Last Wednesday, October 8, I picked up a copy of the weekly Princeton Town Topics to learn that among the many prominent residents of the township is Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News’ Chief Medical Editor. The story last week was that she had been exposed to Ebola while on assignment in Liberia. This morning’s headline read “Snyderman Apologizes for Quarantine Breach.” Even though this story broke last Friday through a local online news site http://planetprinceton.com, I had not seen it because it had not appeared in my usual news sources of the NYT, NPR, and PBS. While I’m worried about the spread of Ebola, I don’t obsessively search for the latest news. If I had attended Monday evening’s township council meeting, I would have heard much discussion of this incident involving flouting of our public health director. Since I have attended too many municipal council meetings in my lifetime, I don’t attend Princeton’s. Hence my ignorance of this story bringing Ebola close to home.
Apparently Dr. Snyderman had agreed to a voluntary 21 day quarantine for herself and her crew because their camera man had contracted Ebola on their trip. Last Thursday the local reporter, acting on a tip, caught Snyderman parked in car outside a restaurant in nearby Hopewell while one of her group went in to pick up take-out. Over the weekend Twitter and other online forums exploded in anger at her “arrogance.” The apology that Brian Williams read on the Nightly News on Monday just added fuel to the fire. In the first place, Dr. Snyderman did not acknowledge her own individual behavior. The so-called apology only mentioned that “members of our group violated” the quarantine. Secondly, the statement conveyed an arrogant “doctor knows best” attitude in claiming that she “knew” she wasn’t contagious. Whether that was true or not, the statement ended with a dismissive regret about “the concerns this episode caused,” but not about her behavior.
This statement indicates that Nancy Snyderman, Brian Williams, and NBC don’t get it. The danger of Nancy Snyderman’s violation of quarantine is not that she exposed others to the Ebola virus. Rather, she is setting a bad example for all of her viewers by putting herself above the procedures public health authorities are using to control the spread of Ebola.
Her violation of quarantine is actually more egregious because the quarantine was voluntary. She shows people that she does not believe that she should keep her word. Even mandatory quarantine still involves keeping the social commitment to respect the law. If our social commitments break down and it’s every person for themselves in the face of the Ebola threat, then Ebola will spread even more rapidly and never be contained.
As her employer, NBC News needs to demonstrate its commitment to keeping faith with our fellow citizens and fellow humans, even or especially if we think we know best. NBC News needs to demonstrate this commitment by disciplining Nancy Snyderman, even firing her. If everyone can just do what they think is right regardless of what the public health authorities say, we are in grave danger. There need to be consequences for violating the orders and especially the trust of public health authorities.
On a broader societal level, Nancy Snyderman’s disregard for public health authorities has provided ammunition to the people who oppose vaccination of children to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Apparently previous broadcasts by Nancy Snyderman argued against the myths that vaccination causes autism and in favor of providing herd immunity through mass vaccination. Now I see Tweets from the anti-vaccination camp calling Snyderman “hypocritical” and “arrogant” for ignoring the same public health authorities that she has told them to obey. One Tweet began “do as I say ….”
There was no little smugness in the early news coverage of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Stories of health workers being stoned when they went into affected neighborhoods to educate and publicize guidelines to slow the spread of the disease. Nancy Snyderman’s behavior and the problems associated with the case in Dallas tell Americans loudly and clearly that we have nothing to be smug about. We will be in graver danger if we all don’t start remembering that we are a community and that what one of us does can, and usually does, affect the others.
I can empathize with the predicaments of public health authorities at all levels—national, state, and local. My baptism of fire as an administrator for a small New Jersey town occurred when there was a flash flood one afternoon just as rush hour started. I was working in Highlands Borough, a small town of 5,000 in ½ square mile area. The main part of the town lies at the bottom of a very steep slope along the shore of the Raritan Bay, across from Sandy Hook. State Highway 36 runs across the town about 1/3 of the way up the slope. Over the years, sand, grit, rocks and gravel from up the slope and off of Highway 36 had scoured out the bottom of a major drainage pipe (about 6 ft. in diameter) that ran down to the bay. One weekday afternoon during a flash thunderstorm, the pipe finally gave out. Instead of being carried out to the bay, the deluge of water burst out of the pipe and flooded the intersection of the main street in town with the road that carried most traffic entering town from the east.
In such a small town there were usually no more than 2 or 3 police officers on the road at any one time. We had a small public works department that was just going home for the day when the flood hit. A public works foreman called me at my office about five blocks away to tell me about the problem. Public works knew what to do about a flood, but they could not stop cars from coming down the hill and then getting stuck in the flood. We put up barricades. Cars drove around the barricades. I stood in the main road entering town to tell cars not to proceed. They just went around me. I put a police sergeant with a police car and flashing lights to stop traffic. They just drove around him. Finally, the traffic jam was so bad because of all the stalled cars at the bottom of the hill that traffic had to stop.
It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my career in public service. I used to joke about not getting in the way of someone driving home from work, but this was ridiculous. People just didn’t care what uniformed or civilian public servants told them. They knew only this way home and they were not going to let a little thing like orders from lawful authority get in the way of their journey.
If this attitude prevails in our confrontation with Ebola in this country, I truly fear that the immovable force of nature will not result in a few stalled cars, but in many deaths.