Emirates flight from Dubai to JFK: how many are actually sick?

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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.

At least 10 people who were on the plane have been hospitalized. The rapper Vanilla Ice was also onboard.

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 are conflicting estimates floating around: Emirates has said “about 10” while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put the number closer to 100. The press secretary for the New York City mayor, Eric Phillips, said 19 people in total are sick: 10 were sent to hospital and nine refused medical attention.

While the details are still fuzzy, here’s what we know so far:

What we know

  • The 14-hour Emirates flight originated in Dubai at 3:20 am local time, and had about 520 passengers and crew.
  • The airline notified authorities that there was a medical issue on board.
  • The double-decker plane landed in New York just after 9 am, and was greeted by ambulances, fire trucks, and health officials.

  • According to Emirates’ latest statements on Twitter, three passengers and seven crew (10 people) were transferred to the hospital. The rest of the passengers were allowed to leave and clear customs. But again, US health authorities have suggested the number may be higher.
  • All passengers on the flight were screened in New York before disembarking. Here’s a photo from one passenger, Larry Coben, of people getting their temperatures taken as they left the plane:

  • The CDC has said “passengers who are not ill will be allowed to continue with their travel plans, and if necessary will be followed up with by health officials.”
  • Another passenger’s Twitter account suggests people were 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 plane passengers was ’80s pop star Vanilla Ice.

What we don’t know

  • The cause of the illness is unknown, but symptoms include coughing and fever, according to a CDC statement.
  • Health officials are processing tests to figure out the cause. Phillips, the mayor’s press secretary, said, “Symptoms still pointing to the flu.”
  • Whether the passengers were sick before getting on the plane, or fell ill because of something they were exposed to on the plane, like bacteria, a toxin, or a virus.
  • If it’s the latter, some viruses — like norovirus — can incubate in the space of a 14-hour flight. But a deadly respiratory virus that’s been spreading in Saudi Arabia, Mers, takes days to show symptoms.
  • But the fact that CDC let all the non-sick passengers go suggests health authorities don’t think they were infectious.