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Ebola Comes to New York; Everything Is Fine

News that a doctor tested positive for the deadly disease after going bowling spread like wildfire on social media last night.

by Harry Cheadle
Oct 24 2014, 2:30pm

What Ebola looks like up close. Photo via Flickr user NIAID

Until yesterday evening, no one in New York cared much about where a man named Craig Spencer had gone or what he had done. Now his movements seem to be all anyone can talk about.

The 33-year-old doctor tested positive for Ebola last night, a week after returning from Guinea, where he was working with Doctors Without Borders to help patients with the deadly disease. After flying back to JFK on October 17 he rode the A, L, and 1 trains, visited the High Line park, went on a three-mile run, ate at an unnamed restaurant (later revealed to be the Meatball Shop), and, on Wednesday night, went out bowling in Williamsburg before taking an Uber back to his apartment in Harlem. The next morning, October 23, he had a temperature—a possible symptom of Ebola—so he called the authorities and was rushed to Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital by health workers in protective gear, where he remains in an isolation ward.

The public and the press were told all this at a press conference last night during which Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett all took pains to reassure everyone that the situation was solidly under control. Spencer (who, Bassett kept reminding us, is a “medical doctor”) had been taking his temperature twice a day since returning from West Africa, and before Thursday he hadn’t exhibited any symptoms other than fatigue, which is common enough among the Ebola-free population—we’re all fatigued; you're probably fatigued right now. It's a hard, tiring life out there.

Those sorts of reassurances from health professionals are important, according to Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies public health and perceptions of threat. “[Ebola] is a deadly disease that's new, unfamiliar, and basically seen as uncontrollable—we don't have medicines for it, we don't have vaccines to prevent it,” he said. “All these things contribute to a certain dread of Ebola, which makes it understandable that people are anxious or nervous.”

Retracing Spencer’s steps and whom he may have brushed against while strolling along the High Line is close to impossible. “You'll never figure out who was on the subway or at the bowling alley or whatever,” said Diane Griffin, chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Although at the same time those kinds of very casual contacts are highly unlikely to lead to transmission.” (Try telling that to Motherboard's Jason Koebler.)

To be on the safe side, four people have been placed in quarantine: Two of his friends and his fiancée, who all may have had contact with him while he was sick, and the Uber driver who took him to Harlem on Wednesday, who wasn’t at risk, officials said. Also playing it safe was the Gutter, the bowling joint where Spencer hung out that night, which shut down on Thursday, canceling a Goodnight Records CMJ showcase. (It’s reportedly going to be thoroughly cleaned before reopening.) Spencer’s apartment is also locked and quarantined off—his building’s superintendent isn’t letting anyone in, said Bassett at the press conference, and Spencer even left his key inside to prevent anyone from getting his hands on it.

This is the part where everyone should be reminded just how hard it is to get Ebola. It’s a terrifying disease because it’s so deadly, but it’s only transmitted through the bodily fluids of someone who is actually sick. A New York Times blog post titled “Can You Get Ebola from a Bowling Ball?” answers its own question with a resounding no:

If someone left blood, vomit or feces on a bowling ball, and the next person to touch it did not even notice, and then put his fingers into his eyes, nose or mouth, it might be possible. But, the Ebola virus does not normally build up to high levels in saliva or mucus until very late in the disease—several days after the initial fever sets in—and it is unlikely that someone that ill would have just gone bowling.

What spreads in situations like this isn’t the virus, but news of the virus. If you were on social media last night you saw it unfold in real time: the announcement that Spencer was being tested for Ebola a day after going bowling in Williamsburg, the realization that there are only two places with lanes in the Brooklyn neighborhood, the revelation that the Gutter was closing while Brooklyn Bowl was staying open as usual—then, finally, the announcement that the doctor did indeed have Ebola, at which point all the headlines could change from “Suspected Ebola Patient” to “CONFIRMED EBOLA PATIENT!”

Naturally, the press has been reporting the shit out of this, though beyond the bare facts of Spencer’s activities in the last week there’s not much to say. New York magazine interviewed a friend of his who described him as “really bubbly and outgoing,” a good guy who “would tackle whatever comes his way”; Mashable drew up a little map showing all the places Spencer had been since his return to the city. There’s a palpable hunger for more nuggets of information about this story—this morning, a cluster of camera crews were stationed outside of the Gutter, either awaiting an employee’s arrival or simply snagging B-roll of the closed and shuttered storefront.

Photo by author

Despite the media frenzy, most outlets have been responsible about not descending into alarmist hysteria. The exception, of course, is the Daily Mail, which reported that “Ebola panic is swarming New York City” and that Spencer had “passed through vast swathes of city with deadly virus.” The publication’s proof of this panic was a few scattered tweets from random people. In reality, no one is stockpiling food or running through the streets screaming. The city has been preparing for an Ebola case for quite some time now, and New Yorkers have certainly been through more terrifying and bizarre things in the last decade and a half than a single sick man. That is to say: Don’t worry about us, mom. We’ll be fine.

Other than Spencer and the four people in quarantine, the only real victims of this “outbreak” have been the Gutter (which we haven’t been able to reach yet) and Goodnight Records and the bands that were supposed to play the divey bowling alley last night.

Keith Vogelsong, the label co-founder, was scrambling to find a last-minute alternative venue when we spoke to him, but didn’t sound too hopeful—it’s CMJ and the whole city is pretty much booked.

“We had over RSVPs, it was going to be a good night,” he said. “It really sucks.”

Reporting was contributed by Matt Taylor.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.