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Flight risk? I-Team tracks local flights from COVID-19 hot zones

Expert: Busy airports 'a public health nightmare'
Posted at 8:25 AM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 11:23:57-04

HEBRON, Ky. — Editor's note: This story was revised to include information CVG provided to the I-Team after publication.

Andre Revere Sr. flew to Cincinnati last week, visiting his fifth airport since March.

His American Airlines flight marked the first time he was told to wear a mask.

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Andre Revere Sr. has traveled through five airports in last two months, calls CVG "one of the emptiest."

“I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable. So, if they say to wear a mask then I’m going to put it on,” said Revere, an Atlanta resident who played pro football in Mexico until the coronavirus pandemic put an end to his season on March 14.

Revere said he never developed COVID-19 symptoms after flying through airports in Mexico, Miami, Atlanta or Chicago. He had his mask in his pocket as he waited for a friend to pick him up outside the baggage claim at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

“It’s kind of hard to breathe,” he said.

Airport recovery means rising risk

It’s a scene playing out all over the globe as travelers return to the sky and test their comfort level against new public health guidelines for social distancing and facial covering.

A new I-Team analysis suggests the Cincinnati area could face a rising risk of COVID-19 outbreaks based on the number of flights arriving here from regions where the disease is rapidly spreading.

CVG Airport's total monthly passenger volume more than doubled to 84,986 in May, compared to April's all-time low of 40,399. CVG had 42,805 arriving passengers in May, about 10% of its total from a year ago.

National figures from the Transportation Security Administration shows the number of passengers crossing TSA checkpoints quadrupled since April to 544,000 on June 14. That's about 20% of last year’s daily volume.

As the number of fliers rapidly grows, new infections are inevitable, said Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois professor who has published papers on airport security and public health.

“If you have a large airport where you have several dozen flights coming in within a one-and-a-half hour period, you’re bringing a lot of people in close proximity of each other,” Jacobson said. “Social distancing becomes a public health nightmare at that point because it’s very difficult to keep people apart.”

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University of Illinois Professor Sheldon Jacobson interviewed via Zoom by I-Team

Jacobson said he is not aware of studies linking airports to increased transmission of the coronavirus, but the airline industry’s hub-and-spoke flight patterns are conducive to such a spread because they connect COVID-19 hot zones to cities that have lower infection rates.

“This isn’t necessarily a risk to the airport,” he said. “It’s much more a risk to the population in the community.”

Flights to COVID-19 hot zones

A new analysis by the I-Team shows the potential for widespread infection among passengers on arriving flights to CVG.

We downloaded two weeks of CVG flight arrival data from FlightAware.com, a digital aviation company that claims to operate the world’s largest flight-tracking database. Then, we compared the Cincinnati-area’s COVID-19 infection rate to the counties where those flights originated.

Thirteen of the 14 origin airports with 30 or more flights into CVG from May 14-28 were located in counties with COVID-19 case rates (per 10,000 residents) higher than the overall Tri-State rate.

Among them:

  • New York’s JFK (38 flights into CVG), where the COVID-19 case rate on May 27 was 242.5 per 10,000 New York City residents – the 38th-highest rate among 3,143 U.S. counties or equivalents at the time, and more than nine times higher than the Tri-State rate.
  • Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (63 flights into CVG), where the case rate in surrounding Cook County, IL was 142.7 per 10,000 – 98th highest among U.S. counties and more than five times higher than the Tri-State.
  • Detroit’s Metro Wayne County International Airport (31 flights into CVG), where the case in Wayne County, MI was 113.5 per 10,000 – 144th highest among counties, and more than four times higher than the Tri-State rate.

CVG said FlightAware's data includes cargo flights and scheduled flights that never actually happened. New York's JFK, for example, flew only cargo to CVG in May, while Chicago's O'Hare included at least 30 cargo flights.

After this story published, CVG provided the I-Team with passenger-flight data from FlightStats by Cirium. It showed 451 passenger flights arriving at CVG from 32 airports.

The list also includes 229 international flights from 21 different airports in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia, where current COVID-19 case and death rates were not available. Reported cases and deaths spiked in those international regions during late February, March and April.

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CVG passengers are requested to wear masks but not required.

The I-Team also compared CVG’s arriving flights to TSA data on employees and contractors who tested positive. Forty airports with at least one coronavirus case sent flights to Cincinnati in May.

