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Panic and calls for calm abound after Harlem doctor diagnosed with Ebola

Ebola officially arrived in New York City on Wednesday, October 22, and has remained as a topic of impassioned debate and political drama ever since.

Harlem doctor Craig Spencer, 33 – a Doctors Without Borders volunteer who returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea on October 17 – is now in isolation and being treated at Bellevue Hospital for a fever and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Spencer’s fiancée and three other people are also being monitored, either at Bellevue or under quarantine at their homes, after having possibly come into contact with the patient’s blood or bodily fluids in the days before his symptoms arose.

Spencer’s diagnosis comes less than a day after city health officials and Brooklyn hospital leaders gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall for a public town hall about Ebola and Enterovirus, where they outlined the city’s response plan and answered questions about how people catch Ebola, what’s being done for school safety and how to fight reported stigma against students, health care workers and taxi drivers.

Ebola-infected people are not contagious until symptoms begin to show, up to 21 days after exposure, but usually between eight and10 days, said Dr. Karen Aletha Maybank, assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

“If they are sick enough to be contagious, they are not going to be going onto the subway,” Maybank stated.

“Ebola is fragile,” said Dr. Frank Proscio, president of Doctors Council SEIU. “It dies quickly. Bleach or [concentrated] alcohol wipes can kill it.”

“We don’t need to become armchair doctors, diagnosing neighbors and stigmatizing people,” said Brooklyn Congressmember Yvette Clarke. “Let’s look out for one another. Community equals safety. We can heighten our sensitivity. Don’t let others bash people.”

In the meantime, all hospitals are running preparedness drills and are following safety protocols set forth by the DOHMH and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to ensure health care worker safety.

In addition, the city is conducting outreach to the West African community in Brooklyn and New York via palm cards with Ebola facts to beauty salons and barber shops, noted Maybank. “Now is Phase 2 to outreach all New Yorkers via public service campaigns.”

All health officials present emphasized that Ebola cannot be spread by air, water or food, and can only be spread through direct contact, through broken skin, with an infected person’s blood, vomit, urine, saliva, feces and semen, or with contaminated objects such as needles and syringes. They said the virus cannot survive for long on hard surfaces.

Such statements have calmed many residents, but done little to reassure others, who were alarmed that the infected Spencer went shopping, eating, jogging, subway-riding and bowling at The Gutter in Williamsburg on the night before his 103° fever broke.

The Gutter closed for a few days of disinfecting; Borough President Eric Adams was the first to go bowling there upon its reopening, symbolically declaring it safe for business.

However, on Friday, October 24, Governor Andrew Cuomo – along with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – issued a joint-state mandatory 21-day quarantine in a hospital for anyone returning to the area from the three most-afflicted countries in West Africa: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The mandatory quarantine goes beyond the CDC guidelines of self-quarantine until symptoms appear.

On Sunday, October 26, Cuomo altered the order to allow for home-based quarantine, following reported pressure from the White House and the announcement of a lawsuit filed by quarantined doctor Kaci Hickox in New Jersey for alleged “inhumane” treatment.

New screening protocols have also gone into effect at JFK International Airport.

First, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will ask about passenger travel history and if a person is coming from the three Ebola-afflicted countries, has a fever and/or reports having been exposed to Ebola, the CDC will review the case. Then the state Health Department and city DOHMH will conduct additional screenings. Passengers will then either be taken to the hospital if they have symptoms, or be transported “via private vehicle” to their homes to be quarantined for 21 days, during which they will be monitored twice a day by a health official.

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