Nearly two-thirds of Americans are concerned about a widespread Ebola epidemic in the United States, despite repeated assurances from public officials that the country’s modern health-care and disease-surveillance systems will prevent the type of outbreak ravaging West Africa.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in recent days, the number of Americans who say the government should be doing more to prevent additional Ebola cases in the United States is almost twice the number who believe the United States is doing all it can to control the spread of the virus.
That includes overwhelming support — 91 percent — in favor of stricter screening for people traveling to this country from West Africa. Such screening began this past weekend at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and soon will begin at four other international airports in the country.
Two-thirds of those polled support travel restrictions on people entering the United States from the Ebola-stricken countries. Federal officials have rejected travel bans involving West Africa, saying such a move could make it more difficult to slow the outbreak at its source, hampering the movement of supplies and aid workers and ultimately putting the world more at risk.
While only two cases of Ebola have surfaced in the United States, compared with nearly 8,400 cases in West Africa, the poll shows how fear of the deadly disease has taken root here. More than 4 in 10 respondents say they are “very” or “somewhat worried” about the possibility that they or immediate family members might catch the virus, even though it can be transmitted only through contact with bodily fluids and only after the onset of symptoms.
That level of worry is on par with how Americans felt about catching bird flu in 2006 and higher than the level of concern expressed over severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003. Both of those ailments killed far fewer people than the Ebola outbreak that is showing few signs of slowing in West Africa.
While 65 percent of the respondents say they are concerned about a possible “widespread” U.S. epidemic, nearly 8 in 10 with a high school diploma or less education say they are very or somewhat concerned. Among respondents with advanced degrees, about 4 in 10 say they are concerned. Just over 6 in 10 white respondents say they are concerned, compared with 74 percent of nonwhites. And while majorities of all partisan backgrounds express concern about a U.S. epidemic, Republicans express significantly more worry than Democrats.
Michael Goodman, an apartment manager living in Atwater, Calif., who took part in the poll, said he is “very concerned.”
“They’re not educating the public enough,” Goodman said of government efforts, adding, “Maybe they don’t want worldwide hysteria, but in a situation where people are dying from it in a matter of a month, it’s something that does concern me.”
Ebola is “more dangerous” than previous diseases, said Terry Schaeffer of Reading, Pa. “I don’t know if doctors have a cure. Many people died in Africa already, and we have people there, too.”
In follow-up interviews, some respondents acknowledged paying only passing attention to the details of Ebola and how it spreads, and expressed confusion about whether cases across the country have been confirmed. Texas is home to the only two confirmed cases.
Others were far more skeptical of the threat and criticized media coverage as fear-mongering.
“I have no fear of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S.,” said Mitch Margolis, a master’s student in Urbana, Ill. “I generally do trust the federal government and would give them the benefit of the doubt.”
President Obama receives mixed ratings for his handling of the issue — 41 percent approve of his performance and 43 percent disapprove, while a substantial 16 percent offer no opinion.
Meanwhile, the view that U.S. officials should be doing more to prevent new Ebola cases in the country offers a stark contrast from some past situations, such as the anthrax attacks that rattled the country in the fall of 2001. At that time, 61 percent said the nation was doing all it could to deal with the attacks. Today, only 33 percent believe the United States is doing all it can.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,006 adults, including interviews on conventional and cellular phones. The overall margin of sampling error is 3.5 percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.