Alaska Airlines says it prevented a COVID-19 infected passenger from boarding a flight in Seattle on Tuesday after they’d arrived from Alaska on a multi-leg trip that included Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan.
The unnamed passenger reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 in Sitka on Monday but then flew the next day to the Lower 48 on the multi-stop milk run through Southeast Alaska.
Public Health Nurse Denise Ewing wrote a letter published in the Sitka Sentinel newspaper warning the public that a COVID-infected person and three symptomatic companions had managed to fly out of Sitka despite being told to isolate.
It urged anyone who had been on Tuesday’s Alaska flight 73 from Sitka to Juneau and flight 60 from Juneau to Ketchikan to Seattle to be aware of potential exposure.
Libby Watanabe was one of the passengers on the flight from Juneau to Seattle.
“It was a typical flight, it was very full. There were no empty seats,” Watanabe said.
Once she got home, she said, she saw Ewing’s letter circulating on Facebook and found out that a passenger on her flight had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I think that’s really irresponsible of (the COVID passengers),” she said. “It’s worrisome when you find out things like this, how other people have unnecessarily put not just myself and my family in harm’s way, but others as well.”
Watanabe is vaccinated, but she’s concerned about exposure to variants. She contacted her local health clinic, and they recommended she monitor for symptoms for the next week.
Sitka is in the middle of its worst outbreak of COVID-19 with more than 200 active cases in the community.
Juneau’s Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said it’s unclear to him how people knowingly infected with the coronavirus could get on a plane.
“People are not supposed to get on commercial flights if they’re symptomatic and certainly if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a prohibition,” Barr said.
Barr said Juneau’s Emergency Operations Center had yet to receive official word of the incident, but the office did get an email Tuesday from a concerned citizen.
“But we were not aware that there were symptomatic positive individuals that flew,” he said. “Certainly, that’s concerning.”
He added that Juneau’s local officials are reaching out to the state for more information.
Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health, told reporters that there’s a process for preventing infected passengers from flying. It’s called the “Do Not Board” list and is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s not voluntary, she said.
“This is a conversation that goes through several aspects, you know, ‘What’s the disease? How infectious is this person? And what is their intent to travel?’” Castrodale said.
The no-fly list is coordinated at the federal, state and local levels, and she said it’s not always as fast as someone booking a ticket.
“Sometimes, because of timing, it’s difficult to either get somebody on or off that list very quickly,” Castrodale said.
Castrodale did not clarify whether that process had begun for the passengers in Sitka or whether the COVID-positive passenger was on the “Do Not Board” list.
In a written statement Wednesday, Alaska Airlines said it was notified by the CDC about the COVID-positive passenger while flight 60 was already in the air and headed to Seattle.
It said airline staff met the passenger in Seattle and informed them they would not be allowed to continue to their final destination. The statement did not mention the three other passengers who Sitka’s public health nurse said had exhibited symptoms.
“No Alaska employees, including those in Sitka, were aware that a guest had tested positive for COVID-19 and had boarded the flight until the CDC contacted us,” the airline said.
Castrodale said if a person on a flight tests positive for any highly-communicable infectious disease or virus, those results are sent to the CDC.
“The quarantine station works with the airline companies to go through the passenger manifests, and then shoots out notifications to the states who have residents who have been exposed,” she said.
But, ultimately, it’s state health authorities who notify passengers who may have been exposed.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Watanabe said she had not gotten any calls. And she’s not happy about people flouting the rules or refusing to get vaccinated.
“Folks that chose to not be vaccinated, you know, those folks may have been on the flight as well. And this could very well be a super spreader event because the flight was so full, which is very, very disappointing,” she said.
KCAW reached out to the state’s public health officials and the CDC for more information. But as of Wednesday afternoon its questions remain unanswered.
Jacob Resneck contributed to this report from Juneau.