United Airlines said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had requested the passenger manifest of a Monday flight from Orlando to Los Angeles that was diverted to New Orleans because of a medical emergency.
The man who became ill on the plane was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The passenger had filled out a required checklist before flying, saying he had not tested positive for the novel coronavirus and did not have symptoms. United says now that “it is apparent the passenger wrongly acknowledged this requirement.”
United referred questions about the man’s coronavirus status to the CDC.
“CDC is in the process of collecting information and proceeding according to our standard operating procedures to determine if further public health action is appropriate,” spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said in an email. “To protect the privacy of the individual, we are not providing this information to the public.”
Some social media users who said they were also on the flight reported that the man’s wife said he had symptoms of the virus, including loss of taste and smell. United said that despite people overhearing that information, no medical professionals confirmed that the man had the coronavirus at the time.
“At the time of the diversion, we were informed he had suffered a cardiac arrest, so passengers were given the option to take a later flight or continue on with their travel plans,” United spokesman Charles Hobart said in a statement. “Now that the CDC has contacted us directly, we are sharing requested information with the agency so they can work with local health officials to conduct outreach to any customer the CDC believes may be at risk for possible exposure or infection.”
United said the airline decided to keep going to Los Angeles after initially believing the man was suffering from “cardiac distress.”
“A change in aircraft was not warranted; instead, passengers were given the option to deplane and take a later flight or continue on to Los Angeles,” the airline said. “All passengers opted to continue.”
Shayla Allen, 21, said she was a few rows behind the man and saw three people on the plane respond to a call for medical help. She said they did chest compressions and took other efforts to revive the man, who was unresponsive, for nearly an hour.
“It was just really intense,” she said. “I had to look away for a while and try to zone out because it was terrifying.”
At one point, she said, a nurse who was trying to revive the man asked his traveling companion if he’d had symptoms of coronavirus and the woman said yes.
“That’s when everyone started talking to the people behind them being like, ‘I heard COVID, I heard COVID,’” said Allen, of Ventura, Calif.
Without any clear instructions on what to do, she said, passengers decided they needed to get tested. Allen said Friday that she hadn’t been contacted by health authorities about the situation.
“I’m just assuming that I was exposed,” she said, and was quarantining while trying to make an appointment for a test.
It was not clear Friday if any passengers had been contacted by the CDC. The crew of four flight attendants is quarantining for 14 days per written guidelines, according to Taylor Garland, spokesperson for Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at 17 airlines including United.
In response to questions from The Washington Post over the past few days, representatives for the ambulance service, hospital, airport and city of New Orleans either declined to release information about the man’s condition or said they had no information about a connection to the coronavirus.
In July, a woman died of COVID-19 during a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Dallas. Passengers were never notified, The Washington Post found, and the cause of her death wasn’t publicly reported until October.
“We implore passengers not to travel if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have COVID-related symptoms,” United said. “If in doubt, the best option is to get tested.”