Washington: A Texas woman died of COVID-19 while she was on board a Spirit Airlines flight heading home to Dallas from Las Vegas in late July, officials said this week.
The Spirit flight left Las Vegas on the evening of July 24, bound for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and was diverted to Albuquerque because the woman was unresponsive, said Stephanie Kitts, a spokeswoman for Albuquerque International Sunport. The woman was dead by the time she arrived, Kitts said.
The woman, who was 38, fell unconscious on the flight and stopped breathing, according to a police report documenting the incident. A member of the flight's crew tried to administer CPR and passed out from exhaustion, according to the report.
When the plane landed, emergency crews carried the woman from the jet on a gurney and tried to resuscitate her but gave up after several minutes.
The Dallas County Judge's Office, which first disclosed the woman's death, said she had an underlying medical condition. The investigation into her death by officials in New Mexico concluded that her cause of death was a COVID-19 infection, contributed to by asthma and morbid obesity.
Case handled as typical medical diversion
Airport managers in Albuquerque did not learn until later that the woman had COVID-19, so the case was handled as a typical medical diversion, Kitts said. Officials in Dallas County added the woman to their virus death toll on Sunday.
"She expired on an interstate airline flight, and did have underlying high risk health conditions," the county said in a new release updating its tally.
Erik Hofmeyer, a spokesman for Spirit, offered the airline's condolences to the woman's family and friends. He said that the airline remains confident in its protocols for handling coronavirus cases and that it works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on any contact-tracing requests.
"Our Flight Attendants have in-depth training to respond to medical emergencies and utilise several resources, including communicating with our designated on-call medical professionals on the ground, using onboard medical kits and personal protective equipment, and receiving assistance from credentialed medical personnel traveling on the flight," Hofmeyer said.
It's unknown how many people were on the flight or whether they were notified that they might have been exposed to the virus. Spirit referred questions about any contact tracing to the CDC.
The CDC has said it has investigated about 1,600 cases of people who travelled while they posed a risk of spreading the coronavirus, identifying 11,000 people who were potentially exposed. It wasn't immediately clear whether the agency investigated the case of the woman who died on the Spirit flight.
The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, which handles unusual deaths in the state, responded to the airport and investigated the woman's death, said Alex Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the office. The office's report shows that the woman was tested for the coronavirus as part of the investigation.
"SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has been shown to be more severe in people with comorbidities such as obesity and asthma," a medical investigator wrote. "The manner of death is natural."
A relative travelling with the woman who died told police she had been suffering from shortness of breath, but it's not known whether she was aware that she was infected with the coronavirus. The relative declined to comment when reached by phone.
Officials in Dallas initially said the woman died in Arizona, a detail that was widely reported, before confirming that she actually died in New Mexico.
Although it appears to be an extreme case, the woman's death was disclosed as airlines continue to try to convince potential passengers that flying is safe during the pandemic. Trade organizations have stressed that there have not been confirmed cases of people catching the virus on planes in the United States and that only a few cases have been documented globally.
Nevertheless, passenger numbers continue to be down considerably from normal times as businesses curtail travel and some states impose quarantine requirements on travellers.