How health officials respond to outbreak threats on planes: 3 things to know

The CDC quarantined a plane in New York City Sept. 6 after numerous passengers reported feeling ill, triggering what Martin Cetron, MD, director of the CDC's global migration and quarantine division, called the country's "hidden safety net," against infectious diseases, according to STAT.

Here are three things to know:

1. Health officials first developed these protocols in the early 1990s. Dr. Cetron, who joined the CDC in 1996, has helped create comprehensive infectious disease containment strategies for air, land and sea vessels.

"The system [Wednesday] worked, but not because you can pull that off as a one-off event in the heat of the moment," Dr. Cetron told STAT. "It's because there have been port preparedness plans for years that have been written and revised and iterated in partnership with state and local health departments, with other federal partners at ports, with the local EMS response system, with communications officers."

2. In most cases, the CDC does not receive advanced warning about potential outbreak concerns and must later track down travelers at risk of infection. During the Sept. 6 incident in New York City, the agency did receive advanced notice, and a mobile specimen collection site rushed to John F. Kennedy Airport to test passengers right after the quarantined plane landed. The agency also pre-designated hospitals in the area to admit passengers requiring immediate care.

"So we had a contingency plan for 'What if it's 50 or 100 [sick people] versus what if it's just 15 sick people?'" Dr. Cetron told STAT. "All of those things are laid out in advance. And executing against a pre-planned and pre-exercised scenario really helps things go smoothly."

3. Some airports are better prepared to handle infectious disease threats than other possible, based on how often they run practice drills, according to Josh Greenberg, who co-authored a 2017 report for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine titled "Preparing Airports for Communicable Diseases on Arriving Flights."

"Larger, better resourced airports would be more likely to have practiced and stress-tested their response protocols than smaller or medium-sized airports," Mr. Greenberg told STAT. "But even then, they don't get opportunities to do it enough."

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