Alaska Airlines passenger flew on Southeast milk run after testing positive for COVID-19, health officials say

An Alaska Airlines plane at Juneau International Airport.
An Alaska Airlines plane at Juneau International Airport. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Alaska Airlines says it prevented a COVID-19 infected passenger from boarding a flight in Seattle on Tuesday after they’d arrived from Alaska on a multi-leg trip that included Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan.

The unnamed passenger reportedly tested positive in Sitka on Monday but then flew the next day to the Lower 48 on the multi-stop milk run through Southeast Alaska.

Public Health Nurse Denise Ewing wrote a letter published in the Sitka Sentinel newspaper warning that a COVID-infected person and three symptomatic companions had managed to fly out of Sitka despite being told to isolate.

It urged anyone who had been on Tuesday’s Alaska flight 73 from Sitka to Juneau and flight 60 from Juneau to Ketchikan to Seattle to be aware of their potential exposure.

Libby Watanabe was a passenger on the flight from Juneau to Seattle.

“It was a typical flight, it was very full. There were no empty seats,” Watanabe said.

Once she got home, she saw Ewing’s letter circulating on Facebook. If it hadn’t been for social media, she wouldn’t have known.

“I think that’s really irresponsible of them [the COVID passengers] … It’s worrisome when you find out things like this, how other people have unnecessarily put not just myself and my family in harm’s way but others as well,” she said.

Watanabe is vaccinated, but she’s concerned about exposure to variants. She contacted her local health clinic, and they recommended she monitor for symptoms for the next week.

Sitka is in the midst of its worst outbreak of COVID-19 with more than 200 active cases in the community.

Juneau’s Deputy City Manager Robert Barr says it’s unclear to him how people knowingly infected with the coronavirus could get on a plane.

“People are not supposed to get on commercial flights. If they’re, they’re symptomatic. And certainly, if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a prohibition,” Barr said.

Barr says Juneau’s Emergency Operations Center hasn’t received official word of the incident. His office did get an email on Tuesday from a concerned citizen.

“But we were not aware that there were symptomatic positive individuals that flew. Certainly, that’s concerning,” he said.

He added that Juneau’s local officials are reaching out to the state for more information.

Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health, told reporters there is a process for preventing infected passengers from flying; it’s not voluntary. It’s called the “Do Not Board” list and is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a conversation that goes through several aspects, you know, what’s the disease? How infectious is this person? And what is their intent to travel,” Castrodale said. “Because there needs to be that component of an intent to travel, not just somebody who said, Oh, you know, what I just found out, I was positive, or I’m infectious, I’m going, I’m gonna stay put.”

The no-fly list is coordinated at the federal, state and local levels and she says it’s not always as fast as someone booking a ticket.

“And sometimes because of timing, it’s difficult to either get somebody on or off that list very quickly,” Castrodale said.

Castrodale did not clarify whether that process had begun for the passengers in Sitka or whether the COVID-positive passenger was on the “Do Not Board” list.

Alaska Airlines released a written statement on Wednesday. It said the company was notified by the CDC about the COVID-positive passenger while flight 60 was already on the air and headed to Seattle.

It says airline staff met the passenger in Seattle and informed them they would not be allowed to continue to their final destination. The statement does not mention the three other passengers who Sitka’s public health nurse says had exhibited symptoms.

“No Alaska employees, including those in Sitka, were aware that a guest had tested positive for COVID-19 and had boarded the flight until the CDC contacted us,” the airline said.

Castrodale says if a person on a flight tests positive for any highly communicable infectious disease or virus, those results are sent to the CDC.

“The quarantine station works with the airline companies to go through the passenger manifests, and then shoots out notifications to the states who have residents who have been exposed,” she said.

But ultimately, it’s state health authorities who notify passengers who may have been exposed. But as of Wednesday afternoon Watanabe says she hasn’t gotten any calls. And she’s not happy about people flouting the rules or refusing to get vaccinated.

“Folks that chose to not be vaccinated — you know, those folks may have been on the flight as well. And, you know, this could very well be a super spreader event because the flight was so full, which is very, very disappointing,” she said.

KCAW reached out to the state’s public health officials and the CDC for more information. But as of Wednesday afternoon its questions remain unanswered.

Jacob Resneck contributed to this report from Juneau.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the first name of state epidemiologist Dr. Louisa Castrodale.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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