Dr. Craig Spencer, the last remaining U.S. patient with Ebola, was released from Bellevue Hospital in New York City Tuesday with plenty of hugs and congratulations.
Spencer, 33, was infected with Ebola while working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) in Guinea.
“Today I am healthy and no longer infectious,” Spencer told a cheering crowd gathered in the lobby of the landmark hospital where he was treated for 19 days.
"It is a good feeling to hug a hero and we have a hero here in our midst," Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference as he embraced Spencer.
"Dr. Spencer is Ebola-free, and New York City is Ebola-free."
In a news conference punctuated with frequent hugs, Spencer, de Blasio and others stressed that public health measures worked and Ebola did not spread in New York as it has in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“My recovery from Ebola speaks to the effectiveness of the protocols in place for health staff returning from West Africa at the time of my infection,” Spencer said. “I am a living example of how those protocols work, and of how early detection and isolation is critical to both surviving Ebola and ensuring that it is not transmitted to others.”
Spencer asked for privacy and said he would not be speaking again publicly. His fiancée remains in quarantine until Friday; two friends are undergoing direct monitoring until then to make sure none of them develops an infection. About 100 medical staff who cared for Spencer will now be monitored for the 21-day incubation period.
“While my case has garnered international attention, it is important to remember that my infection represents but a fraction of the more than 13,000 reported cases to date in West Africa -- the center of the outbreak, where families are being torn apart and communities destroyed,” Spencer said.
Spencer worked in Guinea's city of Gueckedou for five weeks, treating Ebola patients. "During this time, I cried as I held children who were not strong enough to survive the virus," he said. "But I also experienced immense joy when patients I treated were cured and invited me into their family as a brother upon discharge. Within a week of my diagnosis, many of these same patients called my personal phone to wish me well and ask if there was any way they could contribute to my care."
Spencer returned to his New York apartment with his parents.
The U.S. is now free of Ebola cases, although Centers for Disease Control and prevention director Dr. Thomas Frieden stresses that so long as there’s an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the rest of the world risks having more cases. CDC and Customs and Border Patrol have set up strict protocols for travelers entering the United States from affected countries including Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, but so far say no one infected with the virus has been caught by the screening.
Only two people have been infected in the United States. As predicted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other experts, the people at greatest risk were health care workers in close, prolonged contact with a patient who was actively having symptoms.
Spencer and other speakers praised most New Yorkers for not panicking when his illness was reported, and criticized some of the more extreme measures taken by communities when Ebola infected three people in Texas.
"This is a vindication of this country’s health care system. While some were fanning the flames of fear…we in New York City were calmly preparing," said Dr. Ram Raju of New York City Health & Hospitals Corporation, which oversees Bellevue.
"Please join me in turning our attention back to West Africa, and ensuring that medical volunteers and other aid workers do not face stigma and threats upon their return home," Spencer added. "Volunteers need to be supported to help fight this outbreak at its source."
Spencer immediately reported his symptoms when he developed a fever, and warned Bellevue ahead of his arrival. The hospital had been conducting drills for the anticipated arrival of an Ebola patient. The preparations worked, officials said.
"Let's just spread truth and honest information about Ebola," de Blasio said. When Spencer's infection was first reported, media were full of criticism about Spencer's travels around the city on public transportation to restaurants and a bowling alley. There was a lot of public disinfecting, but doctors kept saying Ebola doesn't spread before people have symptoms and is very unlikely to spread on public transport.
Most New Yorkers understood, de Blasio said. "They stayed calm and cool and focused throughout," he said. "People went about their lives. They understood that Ebola is very difficult to contract."
As they spoke, another MSF volunteer, nurse Kaci Hickox, and her boyfriend Ted Wilbur said they'd be leaving Fort Kent, where Wilbur attended nursing school. Hickox fought a very public battle over what she called unfair and medically unnecessary quarantine measures imposed on her after her return from West Africa last month. She was never infected, and Wilbur was asked to stay away from his nursing school.
"Ted never posed a threat to his school and I wish his school had stood by and educated their students and enforced a no-tolerance policy," Hickox told reporters. "But they didn’t, unfortunately, and so you know he has chosen not to be part of an institution that would react in such a way."