QUEENS, NY — At least 19 people were confirmed sick after an Emirates plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday morning with about 100 passengers feeling ill, authorities said.
Flight 203 from Dubai to New York City was quarantined for hours on the runway after 106 of the 521 passengers onboard reported feeling sick with coughs, high fevers and vomiting, officials from the New York City Health Department and Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a press conference.
Ten people – seven passengers and three crew members – were ultimately taken to Jamaica Hospital, and another nine were confirmed ill but refused treatment, said Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Health Department authorities are still waiting on lab results for the respiratory samples taken from sick passengers to determine the underlying cause, but Acting NYC Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said signs so far point to the flu.
“Given the symptoms that we’re seeing in the patients, and given the histories that they present, it looks like this is probably influenza,” she said.
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Barbot said that because the Emirates flight was so long – about 14 hours – it’s possible the illness was spread during it. She noted while such scenarios – especially ones this dramatic – are rare, the flu does spread easily and can take as little as a day to incubate.
“Any time you have large numbers of people attending an event…where they spend a significant amount of time together for prolonged periods of time, it can be a situation where respiratory transmission of viruses can occur,” she said.
The flight landed at JFK at about 9:10 a.m. and was quarantined upon arrival, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. Passengers were met by a slew of CDC public health officers, Port Authority police and other emergency responders waiting to check their symptoms.
“All passengers were assessed, and the vast majority were cleared of any illness and were allowed to continue on the remaining lengths of their trips,” Barbot said.
CDC Deputy Commissioner Demetre Daskalakis said the screenings, a mixture of health questions and temperature readings, helped responders pinpoint the 10 sick patients out of the 106 that had initially reported symptoms.
“That (106) is what we heard when the flight first landed,” he said. “After going deeper with the health questions and other assessments, it went down to a very small number.”
All passengers were evaluated and deplaned by 12:30 p.m., according to the mayor’s office.
Philliips initially said the plane stopped in Mecca, which is in the midst of a flu outbreak, and “early indications point to that as a possibility.” He later issued a correction that the flight was, in fact, direct, but some of the ill passengers had come to Dubai from Mecca.
Emirates issued a statement on Wednesday confirming 10 people aboard the plane were hospitalized and another nine released after additional screening at the airport.
The screenings delayed the plane’s return trip to Dubai by about three hours, and the airline offered to help rebook any passengers whose connecting flights were impacted by the setback.
“We apologize to our customers for any inconvenience caused,” an Emirates spokesperson said. “The safety and well-being of our customers and crew is always our top priority.”
A pilot first reported two men on the plane had dangerously high fevers and about 100 more passengers were “coughing non-stop,” according to WABC-TV.
One Emirates passenger, Larry Coben, documented the hours-long ordeal in a Twitter thread. In one of several photos posted from his seat on the plane, more than a dozen emergency response vehicles could be seen preparing to treat passengers on the runway.
Coben said flyers were only given vague information that some passengers fell ill on the flight and instructed to stay in their seats. He added that the plane had two levels, and he wasn’t able to see any of the sick passengers for himself.
Lead photo courtesy of Larry Coben/Twitter, used with permission