The lede to a piece in the New York Times on the bungled initial response to the novel coronavirus appears to suggest that the virus was first brought to New York by a Qatar Airways flight.
A 39-year-old woman took Flight 701 from Doha, Qatar, to John F. Kennedy International Airport in late February, the final leg of her trip home to New York City from Iran.
A week later, on March 1, she tested positive for the coronavirus, the first confirmed case in New York City of an outbreak that had already devastated China and parts of Europe.
By opening with the first confirmed case and leading with her travel the author suggests that this woman brought COVID-19 with her to New York when it wasn’t there before, and may lead the reader to think that ‘but-for this woman New York wouldn’t have the outbreak that it does’.
The piece goes on, “The next day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, appearing with Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference, promised that health investigators would track down every person on the woman’s flight. But no one did.”
If only New York health authorities had tracked and traced this woman’s steps we wouldn’t be facing the public health catastrophe that we’re seeing in New York now.
This is silly and irresponsible. There is no question that government bureaucracies at all levels, whether New York state or at the FDA, bungled this. There’s a lot to blame China for (and the WHO for), such as hiding person-to-person spread of the virus as recently as mid-January.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
However once the problem at hand was fully known – and articulated, even in a press conference with the New York Governor and New York City Mayor (and the federal government was well aware) – the failures are entirely on the U.S.
But framing the narrative as though it was one passenger, and one point of failure, is simply wrong-headed.
- It’s unlikely she was actually first in the city with the virus. She was just the first positive test. COVID-19 has been in the U.S. since at least January 15, six weeks before this case was reported.
- While she traveled from Iran, where the virus was spreading, she didn’t test positive for a week. She could have picked up the virus in New York.
- China Southern flew non-stop Wuhan – New York JFK 3 times weekly since last summer up until January 23.
- The Times piece itself offers that the day after she tested positive, a doctor who hadn’t traveled internationally (and presumably hadn’t been in contact with this woman) tested positive as well.
- New York’s outbreak didn’t come from a single virus-infected person. It came from multiple seedings of the virus.
If Wuhan had been shut down earlier; if flights to the U.S. had been stopped by mid-January; if the FDA hadn’t blocked private testing; if the CDC test kits had been functional; if the U.S. had properly traced contacts of virus-infected persons; if New York State (and other state) certificate of need laws hadn’t blocked provision of more hospital capacity to benefit incumbent hospitals… there are an immense numbers of if only scenarios in this crisis.
What I can say with a high degree of certainty is that “if only this woman hadn’t been allowed in from Iran” or “if only this woman’s contacts had been better traced” doesn’t plausibly get you to “we wouldn’t be facing this crisis.” The outbreak of COVID-19 in New York does not stem from Qatar Airways flight QR701.