The Paralyzing Uncertainty of Not Knowing Whether You’ll Get Sick

When I was exposed to the Ebola virus, I spent hours in a peculiar kind of panic.

A man holding a newspaper with "Ebola here" as the headline.
Kena Betancur / Getty

When the coronavirus outbreak started making headlines, my first instinct was to avoid all coverage of the epidemic. Trying to separate media hype from valid concern felt too daunting—and too familiar. Six years ago, while bartending in Brooklyn, I was told I might have been exposed to the Ebola virus. For the next few hours, I was suspended in a peculiar kind of panic. Was I unwittingly infecting everyone I came across, both loved ones and strangers? Or was I embarrassingly paranoid? Was I completely fine? Or about to die an agonizing death? As this new coronavirus infects more and more people, I fear that the same paralyzing uncertainty may afflict many of us.

In the fall of 2014, I was tending bar at a Brooklyn bowling alley called the Gutter. Across the Atlantic, the largest epidemic of Ebola in history was devastating West Africa, with a death toll reaching far into the thousands. The first few cases of Ebola in the U.S. had been confirmed in Texas: a doctor who had treated patients overseas, and two nurses who then treated him in Dallas.

One drizzly October afternoon, my manager texted me, telling me to call her ASAP. I did so, fearing I was about to be fired, perhaps for taking one too many Jameson shots behind the bar the night before. I certainly didn’t expect to hear “Uh, there was this guy who came into the bar last night who they now think has Ebola.” Dr. Craig Spencer had just returned home from Guinea, where he’d been treating Ebola patients. He’d thought he was fine, so had gone out drinking and bowling, but had then woken up with a fever. He was now being tested for Ebola.

Immediately, my chest constricted and my pulse began racing. I’d been strangely riveted by all of the news coverage. Ebola seemed so far away and unlikely to affect me, so I felt safe reading about the outbreak, despite the very real havoc it was wreaking overseas. Now I tried to remember what I had read. I thought that Ebola was transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva. And if this doctor had come into the bar the previous evening, I had almost certainly picked up his saliva-rimmed glass. I had heard that Ebola had a high mortality rate and that the death was grisly and painful: Didn’t some dying patients bleed from their eyeballs?

I tried to hold it together as my boss told me she had been in contact with the city health department and that everything was “probably” fine. She also said reporters were beginning to swarm the Gutter, so it was closing down—mostly because of the reporters, but also in case of “anything.” Then she said there was a chance that the staff working that night would need to be quarantined.

I had a million questions, but my boss didn’t know more than that.

After I hung up, I tried to make sense of the data points: Everything was “probably fine.” Yet reporters were swarming the Gutter, the bar was closed, and quarantine was possible? Things didn’t add up, leaving me to consider the possibility that my boss was downplaying the risk so that I—a notorious hypochondriac—wouldn’t have a panic attack.

I was already at work at my second job, tending bar at Barcade, in Manhattan, so when I hung up, I froze in the entryway. My potential infection didn’t affect only me. I made a mental list of all the things I’d touched in the past half hour: the pint glasses, the dollar bills, the credit-card slips, the pens, the lemons and limes … I went to the hand sink, squirted gobs of pink soap onto my palms, and scrubbed for dear life, feeling dirty and guilty. Then I grabbed my coat and hissed something garbled into my co-worker’s ear: Ebola, Gutter, I have to go now. I could hear the drama and absurdity reverberating through my words. An almost comically stricken look crossed his face.

Back on the street, I wasn’t sure if I should take the subway home—wouldn’t that mean exposing dozens of straphangers to my putative Ebola? I called my boyfriend to get his opinion, dumping the whole story on him as my eyes welled with tears of confusion. After a long pause, he suggested that I walk the seven blocks to his office so we could figure out the situation together.

Walking across town in the rain, my thoughts shifted from the possibility of infecting others to the prospect of my own imminent death, which seemed too massive and stupid to grasp. Grandiose reflections flitted through my brain. I had wasted so much time. I should have traveled more, petted more dogs. I felt pissed off at the universe for letting me die at 34. Then I tried to find comfort in the fact that it was too preposterous to think I could be the first resident of Brooklyn to contract Ebola. After all, I’m not an early adopter of anything; my iPhone is always years out of date.

