Our inept government’s first contact with Ebola on American soil resulted in nearly a thousand people being needlessly put at risk, fear and chaos burning hot in the media, an orgy of finger-pointing, and Democrat hacks claiming that Ebola is spread by Republican budget cuts. We had Ebola scares in the sky, and on the high seas. It lasted for weeks. It ended with our semi-retired President flipping the bird to the American people and installing a political fixer with no medical knowledge as “Ebola Czar.” He proceeded to blow off his first three Ebola meetings at the White House.
And all that came from one guy.
Time for Round Two, as Ebola comes to the Big Apple. The new carrier is a doctor who had just returned from rendering noble service against the deadly disease in Guinea… and somehow decided it would be a good idea to take a taxi and subway trip around New York City, with a fun evening at the bowling alley, the day before his symptoms became impossible to ignore. We can fervently hope there is no actual transmission of Ebola from his misadventures, but the potential exposures are almost incalculable. Once again, the American people look at their best and brightest, and wonder: What the hell are these people thinking? Why are top professionals failing to take the precautions we laymen regard as common sense?
In everything from attitude about the story, to conduct during the crisis, Ebola spotlights the divide between ordinary people and the elite. Unsurprisingly, what seems to be missing from the elite is a sense of humility. The layman knows his knowledge is incomplete, so he treats the unknown threat with great respect; the elite refuses to admit its ignorance or past mistakes, and thus has a more parsimonious definition of what an “abundance of caution” means.
The New York Times reports that Dr. Craig Spencer and three people he came into contact with – his fiancee and two friends – have now been placed in isolation, while a team from the Centers for Disease Control works to confirm the positive Ebola test result obtained by city authorities. (Yes, the CDC now has the rapid-response moon suit team we all assumed they had, before we learned the hard way that CDC officials haven’t been watching the same pandemic horror movies as the rest of us.) For the sake of everyone involved, we may cling to the slim hope that Dr. Spencer’s second round of test results will come back negative, and he just has a regular flu. Otherwise, it’s going to be a nightmare tracking down everyone he came into contact with, right before he became symptomatic:
While officials have said they expected isolated cases of the disease to arrive in New York eventually, and had been preparing for this moment for months, the first case highlighted the challenges involved in containing the virus, especially in a crowded metropolis. Dr. Spencer, 33, had traveled on the A and L subway lines Wednesday night, visited a bowling alley in Williamsburg, and then took a taxi back to Manhattan.
The next morning, he reported having a fever, raising questions about his health while he was out in public. The authorities have interviewed Dr. Spencer several times and are also looking at information from his credit cards and MetroCard to determine his movements.
Health officials initially said that Dr. Spencer had a 103-degree fever when he reported his symptoms to authorities at around 11 a.m. on Thursday. But on Friday, health officials said that was incorrect and that Dr. Spencer reported having a 100.3-degree fever. They said the mistake was because of a transcription error.
Wonderful. Relax, everybody, we got this. Oh, yeah, sorry, we’re not all that good at taking someone’s temperature accurately.
Naturally, the authorities are urging calm, and naturally some people are going to ignore them. What’s worrisome is that the people urging calm are jumping to some unsupported conclusions. They would do better to avoid going into details that might prove inaccurate:
People infected with Ebola cannot spread the disease until they begin to display symptoms, and it cannot be spread through the air. As people become sicker, the viral load in the body builds, and they become increasingly contagious.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news conference at Bellevue on Thursday night, sought to reassure New Yorkers that there was no reason to be alarmed.
???Being on the same subway car or living near a person with Ebola does not in itself put someone at risk,??? he said.
Actually, there are questions about precisely when an Ebola carrier becomes contagious; it’s going to far to claim that they present absolutely zero risk until sometime after they have a raging fever. And while it’s true that “being on the same subway car or living near a person with Ebola does not in itself put someone at risk,” as Mayor de Blasio said, it’s also common sense that being in close quarters with an infected person increases the risk factor enormously. When are the authorities going to figure out that people are not reassured by illogical baby talk? “Do not panic” is not the same thing as “do not be concerned.”
