Despite Omicron Risk, TSA nevertheless Requires Travelers to Unmask

About two million times a day, every day for the past two weeks, a passenger in an American airport has reached the front of a line for pre-flight screening by the Transportation Security Administration and handed an identification card to an officer.

Almost all of those travelers were wearing masks over their mouth and nose — as is required by law during the pandemic, to cut down on the airborne transmission of the coronavirus in transport hubs — but each of them was asked to briefly remove or lower their disguise so the officer could compare their confront to the photo on their ID.

Then, seconds later, the time of action was repeated as the next traveler stepped forward and removed their disguise, standing almost exactly where the person ahead of them had stood, unmasked, for a fleeting conversation with the officer.

Before the emergence of the more infectious omicron variant of the coronavirus, just in time for the holiday travel season, TSA checkpoints were not considered particularly risky by public health experts. But the ease with which omicron spreads between unmasked people sharing the same air could change that, in a hurry.

Omicron “is so infectious, it almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected,” immunologist and respiratory physician Peter Openshaw told BBC News on Friday.

Last month, researchers at the University of Hong Kong reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the omicron variant had spread from one fully vaccinated traveler to another across the hallway of a quarantine hotel, already though the travelers never interacted and only briefly opened their doors to retrieve meals.

“I agree that with such highly transmissible viruses, the TSA policy isn’t ideal,” Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, told me in an email. “It’s a very fleeting period of lowering a disguise, but in a crowded indoor ecosystem usually without good ventilation and air filtration.”

“The challenge is, you do need some sort of different; but yes, from a public health, infectious disease transmission perspective, it makes me uncomfortable,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who advised the Biden change team on the pandemic. “I just flew last weekend and standing in that TSA line being asked to take off my disguise, I definitely thought about that.”

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, pointed out that the current course of action is also dangerous for TSA officers, many of whom are wearing loose-fitting surgical masks, which might not protect them sufficiently against the omicron variant. “TSA personnel are at meaningful risk, and that risk is only magnified by passengers taking down their masks for identification,” Gostin wrote in an email. “I would recommend against this high risk practice. If it were possible to dispense thoroughly with disguise lowering, that would be ideal. If it could be done in a well ventilated or already outdoor space, it would already be safer.”

A traveler pulls down her cloth disguise as a TSA agent compares her confront to her identification at a security checkpoint at Seattle~Tacoma International Airport in 2020.

Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Moving the TSA checkpoints from inside airports to outside “is certainly one possibility, if the airports and TSA have the bandwidth to do that,” Gounder said. “I know the administration is super worried about doing anything that will make traveling already harder than it currently is, anything that would consequence in longer lines or anything like that.”

Gounder, who hosted a podcast about the pandemic in 2020 with Ron Klain, the current White House chief of staff, additional that any different ways to clarify people would need to strike “a balance between privacy and efficiency.”

“If you had retinal scans, for example, that would be a much more efficient way to do this, and you wouldn’t have people needing to take off their masks,” she noted, but that might be a tough sell to privacy advocates, with well-established concerns, not to mention conspiracy theorists convinced that vaccines contain tracking devices.

There is a privately run service, Clear, that already operates identity verification lanes at some airports for paying customers who can skip the TSA checkpoints and have their identities verified by fingerprint and eye scans without removing their masks.

Sonny Lorrius, a TSA spokesperson, declined to answer emailed questions about whether the agency was concerned about the current screening course of action giving the virus a chance to spread between temporarily unmasked travelers indoors, or whether any thought had been given to moving the document checkpoints outside airport doors.

“TSA remains concerned about the increased COVID infections,” Lorrius wrote in an emailed statement, “and confront masks, social distancing and checkpoint modifications that seek to reduce physical contact all keep in place for the health and safety of TSA employees and passengers.”

Lorrius additional that TSA employees and travelers should consult the CDC for advice on how to keep safe while traveling. The CDC did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the TSA policy of having passengers remove their masks during the screening course of action.

Perhaps because the TSA was set up, after 9/11, to stop terrorists from boarding airplanes, not viruses, it has seemed slow to embrace the public health responsibilities thrust upon it by the Biden administration.

In an October letter to TSA administrator David Pekoske, Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on transportation, asked why the TSA was not robustly enforcing the federal requirement to use masks in transportation settings.

“With incidents of unruly passengers at airport checkpoints and aboard planes at historic highs, we are concerned that TSA is not fully employing its authorities to deter this reckless and dangerous behavior,” Thompson and Coleman wrote. “Between February 2, 2021, and September 13, 2021, TSA received 4,102 reports of disguise-related incidents. During that time it assessed a total of only $2,350 in civil penalties against ten passengers and simply issued warnings to more than 2,000 passengers. In contrast, the Federal Aviation Administration has fielded complaints about more than 3,500 disguise-related incidents since the start of the year and has issued over $1 million in hypothesizedv fines against disturbing passengers.”

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