3 TSA Screeners In San Jose, Calif., Have Contracted Coronavirus, Agency Says

Mar 10, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 6:20 pm

Updated at 9:20 p.m. ET

Three security screeners at a Northern California airport have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the Transportation Security Administration confirmed in an email late Tuesday.

The transportation security officers, all of whom work at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, are the first confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus within the agency, according to a union official with TSA Council 100.

The identities of the three screeners have not been released.

"The officers are receiving medical care and all TSA employees they have come in contact with over the past 14 days are quarantined at home," the TSA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.

"Screening checkpoints remain open and the agency is working with the CDC, as well as the California Department of Public Health and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to monitor the situation as well as the health and safety of our employees and the traveling public."

The three officers would have come into contact with thousands of passengers passing through the airport's security checkpoints, TSA union officials say.

James Mudrock, local union president for security screeners in Northern California, said he learned of the first confirmed case early Tuesday morning. He added that about 40 employees were told not to come to work and that a security checkpoint was closed at the San Jose airport Tuesday morning. He later said all the checkpoints had stayed open.

The two other cases were confirmed Tuesday evening.

"Just by the nature of the job, transportation security officers are in a vulnerable position in the case of an outbreak like this," Mudrock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1230, said.

In a letter sent Monday to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pressed the Trump administration on how it's guiding DHS employees and contractors to take precautions in response to the virus.

Cantwell, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the TSA, also questioned whether the Department of Homeland Security has a pandemic response plan in the event of an outbreak at or near its facilities.

Other union officials say that the TSA lacks sufficient resources, training and planning to protect its employees, who come into daily contact with the public more than any other federal agency.

That includes, in some parts of the country, shortages of cleaning supplies, protective gloves and masks. The union asked on Tuesday for more effective masks, but that request was rejected, Reuters reported.

The challenges come as the agency faces a hiring and overtime freeze.

"The agency to protect the American people isn't funded enough to protect the American people," said Joe Shuker, a top TSA union official in Philadelphia.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Americans worried about the coronavirus have been canceling trips and their airline bookings. And now more bad news for airlines - three TSA screeners in California have tested positive for the virus. And presumably, those TSA employees have been in proximity to thousands of travelers. Reporter Andrew Becker from our member station KUER broke this story, and he joins us now from Salt Lake City on Skype. Thanks for being with us, Andrew.

ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about these employees?

BECKER: Well, there isn't a lot known about their - who they are right now. TSA confirmed late last night in a statement that three employees from the San Jose Airport in Northern California had tested positive for the virus, but identities, ages, genders have not been released. And it's very much a fluid situation. Earlier, I had been hearing in the day that it was one employee who had tested positive for the virus, but by the time the TSA confirmed it, that number had climbed to three.

MARTIN: I mean, biographical details of people get the coronavirus have, you know, intentionally been kept kind of under wraps to give people privacy, but TSA is a different thing, right? I mean, these are people who presumably have contact with such a cross section of the population. I mean, do we have any sense from TSA just what their exposure was to passengers?

BECKER: Well, they're not saying much about passengers. What they are saying is that the three officers are receiving medical care, and all TSA employees who have come into contact with them have been put - in the last 14 days have been quarantined at home. Now, from union officials, what I've heard that - when this messaging first started to come out at least locally, that around 40 TSA employees had been told to basically be in quarantine that were - they were no longer on the job, and they had shut down a checkpoint. We're talking the possibility of just these three officers alone coming into contact with thousands of people...

MARTIN: Right.

BECKER: ...On a shift, so the numbers are significant.

MARTIN: Any sense from TSA about precautionary measures they're going to put in place if more TSA employees develop an infection?

BECKER: That's a great question. And it's actually a question that Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, is asking the Department of Homeland Security. She's the ranking member on the Senate commerce committee, which has oversight of TSA. And she sent a letter earlier this week to the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, saying, what is the plan for a pandemic? What are precautions that you're messaging to employees?

And right now the messaging is, wash your hands a lot, and avoid being in large groups, I mean, and referring people to the CDC. So there is definitely some concern within the TSA about how we're supposed to be responding to this. And some employees are - and union officials that I'm hearing from around the country are saying that there really isn't much of a plan.

MARTIN: I mean, we were just talking here around the newsroom. There are many times when you go through security where not everyone's wearing gloves, so you can imagine some questions about just something as simple as that, whether or not that should change going forward. Andrew Becker with member station KUER in Salt Lake City, thank you. We appreciate it.

BECKER: Thank you.

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