- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security is allowing airport screeners to wear protective masks to guard against swine flu, reversing a directive earlier this week by the Transportation Security Administration.

The initial TSA PowerPoint presentation distributed Wednesday said masks do not protect against the disease and that the sight of them might alarm the public.

“Based upon the guidance provided by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] there is no need at the present time for personnel to wear protective masks during normal duty operations, nor is there any substantial medical benefit,” said a presentation provided to all TSA officials and obtained by The Washington Times.

“Consequently, the routine wearing of protective masks by TSA personnel in the workplace is not authorized,” said the presentation on swine flu, titled “H1N1 Virus, preventing the spread and maintaining readiness.”

“In addition to not being medically necessary, the masks interfere with normal [transportation security operation] duties and hold the potential for unnecessarily alarming the public,” the guide instructed.

That all changed Thursday night, however, after Homeland Security issued new guidelines to be followed by all 22 of its agencies.

“The health of our employees is of utmost importance to us, which is why we issued department-wide interim guidance to our work force [Thursday],” said Amy Kudwa, Homeland Security spokeswoman.

According to the new guidelines, certain employees must wear personal protective equipment, including those who work in direct contact with or within 6 feet of travelers who are suspected of carrying the virus, and they “must wear respiratory protection.”

For example, Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and TSA employees who are “in close proximity to a person who is being held in isolation due to flu-like symptoms must wear a mask,” the new directive said.

Customs and Border Protection agents initially did not have a directive from DHS officials about how to handle travelers in close proximity, and supervisors were issuing their own directives, which led to confusion and inconsistency at the various stations until the official memo was issued Thursday night, a DHS official told The Washington Times.

The official said that some of the agents whose supervisors told them not to wear masks were upset and feared that if they didn’t take precautionary measures they would be at risk. But the official stated that at no time did the DHS direct border officers not to wear masks.

“During the confusion, supervisors and others had given different directives,” a DHS official told The Times on condition of anonymity. “At no time did I see a memo that directed Border Patrol agents not to wear masks. It was supervisors who really didn’t know what to do at the time.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents the entire 22,000-employee CBP work force and thousands of airport-passenger screeners, said her union is getting reports from border ports that some employees who donned masks were ordered by their superiors to remove them.

“Employees want, need, and deserve the immediate right to protect their health, if they choose,” Ms. Kelley said.

“If employees want to wear masks, they should be allowed to,” Ms. Kelley said. “These employees are in high-risk situations and should be allowed to protect themselves.”

The number of swine flu cases in the U.S. rose to 155 on Friday, with one death reported earlier in the week. More than 500 cases have been reported worldwide, with 300 in Mexico, where the virus is most prevalent.

There were 50 cases reported in New York, 28 in Texas and 17 in California. Cases have also been reported in New Jersey, Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Virginia, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska and Nevada.

The cases have prompted 400 schools to close nationwide, with 300 in Texas alone.

U.S. officials maintain that no situation, including a full-blown pandemic, will prompt them to close the border with Mexico.

But some travel companies are taking matters into their own hands.

Continental Airlines, for instance, has cut its flights to Mexico by half beginning Monday. The airline is anticipating that demand for travel to Mexico will be diminished.

Also Friday, United Airlines Flight 903, which was headed to Dulles International Airport from Munich, Germany, was diverted to Boston after a passenger complained of flulike symptoms.

A medical team from the CDC boarded the plane and took the ill woman to a hospital.

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