KEY POINTS

  • TSA allegedly hoarded 1.3M N95 masks
  • CBP gave masks to TSA
  • TSA had 116K leftover masks from 2009 swine flu
  • TSA airport screeners, not required to wear N95, use surgical mask
  • 500 TSA employees COVID-19 positive, 5 dead

The Transportation Security Administration reportedly hoarded around 1.3 million N95 face masks as the airports became empty amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It was reported that the TSA, who instructed their employees to go home amidst the pandemic, took a bulk of the medical supplies for themselves instead of donating them to hospitals and other people in need.

According to ProPublica interviews and reviews of internal records, two TSA officials expressed their concerns regarding the agency’s numerous stocks of the respirator masks in as early as April when the coronavirus cases in the U.S. increased by the thousands every day and the country was experiencing a shortage of protective equipment.

“We don’t need them,” Charles Kielkopf, a TSA attorney in Columbus, Ohio, told the investigative news outlet. “People who are in an infectious environment need them. Nobody is flying.”

Kielkopf shared a copy of the complaint the whistleblower filed on Monday which alleged that the TSA was involved in the “gross mismanagement that represented a ‘substantial and specific danger to public health’”.

In the same report, it said the agency’s employees who acted as airport screeners were not required to wear the N-95 masks and internal memos showed that most of the workers wore the widely available surgical masks which protected other people from the wearer.

The Customs and Border Protection provided the TSA with the 1.3 million old but functional N-95 masks which the former found in an old Indiana warehouse.

The TSA also had a surplus of 116,000 masks from the swine flu pandemic of 2009, ProPublica said.

The Department of Homeland Security supervises both the TSA and the Customs and Border Protection.

Kielkopf and his colleague in Minnesota advised the agency to donate the masks to hospitals in early April but the agency covertly stored most of the masks in its own warehouse near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and distributed the rest to empty airports across the country.

“We need to reserve medical masks for health care-workers, not TSA workers who are behind an X-ray machine,” Kielkopf said.

Meanwhile, TSA spokesman Mark Howell stated in an e-mail that the agency’s top 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,” he said. “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.”

According the New York Post, it was stated in an internal memo that although the extra N95 masks were expected to last for almost a month, the estimate did not take into account the rapid decrease of security personnel working at the airports.

ProPublica asked the agency the masks’ longevity accounting for the decrease in staffing levels and the TSA responded that although they cannot go into the details of the staffing, they can confirm that the “passenger throughput and corresponding operations have certainly decreased”.

The news outlet cited a report from the trade journal, the Government Executive that agency’s records show that most employees’ schedules have been “sharply abbreviated” while almost 8,000 workers were put on paid leave due to concerns of COVID-19 exposure.

The TSA reported that over 500 of its employees have tested positive for the disease while five have already died.

N95 masks wait for deployment at the Anne Arundel County Fire Department supply depot on April 9, 2020 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. N95 masks wait for deployment at the Anne Arundel County Fire Department supply depot on April 9, 2020 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Photo: AFP / Alex Edelman