BOB: Two months after Dr. Craig Spencer checked out of Bellevue Hospital, after being declared Ebola-free, he’s still dealing with the after-effects -- not of the disease, but of the media coverage. You may recall him as the Ebola doctor who went bowling in Brooklyn...what a legacy. When he was released he said he’d never speak to the media again, but recently, he did speak with WNYC’s Mary Harris to talk about being at the center of a national panic.
HARRIS: From the first moments emergency responders arrived at Craig Spencer's apartment to take him to Bellevue Hospital, it was clear just how scared New Yorkers were of Ebola spreading in this city.
CRAIG SPENCER: I felt -- other than having a fever and feeling a little tired I felt fine, and I was looking down out of the window as they struggled to get in.
HARRIS: His buzzer was broken.
CRAIG SPENCER I offered to walk down or throw the keys out – do anything I could to help them get up...
HARRIS: Instead they took his front door off its hinges.
CRAIG SPENCER ...they eventually got up and just put me on a stretcher
HARRIS: When he noticed his fever, he texted his friend, Tim Jagatic. Jagatic is also a doctor. He’s the person who convinced Spencer to go to West Africa in the first place.
TIM JAGATIC: Half an hour later I just decided to go online, and sure enough cnn.com is already writing that there is a doctor who came back from Guinea, is being sent to the hospital with suspicious signs of Ebola, and I’m like “Oh lord… here we go.”
CLIP: And a Fox News Alert to begin: the deadly Ebola virus confirmed in America’s largest city...
CLIP: Another Ebola case on US soil, this time in the largest city in the country...
CLIP: New York and the nation on alert tonight over Ebola.
CLIP: How quickly could the deadly virus spread in a densely populated urban area?
HARRIS: A single case of Ebola in New York City sparked a race to reveal every detail of one man’s exposure.
CLIP: : A doctor who put himself in harm’s way…
CLIP: : About two or three days ago he started feeling ill, and this morning he developed a fever of 103...
CLIP: : The patient had been on the subway, in a bowling alley, with friends...
HARRIS: Spencer’s parents learned about their son’s illness from a television producer.
TIM JAGATIC: They were just like, “WHAT is going on? We’re getting phone calls from cnn, abc, CBC CBS - you name the acronym, they’re calling us.”
HARRIS: For Spencer there was no way to control the story. And he knew he was about to become a giant distraction.
CRAIG SPENCER: I knew that unfortunately this was going to eat up a lot more interest and a lot more prime time news shows than the fact that while I was in the hospital - the whole time I was in the hospital - was when the outbreak was at its worst.
HARRIS: At first, Spencer didn’t have time to see what the media was saying about him. The hospital swapped out his phone so he could avoid media calls during treatment. Plus, the TV was broken in his isolation unit. But then, he started reading.
CRAIG SPENCER: People thought that I should be – I forget what the exact tweet was –but tried for manslaughter. To this day I have yet to see anything about my illness or my treatment, anything in the media that has been 100% factual – everything that I’ve seen has been either partly wrong or completely wrong.
HARRIS: From small, seemingly insignificant details--what bands he liked, or reports that he annoyed his nurses with a banjo he’d brought from home, when it was in fact the hospital that had given him the banjo--to more serious mistakes, like reports he had a 103 degree fever when it was actually 100.3, or reports that he lied to the Department of Health about his whereabouts the day he came down with a fever.
But his bigger concern now is how public fear turned into political action.
CRAIG SPENCER: What happened after my sickness was likely for many politicians a convenient chance to appear presidential - and i’m afraid that what happened was we forsake public health principles at the expense of political expediency
HARRIS: New York, New Jersey, and California all announced new quarantine policies for health care workers after Spencer’s diagnosis.
Christie: New Jersey’s Department of Health has made the determination that a legal quarantine order should be issued…
Cuomo: Depending on the risk level, a person could require mandatory 21 day quarantine.
LES ROBERTS: Please keep in mind, that I am watching this from the perspective of Sierra Leone.
HARRIS: Doctor Les Roberts taught Spencer at Columbia, and was doing research in West Africa when Spencer got sick.
LES ROBERTS: Every morning, where I stayed in Sierra Leone, as I went to breakfast there was a big television with CNN on - and so there was a lot of coverage about the hype in New York and then in particular the quarantine - and my European colleagues, they just couldn’t believe what they were seeing - it seemed so impossible. And so here I am listening to Governor Cuomo -- and I’m sharing an office with a doctor from England, and just as the Governor is announcing this, he’s going home on a Thursday to teach medical students on Friday and Saturday, and he’s flying back on Sunday to be at work on Monday. Even the Sierra Leoneans were laughing at us… and they took this pretty seriously.
HARRIS: Back in New York, Pierre Rollin, the top Ebola expert at the CDC, had flown in to oversee Spencer’s care at Bellevue. He says even the quarantine of close relatives of Ebola victims, like Spencer’s fiancee, Morgan Dixon, were unwarranted.
PIERRE ROLLIN: It doesn’t make any sense to quarantine; what makes sense is to follow them every day.
HARRIS: I reached him in Geneva, at a WHO conference on Ebola.
PIERRE ROLLIN: Even if you can diagnose the virus on the first day of fever, it’s very unlikely that they will be able to transmit the disease.
HARRIS: He says that an ill informed national conversation forced people into quarantine.
ROLLIN: In Africa people believe in a lot of witchcraft and in the US that is replaced by politics.
LES ROBERTS: I think there is a natural tendency when a health problem is new to be terrified by it.
HARRIS: This is Les Roberts again.
LES ROBERTS: And so unfortunately, the Craig event raised the terror to science ratio [Laughs]. Few americans remember that back in the 1980s Americans felt those who were HIV positive should be tattooed in some visible place so you could know when that deadly risk was coming near you.
HARRIS: A poll form the LA Times in 1987 found that 29% of Americans favored that tattoo idea. Spencer feels like he’ll wear a version of that tattoo for the rest of his life. And sometimes, that’s fine.
SPENCER: I’ve had patients, one or two that recognize me, that just looked up in the middle of an exam, just started crying, and hugged me - and were just so supportive and appreciative.
HARRIS: Other days, he worries that his experience reveals just how easy it is to spread public health panic.
SPENCER I’m very afraid that what we did in this situation has set a precedent that allowed politicians to make public health policies when they were not qualified to do so -- It undermines our ability to respond to the Ebola epidemic, which is still happening.
HARRIS: In the past month, there have been more than 478 confirmed cases of Ebola in West Africa, and none in the United States. For On the Media, I’m Mary Harris.