Craig Spencer, 33, a doctor who lives in the Harlem neighborhood of the city, was taken to hospital in New York on Thursday after displaying symptoms consistent with those caused by Ebola, including a fever of 100.3F (38C) – lower than the 103F (39.5C) that was initial reported by health officials.
A preliminary test on Thursday confirmed that Spencer, who arrived back in New York from Guinea on 17 October, has the virus. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has sent a team to New York City to assist city and state officials in the response, will carry out a further test to confirm the result.
Officials told a press conference at Bellevue hospital on Thursday that they were monitoring four people with whom Spencer had contact. His fiancée, Morgan Dixon, and two friends had been quarantined, while the fourth person, a taxi driver, was not considered to be at risk.
Spencer took several trips on the New York subway in the past week, visited the Gutter bowling alley in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn on Wednesday night and took an Uber cab, all before he began to display symptoms, officials said.
He began to feel feverish on Thursday between 10am and 11am. He contacted Doctors Without Borders, the organisation with which he had been working in Africa, which in turn contacted the New York department of health. Officials organised for him to be transported to Bellevue hospital in the city, a designated site for Ebola patients, under strictly controlled conditions.
“I know the word Ebola right now can spread fear just by the sound of the word,” said New York state governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference. “Ebola is not an airborne illness, it is contracted when a person is extremely ill and symptomatic.”
Officials urged residents of New York not to panic, and drew a comparison with the response to an outbreak in Dallas, Texas, where the city’s principal hospital bungled its initial contacts with an Ebola patient who later died, Thomas Duncan.
“I know it’s a frightening situation, I know when you watched it on the news and it was about Dallas it was frightening; that it’s here in New York is more frightening,” Cuomo said. “New York is a dense place, a lot of people are on top of each other. But the more facts you know, the less frightening the situation is.”
Spencer’s apartment in Harlem was cordoned off on Thursday night, and health officials were on the scene, giving out information to residents. His fiancée was being monitored in a separate quarantine ward at Bellevue hospital. A team of epidemiologists – referred to by mayor Bill de Blasio at the press conference as “medical detectives” – were questioning Spencer’s contacts and using information from his Metrocard, which would give details of his subway travel, and credit cards.
Doctors Without Borders, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, said Spencer had acted in accordance with its guidelines for returning field workers.
“A person in New York City, who recently worked with Doctors Without Borders in one of the Ebola-affected countries in west Africa, notified our office this morning to report having developed a fever,” it said in a statement.
Uber confirmed that one of its drivers had transported Spencer on Wednesday evening. The CDC and the New York department of health assured the company that its driver was unlikely to catch the disease. “We have communicated this to the driver, and the [New York department of health] medical team met with the driver in person, assuring him that he is not at risk. Our thoughts are with the patient and his loved ones.”
Spencer’s public Facebook page, which has since been taken down, showed a photo of him dated 18 September wearing protective gear announcing he was heading to Guinea with Doctors Without Borders. It showed him checking into a location in Brussels on 16 October.
His LinkedIn profile identified him as a fellow of international emergency medicine at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian hospital.
New York Presbyterian hospital released a statement in which it did not identify Spencer by name but called the patient “a dedicated humanitarian on the staff of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University medical center who went to an area of medical crisis to help a desperately underserved population”.
It said he has not returned to work at the hospital or seen any patients since returning from west Africa, where more than more than 4,500 people have died since the current outbreak began.
Officials have attempted to reassure New Yorkers that the city and state are safe. City health officials repeated that Ebola is difficult to contract, since people must come into direct contact with body fluids of an infected and symptomatic person.
Many fears about the disease have swirled around New York’s status as a transport hub. Airports in the metropolitan area process most of the of the passengers arriving in the US from west Africa every day. John F Kennedy international airport and Newark, New Jersey’s airport are among only five in the US permitted to accept passengers from the worst-affected countries – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Starting on Monday, passengers from these countries will be monitored for 21 days after arriving in the US.
As part of the New York governor’s Ebola preparedness plan, two ambulances are regularly stationed at JFK and Newark airports, the city’s transit authority was provided with protective gear and training, and unannounced drills are being conducted at airports, college campuses and in subways. The governor designated eight hospitals in the state to handle Ebola patients, including Bellevue.
To ease healthcare workers’ fears about the disease, New York City held an Ebola educational session on Tuesday.
Barack Obama had spoken by telephone with both Cuomo and De Blasio about the positive test, the White House said, and discussed the deployment of officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some CDC officials were already in New York and an additional response team would be there by late Thursday night.
By: Jessica Glenza and Nicky Woolf