WASHINGTON (AP) — Last May, as Ebola crept across West Africa, America's top infectious disease expert told a group of Harvard students in a commencement speech to always second-guess their assumptions because "overconfidence can kill."
Five months later in a hearing room on Capitol Hill, Tom Frieden was accused of not following his own advice — repeatedly assuring the nation it was safe from an Ebola outbreak even as two U.S. nurses became infected and one was allowed to board a commercial airline, each following safety protocols Frieden helped put in place.
"By underestimating both the severity of the danger and overstating the ability of our health care system to handle Ebola cases, mistakes have been made," Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., told Frieden and other national health experts during the hearing Thursday.
As director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Frieden, 53, had become the public face — and potential scapegoat — for the Ebola scare inside the United States. On Friday, President Barack Obama announced he would appoint Ron Klain, a trusted political adviser, to become the point person on the U.S. government's response to the Ebola crisis.
The youngest of three boys who grew up in Westchester County in New York with two highly educated parents, Frieden was the science "whiz kid" who never got in trouble and who would spend hours in the yard trying to perfect his baseball pitch — a game he was "fanatical" about, according to his oldest brother, Jeffry Frieden.
As a medical student at Columbia University, Frieden spent a month trailing his cardiologist father at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. He later told his brothers he learned more about medicine from their dad's meticulous note-taking and attentiveness to patients than he ever did in a classroom. It was a lesson he took with him to India as a CDC expert on tuberculosis, where his program was credited with saving 3 million lives, and one he applied in New York as health commissioner, where he helped lead anti-smoking programs and a ban on trans fats.
To his supporters, the married father of two living near CDC headquarters in Atlanta is the best possible person for the job — smart, humble, calm, unfailingly altruistic.
"He gets the most pleasure out of doing the right things to help people," said his brother, Jeffry, a government professor at Harvard University. "Our father was very much like this. He would leave the house at 7 in the morning, and say 'Got to go help the sick people.'"
But to skeptics, Frieden's unwavering assurance that everything is under control is undermining public confidence that the federal government can handle an Ebola outbreak.
Frieden told a House committee on Thursday that investigators are still trying to figure out how the nurses caught the virus from Liberian patient who died, Thomas Eric Duncan. In the meantime, he said, their cases show a need to strengthen infection-control procedures.
"People are scared," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "People's lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable."
Frieden graduated from the local public high school in Mamaroneck, N.Y, in the late 1970s. He then studied both philosophy and pre-med at Oberlin College in Ohio before getting both a medical degree and master's in public health from Columbia University.
He came from a long line of achievers. According to his brother, Frieden's paternal grandfather had come to the U.S. from Lithuania not speaking English, eventually earning a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University. Their father, an Army vet who served in World War II, devoted his life to medicine, and Frieden's mother had both a doctorate in Russian history and a law degree she used to work on international trade issues.
Now 85 years old, their mother continues to volunteer legal services to disadvantaged children, while their father passed away 10 years ago after a battle with Parkinson's disease, Jeffry said. The middle brother, Ken, teaches comparative literature and Judaic studies at Syracuse University.
In 1990, Frieden joined the CDC and became an expert on containing tuberculosis, spending five years in India assigned to the World Health Organization. He left in 2002 to become commissioner of the New York City Health Department, before returning to the CDC as its director in 2009 amid the global swine flu pandemic.
Whether Frieden's job is at stake remains unclear.
So far, calls for Frieden to resign have been limited to a couple of House conservatives and FOX commentator Bill O'Reilly. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration with the situation in general, while President Barack Obama has vowed his administration would respond in a "much more aggressive way" to cases of Ebola.
Jeffry Frieden said he still talks or emails with his brother several times a week, often discussing the particulars of data science as it applies to their areas of expertise and expressing support for one another.
"We're really proud of him," Jeffry Frieden said. "It pains me to hear people calling on him to resign. It's scapegoating of the worst kind."
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