As airport security remains a priority for travel, alarming numbers of agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been exposed to COVID-19, with some losing their life, exacerbated by a lack of protective equipment.

Airports across the United States have recently seen a return to growth across many areas despite spikes, so what is being done to prevent these key workers from infection?

The leading official of the TSA in Kansas, Jay Brainard, came forward last month to claim there had been “gross mismanagement” from the administration in response to the coronavirus outbreak, with a lack of training for staff, and personal protective equipment (PPE) not being issued to agents to mitigate the risk to themselves and passengers.

As a result, he says, "We did not take adequate steps to make sure that we were not becoming carriers and spreaders of the virus ourselves."

Early in the outbreak TSA agents were reportedly told that they were not allowed to wear masks, and those that did were not able to change them as often as needed. All this happened during the busy spring break traveling period in March.

To date, over 1,100 TSA agents have tested positive for coronavirus. The TSA keeps the public informed about the statistics on its own website, where the grim news confirms also that, to date, six agents have died as a result of being infected.

Early outbreaks saw some of the main hub airports experiencing the highest case numbers. So far John F. Kennedy in New York is listed with 116 confirmed cases, Miami with 75 and Newark Liberty 69. These are largely among TSA screening officers, who come into close contact with the public throughout their work.

Following Brainard’s official complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, the TSA has stepped up its response to the threat. Agents are now required to wear protective masks and plastic barriers have been installed.

Those screening passengers must wear gloves, which are changed after each pat down. Eye wear remains optional.

Now, new legislation introduced in the House of Representatives has been passed to further protect TSA agents and the passengers they screen from the virus.

This would see a trial of temperature screening at a minimum of 10 airports “to establish and test procedures to screen all passengers for their temperatures before such passengers proceed through security into the sterile area.” It adds “If the temperature of a passenger exceeds the guidance for what constitutes a fever issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time such temperature screening is carried out, the Administrator shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, not permit such passenger to enter the sterile area.”

The TSA this month published the Runway to Recovery report, which sets out a strategy for recovery of the US air transportation system through the challenges it currently faces.

The report focuses on measures to protect passengers and airport employees from coronavirus, but also aims to educate travelers and promote public health within the air transportation system. It is hoped that the introduction of temperature screening may discourage passengers with any symptoms from travel, thus reducing the risks further.

The threat to the TSA from coronavirus was unprecedented and the administration was arguably not prepared. New measures should see agents protected as much as possible, but this is just one piece in the jigsaw in tackling this virus which spreads so readily through air travel. Airports continue to face many challenges from curbside to gate in protecting passengers and workers.