The Transportation Security Administration allegedly hoarded over 1.3 million N95 masks instead of donating them to hospitals – as airport traffic dropped by 95 percent and the agency instructed many of its workers to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report.
Two TSA officials raised concerns about the agency’s vast stockpile of the respirator masks in early April, as the number of COVID-19 cases across the country grew by the thousands daily and personal protective equipment was in short supply, according to a review of internal records and interviews by ProPublica.
“We don’t need them. People who are in an infectious environment need them. Nobody is flying,” Charles Kielkopf, a TSA attorney in Columbus, Ohio, told the investigative news outlet.
“You don’t take things for yourself. It’s the wrong thing to do,” added Kielkopf, who shared a copy of a whistleblower complaint he filed Monday in which he alleges the TSA had engaged in gross mismanagement that represented a “substantial and specific danger to public health.”
The agency has not required its airport screeners to wear the tight-fitting N95 masks, according to ProPublica, which reported that internal memos show that most of the workers use more widely available surgical masks, which mostly protect others from the users.
The TSA received more than a million old but usable N95 masks from Customs and Border Protection, which found them in an old Indiana warehouse, and also had about 116,000 masks left over from 2009’s swine flu pandemic, the news outlet reported.
Both agencies are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
Kielkopf and a colleague in Minnesota suggested that the TSA donate the N95s to hospitals in early April – but the agency quietly stored many of its masks in its warehouse near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and sent the rest to empty airports across the US, ProPublica reported.
“We need to reserve medical masks for health care-workers, not TSA workers who are behind an X-ray machine,” Kielkopf said.
TSA spokesman Mark Howell told ProPublica in an email that that the agency’s “highest priority is to ensure the health, safety and security of our workforce and the American people.
“With the support of CBP and DHS, in April, TSA was able to ensure a sufficient supply of N95 masks would be available for any officer who chose to wear one and completed the requisite training,” his statement continued.
“We are continuing to acquire additional personal protective equipment for our employees to ensure both their and the traveling public’s health and safety based on our current staffing needs, and as supplies become available,” it said.
An internal TSA memo said the surplus of N95 masks was expected to last for about a month, but it noted that the 30-day estimate did not account for the sharp decline in security officers working at airports.
The news outlet asked the agency how long the masks were actually going to last, accounting for the decreased staffing levels.
“While we cannot provide details on staffing, passenger throughput and corresponding operations have certainly decreased,” the TSA said in the statement.
TSA records showed that most employee schedules have been “sharply abbreviated,” while an additional 8,000 screeners are on paid leave amid concerns they could be exposed to the bug, according to ProPublica, which cited a report from the trade journal Government Executive.
More than 500 TSA workers have tested positive for the illness and five have died, according to the agency.
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