NYC tries to ease Ebola fear
New York — Officials tamped down New Yorkers’ fears Friday after a doctor was diagnosed with Ebola in a city where millions of people squeeze into crowded subways, buses and elevators every day.
The warnings came as Dr. Craig Spencer remained in stable condition while isolated in a hospital, talking by cellphone to his family and assisting disease detectives who are accounting for his every movement since arriving in New York from Guinea via Europe on Oct. 17.
“I want to repeat what I said last night: There is no cause for alarm,” by the doctor’s diagnosis Thursday, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, even as officials described Spencer riding the subway, taking a cab, bowling, visiting a coffee shop and eating at a restaurant in the past week. “New Yorkers who have not been exposed to an infected person’s bodily fluids are simply not at risk.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the city’s Ebola diagnosis for Spencer, said Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner. And a company contracted to handle medical waste arrived at his Harlem apartment.
Heath officials have repeatedly given assurances that the disease is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids such as saliva, blood, vomit and feces, and that the dried virus survives on surfaces for only a matter of hours.
But some in the nation’s most populous city, with more than 8 million people, were not taking any chances.
Friday morning, a group of teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms riding the L subway train passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer. They said they were taking extra precautions because of the Ebola case. It was one of the subway lines the doctor rode after returning home.
The governor and health officials said Spencer, a member of Doctors Without Borders, sought treatment with diarrhea and a 100.3-degree fever — not 103 as officials initially reported Thursday night. The health department blamed a transcription error for the incorrect information. He was being treated in an isolation ward at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital, a designated Ebola center.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that the doctor “obviously felt he wasn’t symptomatic” when he went out “in a limited way.”
The governor, in an appearance on CNN’s New Day, said there was no reason to fear riding the subway, and he would do so Friday.
But one commuter called riding the subway “a scary thing.”
There are “a lot of germs in New York,” said Chris Thompson who was riding the L train.
Another subway rider, 41-year-old construction worker T.J. DeMaso expressed concern.
“If the outbreaks get any more common, I’ll be moving out of the city,” he said. “You could catch it and not even know it. You could bring it home to your kids. That’s not a chance I want to take.”
Subway rider Alicia Clavell said she hoped it’s “an isolated incident.”
Health officials say the chances of the average New Yorker contracting Ebola are slim. Someone can’t be infected just by being near someone who is sick with Ebola. Someone isn’t contagious unless he is sick.
Bassett said the probability was “close to nil” that Spencer’s subway rides would pose a risk. The bowling alley has been cleared to open, she said. Spencer’s Harlem apartment is cordoned off but no other tenants are at risk, officials said.
Evageline Love also was unconcerned. “I saw the mayor and the governor. What they’re saying, I believe, is true. There’s no need for hysteria,” she said as he rode the L train to work.
The CDC dispatched an Ebola response team to New York. President Barack Obama spoke to Cuomo and de Blasio on Thursday night and offered the federal government’s support. He asked them to stay in close touch with Ron Klain, his “Ebola czar,” and public health officials in Washington.
Spencer’s fiancee and two friends had been quarantined, but showed no symptoms, officials said.
The epidemic in West Africa has killed about 4,800 people. In the United States, the first person diagnosed with the disease was a Liberian man, who fell ill days after arriving in Dallas and later died, becoming the only fatality. None of his relatives who had contact with him got sick. Two nurses who treated him were infected, but one was released from a hospital Friday. The other is still hospitalized.
In the days before Spencer fell ill, he went on a 3-mile jog, went to the High Line park, rode the subway, visited a meatball restaurant and coffee shop. On Wednesday night he took a taxi from a Brooklyn bowling alley. He felt tired starting Tuesday, and felt worse on Thursday morning when he and his fiancee made a joint call to authorities to detail his symptoms and his travels. EMTs in full Ebola gear arrived and took him to Bellevue in an ambulance surrounded by police squad cars.
Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization, said per the guidelines it provides its staff members on their return from Ebola assignments, “the individual engaged in regular health monitoring and reported this development immediately.” Travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone must report in with health officials daily and take their temperature twice a day, as Spencer did. He also limited his direct contact with people, health officials said.
Spencer, 33, works at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. He had not seen any patients or been to the hospital since his return, the hospital said in a statement, calling him a “dedicated humanitarian” who “went to an area of medical crisis to help a desperately underserved population.”
Four American aid workers, including three doctors, were infected with Ebola while working in Africa and were transferred to the U.S. for treatment in recent months. All recovered. Health care workers are vulnerable because of close contact with patients when they are their sickest and most contagious.
In West Africa this year, more than 440 health workers have contracted Ebola and about half have died. But the Ebola virus is not very hardy. The CDC says bleach and other hospital disinfectants kill it.
Spencer is from Michigan and attended Wayne State University School of Medicine and Columbia’s University Mailman School of Public Health.
According to his Facebook page, he left for West Africa via Brussels last month. A photo shows him in full protective gear. He returned to Brussels Oct. 16.
“Off to Guinea with Doctors Without Borders,” he wrote. “Please support organizations that are sending support or personnel to West Africa, and help combat one of the worst public health and humanitarian disasters in recent history.”
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