TSA insider faults agency's response to coronavirus

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FILE - In this June 17, 2020 file photo, a TSA worker, right, checks a passenger before entering a security screening at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Fla. A high-ranking Transportation Security Administration official says the agency is falling short when it comes to protecting airport screeners and the public from the new coronavirus, according to published reports. A federal office that handles whistleblower complaints has ordered an investigation. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

A Transportation Security Administration official charges that the agency helped spread COVID-19 by failing to provide enough protective gear for airport screeners who are in close contact with travelers every day.

The top TSA official in Kansas, Jay Brainard, says the agency didn’t train staff for the pandemic and barred supervisors like him from giving screeners stockpiled N95 respirators in March when facial coverings such as surgical masks were hard to buy.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that our people became Typhoid Marys and contributed to the spread of that virus because TSA senior leadership did not make sure (screeners) were adequately protected,” Brainard told The Associated Press on Friday.

Brainard filed a complaint against his own agency with the Office of Special Counsel, which handles whistleblower complaints, earlier this month. Late Thursday, the special counsel ordered TSA's parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, to conduct an investigation.

The TSA said in a statement that it has followed guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in deciding protection standards for workers.

Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that at the start of the virus outbreak, TSA told employees that masks were optional, then made them mandatory at airport checkpoints in the first week of May.

Airport officers are required to wear nitrile gloves when they screen passengers. They must change gloves after every pat-down, and travelers can request the use of new gloves at any time, Farbstein said. Eye protection has remained optional for screeners.

Farbstein added that plastic barriers have been installed at security checkpoints and areas where checked bags are dropped off for screening.

Brainard disputed parts of the TSA statement, saying screeners have not been told to change gloves after every pat-down. He said new guidelines that took effect last week still have gaps, including no procedure for how to handle travelers who appear to be sick and little or no contact-tracing after TSA personnel become sick.

Brainard's complaint and the special counsel's demand for an investigation were earlier reported by the Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Air travel in the U.S. remained at normal levels until early March despite rising numbers of cases and deaths tied to the coronavirus. It then plunged by about 95% but has since recovered slightly as more states relax stay-at-home orders.

Brainard said he wants TSA to take corrective steps to protect health as air travel recovers.

TSA says on its website that 706 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and five have died, plus one screening contractor.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in March that the agency was prepared for the pandemic, with adequate equipment for screeners.

“Our officers wear gloves as a matter of course anyway ... that’s the primary means of transmission for the disease,” Pekoske told a Senate hearing. “We have also authorized our officers in the screening checkpoints, if they would like, to wear a surgical mask. They are permitted to do that, and we provide those masks.”

Brainard said that until April, he and other TSA federal security directors were told to withhold N95 respirators that they had in stock at airports but to allow employees to bring their own masks to work.

“If you remember, you couldn't get masks” because they were sold out, he said. "To say to these people, ‘You can go out and buy your own,' that's unacceptable.”

Brainard joined TSA as an air marshal when the agency was created after the September 2011 terror attacks. He has been an outspoken critic of the agency’s top leadership, testifying before a congressional committee in 2016 and filing two previous whistleblower complaints.

Brainard filed the virus-related complaint on June 3. The special counsel declined to comment, but the order directing Homeland Security to investigate the allegations indicates that the independent federal watchdog office believes there is a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing.

Homeland Security could refer the matter to its inspector general, which is the hope of Brainard and his lawyer, Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C. The department, however, could send the complaint to TSA.

The special counsel will review the findings either way and issue a report to the White House and Congress.