As the U.S. continues to grapple with testing, tracing, and controlling the spread of COVID-19, some are floating the idea of a TSA Public Health Corps to help control the spread of virus at U.S. airports.
A Vision For A TSA Public Health Corps
Rey Koslowski, a professor of political science, University at Albany (SUNY), makes the case in The Hill. His prose reads much more academic than journalistic, but I’ll sum up his thought process using bullet points:
- Problem #1: many major tourist destinations have coronavirus infection rates much higher than the states to which tourists return.
- Asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) persons account for an estimated 40% of COVID-19 infections.
- Problem #2: many Americans will not fly because they fear getting on a flight with asymptomatic coronavirus carriers.
- Problem #3: At 3,667 coronavirus cases per 100,000, TSA screening personnel have more cases per capita than any U.S. state and any country other than Qatar.
- TSA Public Health Corps officers could begin screening travelers with FDA-approved antigen point-of-care tests that provide results within 15 minutes.
- All passengers, crew, airline and airport staff would be tested for COVID-19 before they enter airports.
- Even if false-negative rate is as high as 20% with antigen test, that would still result in a far more effective way to pinpoint passengers than social distancing.
- TSA could recruit within its own ranks, choosing those in lower-risk groups to lead this new division of the agency.
- If Congress does not appropriate funding for this program, states can embark upon their own programs and large states like New York should do so immediately.
- “If the U.S. Secret Service division of the Department of Homeland Security can manage to test the president and anyone who gets close to him with a 15-minute coronavirus test and the Department of Defense can manage to administer 60,000 coronavirus tests per week, why can’t the DHS manage to reorganize some of its resources to enable the TSA to test passengers departing airports in coronavirus hotspots, especially if they are major tourist destinations?”
Not So Fast…
The concept is to be lauded…indeed, the idea of contact tracing and testing is something I called upon all of us to insist from our leaders months ago. I’ve repeatedly said that rapid testing the key to consumer confidence in the airline sector. We’re probably far too late and far too large of a nation for effective contact tracing.
But I’m sorry to say I simply do not see the will nor the resources to get this done. At this point, I have no faith in both state and federal governments to set up the sort of testing facilities that could indeed accomplish much of what a TSA Public Health Corps could theoretically accomplish.
The second problem is the TSA itself. I’m not comfortable with tasking an agency that lets through over 90% of weapons during undercover tests with protecting public health. While a federal solution makes sense from a consistency perspective, spending billions to enlarge the Department of Homeland Security is not appealing.
The final problem seems to be access to testing supplies. The author of the piece hedges his bet in so many places concerning timelines and does not delve into cost. He lauds states for “committing” to purchase 3.5 million antigen tests, but the sort of volume necessary to conduct widespread testing in the United States is staggering. This should not be a problem, but it has proven a problem for months. It is still difficult to get a PCR test in Los Angeles even now. Testing remains elusive.
While access to rapid testing remains a gaping hole in the battle against COVID-19 in the USA, creating a TSA Public Health Corps does not appear to be the solution. Instead, the solution seems to be rapid and widespread testing, which continues to be a huge bottleneck no matter who administers it.
Are you in favor of a TSA Public Health Corps?