Virginia congressman rips CDC for reassuring public over Ebola


Rep. Gerry Connolly

By Kathryn Watson |, Virginia Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia’s 11th District ripped public health officials during Friday’s congressional hearing on Ebola for reassuring the public at the risk of the public’s safety and to the detriment of the Obama administration’s credibility.

As a Fairfax County supervisor during the Anthrax scare, the Democratic congressman from Northern Virginia said he learned one thing — “never reassure the public when you don’t know.” The same philosophy applies to Ebola, something with “exponential” potential for “explosion,” he said during the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

Here’s the exchange between Connolly and Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, after Connolly said nurse Nina Pham’s recovery from Ebola wasn’t thanks to the protocols and guidelines at her hospital in Dallas, Texas.

Connolly: While CDC was giving us assurances of how hard it was to contract the disease — we’re pretty confident we’ve got things in place, so forth — two health care workers including Miss Pham came down with it. Dr. Lurie, in retrospect do you think perhaps, not intentionally of course, but in a zeal to reassure the public, CDC misstepped?

Lurie: You know I think that CDC has said that some missteps have been made, but they’ve taken a quick …

Connolly: But isn’t it …

Lurie: … hard look at the experience. They’ve pivoted, as you see …

Connolly: Dr. Lurie, I am asking a public information, public health question. I had to deal with that in my county when I was the head of my county during anthrax attacks. And one rule I had was never reassure the public when you don’t know. Never do that, because when you do that you damage your credibility. And you heard it here today form some of the questioning on the other side of the aisle. Gave them an opening to attack the credibility of the administration, by extension, because the CDC was not capable of saying, not yet. We don’t know. It’s a work in progress. What’s so horrible about doing that?

Connolly asked Lurie if HHS would welcome federal guidelines — stemming from congressional legislation — about standard protective procedures for health care workers. Lurie didn’t directly respond.

Deborah Burger, co-president of National Nurses United, suggested there should be mandatory standards for safety across hospitals.

Burger also said during the hearing, to the shock of at least one member of Congress, that it’s “unrealistic” to expect health care workers to exercise timely precautions in isolating themselves and reporting to a hospital upon suspecting they are experiencing Ebola symptoms.

So far, all of the few Americans diagnosed with Ebola in the United States have been health care workers who cared for Ebola patients.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.