”

In some ways it's understandable that the federal health agencies are shouldering the bulk of the criticism, given that they are the faces of the public health infrastructure and in many ways did not perform in the way they should have. But the state-level response is no less worthy of scrutiny.

Perry, for his part, has acknowledged that “mistakes were made,” but was also eager to spread blame around as widely as possible. “We must admit, along the way, we have seen ample opportunity for improvement, from the CDC all the way to the hospital,” Perry said at a news conference after cutting his European trip short.

So much of the appeal Rick Perry is trying to manufacture is based on showy demonstrations of manly action that give the look and flavor of “leadership.” He’s putting on a show and trusting that his audience – reporters and Republican activists – won’t actually care if he produces any results. It worked during the border crisis, but the Ebola breakdown is different; lapses that occurred under his watch fed directly into a nationwide panic. Right now, the best that Perry can hope for is that people continue to focus their anger on the federal response and forget that Ebola was supposed to be his big moment to show how he gets things done Texas-style.

Simon Maloy

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