On October 17, 2014, just as Ebola panic reached a fever pitch in America, President Obama did something unusual: he appointed Ron Klain as America’s first-ever “Ebola response coordinator” — a title that very quickly morphed into “Ebola czar.”
Klain, a lawyer and well-respected Washington insider, had served as chief of staff under two separate vice presidents (Joe Biden and Al Gore). But the appointment drew criticism, not only from Republicans but also from those in the medical and public-health communities who wondered why a political operative was helming the White House response to a major infectious-disease outbreak.
Yet Klain’s tenure was far from the disaster many predicted. Ebola cases declined in the United States and Liberia, the two countries Klain was focused on. (France and the UK took the lead on the Ebola response in Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively.)
By mid-February 2015, with the number of US cases at zero, Klain was able to leave the post to return to his private sector job in Washington. But that still leaves plenty of questions: was having an Ebola czar actually helpful — or did the disease recede on its own? Did the United States learn anything from the pandemic? Are we any better prepared for the next one? To find out, I talked to Klain by phone about his experience – and why he’s still worried about the next outbreak.