Ten passengers on an Emirates airline flight from Dubai to New York were quarantined Wednesday morning at John F. Kennedy International Airport after about 100 of the 500 people on board reported fevers higher than 100 degrees and coughing bouts. Port Authority Police and federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials were at the scene.
Emirates confirmed the incident in a statement, but noted a lower number of sick passengers than initial reports.
A spokesman for the New York City Fire Department told The Daily Beast that 10 people in “non-life threatening” condition were taken to Jamaica Hospital in Queens and that the Port Authority is otherwise handling the situation.
A CDC representative told The Daily Beast that some passengers on the incoming flight from Dubai “fell ill.” “Right now, the CDC is working with local authorities to investigate and assess the matter,” the agency rep said.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which oversees JFK, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office deferred comment to the Port Authority.
Passenger Larry Coben tweeted about the incident, saying CDC personnel boarded the plane and were taking people’s temperatures. He also said those on board were not given much information.
Passenger Erin Sykes said she saw so many sick people the plane felt like a “flying infirmary.”
The likely reason why people got so sick so fast? Influenza.
Emirates Flight 203 was coming from Dubai at the end of the hajj in nearby Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is experiencing not only elevated traffic because it is the time of year when millions of Muslim pilgrims descend upon one of the kingdom’s holiest cities, but also an outbreak of the flu.
In fact, influenza and other respiratory-tract illnesses that can cause coughing like those described by passengers and are fairly common during the hajj, as reported by a study in the Annals of Thoracic Medicine in 2009. The crowds and influx of people coming from every corner of the world makes the hajj a prime place for infections to spread.
Add to that the fact that some of the world’s most immuno-compromised people are coming in—the elderly, infants, sick people who want to complete the hajj while they can—and it makes the hajj one of the most potentially fertile grounds for an influenza pandemic to strike and go global within hours. Researchers are still trying to figure out how to best prevent a mass infection at the hajj, whether it be through vaccination campaigns or other preventative efforts.
Which could be what happened on Flight 203 (Eric Phillips, spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio’s office, initially tweeted that the flight made a stop in Mecca, but later clarified to say that some passengers were reportedly on the flight after having traveled to Mecca). If the passengers who were quarantined indeed had the flu, it probably did not take them long to contract it from the source passenger, thanks to the enclosed, recirculated air on board and close quarters of passengers, along with the long hours of a transcontinental flight.
That said, it's highly unusual for even 10 people to be quarantined by the CDC. A study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it’s likely that a sick passenger infects 0.7 passengers per flight within a radius of three feet of the sick passenger—basically, the row behind, next to, and in front of a sick passenger.
“The simulations provide compelling evidence that for influenza, if you are not seated within a meter of an infected passenger, and you practice careful hand hygiene, then you are unlikely to get infected during flight,” co-author Howard Weiss told Gizmodo.
If the illness turns out to be influenza, it probably was contracted by at least a few passengers, and those who were most infected were probably in the radius of the already-infected passengers. The fact that the majority of the plane was led off the plane after simply filling out a CDC prevention form means the suspected infection was probably restrained to a certain section of the plane.
That’s of course if the infection proves to be influenza. Research has shown that tuberculosis can travel a few rows in a plane in eight hours, and SARS as far as seven rows in the same time (both infections are marked by symptoms of coughing and fevers as well).
—Pervaiz Shallwani and Victoria Bikiempis contributed to this report.