What’s truly baffling about this case is that Spencer wasn’t feeling well during his bowling excursion, but he saw fit to engage in activities that put countless people at risk anyway. The authorities keep chanting that focus-grouped buzz phrase, “abundance of caution” – it came up again during the New York City press conference – but what they actually do is more reasonably described as the bare minimum of caution. How in the world does a trained medical doctor think, “I’m feeling sluggish after getting back from treating patients in the Ebola hot zone, but I think I’ll have a night on the town anyway. Bowling a few frames should make me feel better!”
Dr. Spencer began to feel sluggish on Tuesday but did not develop a fever until Thursday morning, he told the authorities. At 11 a.m., he found that he had a 100.3-degree temperature and alerted the staff of Doctors Without Borders, according to the official.
The staff called the city???s health department, which in turn called the Fire Department.
Emergency medical workers, wearing full personal protective gear, rushed to Dr. Spencer???s apartment, on West 147th Street. He was transported to Bellevue and arrived shortly after 1 p.m.
He was placed in a special isolation unit and is being seen by the designated medical critical care team. Team members wear personal protective equipment with undergarment air ventilation systems.
Bellevue doctors have been preparing to deal with an Ebola patient with numerous drills and tests as well as actual treatment of suspected cases that turned out to be false alarms.
A health care worker at the hospital said that Dr. Spencer seemed very sick, and it was unclear to the medical staff why he had not gone to the hospital earlier, since his fever was high.
Is it really such a complicated notion that those who have close contact with Ebola victims should minimize contact with other people until they’re out of the danger zone? It’s only been 11 days since Dr. Spencer last worked with Ebola patients in Guinea. The New York Post relates a statement from officials on that topic:
At a press conference Thursday night, officials claimed that Spencer had mostly ???stayed at home??? since his return.
???We don???t want to give the impression he self-quarantined, but he did limit his contact,??? said Dr. Mary Travis Bassett, head of the city???s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
???He did attempt to self-isolate,??? she told reporters.
Still, officials conceded that Spencer had also made numerous excursions around the city in the days before he was diagnosed.
That included riding the subway, walking the High Line, taking the Uber car and, on Wednesday night ??? even as he was already feeling fatigued, according to officials ??? taking a three-mile run and spending the evening bowling.
So he “attempted to self-isolate”… and failed? He was overcome by an irresistible compulsion to ride the subway and go bowling? As a result of giving in to that compulsion, the great scramble for containment has begun:
Spencer went to The Gutter, a popular Williamsburg bowling and music venue, sources said.
The bowling alley was shuttered Thursday night, and issued a statement saying: ???We???ve been in constant contact with the Health Department and they have determined that there was no risk to our customers.???
Spencer rode the subway in the past five days, traveling on the A, L and 1 lines, a law enforcement source told The Post.
His stroll along the High Line also involved a meal at a nearby restaurant, sources said.
Spencer also visited Herald Square in his travels around town, sources added.
Spencer did not show up at his job at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where he is a fellow in international emergency medicine, officials there assured.
But investigators weren???t taking any chances, and were at the hospital Thursday night to double-check that he had no contact with patients or staff, sources said.
The NYPD???s Missing Persons Squad is pitching in, looking at Spencer???s MetroCard, credit cards and bank statements to track all his travels and determine if any other locations need to be monitored, sources said.
That sounds prudent, although it’s sad that it is necessary to take such measures to verify Sepncer’s word about his activities over the past few days. That is what an “abundance of caution” looks like, but there must have also been some abundantly tense conversations between Spencer, his colleagues at Doctors Without Borders, and the CDC, once they got him into isolation and implemented emergency protocols to reassure the public, such as incorrectly transcribing his body temperature.
