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An Emirates Airline flight was held in quarantine for a period Wednesday at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after a large number of passengers and crew members reported feeling ill during the flight.

Estimates of how many people were sick varied throughout the day, with an initial count of 106 people, New York City’s Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said during a late afternoon press conference.

Barbot said 10 people — three passengers and seven crew — were taken to hospital with what the department believes is likely influenza. Test results were expected to be available later in the evening, she said.


However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was involved in investigating the incident, reported that the figure was actually 11 people — four passengers and seven crew members. They complained of a variety of symptoms including cough, fever, and signs of gastrointestinal illness, a statement from the agency said.

Those taken to the hospital were being tested for influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS, and other conditions, a CDC spokesperson said.


The remaining 538 passengers and crew members were released after being assessed for illness. Contact information for everyone on board was collected, the spokesperson confirmed.

“We are requesting the passengers who have been evaluated and released to call their provider and health department if they develop any symptoms, and to give their travel history and report of incident,” the Atlanta-based agency said in a statement. “They may receive a follow-up call from their health department just as a check-in.”

Some of the people on board the flight had taken part in the hajj, the massive annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, that all Muslims are required to do at least once in their lifetime. The mixing of huge numbers of pilgrims from around the world always raises concerns about the possibility of disease spread, and that may account for some of the concern here. Some of the sick had taken part in the hajj.

Word that a plane had been quarantined on a JFK runway quickly garnered attention. So, too, did tweets from rapper Vanilla Ice, who was on the flight. The rapper, whose real name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle, flew on the upper deck of the Airbus 380 and was unaware of what was happening below until the plane was met on the runway by health officials.

“CDC public health officers are working with port authority, EMS, and CBP officials to evaluate passengers including taking temperatures and making arrangements for transport to local hospitals,” the CDC said. “Passengers who are not ill will be allowed to continue with their travel plans, and if necessary will be followed up with by health officials.”

Saudi Arabia has reported cases of MERS, an often severe illness caused by a virus related to the one that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. The MERS virus passes to people from camels.

The fact that multiple people became ill during the flight made MERS seem an unlikely culprit, given that the time from infection to onset of symptoms is, on average, about five days.