The Transportation Security Administration worsened the coronavirus outbreak by failing to institute early safety measures despite pleas from its employees, a whistleblower at the agency said in a complaint revealed on Thursday.
The federal watchdog that investigated the whistleblower’s claims now wants the Department of Homeland Security ― which oversees the TSA ― to investigate the allegations, The Washington Post first reported.
“We did not take adequate steps to make sure that we were not becoming carriers and spreaders of the virus ourselves,” the whistleblower, Jay Brainard, who runs transportation security in Kansas, told NPR. “I believe absolutely that that contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.”
In March, as the virus spread in the U.S. before many states instituted stay-home orders, the TSA told Brainard and other managers they could not require officers to wear masks and refused to tap its stockpile of more than 1 million N-95 masks. The agency did not institute measures like pandemic-related training, contact tracing, installing plastic screens to separate TSA employees and passengers, or mandating the use of hand sanitizer and frequently changing gloves.
“While we understand the situation, at this time, you cannot issue N-95s,” TSA leadership wrote in a mid-March email shared with NPR. “Waiting two or more weeks for them may be too late,” agency official Robert Krekorian wrote back.
Since then, more than 700 TSA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the agency reports. Five staff members and one screening contractor who contracted the virus have died.
Brainard took his concerns about what he called “gross mismanagement” to the Office of Special Counsel, which manages whistleblower complaints. On Thursday, the agency told Brainard and his attorneys it had directed DHS to launch a probe into his concerns, in a sign that officials there believe they have some credibility, the Post and NPR reported.
TSA required employees to wear masks starting in the first week of May and has left the use of eye protection up to them, TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston told HuffPost via email. The agency has begun rolling out plastic barriers to prevent contact between staff and travelers and requires TSA agents to use gloves during screening, changing them after each pat-down.
The agency needs to take further action, like developing procedures for handling passengers with symptoms, Brainard told the Post. Travel is starting to return to normal nationwide as many states reopen despite continued growth in COVID-19 cases.
The watchdog office highlighted the gaps in using plastic barriers and the failure to require eye protection and hand sanitizer use in its referral to DHS.
“We’re very concerned … they’re going to institutionalize the TSA workforce as a major threat for spreading the pandemic,” Tom DeVine, an attorney for Brainard, told the Post.