Airport and health officials give conflicting accounts of COVID death of Texas woman on flight

A woman who died from COVID-19 on a Texas-bound flight three months ago did not die on the tarmac as health officials first claimed, but actually died one day earlier on a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas.

The aircraft was diverted to Albuqurque, New Mexico when she became unresponsive in the air. The woman was pronounced dead when the plane landed in New Mexico, airport officials said Tuesday.  

Dallas County officials announced Sunday that an unidentified woman in her 30s died back on July 25 as her plane sat on the runway awaiting take off in Arizona.  

Two days later, Albuquerque International Sunport officials said the woman in fact died on the evening of July 24 in New Mexico, after a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to DFW International Airport was diverted to Albuquerque when the woman fell ill on the flight. 

Key questions are now being asked over the nature of the woman’s death and the handling of the investigation – including when authorities learned of her COVID diagnosis, who was responsible for the investigation into her death, and whether contact tracing was carried out with other passengers and crew on board – as officials provide conflicting reports of her death.

Based on this latest account, the date, state and circumstances around the woman’s death appear to have been initially erroneously reported by authorities. 

Airport staff have said the woman who died of COVID on a July flight died one day earlier than officials first said, died in the air on a Spirit Airlines flight not on the tarmac and she died in New Mexico not Arizona

The woman died on board a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Dallas-Fort Worth on July 24, Stephanie Kitts, a spokesperson for Albuquerque International Sunport, told Dallas Morning News Tuesday.

When the woman became unresponsive on board, the flight was diverted to New Mexico, she said. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

‘Based on that report, and the fact that there was no mention of COVID at the time of the diversion, we treated this as we would any other medical incident,’ Kitts said.

Kitts said staff were unaware the woman had coronavirus at the time.  

This version of events came two days after Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced Sunday the woman died on a flight from Arizona to Texas.

The passenger, from Garland, Dallas County, died on July 25 as her plane sat on the runway awaiting take off, Jenkins said.  

Albuquerque International Sunport (above) officials have given a different account of the woman's death to Dallas County officials days earlier

Albuquerque International Sunport (above) officials have given a different account of the woman’s death to Dallas County officials days earlier

She is said to have had underlying health conditions and was ‘ill and having trouble breathing’ and was administered oxygen on the flight. 

Jenkins said the county learned in August that a Dallas County resident had died on a flight but had only received information that her death was caused by COVID ‘a day or two ago’. 

Jenkins told Dallas Morning News officials can’t provide many details due to privacy laws.

But his chief of staff Lauren Trimble confirmed Tuesday evening the county’s initial report was incorrect. 

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced Sunday the woman died on a flight from Arizona to Texas

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced Sunday the woman died on a flight from Arizona to Texas reached out to both the Dallas County Health Department and Albuquerque International Sunport for clarification over the events.

Trimble confirmed the woman was a City of Dallas resident and the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department was recently notified of the confirmed COVID-19 death from the Texas Department of State Health Services but due to medical privacy, could not release any further information. 

It is not clear which agency was responsible for investigating the death or when officials learned the woman had coronavirus. 

According to the CDC website, a pilot is responsible for reporting a death on board a commercial flight as soon as possible to the CDC when the individual has ‘symptoms or other indications of communicable disease’. 

It is not clear if the CDC or any other body then carried out contact tracing to inform all passengers on board the flight that they may have been exposed to the virus. 

The flight manifest should have made contact tracing relatively straightforward but it is not clear what measures have been taken, how many passengers and crew were on board the flight or if any of them went on to test positive for the virus.  

It is also not known if the woman had tested positive for the virus or knew she had it at the time of her death. reached out to both the CDC, New Mexico and Texas health departments and Spirit Airlines for information. 

Dallas Morning News reported that death records in New Mexico were unavailable because the data must be searched by name rather than the date or circumstances of death, according to a spokeswoman for New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator.    

The woman was one of three new deaths reported Sunday by Dallas County officials.  

Texas has seen 833,557 cases of the virus with 17,087 deaths.  

More than 8.4 million Americans have tested positive for the virus and more than 225,000 have died.  

Last week a landmark study on the safety of commercial air travel by the Department of Defense showed that the risk of COVID-19 exposure is ‘virtually non-existent’.

It’s claimed the study, through U.S Transportation Command (Transcom) using United aircraft, is the ‘most comprehensive on cabin airflow done to date’ and demonstrates that when a passenger is seated and wearing a mask, on average only 0.003 per cent of infected air particles could enter their breathing zone – even when every seat is occupied.

The six-month study found that fast onboard air recirculation, downward designed air ventilation and efficient hospital-grade Hepa filters make the cabin of a United airplane ‘one of the safest indoor environments in the world’.   

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