A woman died of coronavirus on a Spirit Airlines plane. Her fellow passengers were never notified between Las Vegas and Dallas, USA


When Spirit Airlines learned that a Texas woman had died of covid-19 on one of its flights in July, the airline said it alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and received an acknowledgment from the agency.

But Spirit spokesman Erik Hofmeyer said it was never asked by health authorities to share passenger manifests to aid in tracking down people who might have been exposed.

State health officials in New Mexico, where the woman was declared dead after the Dallas-bound flight was diverted to Albuquerque, acknowledged they failed to investigate, as did the CDC.

The first the woman’s fellow passengers probably heard that her death was caused by the virus was in October, when The Washington Post and other news organizations were able to determine what flight the woman had been on, building on limited details about the case that were released by officials in Dallas County. By that time, it was far too late for the information to be useful in helping slow the potential spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, the CDC said it has no record of being contacted by Spirit.

Spirit did not respond to questions about how many passengers were on the flight.

The woman’s death was an extreme example of an in-flight coronavirus case, but it highlights the gaps in the nation’s efforts to protect citizens and improve the safety of air travel during the pandemic. The CDC and outside researchers both say limits on contact tracing and subsequent testing have made it hard to determine how air travel may be spreading the virus.

The federal government has largely been unwilling to set new rules for air travel, relying instead on recommendations and leadership from the industry. Only a few airlines offer preflight testing for the virus — mostly on select routes. The Department of Transportation recently rejected a petition from transportation unions to require masks on planes and public transportation.

Lisa Lee, an expert in infectious-disease epidemiology and ethics at Virginia Tech, said the government could be doing more.

“We’re still at the place where we have been since the beginning of this epidemic,” said Lee, a former CDC official. “Every airline and every airport has the responsibility to create their own covid-19 safety plan.”

“The primary tool we need is testing and very swift contact tracing,” Lee said.

The CDC typically coordinates with airlines and local officials to carry out contact tracing. But Caitlin Shockey, a CDC spokeswoman, said the agency has no record of a notification from Spirit or any indication that an investigation was launched.

Death investigators in New Mexico, where the woman was declared dead after the flight diverted to Albuquerque from Las Vegas, learned within two days that she had been positive for coronavirus and informed the local police and fire departments that responded to the scene, according to Dan Sosin, an epidemiologist at the state health department.

But Sosin said the health department itself received the test result directly from the lab, rather than from the Office of the Medical Investigator, and failed to conduct an investigation into the woman’s death. So it never learned that she had been on a plane and it didn’t initiate the tracing process with the CDC.

“The procedure we had should have picked it up,” Sosin said. “We’re reinforcing some of our written procedures about how this gets handled and revisiting with staff the importance of this follow up.”

The case illustrates how responsibility is shared between local, state and federal officials. Several federal agencies have a role in responding to the virus in the air travel system — including the Federal Aviation Administration, the CDC, the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection — a factor that has complicated the government’s response.

In a statement, the Department of Transportation said it expects passengers to follow public health guidelines and that it stands ready to help wherever it can, even while it stresses that it is not responsible for public health.

“We will continue to apply our aviation expertise to help lead efforts with other Federal agencies, with industry, and with our international partners to address public health risk in the air transportation system, both internationally and here in the United States,” the department said.

The woman who died, a 38-year-old who had asthma and was obese, according to her autopsy, was on her way home from Las Vegas to Dallas. She boarded Spirit Flight 208 at McCarran International Airport on the evening of July 24, a Friday.

Courtesy of washingtonpost.com



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