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Are health officials calming nerves or stoking panic amid Ebola outbreak?

Hazmat workers and Dallas County sheriffs stand in front of the apartment where a second person diagnosed with the Ebola virus resides on October 13, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.

Mike Stone, Getty Images

Anxiety was already running high in Dallas when a nurse who treated Ebola victim Thomas Alan Duncan was diagnosed with the disease. But when residents who live near the infected woman received a reverse 911 call from the city informing them of the situation, the fear escalated for some.

"It's scary, it's creepy that it's a few houses down," one resident said.

As Americans grapple with both facts and fear surrounding the current Ebola outbreak, one public health expert told CBS News that the automated call was a "bad idea."

"What was probably a well intentioned (way) to reassure people is likely to induce more concern," said Peter Jacobson, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Michigan. "It's impersonal. It's like 'why am I getting this call? There must be a problem.'"

The public panic has surfaced not only in Dallas - but in airliners in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where Ebola scares forced officials to quarantine flights and rattle nerves of passengers. Combine sick passengers with a lingering skepticism of the government and you get a recipe for paranoia, Jacobson said.

"When people are afraid, everything looks like it must be an Ebola outbreak and the government is responsible," he said.

Despite the anxiety, Jacobson said it's important to keep the virus in perspective. The government is taking reasonable steps to contain the outbreak, he said, and the coordination with local and state health officials is working by and large.

What is lacking, Jacobson said, is a respected authority who can clearly communicate what we know and what we don't about the virus: a surgeon general. Jacobson said that while CDC's director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, is "doing as well as he can," Americans want a respected figure who can articulate "where we stand and what we know in a very calming, transparent way."

President Obama's nominee for the post of surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has fallen victim to congressional gridlock. Meanwhile, the government's message on Ebola has fallen victim to inconsistency - and a wary public.

For example, when Duncan first turned up at a Dallas hospital late last month, Frieden announced: "We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country."

Now Duncan is dead and a nurse who treated him is infected with the virus.

Jacobson said Frieden's initial comments "undermines the core of the message" and stokes public anxiety.

"Ebola is serious and that the public is justifiably concerned," he said. "That's why it's so important for governmental officials to be clear and transparent about the threat and what steps are being taken to protect the public."

Jacobson said an independent surgeon general can get out from behind the podium, talk to the public and stand above the "fear mongering" generated by the Ebola outbreak.

"It's difficult for any one government official with competing objectives to achieve that," he said.