A fourth Transportation Security Administration officer at Mineta San Jose International Airport tested positive for coronavirus shortly after Administrator David Pekoske assured lawmakers that the agency is being transparent about illness among their workforce.
The latest agent, who tested positive Thursday, worked a midday shift in Terminal A and was last at work on March 7. On Tuesday, TSA learned that three officers who worked evenings in Terminal B — two whose checkpoint work included passenger patdowns — tested positive for the virus.
At a Wednesday hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, Pekoske said “under 100” officers were under isolation directions that are “really not quarantine… they’re at home with instructions to limit their visits to stores and large public gatherings.”
“What would happen if all TSO officers at one location need to be quarantined?” asked committee Chairman Lou Correa (D-Calif.).
“If all of them needed to be quarantined — I don’t think that is likely, although it’s certainly possible — we have a national deployment force,” Pekoske said.
Pekoske noted that none of the first three officers to test positive were at the airport when their test results came through. “We look very carefully at that 14-day window where the disease is transmissible,” he said. “What we did as soon as we knew we had three cases, we did what we call contact tracing with everybody else that works at the airport.” That doesn’t include identifying passengers who may have interacted with the officers.
“Ensuring the safety of my workforce is my top priority,” he said. “And what you will always see TSA do — I think we have a very good history of doing this — is when there is an issue we publicly release the information on the issue so the public is advised of the situation that we have and really what we’re doing to address it.”
“Last year TSA stopped paying full-time share of health insurance premiums to part-time TSO workers. So, if a part-time TSO worker is infected are they going to come into work or not?” Correa asked.
Pekoske said that if an employee is ill “our guidance is not to come in to work, to seek medical care with their own physician,” and “we made a decision last year consistent with practice throughout government and also in the private sector that if you’re a part-time employee you are not eligible for full-time healthcare benefits.”
“I have no intention of restoring healthcare coverage for part-time workers. I think that was a good decision,” he said. “We will certainly take care of our employees to the best of our ability. And we provide robust guidance to our entire workforce with respect to how they prevent the disease in the first place.”
The officers who were in contact with the officers who tested positive for COVID-19 were placed on weather and safety leave, which is fully paid. “It doesn’t come out of their sick leave balance. That was intentionally designed so that officers didn’t trade off finances for self-reporting,” Pekoske said.”…I have done several videos to the entire workforce on this topic of if you’re not feeling well, don’t come to work. That’s an excused absence. Don’t come to work.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, TSA changed policy this week about the swabs used to check the hands of travelers for explosive residue. “In the past they would go through a series of swipes because there wasn’t a risk of cross-contamination,” Pekoske told lawmakers. “We now see that with the coronavirus, and so we have an adequate supply to have them change out the swabs for every time they use them.”
Airports are “partners with us” in keeping areas clean and disinfected. “In San Jose Airport, when we had the three officers who tested positive for COVID-19… the airport very quickly went through and sanitized the entire airport, including the TSA checkpoint,” he noted.
However, “if you were really to sanitize the bins you would have to sanitize them after every single use. And that’s just not feasible in our checkpoint operations nor do we think that is the primary form of transmission. It’s basically hand-to-hand contact with a passenger. That’s the reason for the gloves.”
Passengers also can now carry larger bottles of hand sanitizer, up to 12 ounces, on planes.
“It’s going to require a little bit more screening on our part because we have to very that that is in fact hand sanitizer in the bottle. But we do want to increase that volume to make it easier for passengers, particularly those that don’t check bags, to bring a volume of sanitizer with them,” Pekoske said. “Because, as you know, you could go to another city and find none available in the shelves.”