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Thursday, 7 May 2020

REVEALED: TSA 'hoarded 1.3 MILLION N95 masks' at empty airports - after they were told they didn't need them and should be saved for hospitals

The Transportation Security Administration allegedly hoarded more than 1.3 million N95 respirator masks that sat unused while hospitals around the country desperately searched for them, a new report claims. 
Two TSA officials raised concerns about the agency's stockpile of masks in early April, according to a review of internal records and interviews by ProPublica, as the number of coronavirus cases in the US was growing by the thousands each day. 
Meanwhile, the TSA instructed many of its employees to stay home to avoid infection while traffic through airports dropped by 95 percent amid widespread stay-at-home orders.  
The Department of Homeland Security issued a memo to the TSA on April 7 noting that N95 masks should be 'reserved' for healthcare workers given the short supply. 
The two TSA officials suggested donating the masks to hospitals. But instead, the agency stored many in its warehouse near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and doled out the rest to desolate airports nationwide where they weren't needed.  
The Transportation Security Administration allegedly hoarded more than 1.3 million N95 respirator masks that sat unused at deserted airports while hospitals around the country desperately searched for them, according to a new report from ProPublica (file photo)
The Transportation Security Administration allegedly hoarded more than 1.3 million N95 respirator masks that sat unused at deserted airports while hospitals around the country desperately searched for them, according to a new report from ProPublica (file photo) 
The TSA reportedly received more than a million N95s, which block 95 percent of particles that can transmit the virus, from Customs and Border Protection, which found them in an old Indiana warehouse. 
The agency also had around 116,000 masks left over from the swine flu pandemic in 2009, a memo shows. 
Both of the stockpiles were older than the manufacturer's recommended shelf life, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that expired masks remain effective against spreading COVID-19. 

Charles Kielkopf, a TSA attorney based in Columbus, Ohio, was one of the officials who raised concerns about the agency's plan to store the masks last month.  
'We need to reserve medical masks for health care workers, not TSA workers who are behind an X-ray machine,' Kielkopf told ProPublica.  
'We don't need them. People who are in an infectious environment need them. Nobody is flying. 
'You don't take things for yourself. It's the wrong thing to do.' 
Hospitals around the country were struggling to secure enough N95 masks for their workers as state and local officials begged anyone with extra to donate them
Hospitals around the country were struggling to secure enough N95 masks for their workers as state and local officials begged anyone with extra to donate them
Nurses protest lack of protective equipment outside White House
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As the number of passengers passing through US airports plummeted, so did the number of screeners needed at security checkpoints. 
A report released this week by the trade journal Government Executive showed that most employees schedules have been 'sharply abbreviated'. Another 8,000 screeners are currently on paid leave due to virus concerns.  
The TSA has not required screeners who are still reporting to work to wear N95s, which require fitting and training to use properly. 
ProPublica cited internal memos which showed most screeners were using surgical masks, which are much more widely available and less effective at filtering.
One memo last month said the surplus of N95s was expected to last the agency about 30 days - noting that the estimate did not account for the substantial decline in screeners still going to work. 
When asked by ProPublica how long the masks would actually last given decreased staffing levels, the TSA said in a statement: 'While we cannot provide details on staffing, passenger throughput and corresponding operations have certainly decreased.' 
TSA security officers are seen wearing surgical masks at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last month. Internal TSA memos showed most screeners were using surgical masks, which are much more widely available and less effective at filtering, rather than N95s
TSA security officers are seen wearing surgical masks at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last month. Internal TSA memos showed most screeners were using surgical masks, which are much more widely available and less effective at filtering, rather than N95s
On April 7, DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Management Randolph D Alles sent an email to TSA officials urging them to maintain social distancing and to wear homemade cloth face coverings because N95s should be 'reserved' for health care workers.  
'The CDC has given us very good information about how to make masks that are suitable, so that we can continue to reserve medical masks and PPE for healthcare workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic,' Alles wrote in the email reviewed by ProPublica.
Two days later on April 9, Cliff Van Leuven, TSA's federal security director in Minnesota, sent a follow-up email asking why he had been sent thousands of N95 masks despite Alles' guidance. 
N95s respirator masks are one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare workers because they block 95 percent of particles that can transmit the virus
N95s respirator masks are one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare workers because they block 95 percent of particles that can transmit the virus
'I just received 9,000 N-95 masks that I have very little to no need for,' Van Leuven wrote to senior TSA staff. 
'We've made N95s available to our staff and, of the officers who wear masks, they overwhelmingly prefer the surgical masks we just received after a couple months on back order.'
He went on to note that Minnesota Gov Tim Walz had publicly asked people to donate surplus PPE supplies to the state's Department of Health. 
'I'd like to donate the bulk of our current stock of N-95s in support of that need and keep a small supply on hand,' he wrote.  
Van Leuven declined to comment when approached by ProPublica, instead referring questions to a TSA spokesperson. 
Kielkopf said he forwarded his concerns to TSA attorneys in other field offices in hopes of bringing more attention to the stockpile issue.  
'I am sharing with you some issues we are having with n95 masks in Minnesota,' he wrote. 'And the tension between our increasing supply of n95 masks at our TSA airport locations and the dire need for them in the medical community.'
He followed up weeks later on May 1, writing: 'I have been very disappointed in our position to keep tens of thousands of n95 masks while healthcare workers who have a medical requirement for the masks — because of their contact with infected people — still go without.' 
Kielkopf filed an official whistleblower complaint over the issue on Monday, accusing the TSA engaging in gross mismanagement that represented a 'substantial and specific danger to public health'.
A report released this week by the trade journal Government Executive showed that most TSA employees' schedules have been 'sharply abbreviated' and 8,000 screeners are currently on paid leave. An empty security checkpoint is seen at JFK airport in New York City on April 16
A report released this week by the trade journal Government Executive showed that most TSA employees' schedules have been 'sharply abbreviated' and 8,000 screeners are currently on paid leave. An empty security checkpoint is seen at JFK airport in New York City on April 16
Travelers at JFK wear face masks over coronavirus fears
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ProPublica sent a list of detailed questions to the TSA when compiling its report, most of which went unanswered. 
TSA spokesman Mark Howell said in a statement 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,' the statement read.

DHS - which oversees both the TSA and CPB - did not respond to ProPublica's questions about why it transferred the N95s to TSA despite a top official saying they should be reserved for healthcare workers. 
'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.' 
More than 500 TSA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and five have died, according to the agency. 
An April CDC report found that more than 9,000 healthcare workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 27 have died. 
But the true toll among healthcare workers is feared to be much higher, and many anecdotal cases indicate that those affected did not have proper PPE.  
Across the general US population, there are more than 1,261,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 74,687 deaths as of Wednesday.  

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