Brian Shoup, a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) and president of AFGE TSA Local 555, attended a week-long training in Las Vegas the last week of February, way before the Trump administration admitted the severity of the outbreak and put in place travel bans and other measures in mid-March.
On the last day of his trip, he experienced a cough and shortness of breath after waking up to pack his bag. By the time he got back home in Knoxville, Tenn., he had a high fever, shortness of breath, cough, tightness in his chest, and a headache.
He called off work, spent the next two days in bed, and tried to schedule a visit with his doctor on March 3. His doctor, however, couldn’t see him until the day after. After explaining that he was in Las Vegas with people from around the world and may have been exposed to or contracted the novel coronavirus since he had all the symptoms, the doctor tested him for the flu, and the results were negative. The doctor told him that he did not think his illness was COVID-19 and that he did not have a testing kit to test him anyway. He prescribed him steroids, antibiotics, and cough medicine.
Shoup went back to work March 9, still not feeling well. Two days later, the fever went up again. He still experienced the persistent cough and shortness of breath, which led him to check into the ER at the local hospital on March 12. By this time, he had already been sick for almost two weeks.
After explaining what had happened in the last two weeks, the ER crew went into panic mode.
They put a mask on him and told him to go to the farthest point away from any people in the waiting room and wait for someone to come and get him while they decontaminated the room.
Lots of testing and confusion
A nurse showed up shortly in a full protective gear – a special plastic gown, two pairs of gloves, a mask, and a face shield. She then escorted him through the back way to a room where he was told to stay.
A doctor came in shortly, dressed the same way as the nurse and told him he had done the right thing in coming in. He told him due to his work and recent travels, Shoup was a high risk of having been infected with COVID-19. The doctor was going to consult with the hospital administration and the Centers for Disease Control and would perform a series of tests on him.
They brought in a portable x-ray for chest x-rays. Different personnel came in and tested him for two or three kinds of flu. They took blood for testing and gave him a breathing treatment. Soon a nurse came back and told him all the flu tests were negative. The blood work indicated he had infection in his blood. They took more blood and said they were sending it out for a molecular test.
The nurse then administered steroids and put him on an IV for fluids. The doctor came back and told him what the hospital administration, along with CDC, had determined about testing him for specifically COVID-19.
“He stated that due to the fact that I was already almost two weeks into this, and that they had limited test kits, they would not test me, unless I had to be admitted,” Shoup said. “Since I did not have a reason to be admitted like pneumonia or something life-threatening, they would treat the symptoms and save the tests for people that are admitted with life threatening issues.”
That was it. He was to be quarantined at home for 14 days and to return if things worsened. He told the doctor that his wife also works the same job at the same place. Was he going to quarantine her too?
The doctor said he could not issue a quarantine for his entire household. She would need to come in and get checked out also. He was then discharged with a doctor's note excusing him from work for 14 days for possible COVID-19 exposure and symptoms.
Jumping through hoops
He returned home and sent in the documentation to TSA management at McGhee Tyson Airport. Since he was now under quarantine, he asked whether they were going to put his wife out as well since she works for TSA at the same airport and they are husband and wife living together. The Deputy Assistant Federal Security Director told him no. He said they were not doctors and could not require her to stay out but would seek guidance.
His wife went to the ER to be examined. After she told them the story, they told her they couldn’t test her. She was sent home with a note excusing her for 14 days from work.
They then sent this documentation to TSA management at their airport. TSA management officials denied it, claiming the note didn’t say she was possibly exposed to COVID-19, even though they know full well she was living with a quarantined person.
She then had to go back to the ER, which gave her a note saying possible COVID-19 exposure. This was also denied by TSA management. They told her to use her leave while she waited their decision on how she would be paid by the agency. Their local TSA management had to run this up the chain. The DAFSD later informed them she would be out in the same pay status as he was – weather and safety leave.
TSA has no strategy to deal with a pandemic
“This back and forth run around caused us a great deal of added stress to the already stressful situation. My greatest concern lies in the fact that my agency has no clear direction on what to do during this national pandemic emergency,” Shoup said. “We are considered essential personnel and are required to report to work no matter what the emergency is. We are frontline workers and therefore are at the greatest risk for exposure, contracting and spreading this virus to the traveling public, friends and family.”
The local president said the federal government and TSA should make sure that test kits are available for TSOs to be tested if they should show or experience symptoms. Currently, criteria for administering the COVID-19 test varies by state.
“We the frontline workers should be getting tested before sport figures and other influential people,” he added. “This is unconscionable for us to be subjected to this kind of disrespect from not only our government but our agency too.”