World and national news came closer to home this week with the announcement that Maine Medical Center placed a patient under 24-hour observation as a precaution against Ebola, releasing the person Tuesday after that patient tested negative for the deadly virus.

What was needed most in this situation was for someone in a position of leadership to step up and address public concerns in a measured, information-driven way. Instead, Gov. Paul LePage has inserted himself into the story, and done so in a way guaranteed to shed more heat than light. His thoughtless, shoot-from-the-hip approach is not what’s called for in a time when mass anxiety over disease can spread even more swiftly than the illness itself.

The governor addressed the topic of the Maine Med patient in response to a question during a campaign-trail news conference Tuesday in Lewiston.

“First of all, the individual in question has been tested and is not infected, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, (Maine Emergency Management) and (Centers for Disease Control) are working together to make sure that as this develops, and people travel, we’re on top of this. The bigger issue right now is whether or not this individual had the proper papers.”

Unbelievably, the governor used a potential public health crisis to point fingers at Maine’s largely African refugee and immigrant population. He’s encouraging scapegoating of those who are different, but he hasn’t bothered to point out that while the Ebola outbreak “is strictly in West Africa” — as a Maine Med official has told the Portland Press Herald — most of the Africans in Maine are from the eastern part of the massive continent, and very few have been there recently.

And it’s unclear why LePage took it upon himself to break the news about the person held at Maine Med. His administration does have a public health chief: Dr. Sheila Pinette, Maine CDC director. Her tough task in these circumstances is to protect the public at large while still respecting the patient’s right under the law to privacy.

Especially in a small state like Maine, releasing details about the person being treated can be enough to identify them and make them the focus of unwanted negative attention. So by making insinuations about whether the Maine Med patient “had the proper papers,” the governor also has blatantly overstepped ethical boundaries. It’s also bad health policy to imply that a trip to the hospital for much-needed emergency care could result in being closely questioned about one’s immigration status.

If, as Gov. LePage said Tuesday, he is confident in the ability of government health and emergency management staff to deal with the possibility that someone with Ebola was in a Maine hospital, he should have stayed out of the way and allowed these officials to speak through the media to the public. The misdirection and innuendo he’s offered are a poor substitute for the reality-based communication that Mainers deserve.


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