The first case of Ebola in New York City has been confirmed this evening, as Dr. Craig Spencer tested positive for the disease that is currently ravaging several countries in West Africa. The New York Times reports that Spencer, who had been working with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea, began feeling ill Wednesday night and was checked into Bellevue Hospital Thursday morning with a fever of 100.3* and nausea. Spencer lives in Harlem, but is reported to have spent last night in Williamsburg at The Gutter. He is thought to have taken the subway (the lines are unknown at this time, but presumably include the L and—based on Spencer’s home address—the 1/2/3 or A/C**) to Williamsburg and a taxi home.
Brooklyn Bowl, which was first thought to be the bowling alley Spencer visited, is still open tonight, with no less a person than QuestLove tweeting that it is “safe… open and clean;” The Gutter, however, shut down tonight due to “unforeseen circumstances.” As everyone from the city’s Health Department to the mayor are reassuring us, though, ebola is not easily transmissible. The kind of contact needed to contract the disease is not the kind of passing interaction that most of us have with the thousands of people we pass on the streets, in restaurants, and on the subway every day. The New York Times reminds us that the chances from getting ebola on public transportation are virtually zero, and would involve the following unlikely scenario:
If someone ejected bloody mucus or vomitus onto a subway pole, and the next passenger were to touch it while it was still wet and then, for some unimaginable reason, were to put those wet fingers into an eye or mouth instead of wiping them in disgust—then yes, it could happen. Similarly, if an extremely ill passenger with high viral saliva loads were to sneeze large, wet droplets directly into the mouth or eyes of another passenger, the infection might be passed. But the influenza route — sneeze to hand to pole to hand to eye — has never been known to happen and is considered extremely unlikely.
“Some unimaginable reason!” It’s true, there is literally no imaginable reason someone would do that on purpose! While it is totally understandable that people are already starting to feel panicky (we get it! we take the L sometimes too!), it is important—essential, really—to bear in mind that ebola remains a very difficult disease to spread. As a reminder, the US has already experienced an ebola case in a densely populated area (Dallas) and there were many people who were in close contact with patient Thomas Eric Duncan who did not come down with the disease. And those that did—both of whom are health care professionals and treated Duncan—have recovered or are recovering from the disease.
And there’s one more things to remember: Ebola is a horrific disease that disproportionately has affected parts of the world which are already affected by poverty, a lack of resources, and over-crowding. Dr. Craig Spencer—at risk for his own life—went over to Guinea to help the people who need it most. Right now, many people on social media (including no less a fear-monger than Donald Trump) are saying Spencer was irresponsible for going out to Brooklyn while he could have been sick. But as one ebola survivor reminds us, ebola’s symptoms are usually sudden onset. It’s difficult to believe that Spencer, who worked to save so many lives, would cavalierly put so many others at risk. Rather than point fingers and cast aspersions, now might be the time to focus on the facts of the case and the reality that we are in a city which has the resources to control and fight the spread of this disease. One of the best—and sometimes scariest—things about New York is that it is a city where we frequently feel like we are all in it together, we sink or swim as one multi-faceted unit. This can be terrifying when everything seems like it might go wrong—like we might all fall victim to a terrorist attack or the spread of a deadly disease. But this type of cohesiveness is more of an asset than a detriment. We should be cautious and responsible, yes. But we should not let fear or panic take over because doing so serves nobody’s purposes other than Donald Trump’s. And we can’t have that.
*UPDATE: Initial reports of a 103 degree fever were erroneous and likely a transcription error; Spencer’s actual fever was 100.3, which also means that he was even less likely to have been symptomatic in the days before his diagnosis.
**UPDATE: The confirmed subway lines are the 1, A, and L. Spencer also visited the High Line on Wednesday and went for a three-mile jog.
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