It's been confirmed that a man who died last week in some respiratory or cardiac distress on board a California-bound United flight out of Orlando was COVID-positive. And now passengers who helped administer medical aid are wondering why they had to find out from the news media.
The nightmare of all COVID nightmares happened to a group of passengers flying from Orlando to Los Angeles on December 14, after a 69-year-old man experiencing COVID symptoms lied on a travel form, boarded the plane, and promptly went into cardiac arrest after takeoff. The plane made a medical-emergency landing in New Orleans, and while some passengers overheard the man's wife tell medical personnel that he had been experiencing symptoms, including a loss of taste and smell, the United crew understood that the man had died of a heart attack, and decided to fly the same plane on to LAX. Passengers were given the option to take another flight, but none did.
Several days later, mostly thanks to passengers tweeting about what they saw and heard, the story gained national attention. And on Tuesday, as the New York Times reports, a coroner in Louisiana confirmed that the cause of death was "acute respiratory failure, COVID-19."
"That’s the most frustrating part,” says Orange County resident Jacquelyn Tran, speaking to the Times. "We would have expected as the bare minimum for them to let us know that he was positive." Tran and her boyfriend, Steven Chang, were among the passengers who tried to give aid to the dying man, who has been identified as Isais Hernandez of Los Angeles.
Chang, a medical student, and a nurse and an EMT who were on board performed chest compressions on the man — and possibly mouth to mouth? — and Tran administered epinephrine to potentially clear the man's airway. Several flight attendants also helped.
Upon landing in New Orleans, the man was taken off the plane and was pronounced dead. It was only this week that the COVID diagnosis was confirmed, and after that, according to the airline, it is the CDC's responsibility to follow up with any potentially exposed passengers on board.
But issues surrounding responsibility for this contact tracing and notification process date back to early in the pandemic. Another Los Angeles-bound flight, this one from New York, was known to have carried an elderly man who died of COVID-19 shortly after arriving in LA in March, and yet neither the LA County Public Health Department, the airline, or the CDC did any follow-up notifications with passengers, as the LA Times reported in June. And in a separate instance involving a flight that landed in LA from Korea, a woman arrived feeling ill and died of cardiac arrest two days later, and similarly no contact tracing involving other passengers was done.
As Tran tells the Times, "The only person who followed up with us was one of the flight attendants." And by follow up, she means that the flight attendant came by as the aircraft took off from New Orleans and gave Tran and Chang an airline voucher for $75.
The case of United Flight 591 is not likely to be the last in which we hear of potential COVID exposure, or an actual outbreak, in this pandemic. But the conflicting interest of airlines who don't want passengers to be any more scared of flying than they already are, combined with the seemingly broken CDC notification apparatus for this situation — not to mention the inadequate contact-tracing that is likely going on in thousands of jurisdictions across the country — means that no one should flying feeling assured that they will be told if any COVID cases are linked to a flight they were on.
A spokesperson for United, Charlie Hobart, tells the Times that he is not aware that any passengers or crew members on the flight have tested positive for COVID-19 since this incident. He confirmed that the airline had sent passenger data to the CDC on Tuesday (Dec. 22) for the purpose of contact tracing.
As SFist previously reported, the CDC and the airline were reportedly alerting passengers to possible COVID exposure last week, but it's not clear that this notification process was ever completed, given the quotes from Tran.
Tony Adalpa, an EMT on board the flight who helped perform CPR on Mr. Hernandez, reportedly fell ill with COVID symptoms last week, as ABC 7 reported. He initially tested negative for COVID, but after days of persistent symptoms including a cough and headaches, he was awaiting the results of a second test.
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