After Long Beach physician Dr. Moira Rashid tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March, she told contact tracers from the city health department that she had flown into Los Angeles International Airport from Munich, Germany, the day before falling ill.
Passengers and crew on the March 13 flight were not informed they had traveled with an infected person because Rashid was not displaying known symptoms of COVID-19 during the flight. Since then, the risk from asymptomatic people has become clear.
Rashid’s flight, Lufthansa 452, is the third instance identified by The Times in which public health officials in the early stage of the pandemic did not alert travelers into LAX that they were at risk for infection. Hundreds on these flights returned to their families and communities unaware they might be carrying the virus, potentially seeding new outbreaks.
One passenger, a San Diego County man, died of COVID-19 three weeks after an Asiana Airlines flight from Seoul. His daughter said that until she read in The Times that a woman aboard his plane was stricken with the virus, “It was a mystery where he got it.”
“If we were informed by the airline or the CDC that he was on that flight that has that COVID-positive passenger, maybe we could have done [something] differently,” said his daughter, Myelene, who asked that their family be identified with first names only because of privacy concerns. Her father was given no instructions to self-quarantine, and doctors initially mistook his symptoms for minor ailments.
All three flights occurred in March before coronavirus cases mounted quickly in California. The infected woman on Myelene’s father’s March 8 flight, for example, became the first person to die of a confirmed case of the virus in Los Angeles County. The county Department of Public Health said at the time of the flights that employees were aggressively tracing each new case to control the virus’ spread.
Air travel, with people sharing close quarters for sustained periods, poses a heightened risk of transmission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it is crucial to track those exposed on planes and to move fast to prevent new cases.
In Rashid’s case, the job of tracking down those who had come in contact with her fell to officials in Long Beach, where she lived. She told investigators from the city’s Department of Health and Human Services that she had been on vacation in Egypt in early March and had taken a Nile cruise. A few days before her flight home, she lost her sense of smell and taste, developments that later became widely known as symptoms of COVID-19.
Unaware she was sick, she boarded the 12-hour Lufthansa flight. It was more than half full, she said, and she didn’t recall anyone wearing a mask.
“The day after our flight, I started coughing,” said Rashid, a family medicine doctor.
A March 16 test confirmed that she had the virus. The Long Beach health department’s policy in March was to contact individuals who had interacted with the infected person after the onset of symptoms. (Following new information from the CDC, the department expanded the tracing window in April to include the 48 hours before symptoms.)
Emily Holman, an epidemiologist and communicable disease controller for Long Beach, declined to speak about Rashid’s case specifically but noted that authorities didn’t recognize loss of taste and smell as COVID-19 symptoms at the time.
Based on the policy then, Rashid was not considered contagious until she began to cough the day after her flight.
Holman said Long Beach has notified the CDC of “dozens” of other flights carrying infectious passengers, adding, “We have them on speed dial.”