An explosive “60 Minutes’’ report Sunday detailed a public health nightmare that played out at the Atlanta airport – and included an error-filled response by the CDC.
According to the CBS News program, the debacle started with a COVID-19 outbreak in March aboard the cruise ship Costa Luminosa, headed from Florida to Europe. Days into the trip, passengers began to get sick.
At that point, the pandemic was just beginning to affect the United States, with just a couple of hundred cases of COVID-19 nationally. But the Costa Luminosa wasn’t the first cruise ship to be stricken with coronavirus infections. The Diamond Princess had quarantined in Japan in February amid a COVID-19 outbreak that sickened 712 of 3,711 passengers, killing 13.
Bob Anderson, a Costa Luminosa passenger, told “60 Minutes” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi that he got sick about a week into the trip. “It was fatigue,’’ he said. “I just didn’t feel like doing anything. And then I got a tightness in the chest, lost my sense of taste, my sense of smell.’’
With the virus spreading, eventually all passengers were ordered to quarantine in their cabins.
The U.S. State Department was alerted, and passengers were given approval to leave the ship in Marseille, France. The Americans gathered in the ship’s lounge to be checked by French medics before boarding buses for the airport.
Passenger Kelly Edge says many people who looked to be in their 70s and were showing apparent symptoms of COVID-19 waited in the locked buses for five hours while paperwork was sorted out by U.S. diplomats.
Finally, they boarded a flight to Atlanta. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was one of 20 quarantine stations in the United States that the CDC had designated in late January to screen arriving passengers who might have COVID-19.
During the nine-hour flight to Hartsfield-Jackson, several passengers showed visible symptoms of the virus. But when the plane carrying the sick and exhausted passengers landed at 6:43 a.m., the doors stayed closed.
The French had tested four Americans for COVID-19 before departure, and three who later proved to have tested positive were among the people on the plane. (COVID-19 tests at the time weren’t quickly processed.)
The CDC put together a team to go to the jet. Jenny Catron, a passenger, got tired of waiting and called 911.
The state Department of Public Health told GHN on Monday that it knew nothing about the plane until after it arrived at the airport. There were three individuals on the plane who were asymptomatic but tested positive for COVID-19, Public Health said. The agency wrote isolation orders for those individuals, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found a location to house them.
All the others went to a cargo building, where each was checked for fever by the CDC and filled out a short questionnaire. Nobody was given a COVID test, “60 Minutes” reported. And some passengers told the show that they saw people with symptoms get through.
More than 200 passengers boarded commercial flights in Atlanta and headed home.
Anderson tested positive for COVID after he flew home to Utah. Edge’s husband tested positive after he took a flight to Miami. Three people on the plane were put on ventilators days later. And two other passengers who flew home, Tom Sheehan and Herman Boehm, both died nine days later.
“Undoubtedly you know I would say this sort of constitutes public health malpractice,’’ said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health, and a former director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
“That you have individuals who you know are exposed, potentially multiple people infected within that group, and then you put them in the busiest airport in the world.’’
Those individuals should have stayed in Atlanta and been isolated or quarantined based on their circumstances, Khan said.
CBS News said it was able to track down 64 of the American passengers on the cruise ship. Of those, 45 of them told the network that they tested positive for COVID soon after coming home.
The CDC declined an interview with “60 Minutes.” The agency reportedly has been under strong political pressure during the pandemic, and has drawn public criticism for its actions.