Didn’t hear from contact tracers about that guy coughing on your flight? You might not — even if he had COVID-19

It’s the call no airline passenger wants to receive.

You are contacted after your plane lands to let you know a fellow traveler from your flight tested positive for COVID-19. The notification likely comes from local health officials with an advisory to go into 14-day self-quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged 1,600 COVID-19 investigations on commercial aircraft between January and August. By comparison, the agency had to deal with only about 150 cases of communicable diseases on flights in each of 2018 and 2019, usually the measles, reported spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey.

The cases fall to contact tracers, who may be hampered by incomplete, inaccurate or stale contact information for those they are trying to reach, the CDC says. There are challenges, too, that might explain why you didn’t get a call even if you were exposed:

  • The infected passenger didn’t have symptoms – even though they could have been inadvertently spreading the virus. It’s one of the most vexing aspects of the coronavirus: “Because cases of COVID-19 can be mild or asymptomatic, it’s highly likely that CDC did not receive reports of infected people who traveled by air,” Shockey said.
  • CDC protocols call for having state and local health authorities contact airline passengers who might have been seated within six feet of the infected person, not necessarily everyone on the plane. If an infected passenger seated farther away passes close to others or left a virus trail in the lavatory during the flight, tracers could easily miss others exposed to the coronavirus by not extending the number of flyers they contact.
  • Unlike a public bus or commuter train, seats are assigned on planes. That makes it easier to track down those seated near an infected passenger. But the system isn’t perfect. Sometimes passengers switch seats or, in the case of Southwest Airlines, fly on a carrier that has an open seating policy.In those instances, the CDC says all passengers aboard become part of the investigation.
  • Tracers may lack adequate contact information on an exposed passenger. The CDC issued a rule in February that would have required airlines to capture passengers’ full names and basic contact info on international flights. The airline industry, however, protested that the plan would be onerous and costly. As a result, it hasn’t been enforced.

Airline mask requirements: Check the policies for 11 US carriers

The airline industry, brought to a near halt in the spring by the coronavirus and still enduring deep losses due to a dearth of passengers, says it is doing all it can to cooperate with the contact tracing effort.

“We continue to believe that contact tracing is a key measure that will instill confidence for the traveling public that airlines and the federal government are prioritizing their health and safety,” said Carter Yang, spokesman for the leading industry trade group Airlines for America.

There is no evidence that any passenger has ever contracted the coronavirus from a commercial aircraft, which are equipped with HEPA filters and high-flow ventilation systems, he said. And airlines are full partners with the government in trying to limit the spread of the virus.

“U.S. airlines comply with all requests” when it comes to releasing manifest information on persons who were seated near an infected person on a flight, Yang said.

Southwest, too, with its open-seating policy, will release an entire flight’s passenger manifest if health authorities request it, said airline spokesman Brian Parrish.

The CDC agrees that airlines have been fully cooperative. Shockey said the public health agency and airlines have “a long history of working together” on contact investigations.

The problem, however, is that names on a list may not be enough.

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