By KATE BARRETT, RICK KLEIN and JACK DATE
April 30, 2009—
A group of 20 congressmen have sent a letter to the White House voicing concerns that U.S. inspectors at the Mexico border are being barred from wearing protective face masks as they monitor people for swine flu -- though other government officials insist there's no official ban on masks.
"What I've learned is that there's a procedure that says primary inspectors at the border are allowed to wear gloves but not allowed to wear protective face masks unless they've observed something after the fact," Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., told ABC News today.
However, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Sean Smith vehemently denied that there is any official restriction on federal employees wearing face masks at points of entry. And federal officials have encouraged employees to make use of any protective gear necessary.
"The Department of Homeland Security has not issued an order saying our employees cannot wear masks," Smith said today. "The health of our employees is of utmost importance to us, and today we are issuing department-wide guidance to our workforce."
This afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano likewise addressed the issue.
"I heard some of those members of Congress, and they just have incorrect information," she said. "There has been no departmental guidance given because we were waiting to assemble the best advice we could from others about what should happen with respect to our own employees. But we're in the process and will be issuing guidance out to our own employees, as will be issued to federal employees, I think, generally, over the next day or two."
For answers to frequently asked questions and information on the latest developments, visit ABC News' special section on the H1N1 virus.
Bilbray's letter reads, "It has been brought to our attention that Customs and Border Protection Officers are currently prohibited from wearing protective masks by a policy of the Department of Homeland Security. ... Many Customs and Border Protection Officers are stressed because they are unable to protect themselves."
The lawmaker's accusation that inspectors are "not given the free choice to wear the protective masks and protect their health" comes as a government employees' union says that it is hearing similar complaints from airport workers about supervisors restricting use of face masks.
"This is happening all over," said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. "They're not being given masks. They're asking for them, and they're being told no."
Ryan said that the union is getting scattered reports of TSA problems in airports, including Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
Ryan said workers there are told they cannot wear masks, either because the airports don't have them or because they don't want to spark panic.
In Houston, TSA employee and union activist Richard Tennison said today that he hasn't been told not to wear a mask, but nonetheless does not have access to one unless he and his co-workers have reason to believe a passenger might be ill.
"They have them there, but they're not releasing them yet, giving the OK to wear them yet," he said.
The 7-year TSA employee said his federal security director has not given the authority to release the masks because the director "didn't want to panic the public."
"They're letting us down with no protection," Tennison said. "They always say that we're on the front lines of security, and if we're on the front lines like the military, we need to have our equipment."
Still, he said, employees have been advised to stay home if they feel ill and to take precautions.
At Los Angeles International Airport, TSA employee Bobby Orozco Jr. said he's heard from his co-workers that supervisors have said employees are not allowed to wear masks, but he hasn't seen any firsthand information on that.
Even so, Orozco said there are no masks available to put on even if he and his co-workers wanted to do so. He said such decisions often are up to federal security directors at individual airports.
Orozco said he and his peers are "visibly and obviously upset because you see passengers coming through with them on. And it's almost like TSA is saying the passengers are going to be afraid, we don't want to cause the panic -- but the panic's already here."
Orozco also said employees can't bring their own masks because, "If they're not TSA-issued, they're not going to approve them anyway."
Today, T.J. Bonner, president of the union National Border Patrol Council, told ABC News he has not seen the same situation among border patrol agents. Bonner said he has inquired and not found a single incident of border patrol agents being asked not to don protective gear.
The National Border Patrol Council issued an alert to employees Monday, advising them to call in sick if needed, to take precautions recommended by the CDC when interacting with potentially sick people and to speak up "if management refuses to issue N95 respirators or forbids you from using them."
Today, an official with Customs and Border Protection said employees are provided with protective equipment including gloves and masks, which are readily available to use on the job.
On Sunday, Napolitano likewise said, "The CBP is inventorying for every duty station and every employee our resources -- personal protective equipment, and so forth -- to make sure that we have adequate supplies on hand at the borders themselves."
Union Sent Letter to TSA About Protective Gear
The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter to TSA leadership Wednesday on the subject.
"We have learned that TSA management at U.S. airports are denying the use of respirators and gloves to TSOs under most circumstances," the letter said. "TSOs have been told that they cannot wear respirators because doing so would alarm the public."
The letter requested that protective gear be made available to any worker who requested it, and also sought other actions intended to better prevent the spread of the virus.
The suggestion that U.S. health officials are preventing those monitoring ports of entry from protecting their personal health comes on the same morning that Vice President Joe Biden made waves for suggesting Americans should avoid mass transit to guard against swine flu.
The vice president's comments have caused a stir for elevating concerns to a level far beyond that disseminated by the government.
Meantime, the World Health Organization has confirmed that seven people in Mexico have died from the H1N1 flu virus, in addition to one person who died yesterday in the United States after arriving from Mexico.
"The vice president has been known for speaking up when some people don't want him to," Bilbray said. "I just wish the administration raised that level of concern for the men and women who are defending our border."
Bilbray, who was born and raised in southern California, said he was tipped off to the procedure by friends, adding, "I've confirmed that that is the policy."
"No one should have to be infected by a contagious disease before they are allowed to use a life-saving device at their immediate disposal," Bilbray's letter said.
"I don't think I'm protected at all," Tennison said. "I left last night and nobody was wearing them at all."
"We're using hand sanitizer as often as we can -- it's definitely going fast. And the gloves, that's all we have, really," Orozco said. "But that's normally what we have."
Copyright © 2009 ABC News Internet Ventures