The Seattle Times:
In the days after a man on their flight stopped breathing, fellow passengers wondered if he was infected with coronavirus – and whether they might be at risk. The airline said it didn’t know, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wouldn’t say publicly.
An answer didn’t come until a local coroner released a report a week later confirming that covid-19 was a cause of the 69-year-old man’s death on Dec. 14, along with acute respiratory failure. By Wednesday, three different passengers said they still hadn’t gotten official word from any public health authorities.
“I figured somehow they would get in touch with everybody, send out probably a mass email – at least to everybody who booked the flight – and say, ‘If you were on this flight, you should go get tested,’” said Robert Reeves, 53, who was a few feet away from the man as medical workers performed CPR in the aisle for roughly 45 minutes. The flight from Orlando to Los Angeles diverted to New Orleans so the man could be taken to the hospital, then continued with all passengers on board.
Tony Aldapa, a passenger who helped perform CPR on the man during the flight, said he finally heard from a public health official on Dec. 24 – 10 days after the flight.
In an email to The Washington Post, he said he got a voicemail from the Los Angeles County public health department. Aldapa, an intermediate care technician in the emergency department at a Los Angeles hospital, was unable to reach anyone at the number they provided despite multiple attempts. He got an email a few hours later informing him that he had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for covid-19 and ordering him to self-quarantine for 14 days after his contact with the person.
“The most jarring part is thinking about how many people probably didn’t know they’d been exposed and didn’t self quarantine and were out and about because nobody told them,” he said in an email.
The tale of United Flight 591 illustrates the challenges of keeping the novel coronavirus off planes – and informing travelers about possible exposure in a timely manner so they can take their own precautions.
As recent high-profile instances show, having symptoms or even a diagnosis is not enough to keep sick people on the ground. A Hawaii couple who tested positive for the virus was told to isolate in San Francisco; instead, they boarded a plane to Kauai, where they were arrested for reckless endangerment. Authorities in Maryland raced to stop a mother and her son from getting on a plane to Puerto Rico after their test results came back positive. The man on the United flight had been feeling sick before he boarded.
The CDC says in no uncertain terms not to travel while sick or after testing positive for the coronavirus. This year, the agency has added more than 400 people to a “Do Not Board” list for covid-19; those on the list will not be issued a boarding pass for any commercial flight in, to or from the United States.
Travis Nelson, a sergeant with the Maryland State Police and liaison to the state’s emergency management agency, said public health officials can also sign a quarantine and isolation order if they believe someone who has tested positive is about to get on a plane. That’s what happened in the case of the mother and son who were stopped from boarding at Baltimore/Washington International Marshall Airport on Nov. 24.