Is A Lack Of Communication Between Public Health Agencies, Airlines & The Public Responsible For Many Covid-19 Infections?

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As was reported today by the LA Times a Covid infected passenger took an American Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles and was rushed to a hospital a day later, yet nobody informed the airline or passengers on this flight.

It shows that at least for several months there was a strong communication disconnect between public health policy and airlines to inform and protect passengers who were possibly exposed.

Airlines are now (slowly) starting to require passengers to self declare that they are healthy but that of course doesn’t mean anything in terms of communication and safety, it’s just a liability cover for the airlines.

How did this all come up? Well, as reported by the LA Times today there are at least two known cases f infected passengers where they knowingly took a flight yet nobody on these planes was informed after the fact.

When American Airlines flight 341 to Los Angeles lifted off the tarmac at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on a cloudy Thursday in mid-March, much of the country was already on coronavirus lockdown. The flight was far from full, but the 49 passengers and eight crew shared restrooms, cabin air and a narrow aisle for the six-hour trip.

Though no one knew it then, a man in first class, a retired Manhattan surgeon, was infected with the virus. The day after the flight, he was rushed by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with a high fever and phlegmy cough. The virus spread quickly among those he had come in contact with in the hours after leaving LAX, including at a Westside assisted living facility where a 32-year-old nurse and a dozen others later died.

L.A. was still in an early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic when the surgeon’s flight touched down, with fewer than 250 confirmed cases. Local health officials regularly assured the public then that the county was investigating each case and engaging in aggressive contact tracing to control the spread of the virus.

Despite these pledges, no one in public health informed any of the passengers and crew who had flown cross country with the surgeon that they were at risk. The airline only recently learned of the case from The Times. …

It was one of two long-haul flights into LAX in March identified by The Times in which public health officials failed to alert passengers and crew who had flown with a person who later tested COVID-positive. In the other, a March 8 flight from Seoul, the stricken passenger reported running a fever days before boarding the aircraft and went into cardiac arrest the morning after she landed, becoming the first confirmed COVID-19 death in L.A. County.

Without instructions to self-quarantine or seek testing, more than 200 people on these flights returned to their families and communities ignorant of their exposure, potentially seeding new outbreaks. …

The article doesn’t mention how many other passengers actually contracted the virus and given they all came from NYC they could have been infected there as well.

It’s definitely recommended to keep an up to date contact information on the reservation just in case but even then I encountered numerous situations where the airline didn’t even bother to contact passengers in other situations.

Last October I found a passport at the Admirals Club in LAX and went to the desk, suggesting that the agent looks through reservations or lounge check-ins to identify the passenger and calling him. The agents reply: Not our job, we give everything to lost and found. In the end I found the owner of the passport on Facebook, messaged him and since AA was totally unhelpful offered him to send it by FedEx to his home. This little anecdote just shows the ignorance of airlines when it comes to tracking passengers down.

This particular article is about traffic to/within the U.S. (another flight from Korea was mentioned) but I’m convinced that this occurrence isn’t simply a pattern that is exclusive to the U.S. but that similar issues happened in other countries as well. Some – like Taiwan – are handling things better than others so it all comes down to motivation and competence of the relevant authorities.

Conclusion

If the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand does then that’s a recipe for disaster in the current situation. Again this occurred in March so that’s three months ago but I don’t think that mechanisms have improved by a lot.

There is a big discussion about contact tracing either by electronic means such as apps on cellphones or at least by connecting the dots in the old fashioned way by going through records. Does it really happen now? Does it make you feel safer as a passenger as travel is gearing up again as TSA screening data shows?

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