Sick passenger blames airline for overreaction

Emergency crews surround a plan at Gerald R. Ford International Airport after passengers were reported to be ill. (Oct. 17, 2014)

CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — One of the people whose cold prompted a large emergency response at Gerald R. Ford International Airport last week said she thinks the overreaction could have been avoided with better training.

Friday night, a flight coming in to Grand Rapids from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport reported three passengers were sick. It was the first Ebola scare at Ford Airport, and it turned out to be a case of the common cold.

“We were originally told they were very ill,” said Ford Airport Communications Manager Tara Hernandez.

That prompted police, fire and airport operations to meet the plane when it landed. The plane was stalled in a holding area for more than an hour as health workers in hazmat suits checked the sick passengers.

Sharon Kobs was one of the three people whose illness led to the response.

“I would say it was kind of a panicked reaction,” Kobs, who is still recovering from her cold, told 24 Hour News 8 in a phone interview Monday.

She and a group of about 20 other people had spent a week in Guatemala working with sick children. They made it to Dallas without any problems then boarded a plane for Grand Rapids. Halfway home, Kobs said, a flight attendant approached her and said a passenger had complained about her coughing.

“She asked me if I would wear a mask on the plane and I told her I was more than happy to do that,” Kobs said.

She and two others wore masks for the remainder of the flight.

An American Airlines representative said in a phone interview that its employees told the airport that the passengers were traveling from Guatemala and that there was no concern about Ebola. But according to Kobs, someone called the Centers for Disease Control.

“The captain from American Airlines I believe came on the intercom one time and he said the CDC in Detroit had been contacted about our group and about our symptoms and that the CDC in Detroit considered us very minimally risked for Ebola. There was a lot of cheering on the plane,” she said.

But the response upon landing was not that of a low risk. Other passengers waited for about an hour as Kobs and the two other passengers were checked. And even after she was cleared, Kobs said, she was forced to go to the hospital.

24 Hour News 8 asked Ford Airport if the large response is the new norm for anyone with a cough. Hernandez said the airport reacted properly to the information it was given.

Kobs thinks everyone has become paranoid.

“Anyone who’s been on the flight before has exposed themselves to cold or flu,” she said. “Flying is just as safe as it is always been. It’s not any different now that we’ve had someone passed away from Ebola.”

CDC protocol is to ask a series of questions to determine if a person has the Ebola virus. The first question is does the person has a fever over 101 degrees. The second is whether they have been to west Africa in the past 21 days.

“It wasn’t until they landed that they went through that series of questions,” Hernandez said.

“I think that perhaps American Airlines and maybe some of the other airlines need to educate their employees so that their employees know what to look for in terms of Ebola,” Kobs said.

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