The concerns of two travelers who tested positive for COVID-19 after being on the same recent airline flight to Seattle have revealed a serious flaw in contact-tracing communications between state and federal health agencies, which could leave passengers uninformed about a potential outbreak.
Markeisha Brown told KIRO 7 last Friday that she tested positive for COVID-19 within days of flying on United flight 2223 from Denver to Seattle on Monday, August 9.
She immediately tried to inform United Airlines about her test, figuring they would contact other passengers and urge them to get tested.
“I don’t feel that I’m the only person from the airline (flight) who has it,” Brown said on Friday.
On Monday, a second unrelated passenger who said she was on the same flight revealed her positive COVID-19 test from a Tacoma hospital, where she was being treated for breathing and pain symptoms.
In hopes the airline would alert and contact-trace everyone who took that flight, both passengers told KIRO 7 News that they wrote and called United Customer Service, and received this response:
“We’re unable to give specific information on any other customers or crew members,” the response from United Airlines read. “In the event of any follow-up, it’s the role of the CDC, or local public health authorities, which would reach out to surrounding passengers if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19.”
“I reached back out in an email on Saturday, and they sent a generic text message saying we’ll contact you within 7 to 10 business days,” Robinson said.
KIRO 7 confirmed that airlines never contact trace COVID-19 cases. That responsibility begins with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC’s website indicates that it has a quarantine office on the SEA airport grounds that has access to airline passenger information.
The website says, “If there’s an outbreak related to a flight, local CDC officers first have to be alerted by a public health agency.”
KIRO 7 has learned that the CDC then provides a list of passenger contacts to the Washington State Department of Health, which is supposed to relay that list back to an appropriate local health agency, like Seattle King County Public Health.
But here’s where the process apparently breaks down: In a response to KIRO 7, The Washington Department of Health informed Public Health - Seattle & King County, “they don’t have the necessary staff capacity to do this.”
In a statement to KIRO 7, Public Health - Seattle & King County said “As community transmission is surging, we tend to prioritize case investigations and contact tracing in outbreak settings such as worksites or long-term care facilities, as opposed to possible isolated exposures.”
The CDC has indicated that the chance of spreading coronavirus on board commercial airplane are low because of sophisticated air purification systems.
But Robinson said the passengers were also together in jetways, security, and baggage areas. She feels contacting her fellow passengers to urge testing and isolation could potentially stop or slow the spread of the disease.
“I want someone to contact every person that was on the plane just to make sure everybody’s OK and being taken care of,” Robinson said.
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