NEW YORK (AP) — Hugging the health workers who cared for him, a doctor who recovered from Ebola said Tuesday he was a living example of effective treatment and urged support for those combating the virus' outbreak in West Africa.
"Today, I am healthy," a smiling Dr. Craig Spencer said as he was released after nearly three weeks in Bellevue Hospital, where he had been the last Ebola patient under treatment nationwide.
"Please join me in turning our attention back to West Africa," where the virus has killed thousands of people this year, he added after thanking Bellevue staffers who treated him and getting a hug from the mayor.
Spencer was diagnosed Oct. 23, days after returning from treating Ebola patients in Guinea with Doctors Without Borders. His was the first Ebola case in the nation's largest city, spurring an effort to contain anxieties along with the virus.
Hours after his release, his fiancee was released from being quarantined at their Harlem apartment. Officials said she would instead be monitored, along with nearly 300 other people, including some Bellevue workers and recent travelers from West Africa.
Mayor Bill de Blasio praised New Yorkers for not panicking, the city's public health system for its preparedness and effectiveness and Spencer for showing "us what it means to help your fellow human."
Spencer talked by telephone with President Barack Obama, who was in Beijing and thanked him for his service to the United States and to the people of West Africa.
The emergency room physician, who is expected to return to work soon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, had done medical work overseas several times before he spent more than five weeks caring for Ebola patients, alongside Guinean colleagues he called "the heroes that we are not talking about."
"I cried as I held children who were not strong enough to survive the virus," Spencer recalled. "But I also experienced immense joy when patients I treated were cured."
After his own diagnosis, some of those patients called from Guinea to wish him well, he said.
Spencer's treatment included a transfusion of blood plasma from another Ebola survivor, health officials said.
Officials have stressed that Ebola is not airborne and can be spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is showing symptoms. Still, news of Spencer's infection unnerved some New Yorkers, particularly after they learned that he rode the subway, dined out and went bowling in the days before he developed a fever and tested positive.
But "Welcome Home" balloons were tied outside to greet the doctor when he got home Tuesday, and neighborhood residents such as Timothy Brewer were sanguine about New York's experience with Ebola: "The city has a handle on it," he said.
After Spencer's diagnosis, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie responded by announcing a mandatory 21-day quarantine for travelers who have come in close contact with Ebola patients. That touched off a debate over how far government should go in keeping tabs on health care workers who treat Ebola.
Spencer, 33, said he was "a living example" of the success of self-monitoring procedures, quick detection and isolation, and he expressed concern about health and aid workers being stigmatized on returning home.
"Volunteers need to be supported to help fight this outbreak at its source," he said.
Only a few people have been treated for Ebola in the United States. One, Liberian visitor Thomas Eric Duncan, died; the others recovered.
Meanwhile, a nurse who said she defied quarantines in New Jersey and Maine on behalf of all health care workers returning from fighting Ebola in West Africa ended a 21-day Ebola incubation period late Monday. Kaci Hickox, who had treated patients in Sierra Leone, said she and her boyfriend plan to move to southern Maine as soon as this weekend.
Associated Press writer Bernard Vaughan contributed to this report.