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UCSF doctor expresses alarm about his packed United flight to SFO after treating COVID-19 patients in New York

A UCSF cardiologist who spent several weeks treating COVID-19 patients in New York City said he was shocked to fly home Saturday on a packed United Airlines flight.

Dr. Ethan Weiss, who traveled with 24 other UCSF health care workers, documented the experience on Twitter, posting a photo that appeared to show a full flight.

“I guess United is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this (Boeing) 737,” Weiss said.

Passengers could be seen wearing face masks. Weiss declined to comment for the story but confirmed the incident with The Chronicle on Monday.

People on the plane were “scared and shocked,” Weiss said on Twitter.

I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737 pic.twitter.com/rqWeoIUPqL

— Ethan Weiss (@ethanjweiss) May 9, 2020

On Monday, United announced a new policy for relatively full flights that will take effect next week: People who are on a flight that’s likely to be full or nearly full will be allowed to rebook on another flight or get a travel credit.

“We’ll do our best to reach out about 24 hours before departure and we’ll also provide options at the gate,” the airline said on Twitter.

Last month, United established several sanitation and safety procedures to promote social distancing, including changes to seat assignments and adjustments to its boarding and deplaning process. Most passengers and flight crews are required to wear masks, with the exception of children.

Weiss is the latest traveler to ring the alarm about airlines that are operating some flights at near or full capacity amid the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a scenario likely to repeat itself in the coming weeks as some U.S. cities begin to ease shelter-in-place policies.

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The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 200,815 passengers passing through security checkpoints across the country Sunday, up from a low of 87,534 on April 14.

The agency said it may close security checkpoints at some airports amid reduced flight and passenger volumes, but it’s unclear how many total checkpoints remain open. TSA employees are required to wear masks.

The UCSF health care workers were on voluntary assignment in New York City, treating patients in the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital system. They specialize in critical care, hospital medicine and emergency medicine and were selected from more than 150 nurses and 50 physicians who volunteered for the assignment, UCSF said in an announcement last month.

A United spokesman on Monday confirmed flight 2264 out of Newark, N.J., to San Francisco had 25 UCSF medical volunteers on board who were flown to New York for free to treat patients.

The flight was not at capacity but was “more full than average” and was an “unlikely scenario for the average customer,” said spokesman Charlie Hobart.

United last month began limiting advance seat selection in all cabins, which restricts customers’ ability to choose middle seats — or window and aisle seats, in some cases — on most flights.

“With the historically low load factors — typically the percentage of people who are on board the aircraft at any given time — the likely outcome for the average customer is that there isn’t going to be anyone seated next to you,” Hobart said.

Most of the flights are less than half full, Hobart said.

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“However, we cannot guarantee an open seat,” he continued. “If there is a demand to sit someone in a seat and they need to get to their destination, whether that be home or a hospital or their jobs, whatever that may be, we want to ensure that we are providing customers with an opportunity to get to their destinations.”

UCSF did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

“This is the last time I’ll be flying again for a very long time,” Weiss tweeted.

Tatiana Sanchez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tatiana.sanchez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TatianaYSanchez.

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