US Covid-19 vaccine rollout misses transport security screeners, air-traffic controllers

More than 6,100 TSA employees, most of them airport screeners, have contracted coronavirus and 14 have died. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - They're essential workers performing critical safety work and have been assigned priority designation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

Yet tens of thousands of airport security screeners, air-traffic controllers and federal accident investigators who must report to work in spite of the virus ravaging the US haven't gotten the shot and aren't sure how and when they will.

"It's incredibly frustrating," said Jennifer Homendy, one of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The vaccine rollout from my point of view has been mismanaged."

The problem, according to multiple officials, is that the shots are being delivered by scores of state and local health agencies, which are using varying standards for who should be given priority.

In some cases, employees have been told they qualify for the vaccine, only to be directed back to their employer after saying they work for the federal government, Homendy said.

Nowhere has the impact been more severe than among the roughly 50,000 Transport Security Administration (TSA) Transportation Screening Officers. So far in the pandemic, more than 6,100 TSA employees, most of them airport screeners, have contracted coronavirus and 14 have died, according to TSA.

Hydrick Thomas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees TSA Council 100 union, said he has fielded repeated complaints from his members about the lack of access.

"TSA has been pushed to the back of the line for some reason," Thomas said. "We are protecting the country. When it comes down to protecting the employees, they are very lackadaisical."

About 14,000 air-traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration have also been required to work in the close confines of airport towers and windowless control centres across the country. So far, more than 900 at 313 facilities have contracted coronavirus, according to the agency.

The acting secretary of Homeland Security on Monday, reacting to concerns from its workforce over lack of access to the vaccine, established a task force called Operation Vaccinate our Workforce, according to a letter obtained by Bloomberg News.

"In keeping with the intent behind Operation VOW, my vow to you is that I will have no higher priority than your health and safety," wrote David Pekoske, who was temporarily elevated to head DHS from his post as chief of the Transportation Security Administration.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has helped establish priority lists for those being vaccinated, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In one of his first actions, Mr Biden on Jan 20 signed an executive order requiring creation of a task force to study how to prioritise and distribute the vaccine to federal workers. Since Dec 14, more than 23 million shots have been given in the US and the rate has climbed to an average of 1.25 million in the past week.

Some federal agencies, such as the State Department, received their own allotments of vaccine. But many large agencies with essential workers, including DHS and the Transportation Department, haven't. That has essentially left their workers to fend for themselves.

"States have been given prioritisation recommendations, but they are making their own operational decisions," said Kelly Moore, a doctor who is deputy director of the Immunisation Action Coalition, which promotes vaccine education.

Thousands of FAA employees who conduct safety inspections, maintain critical equipment and travel to plane crashes have been waiting to find out when they can be vaccinated. Their union, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, has asked the agency for "a different approach or strategy," it said in a statement.

"At this point, states are determining which of their residents receive vaccination priorities," the FAA said in a statement.

The NTSB has only a few hundred workers but they are spread out around the country, meaning about 70 different local government agencies are responsible for administering the shots to its employees, many with different policies, Homendy said.

The agency is contacting each one of the 70 jurisdictions in an attempt to speed up the process, Homendy said.

NTSB's accident investigators aren't trying to take priority from other critical workers and there's no move to get political appointees or those who work from the office immunized, Homendy said.

While the NTSB has mostly been keeping its investigators at home during the pandemic, it sent a team to Indonesia earlier this month to participate in a probe of a Jan 9 crash of an airliner.

"If something big happened tomorrow, we'd be there," Homendy said. "But that's a risk to our workers and potentially others."

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