First Ebola case in New York, but city was well-prepared for it

New York City has been rigorously preparing for a potential Ebola case, so the diagnosis Thursday of a doctor who recently returned from Africa does not appear to have caught the city off-guard.

John Minchillo/AP
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference at Bellevue Hospital to discuss Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders physician who recently returned to the city after treating Ebola patients in West Africa, Thursday in New York. Spencer tested positive for the virus, according to preliminary test results, city officials said Thursday.

When word broke Thursday that a doctor who had just returned from West Africa had tested positive for Ebola – the first diagnosed case in New York City and the fourth on US soil – city and state officials quickly gathered to tell the public that the city’s health system was well prepared and ready to handle the crisis.

Just this week, the city had conducted a massive Ebola training seminar for thousands of health care workers at the Javits Center, a sprawling convention hall in Manhattan.

In addition, the city’s medical workers have been conducting regular drills, including unannounced emergency scenarios, on the procedures required if an Ebola patient is discovered. Workers have been practicing the step-by-step protocols required at the city’s airports and transportation centers – including subway stations – as well as all ambulance and hospital procedures, officials said.

Indeed, the hospital to which the doctor has been taken is equipped with a special isolation unit with four single bedrooms and a medical staff that has been gearing up for weeks to treat patients.

“We want to emphasize that New York City has the world’s strongest public health system, the world’s leading medical experts, and the world’s most advanced medical equipment,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday evening. “We’ve been preparing for months for the threat posed by Ebola, we have clear and strong protocols which are being scrupulously followed and were followed in this instance.”

The doctor, Craig Spencer, returned to his home in New York on Oct. 17 after helping to treat Ebola patients in Guinea with the aid group Doctors Without Borders. He developed symptoms Thursday morning, nearly a week after his return, officials said.

Having been monitoring his health closely, as per current travel protocols, Dr. Spencer quickly notified authorities when he came down with a fever Thursday. A specially-trained medical team then came to his apartment in Manhattan and took him to Bellevue Hospital Center.

Considering that nearly half of all travelers from West Africa to the US pass through New York’s JFK International Airport, New York had recognized the possibility of an Ebola case here.

“The past few weeks, we have been preparing for just this circumstance,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We were hoping that it didn’t happen, but we were also realistic – this is New York, people come through New York, they come through New York’s airports, so we can’t say that this is an unexpected circumstance.”

Governor Cuomo said the city has learned from the mistakes made by a hospital in Dallas, Texas, which initially misdiagnosed Thomas Duncan, who was sent home despite showing symptoms of Ebola, and later died.

Two nurses who treated Mr. Duncan also have been diagnosed with the virus. But authorities traced and quarantined 48 other individuals who were in contact with Duncan after he was released with Ebola symptoms, including four family members who shared his apartment and cared for him while he was ill. All 48 individuals were released from quarantine this week.

“I know the word Ebola right now can spread fear just by the sound of the word,” Cuomo said Thursday. “Ebola is not an airborne illness, it is contracted when a person is extremely ill and symptomatic.”

“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,” he added.

While many Republican leaders and some Democrats are increasingly calling for a travel ban from West African nations experiencing the current Ebola outbreak, health experts and the Obama administration say isolating these nations would only make the outbreak worse and more difficult to contain in the long run.

For one, it would make it more difficult for volunteers like Spencer, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a fellow in international emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, to get to and from the region and provide much-needed aid.

This week, the Department of Homeland Security added new travel restrictions, requiring all flights from Ebola-hit regions to go through five designated US airports, including JFK, where incoming passengers would be subject to screenings. Spencer was subjected to these.

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