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

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 were conflicting estimates flying around: Emirates said “about 10,” while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday morning put the number closer to 100.

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 549 passengers and crew on board.
  • The CDC was notified Wednesday morning that there were “passengers, including crew members, complaining of illness including cough, fever, and symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.”
  • The double-decker plane landed in New York just after 9 am and was greeted by ambulances, fire trucks, and health officials.

  • CDC public health officers, along with local officials, checked all 549 passengers and crew members on board. Here’s a photo from one passenger, Larry Coben, of people getting their temperatures taken as they left the plane:

  • There’s some confusion about the precise number of sick people from the flight.
  • According to a press conference Wednesday evening, New York City’s acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said 10 people — three passengers, seven crew members — were hospitalized, though 106 initially complained about symptoms.
  • The CDC said the number of sick people was actually 11.
  • The CDC asked the non-sick passengers to notify a health provider and their local health department if any symptoms develop.
  • Some of the passengers on the flight had participated in the Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca, which has been a source of numerous outbreaks in the past, as thousands from around the world mingle and swap microbes.
  • Another passenger’s Twitter account suggests people may have been 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 Emirates plane passengers was pop star Vanilla Ice, whose “Ice Ice Baby” was a huge hit in the 1990s.

What we don’t know

  • The cause of the illness is unknown, but as of Thursday Morning, the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene said, “A majority of the tests showed common viruses such as influenza and the common cold.” But the tests for other viruses were inconclusive so they’re re-testing to learn more.
  • It’s unclear 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Vanilla Ice was an 1980s pop star. While he was active in the 1980s, he rose to fame in the 1990s.

Author: Julia Belluz


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