New York Times Irresponsibly Suggests COVID-19 Was Brought To New York By Qatar Airways

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.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. China Southern flew non-stop Wuhan – New York JFK 3 times weekly since last summer up until January 23.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s a failure to not contract trace, which is what happens in South Korea. This is just one glaring example of its failures not being implementing earlier.

  2. It’s the NYT – a rag that still has a lot of people convinced it’s a respectable newspaper.

  3. Sorry Gary I disagree. Further into the cited NYT article it says:

    “Officials seemed to speak and act based on the assumption that the virus had not arrived in the state until that first case — the woman traveling from Iran. State and local officials now acknowledge that the virus was almost certainly in New York much earlier.”

    While you could make the case that article might have been more explicit to add something like, “and it’s possible that the woman could have contracted the virus after she arrived in New York,” I think it’s a stretch to say that reporting was irresponsible.

    They were trying to build a narrative, and nothing they said was factually incorrect. I don’t see anywhere where they implied that, “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.”

  4. It’s irresponsible for you not to note the following paragraph in the article:

    “Officials seemed to speak and act based on the assumption that the virus had not arrived in the state until that first case — the woman traveling from Iran. State and local officials now acknowledge that the virus was almost certainly in New York much earlier.“

  5. Sorry @Truthiness, but authors offering contrary indications halfway through a news piece doesn’t undercut the way the article is framed from the start.

  6. Gary, you make all good points with your “if-then” scenarios.

    I believe this virus was seeded long before the date showing in the NYT article.

    This is anecdotal: take from it what you will. My sister plays golf with pilots in Memphis. She played a round of golf with a pilot who flies the Memphis-China route. He became ill sometime in mid-to-late January. He went to his doctor. The results were so disturbing and so inaccurate that his physician had the results of the lab work and phlebotomy tests sent to the CDC. The pilot was contacted by the CDC to give further blood specimens. During this time my sister came down with what appeared to be classic Covid-19 symptoms. She had no idea what was going on; she visited her Memphis physician in early February and was told her test results showed “some type” of virus. A week later her husband came down with the symptoms. Her adult child, who works at the airport in another flight hub, DTW, came down with similar symptoms, but also manifesting in severe arm pain and loss of taste, sometime in early March.

    This is not a tale of isolated accounts. It’s my opinion this virus has been in the US longer than we thought officially, and is far more widespread than currently known. It has likely gone undetected for months, because we did not have a test to detect it.

    What is of utmost urgency is getting an antibody test out for the general public, stat. Random samplings must be taken nationwide, from large cities and small, to determine the extent of exposure and/or immunity. In order to get this country back on its feet, it is imperative to learn who is “safe” to go back in the working world, and those who will need further protection until a vaccine is introduced or they become ill and develop immunity themselves.

    I write this from my bed in a medium-sized tourist town in Florida. My entire household (4) has been ill with Covid symptoms. On Monday I went to a doctor due to breathing problems I attributed to bronchitis. The doctor believed it to be Covid, but because I was not running a “high” fever, nor am I over 65, I could not be tested. Hence, yet another opportunity to determine infection rates, lost, due to lack of testing supplies.

    Had this country–supposedly THE world leader in medicine–shown more proactive leadership, we would not be in the mess we are now.

  7. @KimmieA-I too had a group of friends who exhibited what we now know are covid-19 symptoms in late January. All are OK now but a couple of them went to ER for breathing difficulties. In all cases, the physicians ascribed the symptoms to either “flu” or severe bronchitis. Covid-19 wasn’t on the “radar” then so none were tested nor did they even consider it was covid-19. So yes, it’s likely a lot of people were infected by this virus long before late February.

  8. I live in NYC and though that woman was the first patient to have a positive test, I do think the virus has been in NYC before then.
    Did it come from the nonstop Wuhan-JFK flight? I doubt it since it stopped in Jan 23rd and I recall NYC officials doing a few tests of people who have travelled from China back in February but none turned positive. Given how infectious this virus is, if it came from the Wuhan-JFK nonstop flight I think NYC would have had at least a cluster by early February. Remember that NYC is very densely populated and so many people use JFK/LGA and go through Grand Central/Port Authority/Penn Station every day.
    I don’t know how the virus came to NYC but given how more New Yorkers were travelling to Europe in mid-late February, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from New Yorkers who had recently travelled to Europe.

