Airline passengers in Sitka can test before departure or after arrival for the COVID-19 virus (KCAW/McKinstry)

Alaska Airlines says it prevented a COVID-19 infected passenger from boarding a flight in Seattle on Tuesday (7-20-21) 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 Milkrun 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,” she said. “There were no empty seats.”

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,” she said of the passenger who tested positive for the virus. “It’s worrisome when you find out things like this, and how other people have unnecessarily put not just myself and my family in harm’s way, but others as well.”

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 said 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 symptomatic,” he said. “And certainly if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a prohibition.”

Barr said 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,” he said. “Certainly, that’s concerning.”

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

Dr. Louisa Castrodale is an epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health. She 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. 

“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?” she 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 said 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,” she 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. 

The statement read, “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.”

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

“And those notifications again go back through to the quarantine stations, who then works with the airline companies to go through the passenger manifests, and then shoots out notifications to the states where they 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 said she hadn’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,” she said. “And, you know, this could very well be a super spreader event because the flight was so full, which is very, very disappointing.”

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.