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Emirates flight from Dubai to JFK: what we know about the sick passengers

10 people who were sick on the plane are expected to be released from hospital soon.

A person walks off an Emirates plane at JFK International Airport to a waiting bus on Wednesday, September 5, 2018, in New York, as emergency response crews gather outside the plane amid reports of ill passengers aboard a flight from Dubai.
WABC 7 via AP

It’s a nightmare scenario for the global age: You’re on a plane and passengers around you come down with coughing and fever. This is apparently what happened on an Emirates airline flight from Dubai to New York’s JFK Airport, which had to be quarantined upon arrival for part of Wednesday morning.

But exactly how many are sick? There were conflicting estimates flying around: Emirates said “about 10,” while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday morning put the number closer to 100.

But as of Thursday afternoon, the situation looked more like a case of the global “worried well” than a global health emergency. Here’s what we know:

What we know

  • The 14-hour Emirates flight originated in Dubai at 3:20 am local time and had about 549 passengers and crew on board.
  • The CDC was notified Wednesday morning that there were “passengers, including crew members, complaining of illness including cough, fever, and symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.”
  • The double-decker plane landed in New York just after 9 am and was greeted by ambulances, fire trucks, and health officials.
  • CDC public health officers, along with local officials, checked all 549 passengers and crew members on board. Here’s a photo from one passenger, Larry Coben, of people getting their temperatures taken as they left the plane:
  • There was some confusion about the precise number of sick people from the flight.
  • According to a press conference Wednesday evening, New York City’s acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said 10 people — three passengers, seven crew members — were hospitalized, though 106 initially complained about symptoms.
  • The CDC said the number of sick people was actually 11, and on Thursday, the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene confirmed they tested 10 passengers who “showed no illness beyond influenza or other common cold viruses.” An 11th passenger also went to the hospital, but didn’t have respiratory illness and was not admitted.
  • The CDC asked all passengers to notify a health provider and their local health department if any symptoms develop.
  • Some of the passengers on the flight had participated in the Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca. The deadly MERS virus is circulating in Saudi Arabia, and the Hajj has been a source of numerous outbreaks in the past, as thousands from around the world mingle and swap microbes.
  • Another passenger’s Twitter account suggests people may have been coughing before they got on the plane. Erin Sykes of New York tweeted: “This is 100% not food poisoning. I asked for a mask bf we even took off.” Here’s a video from Sykes:
  • Planes do sometimes get quarantined out of an abundance of caution because of medical scares. In 2014, for example, the CDC quarantined an international flight in New Jersey after a passenger fell ill.
  • One of the Emirates plane passengers was pop star Vanilla Ice, whose “Ice Ice Baby” was a huge hit in the 1990s.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Vanilla Ice was an 1980s pop star. While he was active in the 1980s, he rose to fame in the 1990s.