New York’s first confirmed case of Ebola, Dr. Craig Spencer, has dominated news headlines since he was taken to Bellevue Hospital October 23. Many New Yorkers, including co-op board members, are nervous – if not scared – and wondering what steps to take should one of their neighbors submit themselves to a voluntary quarantine.
Before you run out to buy supplies that won’t really help, here are some tips on how boards should handle a case of potential Ebola in their buildings.
Only four people in the United States have been diagnosed with Ebola: three in Dallas and Dr. Spencer in New York. The first thing concerned board members should do is educate themselves about the disease and its transmission.
People are not contagious until they develop symptoms, and even then, you would have to have direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids to be put at risk. Ebola is not spread through the air.
WCBS-TVs medical reporter Dr. Max Gomez explained that Spencer “would have had to bleed or vomit to have any chance of spreading the virus – and then someone would have had to touch the bodily fluid and rub it into an open sore or his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.”
Boards should also pass along to its residents the facts about Ebola, and let everyone know if someone in the building is in quarantine. Stuart Saft, a partner at Holland & Knight, agrees. “Boards should contact unit-owners to let them know [that someone in the building is going into voluntary quarantine], and the building should contact its insurance carrier, just in case a claim is made later.”
Risk Versus Perceived Risk
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined four risk groups, from high to low. People in the highest risk category are asked to restrict their travel and public activities and avoid close contact with people, even if they aren’t sick. The CDC defines close contact as “being within three feet of other people.”
This means that those in high-risk groups who are not displaying any symptoms can leave their apartments to go on “solitary jogs” or to get their mail and throw out their garbage, provided they are free of symptoms and staying at least three feet away from other people.
This poses a potential problem with nervous neighbors. While it is true that a quarantined person isn’t necessarily sick, let alone contagious, it doesn’t keep other residents from perceiving that person as a risk.
Still, board members do not have the authority to force anyone in quarantine to remain in his or her apartment. Alex Kuffel, an executive at Pride Property Management, points out that “unless directed by properly informed authorities, boards, building staff members, and managing agents must refrain from making assessments or issuing directives, since doing so could not only provide misinformation but could also create an unnecessary legal dilemma.”
Kuffel adds: “In serious health situations, like the one presented by the Ebola virus, managers and boards must defer to the instructions of city, state, and federal officials and avoid making determinations that we have neither the resources for nor the jurisdiction to dictate.”
Kuffel also points out that many buildings simply aren’t designed for quarantine. “Quarantining should only be done in a facility that can ensure safe evacuation should the need arise,” he says. If a person who is quarantined in an apartment is to stay inside for 21 days (the disease’s longest possible incubation period), what happens if an emergency, such as a fire, requires that person to evacuate? This is the type
of question that many in the management community are currently addressing as they determine how to guide their boards on this issue.
If a person in quarantine begins to develop symptoms, he or she must immediately notify public health officials and seek medical care at once. At that point, everyone defers to those charged with properly disposing of potentially contaminated materials in the affected apartment.