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 who he may have brushed against while strolling along the High Line is close to impossible. “You’ll never figure out who all 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.)