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NYC Officials Lied to the Public Last Night. That Was The Right Thing To Do.

Bryan Thomas/Getty Images News

Let’s not beat around the bush here: The authorities in New York clearly lied in their press conference last night about Craig Spencer, the New York physician who contracted Ebola while volunteering for Doctors Without Borders in Guinea.

Among the many accurate pieces of information that Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and city Health Commissioner Mary Bassett disseminated to the public was the following whopper: That Dr. Spencer acted entirely appropriately and responsibly. Since returning home from Africa a little over a week ago, they told us, he’d stayed home from Columbia University Medical Center, where he is employed. He took his own temperature twice a day. He instigated his own hospitalization at the first sign of fever. As Cuomo put it, "He was familiar with the possibility and the circumstances, so he handled himself accordingly”—a sentiment the governor and his colleagues repeated over and over in response to questions from reporters.

This is clearly not true. Despite the fact that Dr. Spencer presented a miniscule risk to anyone around him when he decided to ride the subway, go bowling, and frolic at the High Line Park on Wednesday, he obviously should not have been out and about. His decision to do those things forced the city to shut down and extensively clean the bowling alley in question and dispatch its “medical detectives” all over the city to figure out whom he may have come into contact with. Spencer’s wanderings probably also put a crimp in all the retail establishments along his Wednesday route. And they have generally required the city to manage the suddenly tormented psyches of millions of New Yorkers. It doesn’t seem like asking a guy to hang out in his apartment for a few weeks would have been too much to ask in order to avoid this mess. (On top of which, it’s become our policy in this country to quarantine anyone who had direct contact with an Ebola patient, as Dr. Spencer did repeatedly. Why should someone be exempt from this rule just because the contact happened outside the country?)

So, as I say, we were some lies told last night.

Now, as a general rule, nothing riles up me and my media colleagues more than a mendacious public official. There’s no better way to destroy your credibility in our eyes. There have been a handful of times over the course of my career when I’ve caught a politician or government official or one of their aides lying to me outright, and each time it’s filled me with a righteous rage. Not surprisingly, it’s also led me to hand down a pretty jaundiced verdict on their job performance.

Having said all that, I kinda think Cuomo et al were right to lie last night. As I’ve noted, the big problem these officials faced in the aftermath of the Spencer news was massive public anxiety. That kind of anxiety isn’t just a private emotional problem. It’s a public health problem. Thousands of otherwise able-bodied New Yorkers are going to come down with the flu over the next few weeks. Tens of thousands are going to come down with colds. Hundreds of thousands are probably going to feel sick at some point, even if they’re not. If some non-trivial fraction of these people starts showing up in emergency rooms because they worry they have Ebola when they don’t, then it’s going to overwhelm the city’s public health infrastructure and make it tough to care for people who actually do have serious health problems.1

In this context, publicly calling out Dr. Spencer for his failure to self-quarantine could have turned into its own minor disaster. Cuomo, de Blasio, and Bassett were generally pretty effective: They correctly assured people that it’s very difficult to contract Ebola, that all the relevant protocols were followed once Dr. Spencer came forward with his symptoms, that the city had thoroughly war-gamed this scenario. Had they taken the additional step of criticizing Spencer for not isolating himself beforehand, you can imagine that dominating the headlines, drowning out most of what they said, and generally contributing to the very panic they were trying to defuse. Everyone who’d ridden a subway or used Uber to get around New York on Wednesday would be asking themselves, Well, if he should have been quarantined but wasn’t, how much danger was I exposed to? (The answer, again, is almost certainly none.) Far better to play it cool while, behind the scenes, making sure any health worker who’s recently returned from the affected African countries has a month’s supply of Stouffer’s in his freezer and a complimentary Netflix subscription.

So one cheer for lying, Mr. and Mrs. Public Official. As a general rule, there’s no better way to get on my shit-list. But in this case, I think it’s your only move. 

  1. Granted, the flu can be very serious for young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. I’m not talking about them—those are people who should definitely go to the hospital if they get the flu. I’m talking about the folks who could otherwise recover on their own.