The flights arrived in a two-week period in which the COVID-19 infection rate, and death rate, among Tri-State residents inched upward.

On May 14, the overall infection rate in 14 Cincinnati-area counties was 18.7 per 10,000 residents, and the death rate was about 1 per 10,000. By May 27, the infection rate was 24.8 per 10,000, and the death rate was 1.3 per 10,000.

Whose job is it?

The Northern Kentucky Health Department said it doesn’t conduct or require health screenings for arriving passengers at CVG and declined to comment on whether it has documented any transmission of the coronavirus by arriving passengers or airport employees.

“All cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the Northern Kentucky Health Department are thoroughly investigated and contact tracing is performed, with notifications made as appropriate to those who may have been exposed. We are not able to comment on specific cases,” wrote Laura Brinson, a public health impacts administrator for the department. “With regards to health screenings conducted on travelers, those are federal guidelines.”

The TSA has disclosed one case involving an employee who last worked at CVG May 3, while the airport disclosed on March 31 that one of its badge holders tested positive. But neither entity is in charge of the coronavirus prevention at CVG.

The airport asks travelers to attest that they’re fever free, symptom free and haven’t been exposed to COVID-19 before entering the airport, spokeswoman Mindy Kershner said. It doesn’t conduct health screenings or temperature checks on passengers who fly to CVG from other airports.

“All airlines have instituted their own protocols,” Kershner said. “We have installed more hand-sanitizing stations throughout the facilities. In addition to our already rigorous cleaning protocols, housekeepers are focused on cleaning those high-traffic touchpoints. We also introduced an autonomous floor-scrubbing robot in April called Neo, provided by Avidbots.”

CVG also requests travelers to wear masks and sit at least three seats apart while waiting for flights.

“They’re actually doing a good job trying to keep the social distancing,” Revere said. “I hear them over the intercom, ‘Make sure you stay six feet away.’”

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Andre Revere Sr., No. 97, played defensive tackle and fullback for the Queratero Pioneros until March.

Revere, who played defensive tackle and fullback for the Queratero Pioneros in Mexico’s Liga De Futbol Americano (LFA). He’s been surprised by the lack of consistent standards in the five airports he visited since his season ended March 14.

“Leaving Mexico, I was tested five times [for fever,]" he said. “I was hit with the gun five times just to get out of the country. Then I get to my own country and didn’t get tested. Not once.”

The nation’s largest union for flight attendants says the lack of standards is a big problem.

“The FAA can and should enact safety standards that are sweeping for all of the airlines,” said Susannah Carr, a United Airlines flight attendant, in testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure June 9. Carr testified on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants.

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Susannah Carr testifies on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants in June House hearing.

She said airlines have too many variations in their screening policies and no power to enforce rules about wearing masks on a plane.

“If a passenger takes it off, the most that I can do is to ask them to put it back on,” Carr said. “We need federal guidelines. We need a federal mandate that states you must wear this on the airplane, with the exception of a brief moment to have something to eat or drink.”

How to keep track of changing rules

For now, TSA rules do not require passengers to wear masks nor submit to temperature screening, said Mark Howell, a spokesman for the agency’s Chicago office. Health-screening rules are under development but Howell said TSA hasn’t adopted any new standards since May 21.

That’s when TSA announced “no touch” rules for its airport security checkpoints that allow travelers to scan their own boarding passes and carry on liquid hand sanitizer in containers of up to 12 ounces.

Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told the Dallas Morning News the Trump Administration is “looking at temperature checks, thermal imaging and other technologies” as ways of fighting the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal cited sources in May as saying DHS would take temperatures in roughly a dozen airports.

In a statement to the I-Team, the department confirmed it is “exploring the use of technologies through a phased, multi-layered approach.”

With so many changes evolving, CVG has established a web site where travelers can find the latest rules from airlines that fly here, along with travel guidelines from TSA, the Centers for Disease Control and Ohio and Kentucky. But no amount of guidance will keep the cautious from booking new flights or the bold from complying with every standard.

“I’m not worried about it,” Celeste Manriquez of Southeast Indiana said. “I do take every precaution. I’m not foolish, but I just do not want to live in fear.”

Manriquez was waiting for her daughter and granddaughter to arrive from Atlanta last week when the I-Team inquired about her travel plans. She’s flown twice since March and has two flights booked for Arizona and Mexico in the next few months.

“I don’t want to be a prisoner any longer in my home and I want my life back to normal,” she said.