  9. It’s reminiscent of the way the media breathlessly announced they’d tracked down ‘case zero’ in the AIDS outbreak in the ‘80s ..a Canadian FA, deceased. It turned out to be complete nonsense but they persisted with the lie.
    As for the NYT…it’s uncharacteristically sloppy, but it isn’t the great lie foisted on the world, day and night, unrelentingly , by the despicable scum at Fox News.

  10. The 3rd paragraph of the article:

    “A day later, a lawyer from New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, tested positive for the virus — an alarming sign because he had not traveled to any affected country, suggesting community spread was already taking place.”

    How is this suggesting the single passenger was responsible for the outbreak in NY? It’s silly and irresponsible to stop reading a lengthy article after 2 paragraphs and post this entry.

  11. I’m not going to take sides but I want to explain why the New York Times is pushing this story, because it is a defense against an accusation facing the side they support (Mayor DiBlasio whom the NYT endorsed and his chosen New York Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot).

    This article shows the path they chose to take while the virus began to rage, describing an event Barbot participated in promoting the New York Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival on Feb 9.

    From ABC in New York:

    “”I am here along with other elected officials to show support for Chinatown and for the Chinese community all across New York City, and we have heard reports that many businesses in Chinatown and in Flushing and in Sunset Park and in other parts of the city have seen a downturn in business since this news came out and this is really an important time of year because of Lunar New Year, a lot of these businesses count on an increase of business during Lunar New Year, and so we want to assure the public that we have the greatest health department in the world,” [NYC Council Speaker Corey] Johnson said.

    Later she tweeted: ““As we gear up to celebrate the #LunarNewYear in NYC, I want to assure New Yorkers that there is no reason for anyone to change their holiday plans, avoid the subway, or certain parts of the city because of #coronavirus,”

    Another quote from Barbot: ““You won’t get it merely from riding the subways – you get it from secretions,”

    After the first coronavirus case in the city, she claimed that “disease detectives” would prevent the spread of the coronavirus and that New Yorkers were “at low risk”.

    Promoting the event was necessary to counteract “prejudice” and “misinformation” that prevented people from patronizing Chinese establishments in New York, and was therefore consistent with Barbot’s main mission:

    From Barbot’s bio at the city health commission website:

    “she uses a racial equity lens”

    she is “spearheading the creation of the Center for Health Equity which operationalizes the Department’s commitment to racial justice.”

    So what you will see from the New York Times are a lot of stories suggesting the virus came to New York not from Wuhan or China but from anywhere else, and stories saying if only the “disease detectives” had support from the Federal Government they would have contained it.

    Not trying to argue one side or another, but it’s helpful to know which side the New York Times is on when you read any one of their articles.

  12. Sorry @Truthiness, but authors offering contrary indications halfway through a news piece doesn’t undercut the way the article is framed from the start.

    You need to check yourself. What you did was far worse. The title of your article says New York Times Irresponsibly Suggests COVID-19 Was Brought To New York By Qatar Airways. If you read the entire article, it in fact does not say that.

    It is obvious that a lot of the posters did not read the linked article, or even finish yours. They went by your misleading headline.

  13. Most of the early week cases in NY trace back to Europe, according to some scientific studies in the pipeline to get peer-reviewed.

    But some of the early cases in parts of Europe and NY trace back to Iran. But just because an early or earlier cases trace back to one source doesn’t mean that the bulk of cases trace back to the same source. In Sweden, for example, the first cases were from China and Iran, but the bulk of the early and wide spread in the country was with Scandinavians coming back from Italy, Austria and France and even traces back within Europe and more from the US than from China and even Iran.

  14. It’s extremely ironic that you complain about that article being misleading when your summary is itself misleading.

    There’s nothing misleading about the Times article, unless you doubt the attention span of the people reading it or their ability to understand what “first confirmed case in New York City” means in the context of the whole article itself.

    The information about the Qatar Airways woman acts as a framing device for the article, which is obviously about the failure at various levels of NY government to properly react to the pandemic. Her positive test prompted some of the belated government actions, as there was no doubt at that point that COVID-19 was in NYC.