Speaking of which, while city and federal authorities assure us the system is working, it very obviously is not, because the “enhanced screening” for travelers arriving from West Africa involves testing body temperatures at the airport, and Spencer passed that test with flying colors. Trusting him to self-isolate didn’t work, either. Nothing worked. Now we’re just hoping that either his latest screening returned a false positive, or if not, we get lucky and Ebola finds no purchase in a densely-populated city that isn’t exactly the most inhospitable environment for a virus.
His neighbors don’t sound very happy about this “fingers crossed” strategy, as quoted by the New York Post:
Neighbors have seen the couple around town since they arrived home. Dixon even dropped off the couple???s clothes at a dry cleaner on Wednesday.
???I washed his clothes. I???ll be OK, right? It???ll be OK???? worker John Byun, 60, asked The Post.
Another neighbor was concerned about catching the illness after the case was confirmed.
???I???m in a state of shock. I???m nervous about going inside my apartment now,??? said Derick Gordon, 17. ???I???m a little scared about this now because it???s in my building. This just became very real and it???s horrifying.???
Robert Cedano, who works in Spencer???s Harlem building, said he???s concerned about catching the deadly disease.
???It???s worrisome,??? he said. ???I don???t know when he got back. But he???s gone now, so I???m relieved.???
Residents at the building were handed fliers with bullet points on Ebola, including symptoms and how the virus is transmitted.
Hopefully those are better bullet points than the ones Dr. Spencer followed.
Update: The UK Daily Mail shows us what an “abundance of caution” looks like in practice, as NYPD officers are caught casually disposing of their gloves and masks in a public trash can outside Dr. Spencer’s Harlem apartment. “The photos and video, all shot before Spencer’s Ebola was actually confirmed, do not show whether these officers actually entered his building,” the Daily Mail observes. “However, some are suggesting that for the sake of safety – not to mention public sanity – it would have made sense to discard of these masks and gloves and tape in a biohazard bag. Or, at the very least, a trash can not located on a busy city sidewalk.“
Update: Self-isolation appears to be beyond the capability of a trained Ebola doctor, but somehow bridal shop owner Anna Younker, who belatedly realized one of her customers was flying Ebola nurse Amber Vinson. Without the slightest trace of panic, Younker shut down her shop – even though fall is one of her busy seasons – and isolated herself until the danger period has passed. She just did an interview with People Magazine:
For her part, Younker, who self-quarantined after hearing the news, says she’s not scared that she has the disease.
“If I’d seen Amber looking sickly, I would have been more concerned,” she says. “But she gave no signs of not feeling well. That’s why when I found out, I was so surprised.”
Though it seems unlikely that Younker contracted the disease from Vinson, she remains housebound, checking her temperature twice a day for the duration of the virus’s 21-day incubation period.
Still, it’s the stigma of the disease, not Ebola itself, that worries her.
“I had a customer ask me yesterday, ‘Is my dress covered in Ebola?’ ” Younker says. “Someone told me that I should take all the dresses and burn them. Isn’t that crazy?”
Even Younker’s 10-year-old son, who had no contact with Vinson at all, can’t escape the terrible stigma.
“There are parents calling my son’s school saying they don’t want him there,” she says. “It’s tough.”
For now, Younker is keeping him home to ease fellow parents’ minds. As for her store, it’s received a thorough cleaning, but it will remain shuttered for the 21-day period.
Younker hopes that will be enough to give the public peace of mind. “I feel like if I don’t let that pass,” she says, “customers won’t trust us.”
And though Vinson no longer has Ebola, Younker also plans to stay quarantined.
“I am so happy for her and her family,” Younker says of hearing that the nurse is now Ebola-free. “I hope this will ease the minds of all those people who were in contact with Amber, as well as not in direct contact with her.”
Can we ditch Obama’s political henchman and appoint Anna Younker as Ebola Czar? Unlike Ron Klain, she’ll show up for all the meetings. She’ll have to teleconference in until her self-isolation period ends, of course.