CDC allowed over 200 cruise passengers exposed to COVID-19 to fly commercially from Atlanta

Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed more than 200 cruise ship passengers who had been exposed or infected with COVID-19 to mingle with unsuspecting travelers in the world’s busiest airport and fly on commercial aircraft potentially spreading the infection to their final destinations in 17 states and Canada. They had been aboard the cruise ship Costa Luminosa and had just returned to the United States on a charter flight from Marseilles, France. Passengers told Sharyn Alfonsi that many had COVID symptoms and were ill when they arrived in Atlanta. Alfonsi’s story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, October 18, at 7 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.  

“Someone described it as a flight from hell,” recalls passenger Bob Anderson, who later tested positive for COVID-19. “I kept looking at the man and woman to my left coughing, and coughing and coughing,” says Anderson of the nine-and-half-hour flight to Atlanta.

“A man started to collapse. And his wife was, like, ‘Help. Help. Please help. We need a doctor,'” says Kelly Edge, a fellow passenger whose husband Woody also later tested positive.    

The passengers also had to sit on the tarmac for hours in Atlanta before the CDC finally opened the doors and let them debark. Nearly all the passengers were allowed to go after a screening by the CDC that appeared to be cursory, according to those who were there. “There were people, get this, their temperature was too high,” says Edge. “So the CDC had them sit in chairs and wait and see if it got lower,” she tells Alfonsi. The CDC did not test the passengers for the virus.  

Just weeks earlier the CDC had ordered hundreds of Americans returning from COVID outbreaks on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships into mandatory quarantine at U.S. military bases for 14 days or more. 

Passengers told Alfonsi that after being cleared by the CDC, people who appeared to have COVID symptoms took off their masks and went to the food courts. Anderson tells Alfonsi he felt “utter surprise and bewilderment” when the CDC let them go. A 60 Minutes investigation found dozens of the passengers tested positive for COVID just days after returning home. Two of the Americans died nine days after being cleared by the CDC to travel.

Dr. Ali Khan, the former director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, was puzzled by the agency’s decisions. “I would say this sort of constitutes public health malpractice. That you have individuals who you know are exposed, potentially multiple people infected within that group, and then you put them in the busiest airport in the world,” says Khan, now the dean of the Public School of Health at the University of Nebraska.    

Khan says it was the CDC’s responsibility to protect American communities from the spread of COVID-19 by the cruise ship passengers. “We had already acted on that knowledge multiple times… with the Grand Princess and other cruise ships, that those individuals… needed to be monitored separately — in quarantine — before they could go out and about their way,” says Khan.  

The CDC declined multiple requests from 60 Minutes for an on-camera interview to explain their decisions regarding the passengers from the Costa Luminosa. 

© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.