  15. FWIW, I had read this earlier and didn’t read it the way you did. So I re-read the article after reading your critique and I still didn’t have the same take as you. I felt the writer’s was just trying to make the point of how many missed opportunities there were and this was one way to illustrate that. Them’s my two cents on this…

  16. @GaryLeff – nowhere in the article is “Qatar Airways” mentioned. Just a flight number with no airline code. The whole point of the article is about how the NY government apparently made a mistake in thinking one person who traveled to NY from Iran was the first case of COVID-19 in NY. It’s not about Qatar Airways at all, and the overwhelming majority of NYT readers (maybe even your readers) would need to google Flight 701 to figure out Qatar was the airline involved. Your post appears to read way more into the airline angle than what was actually written

  17. @Gary:

    Long time reader, first time poster. Enjoy your work and have since probably 2015 or so. Actually I have your website favorited on my iPhone.

    I’ve noticed since the COVID pandemic your articles appear to have become more confrontational and overtly political. I don’t find your viewpoint itself a reason to complain over the years because your insight has been wonderful: it’s your site and your politics.

    But I wonder, in another article, you describe yourself as a germaphobe. You mention your survivalist purchasing habits. We’re all worried. But I ask myself if your fear of this virus is materially affecting the quality of your normal work product.

    Over the last few weeks I think it has, and has gotten noticeably worse. You won’t notice, but I’m sorry, I enjoy your site but articles like this one are subpar for you and I’m deleting that favorite button.

    Look at your posts on the bailout and the industry compared to your articles about this virus. It’s not your area of expertise or passion and it shows (an article mentioning flights in the context of the virus doesn’t mean the article requires an analysis here). Consider continuing your great work on views from the “Wing” and I’ll rejoin the fracas later. It’s your site at the end of the day. Good luck and stay safe sir.

  18. Trump did very well by closing travel from China in the last day of January. He got a lot of heat but it was the right move as genetic analysis shows that almost all cases in the U.S. are linked to Europe. President a Trump was also right to stop travel from Europe in March despite heavy criticism but unfortunately it was too late. I am a traveler but too many people in this travel and miles and points community heavily criticized travel bans in response to COVID-19. If travel was shut from Europe a month earlier we’d have 100 cases. As we have seen with cases it really is a New York City concentrated Virus with people from New York spreading the virus to other parts. The NYC government and NY State government were asleep at the wheel and failed to contain the spread. Last week Governor Cuomo blasted the idea of quarantining NYC when such a move is literally a no brained to contain the spread. Bridges and tunnels would isolate 4 out of the 5 boroughs and Long Island.

  19. “If travel was shut from Europe a month earlier we’d have 100 cases.” How could you possibly know that?

  20. To paraphrase one of my favorite voices on the web:
    Sorry Gary, but offering contrary indications 80% through a blog post doesn’t undercut the way the post is framed from the start.

    I enjoy your contrary take on the aviation industry and life in general, but this post is a misfire. Your take isn’t representative of the tone of the article

  21. Gary — I enjoyed your article very much. I found it thoughtful, well-balanced. It gave perspective on a complex situation. Thanks for the good writing.

  22. Long story short, the virus came over on many airplanes and our government failed to do the work up front to research, track and isolate those exposed. Totally ignoring a spark that turned into a raging fire and we are all trapped at home now due this group incompetence we love to celebrate in this country. .

  23. @Mark G. – You’ve hit the nail on the head, so to say. Total incompetence and failure to acknowledge and act early on (Trump denials) especially at the federal level but also at thew state level. California acted fairly early with stay-at-home orders which have helped to a great degree.

  24. I thought the first reported case was in Seattle of a female Chinese tourist who returned from China and then her husband also became infected with the virus..

  25. Sorry Gary, “your view” doesn’t represent what the article says. Your post is just another New York Times hit piece. The commenters that also knock New York Times , well your political strips are showing….

  26. JohnB says: “The commenters that also knock New York Times , well your political strips are showing….”

    That would be me.

    So JohnB, a question: is it wrong to “knock” (ie criticize) the New York Times, because they are always right? Or because even if they are wrong, the critic will show their “political stripes”? Or is it OK to criticize them as long as it is done by an Independent? If the latter, perhaps you could give us an example of a good and effective critique of the New York Times that was acceptable under your standard?

  27. Yes! Blame the Arab airline and while you are at it,involve someone from Iran as a passenger with Covid-19.Kill 2 Birds with one stone. What was the name of the writer? Benjamin Nut n yahooo

  28. View from the Wing is just that stick to your shithead world of points, airmiles and liveries, leave your opinions on everything else out of it

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