Ebola, a problem in other parts of the world for decades, has finally reached the United States. The initial victim flew to Dallas before showing symptoms of the deadly disease. Since his death, two of his medical providers, both nurses, have been diagnosed with the virus. The initial victim’s arrival in Dallas immediately raised the question about the safety of air travel and, specifically, whether Ebola could be transmitted from one passenger to another.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated in a recent Ebola Guidelines for Airlines, updated October 2, 2014, that this risk was unlikely since Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluid of an infected person, rather than through the air like most other viruses like the flu.
The first obvious line of defense is to prohibit ill travelers from boarding when Ebola is suspected. The CDC further advised all airlines to follow normal infection precautions and gave specific guidance for how to manage ill passengers on board if Ebola is suspected. The first line of defense, however, only works when the passenger appears sick, and the airline has sufficient information to warrant or justify denying that passenger the opportunity to board.
The newest Ebola victim flew on Frontier Flight #1143 from Cleveland to Dallas on October 13, one day prior to her diagnosis. She reportedly had low-grade fever at the time she boarded the flight. Frontier, however, had no way of knowing any of the key information. It had no way of knowing that she had a low fever, had extensive contact with the initial Ebola patient who traveled to the U.S. from Africa and was supposedly self-monitoring following her colleague’s diagnosis.
The CDC has stated that she should not have been on the plane and violated infection control guidelines by doing so. The CDC asserts that, while she was free to travel, she was not permitted to travel on a commercial plane with others. The precise details of what was communicated to her have not been disclosed. Nonetheless, unfortunately, she chose to travel in this manner and there were not, at the time, any procedures in place to detect or prevent this. The CDC has said that, going forward, it will ensure that no one in this situation travels outside of a closed environment (meaning, private transit) but it has not specified how it intends to accomplish that.
In the interim, the CDC has requested that all passengers on that flight contact it at 1-800-232-4636. Frontier, for its part, pulled the plane from service after learning of the diagnosis.