US Airways tuberculosis scare on Phoenix flight: Health officials, CDC and passengers demand answers

PHOENIX - Authorities are trying to determine whether a man who flew into Phoenix has tuberculosis, but a public health official says any risk to passengers on the flight is extremely low even if it turns out the man is infected.

About 70 passengers on Saturday's US Airways Express flight from Austin to Phoenix were kept on board until after responders boarded and removed the man, who was asked to put on a medical mask.

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director of the disease control division of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said the man is being tested to determine whether he has TB or any another illness.

Sunenshine said test results should be available within a week or so. The man is being tested at a hospital to speed up the process, not because of illness, she said.

Even if he has the disease, the short flight coupled with the fact that he wasn't coughing or sneezing on the plane means risk of transmission is extremely low, Sunenshine said.

During her own hour-long interview with the man, "he did not cough at all," Sunenshine said.

Sunenshine declined to provide details about the man but said he was put on no-fly status by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the federal agency was contacted by health authorities in Texas.

Unfortunately the airline wasn't notified until the flight was in the air, Sunenshine said.

Though a responder who went on the plane reportedly suggested that passengers get tested for TB, Sunenshine and a CDC physician familiar with the case said the other passengers don't need to do anything.

The absence of coughing by the man made "it almost impossible to transmit TB to these passengers," Sunenshine said.

"There's really no risk in this situation," said Dr. Francisco Alvarado-Ramy, a supervisory medical officer assigned with the CDC's division of global migration and quarantine.

Along with the flight's duration and the absence of coughing, there are other medical indicators that point to "very low to no concern," Alvarado-Ramy said from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Timeline of events

Benjamin N. Haynes, senior press officer with the Infectious Disease Team at the CDC, said the agency was informed of the traveler at 9 a.m. Arizona time (11 a.m. EDT), however, the traveler's whereabouts were unknown.

International travel information was available at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. EDT), however, domestic flight information was not available, according to Haynes.

State officials reportedly held a conference call at 12:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m. EDT) to determine if the criteria was met to move the passenger to the "Do Not Board" list, as well as to gather more information.

A request for CDC approval began at 1:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. EDT) and the request was sent to the DHS at 2:11 p.m. (4:11 p.m. EDT), according to Haynes.

The traveler's addition to the DNB list was completed by TSA at 3:05 p.m. (5:05 p.m. EDT) and a "lookout" addition was completed 27 minutes later.

The man's first leg of travel started at 2:35 p.m. (4:35 p.m. EDT), said Haynes, nearly 30 minutes prior to his name being added to the DNB list.

What is CDC criteria to meet "Do Not Board" list?

The CDC works with the Department of Homeland Security to "prevent the spread of serious communicable diseases (such as tuberculosis) during travel," said Haynes in a Monday release.

The DNB list is used to prevent passengers from boarding commercial flights if they are known or suspected of having a communicable disease that poses a threat to the public's health.

The "Look Out" list allows travelers to be detected if they are traveling to the United States from another country.

Three criteria must be met for someone to be added to the DNB or "Look Out" lists:

1) Contagious or likely contagious with a serious communicable disease
2) Noncompliant with public health recommendations or unaware of diagnosis
3) At risk of traveling on a commercial flight or traveling internationally

A person can be removed from these lists once it is confirmed by health officials that the person is no longer contagious. Typically this happens within 24 hours.

The CDC reviews records of all persons on both lists every two weeks.

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