MTA seeks to reassure subway riders after first Ebola diagnosis in New York

New York officials said the city's first Ebola patient rode the A, 1, and L lines before testing positive for the virus.

Dr. Craig Spencer rode subway lines including the A before testing positive for Ebola.
Dr. Craig Spencer rode subway lines including the A before testing positive for Ebola.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to reassure passengers that the subway is safe after officials reported that the city’s first Ebola patient rode the A, 1, and L lines before testing positive for the virus.

Dr. Craig Spencer, who had been working for Doctors Without Borders, was diagnosed with the virus and quarantined in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital late Thursday, less than a week after returning from Guinea. City officials said Spencer rode the subway, went to a bowling alley, and rode in an Uber car before going into isolation.

On Friday, the MTA issued a press release and shared information about the case on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"For something like this, where we are trying to get the message out as widely as possible for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who follow us on Twitter and Facebook, these platforms are a very effective way for us to get that message out directly," said Adam Lisberg, external communications director at the MTA.

In a statement, the MTA noted that subway and health officials believe there is no risk of other subway passengers or MTA employees contracting the virus. Ebola is spread through contract with the bodily fluids of a contagious person, and the virus cannot live for more than a few hours on hard surfaces, the statement explained.

"There is no indication the patient was contagious when he rode the subway," the MTA added. "There is no indication he emitted any bodily fluids on the subway. There were no reports of bodily fluids on any of the subway lines he rode."

The MTA also went into detail about its protocols for cleaning potentially infectious waste such as bodily fluids from anywhere in the mass transit network.

"On the one hand, all of the medical experts have been very clear that once they knew the facts of [Spencer’s] exposure and his travel patterns and when he became symptomatic that there was no risk to anybody who rode the subways," Lisberg said. "On the other hand, everybody who rides the subways, which is up to six million people some days, is concerned and worried to various degrees."

To contend with these worries, the MTA’s aim is to communicate with riders what the experts are saying, provide them with facts, and explain why there is no cause for concern, Lisberg said.

He added that reporters who have been covering Ebola in relation to public transport have mostly been "responsible and very understanding" that there is no reason that subway riders should be affected.

To communicate about the situation with its 65,000 staffers, the MTA has posted updates on internal computer networks and sent memos via email, Lisberg said. For employees such as operating personnel who do not frequently check email or use the Internet, the MTA is reaching out through communications in crew areas, he added.

The MTA has not hired a crisis PR firm to assist with this situation.

"We have handled far worse crises than this by ourselves," Lisberg said.

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