On Thursday night, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that Dr. Craig Spencer — who recently returned from West Africa after working with Doctors Without Borders — was the first patient to test positive for Ebola in New York City. Spencer had been treating Ebola patients in Guinea before returning to the U.S. on October 17. It’s true that New York is a city of close quarters, but it’s not a time to panic. Here are 12 reasons health workers are — and you should be — calm about the viral infection.
1. You need to be symptomatic to transmit Ebola symptoms.
The first thing to know is that it’s very, very hard to contract Ebola in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person cannot transmit the disease unless they have already started showing symptoms — which means they must be running a fever, vomiting, coughing, or secreting blood during the time you were into contact with them. This would be pretty rare, unless you’re a healthcare worker.
2. Craig Spencer wasn’t symptomatic while out in public.
Spencer may have ridden the subway, bowled in Brooklyn, and caught an Uber back into Manhattan, but the city’s public health officials have announced Spencer did not have a fever that night. He also wasn’t vomiting, coughing or secreting blood while out and about in the city — and so “did not have a stage of disease that creates a risk of contagiousness on the subway,” New York City health commissioner Mary Travis Bassett said in the news conference.
3. In fact, Spencer reported his symptoms as soon as he felt them on Thursday morning.
Spencer only started to feel sick on Thursday morning when he reported a fever of 100.3 degrees. And as a trained doctor who cared for those with Ebola in West Africa, he knew that was exactly when he should quarantine himself to risk spreading the disease. Spencer was picked up by emergency medical workers from his apartment and taken directly to Bellevue Hospital after his call, leaving little time for any Ebola transmission to others. It’s important that patients be quarantined as soon as possible since the disease grows more contagious as the person gets sicker. Note that Spencer had also been monitoring his health and checking his temperature twice a day since he returned from Guinea, as per the Doctors Without Borders protocol.
4. Even if you interacted with Spencer, Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids.
Unlike the flu, Ebola isn’t airborne, which means it can’t be transmitted through the air. You can only get Ebola from direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids — their blood, feces or vomit (and in some cases, urine or saliva) — would have to find its way into your own body. So if an infected person sneezes, that sneeze can only transmit the virus if that saliva, while harboring the virus, gets into your mouth, nose, eyes, etc. Officials have noted that Spencer’s girlfriend and friends have been quarantined.
5. So you can’t get Ebola through riding the subway.
Simply riding in the same subway car as Spencer would not put you at risk for Ebola. For that to happen, an infected person would have to vomit or cough out fluid, which you then would have to touch and ingest into your body. In 2007, a study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases swabbed 31 surfaces in an active Ugandan Ebola ward — surfaces like bed frames, medical tools and spit bowls — and did not find the virus in any of the samples.
6. Nor from a bowling ball.
Spencer may have handled several bowling balls on Wednesday night, but again, unless there was blood, vomit or feces on any surfaces, the risk of transmission is highly unlikely. Ebola also doesn’t live for long on surfaces — instead, it survives in fluids, like blood.
7. In the worst case scenario, if you follow the precautions you would take to avoid any flu or cold, you probably have nothing to worry about.
Common sense dictates you wouldn’t touch your face after handling a subway pole in any other circumstance. So as long as you keep following the same precautions you should already be taking to avoid the flu or any illness you’re most likely covered. That means washing your hands routinely, avoiding touching your face, maintaining good overall cleanliness, and avoiding contact with the fluids of someone you know is sick.
8. You’re more likely to get in a plane crash than contract Ebola in the U.S.
Craig Spencer, Nina Pham (who has since recovered) and Amber Vinson were all healthcare workers who had extremely close contact with the bodily fluids of someone with Ebola. And Thomas Duncan — the very first U.S. Ebola patient — had helped a woman with Ebola in Liberia. This kind of direct interaction is why they had a high risk of contracting the virus. Healthcare workers — not the public — are at the highest risk because they work on the frontline. And the CDC has reiterated that a connection to West African travel matters, so if you’re feeling ill but have not traveled to Uganda, Guinea, or Liberia recently, you most likely don’t have Ebola.
9. Even if more cases are reported, NYC hospitals are prepared.
New York City health officials have said they are prepared for Ebola, with the advantage of having learned from the situation in Dallas. Since the first confirmed cases of Ebola in Americans in July, the city has been going through drills, Dr. Marc Napp, senior VP at Mount Sinai Health System told Time. It also has a new system: all patients with an Ebola risk will be taken to a single location — Bellevue — for care. That helps to isolate the virus and prevent an epidemic or accidental infection. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called Bellevue “Ebola-ready” complete with isolation units and a carefully trained staff. Not to mention the city has been through several public health scares before, including H1N1, anthrax, and small pox.
10. There are no signs Ebola has mutated.
At an October congressional hearing in which he was grilled about the virus, CDC director Thomas Frieden said a large outbreak in the U.S. would be unlikely, “barring a mutation.” An Ebola mutation in the U.S. would be dangerous because this strain of the disease could possibly change to become airborne or transmissible by any other way besides bodily fluid. But Frieden added that the CDC has seen “very little change in the virus” and after Nina Pham contracted the disease, the CDC began looking closely for dangerous mutations and have found none yet.
11. People have recovered from Ebola.
The National Institute of Health announced today that Nina Pham — who contracted the disease after caring for Duncan in Dallas — is now Ebola-free. As large as the death rate in West Africa has been (60 to 90 percent), there have been recoveries both there and in the U.S. Two American missionaries who recently returned from West Africa — including Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol — were able to recover. Brantley has given blood to two Americans who contracted the disease in Africa and have since recovered (physician Rick Sacra and cameraman Ashoka Mukpo) and also donated to Pham. Brantley himself recovered after receiving blood from a 14-year old Ebola survivor in Africa. A study funded by the European Commission is looking to test the effectiveness of transferring blood for Ebola patients.