Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Doctor With Ebola In Isolation At New York Hospital


I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.


And I'm David Greene in New York City, which now has its first confirmed case of Ebola. A doctor who was treating patients in West Africa has developed the disease after returning home. Craig Spencer, who was working with Doctors Without Borders, is now in isolation at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. This is the fourth case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. And we want to talk about this with NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, good morning.


GREENE: So what can you tell us about Dr. Spencer?

HARRIS: Well, Dr. Spencer is a 33-year-old emergency room doctor who works at the New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center. He went to West Africa with Doctors Without Borders earlier this month to help address the huge humanitarian crisis there and got back a week ago. The hospital where he works says he has not come back to work since - or seen any patients since he returned.

But he started feeling a bit off on Tuesday and developed a high fever yesterday. New York City Fire Department was warned that he was at high risk of Ebola, so they picked him up in an ambulance with a crew that was especially trained to deal with this dangerous infection and took him to a specially prepared ward at Bellevue Hospital.

GREENE: OK, so he's in isolation now, but, you know, I've spent the last day or so in this city, New York, and, I mean, you can't help but be reminded how populace it is...


GREENE: ...The most populous city in the United States. Does that make it sort of more of a concern that this disease could spread if he had contact with anyone?

HARRIS: Well, health officials have been doing their best to reassure residents that the risk to the general public is almost nil. Here's New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference last night.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We want to state at the outset, there is no reason for New Yorkers to be alarmed. Ebola is an extremely hard disease to contract. It is transmitted only through contact with an infected person's blood or other bodily fluids - not through casual contact.

HARRIS: And people with Ebola can't spread the disease until they're actually showing symptoms themselves, so it's really only the last day or two that's a potential concern.

GREENE: All right, so an important window of time you mentioned there. They say that the risk is very low, but what exactly was Dr. Spencer doing in New York City since he returned? And you say it's the last day or two that could be of a concern. Who might be at risk if there is a risk?

HARRIS: Well, health officials have been tracking his movements. They said on Wednesday, the day before he got his fever, he took a jog. He rode the subway a couple of lines. He took a cab and went to a bowling alley in Brooklyn. And they've actually closed that bowling alley out of an abundance of caution to give it a thorough cleaning. Although again, they say the risk is extremely small that there's any hazard at that bowling alley. They did ask his fiancee to be quarantined along with a couple of friends.

GREENE: So when we saw this disease spread in the United States in Texas, Richard, I mean, two of the previous cases of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. among nurses who were taking care of another patient. Is that what might be the risk here in New York?

HARRIS: That is the highest risk. That's always a risk. But Bellevue Hospital is apparently much better prepared to handle this Ebola case than the hospital in Dallas was. They have an isolation ward that's set up. They've actually been practicing this, and they've upgraded their standards, so the risk can be kept to a minimum. And let's hope that that's what they'll do at Bellevue.

GREENE: We've heard so much about how this disease kills more people than people who actually can survive it. Do we know the prognosis for Dr. Spencer at this point?

HARRIS: Well, as you say, Ebola is very deadly in Africa. But people treated in the United States have actually fared much better. Of the eight previous cases treated here - and most of them contracted the disease in West Africa - seven people have survived and one has died. So the odds of his survival are actually pretty good, even though every case is, of course, different.

GREENE: And one other thing to mention. Another West African nation, Mali, has now reported its first case of Ebola. What do we know about that situation?

HARRIS: Well, apparently a young child with the disease came into that West African nation carrying the illness. The World Health Organization's been notified. It's been identified; that's the good thing. They've been mobilized to help identify the patient's contacts. And they've started to track them down to help stop the disease from spreading because you may recall that both Senegal and Nigeria have had sporadic cases, but they have managed to prevent the disease there from becoming a serious outbreak from spreading too clearly. So clearly, catching it early is the key to controlling this disease and that's what they're trying to do right now in Mali.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris about the first confirmed case of Ebola here in New York City. Richard, thanks a lot.

HARRIS: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.