Poll: Most Americans Positive About Ebola Response

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on October 21, 2014.


For days now marathon media coverage of Ebola has been turning even the tiniest developments into “breaking news.” The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is under increasing heat for the agency’s response to the outbreak; its apparent missteps include appearing to question whether a nurse in Dallas failed to follow infection protocols, allowing a nurse with a low-grade fever to take commercial flights after she had been exposed to the virus, and distributing to hospitals infection control guidelines that some argue are inadequate. You might think the public would be utterly spooked by now.

But the American people have remained levelheaded. And with just a small number of cases reported in one city, the public seems far calmer about Ebola in the U.S. than either cable news or the debate inside the Beltway suggests.

The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll last week that found that despite some level of personal worry about the disease, 73% of Americans believe it is likely that Ebola will be contained to a small number of cases in the U.S., while 22% think it is more likely there will be a widespread outbreak. Fully 73% of respondents said that if there were an Ebola outbreak in their area they would have confidence in the CDC’s ability to contain the spread of Ebola, with somewhat smaller percentages saying the same about their local hospitals and health departments.

The Kaiser poll was in the field Oct. 8-14, just before the recent congressional hearings (and subsequent media coverage), before the second Dallas nurse’s infection was confirmed, and before it was known that the CDC had approved her to fly on Frontier Airlines from Texas to Ohio. So we went back over this past weekend (Oct. 17-19) to poll Americans again about the CDC and the public health system.

While public confidence in the CDC fell by 11 percentage points, a majority (62%) continue to express confidence in the agency, and the shares of Americans confident in their local hospitals and health departments were similar to our previous finding. Ebola is becoming increasingly politicized, as confidence in the CDC declined most among Republicans (from 70% in the earlier poll to 50% over the weekend). The downward trajectory suggests that this is a critical time to get the Ebola response on a solid footing.

It is reasonable to question whether Ebola-mania in the news has informed or spooked the American people, or both. As things stand, the public may not have every fact right about Ebola, but people appear to get the big picture. Going forward, a lot will depend on whether there are more cases in the U.S., and how many; whether there are further missteps in the public health response; and whether this issue is overtly politicized as so many others are these days.

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