The Transportation Security Administration’s chief medical officer instructed field managers this week to plead with local health departments and airport authorities to give the agency’s employees priority access to coronavirus vaccines since the Department of Homeland Security was not included in plans to give shots to federal employees under Operation Warp Speed.

Fabrice Czarnecki, the medical officer, said in a memo that the managers, called federal security directors, should underscore that the agency’s security officers process thousands of travelers each day and that officers needed vaccines “as soon as possible after front line health care workers.”

Czarnecki said the security directors should also encourage officers who are veterans, military reservists or members of the National Guard to try to get vaccinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Defense Department.

“My goal is [to] leverage all options to get vaccine access to TSA’s front line employees as TSA continues to pursue other avenues for vaccine access,” he said in the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The virus has taken a heavy toll on the agency, with more than 4,000 employees testing positive and more than 800 of its staff currently sick. Eleven employees have died, including the Saturday death of a security officer in Honolulu who had worked at the agency since 2002.

Despite the number of cases and the urgency Czarnecki conveyed in the memo, agency officials say that in most cases the virus appears to be spreading to TSA employees outside of work.

Nonetheless, the memo shows how the agency is scrambling to get access to the vaccine for a group of employees who have continued to work at airports throughout the pandemic. Relying on local health agencies to prioritize TSA officers could lead to a patchy rollout of vaccinations.

Three TSA officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, said field leaders are effectively on their own to navigate a patchwork of health departments and airport authorities to get front-line workers vaccinated, rather than any centralized and coordinated federal effort.

In a letter Thursday to acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, questioned whether the department had done enough to make testing and vaccines available to front-line workers.

“I first wrote to you in July after DHS reached a record high number of employees that had tested positive or were in quarantine since the Department began regularly reporting such data to the Committee,” Thompson wrote. “Unfortunately, these numbers have continued to increase at an alarming rate.”

Thompson asked Wolf for an explanation of how the department and its agencies would secure vaccines “including an explanation for how vaccinations will be prioritized based on job description or location.”

Wolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment on its efforts to gain access to vaccines.

R. Carter Langston, a TSA spokesman, said Czarnecki’s memo was part of an effort to pursue every avenue to ensure front-line agency workers could get vaccinated.

“The chief medical officer, by reaching out to the most senior officials within each state, seeks the most expeditious path for vaccinations for our geographically distributed workforce,” Langston said in an email.

The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed allotted vaccine supplies to the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, along with the State Department, Bureau of Prisons and Indian Health Service. The shots were to be prioritized for health-care workers.

A spokeswoman for Operation Warp Speed did not respond to questions about how it determined which government agencies should receive the vaccines.

Czarnecki wrote in the memo that DHS was seeking to share in some of VA’s vaccines, but said that with the department having “minimized direct access,” the federal security directors needed to step up. He recommended they contact their local airport authorities first, then health departments.

The directors should ask, he wrote, “What do I need to do to help you make sure our front line employees are vaccinated as soon as possible?”

In an email to employees Thursday, Angela Bailey, the chief human capital officer at DHS, wrote the department was working with VA to offer the vaccine to its medical personnel but that it would not offer vaccines once they were widely available through health-care providers and pharmacies.

“I want to strongly encourage you to consider taking the vaccine when it becomes available to you,” Bailey wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Post.

While there was broad agreement that medical workers and nursing home residents should be the first to get vaccines, the question of which groups should come next has been thornier, with much of the decision-making left to states. Groups representing workers and businesses across the transportation network have been making the case that they need early access to keep people and goods moving.

The number of infections at the TSA has exploded in the weeks since Thanksgiving, mirroring a rise among the general population. About 1,000 officers have tested positive in the past three weeks. At some airports the rise in cases has been especially dramatic.

Miami International Airport is the most affected, according to agency disclosures, seeing 211 employees test positive for the virus, with two dying of the illness. Almost a quarter of the cases were logged in the past three weeks.

Asked if she felt safe at work as the number of air travelers surged over Thanksgiving, one officer at the Miami airport said “heck no.”

“I understand people have to go home, and things like that, but it’s the virus,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak publicly. “We know as officers we’re putting ourself at risk.”

Some leaders in the officers’ union questioned the agency’s position that TSA employees are largely getting exposed on their own time.

“They’re saying that to cover themselves,” said John Hubert, the vice president at AFGE TSA Council 100 with responsibility for Florida. “I don’t agree with that. We have more exposure coming to work in the type of job we have than a normal person.”

In the summer, one of the regional security directors filed a whistleblower complaint alleging the TSA wasn’t doing enough to protect its workforce from the virus. And the officers’ union complained when managers began calling more officers back to work as air travel numbers ticked up, saying it was an unnecessary risk.

The agency tightened its procedures over the summer and fall, installing plastic shields and stressing the importance of officers using personal protective gear. Those protective measures would continue to be important even as the vaccine rolls out, Czarnecki wrote, because the effectiveness of the shots at preventing transmission of the virus is not yet known.

Langston, the TSA spokesman, said the case counts at the agency are in line with national numbers.

“The agency conducts contact tracing with each infected employee to ensure identification of others who need to quarantine,” Langston said. “Based on the narrative inputs from infected employees, a clear majority were exposed outside of work.”

Joe Shuker, a union leader in Philadelphia, said the agency has supervisors review security camera footage to determine who an infected employee might have exposed. But he said there are gaps in the cameras’ coverage in areas like break rooms.

“I’ve basically been telling my guys that my advice is if you worked on a checkpoint with someone, go tell your doctor you worked with him all day long,” Shuker said.


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