I Google Image searched Craig Spencer. I didn’t recognize him from the night before; he looked like so many people who had been at the bar that night. News articles said his Ebola test was still being processed.

When I arrived outside my boyfriend’s office, he tried to hug me. I backed away, feeling somewhat virtuous for doing so, as I could have used a hug.

“You’re not going to give me Ebola just by hugging me. I don’t think that’s how Ebola works,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He wasn’t, so I didn’t hug him. Just to be safe. We decided the best course of action was to go home and call his mother, a physician, for advice.

While waiting for our Uber, we ducked into the lobby of an upscale seafood restaurant on 19th Street. The airy wooden dining room was filled with what now seemed like creatures from another planet: carefree New Yorkers in business attire, hoisting bulbous glasses of chardonnay to their lips. I couldn’t help imagining all of those diners bleeding from their eyeballs. I chastised myself for being so dramatic, and then defended myself to myself. After all, if there had ever been a time for drama, this was it.

Meanwhile, our Uber driver couldn’t seem to locate us, so my boyfriend canceled the car. Perhaps, I thought, the driver just unwittingly saved his own life.

We flagged down a cab. As we got in, I felt a flash of sympathy for the driver. I rationalized that at least I was exposing only one more person to my deadly Ebola, not an entire subway car full of people. After we gave the driver our address, I recorded his medallion number in my phone. Just to be safe.

During that cab ride home, my anxiety reached its apex. I tried to separate paranoia from reasonable worry, which was not possible, so my mind kept pinging around with nowhere to land. My boyfriend was behaving strangely because he was frightened—for me? for himself? both?—which scared me even more. As we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, my Google search finally turned up the headline I’d been looking for: Dr. Craig Spencer had tested positive for Ebola. The news was a punch to the gut. Ebola had infiltrated New York City.

At home, we called my boyfriend’s mother. I felt guilty calling her; she and I got along fine, but here I was, thrusting her son into the path of danger. Her brisk tones were an immediate salve. She was laughing.

“It’s ridiculous they closed the bar,” she said. “No one who was there last night is in any danger. I mean, maybe if you cleaned his blood off the bar. Or if you cleaned a toilet he used with your bare hands.” A thousand tiny muscles in my jaw unclenched as I told her I’d done no such thing. “Ebola isn’t easy to catch,” she assured me. “Even when the patient is contagious. And if he only got a fever today, he wasn’t contagious last night. There’s zero risk.”

After hanging up, I could feel the world I’d known reassert itself around me, solid and dependable once again. I recognized how lucky I was to have someone to call for credible information, someone with the ability to release me from purgatory. I felt ridiculous for succumbing to panic when I never had anything to worry about. And yet some small part of me still couldn’t quite accept the information, and refused to let go of the fear.

The next day, representatives from the health department were supposed to come by the Gutter to reassure our staff that everything was fine. The idea of a meeting to reassure people that there was no need for the meeting was yet another thing that failed to compute, but I was still happy to attend. No matter how many times people told me I was fine, the physical experience of my ill-informed panic was lodged in my body. I was certain that if I developed so much as a sniffle in the next 30 days, I’d once again surrender to anxiety.

The Gutter was still swarming with reporters, desperate for a quote for their stories, so at the last minute, we switched the everything-is-fine meeting to my small apartment. The director of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene rang the buzzer to my one-bedroom railroad. He provided our staff with a thorough, nuanced explanation of how Ebola is transmitted, reinforcing what my boyfriend’s mother had told me: Ebola isn’t easy to catch. You need direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected and symptomatic, which is why health-care workers are uniquely susceptible. An epidemic in New York was extremely unlikely.

The Gutter underwent a deep cleaning—mostly for the optics—and reopened the next day, but business took a hit. Our customers weren’t sure how much worry was appropriate either, and seemed to err on the side of caution by staying away. Happily, within weeks, Craig Spencer made a full recovery and business came back, even though a few customers couldn’t help but make the “E-bowl-a” pun. No new Ebola infections were reported in the U.S., and the country moved on.

The coverage of the coronavirus outbreak brought back memories of my uncertainty: What’s an appropriate level of panic? How at risk am I? What about others? COVID-19 is a very different type of outbreak from Ebola, but I worry that soon many others will feel that odd, amorphous kind of panic I felt that fall day.