When news broke last Thursday that Dr. Craig Spencer, a doctor who volunteered with Doctors Without Borders in West Africa and New York City's first confirmed case of Ebola, had taken an Uber and other means of public transportation the night before he was admitted into the hospital, Uber worked quickly to address the issue. Within hours, Uber released a statement that not only confirmed that the patient rode in an Uber but also ensured that the driver was both notified and assured by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that neither he nor his passengers were at risk of contracting the disease.
Despite intense concern and media coverage, the ride-sharing giant was able to quell most of the concerns about the service's role in Spencer's day before it reached a critical mass. This was made easier due to Uber's digital infrastructure, which archives trip logs of each passenger and rider profile-by-profile.
But what if Dr. Spencer had taken a NYC taxi instead — would the TLC be able to work just as quickly?
It seems it's not immediately clear to the TLC what the agency's plan of action would be, had the organization found itself in the same situation on Thursday night. When reached by BuzzFeed News, the TLC was unable to answer inquires about Ebola protocols.
"I apologize in advance for how much help I can be on this," Allan Fromberg, TLC's Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs, wrote to BuzzFeed News via email. "But while I appreciate the inquiry, I am going to defer to my colleagues at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who are the lead on all matters involving Ebola response and prevention. In fact, it was they who made contact with the Uber driver, and assured him that he was in no danger whatsoever."
In fact, when BuzzFeed News reached out to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, it became even more certain that the burden of finding the driver would fall on the shoulders of the disease detectives employed by the Department of Health, not the TLC.
"When there is a suspected or confirmed case of Ebola, the Health Department's team of disease detectives will actively trace ALL of the patient's contacts to identify anyone who may be at potential risk," a spokesperson for the Department of Health told BuzzFeed News. "The chances of the average New Yorker contracting Ebola are extremely slim."
That said, the TLC does have the tools to single out and find the driver that a patient with Ebola or any other infectious diseases came into contact with, as former TLC commissioner Matthew Daus told BuzzFeed News. But it doesn't seem the TLC has any solid plans on what they would do with these tools if thrust into the same situation as Uber was on Thursday night.
"The TLC can historically track any taxicab through the T-PEP system I implemented when I was commissioner," Daus told BuzzFeed News over email. "It can be done, and emergency messages can be sent to the driver through the driver information monitor if such an unfortunate situation arises. I cannot say the same for companies like Uber and Lyft, which do not submit to the tracking system at TLC (or in other cities, where they use unlicensed vehicles and drivers, and refuse to share data with regulators)," he said, noting that licensed NYC TLC vehicles besides taxicabs are not required to carry GPS tracking systems yet.
T-PEP, Daus later explained, was created in 2004 as part of the "largest fare increase in NYC history...where we gave taxi drivers a living wage for the first time." Among its functions and features; T-PEP includes GPS which helps in investigations and recovering lost property, the driver information monitor (DIM), the passenger information monitor (PIM) or the TV screen in the back and the credit card machines.
"Historical data is fed to the TLC and breadcrumb, or GPS pings, can be obtained from the two vendors who are currently under contract with the city," Daus said. "If there is a receipt or medallion number, the cabs whereabouts in real-time and historically can be obtained from the vendors on request by the TLC. If all one knows is the location and pick-up or drop-off times, the number of cabs in that area can be narrowed and isolated."
While it appears that both Uber and the TLC will be in direct communication with the Health Department, it appears the comission was not apprised of a concrete plan for this type of emergency. Even Daus, who has been out of the TLC for five years, is not sure what plans the TLC has in place as of right now.
"There are all sorts of contingency plans I worked on when I was there but I have no idea whether they have been updated or the current readiness," he said. "I am sure that the [Office of Emergency Management] and DOH will be giving order to TLC on this type of protocol as TLC is not in the business of public health and does not employ physicians or virus specialists. [The Center for Disease Control] and/or DOH is lead in terms of city protocol as I understand it."
Johana Bhuiyan is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bhuiyan reports on the sharing economy with a focus on ridesharing companies.
Contact Johana Bhuiyan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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