Lawmakers Blast DHS Swine Flu Policy
Lawmakers blasted the Department of Homeland Security today for not formalizing the use of protective face masks by employees working along the U.S.-Mexico border during the recent swine flu outbreak, suggesting the department has placed bureaucratic considerations ahead of the health and safety of its own workers.
Homeland Security Undersecretary for Management Elaine C. Duke told members of a House subcommittee Thursday afternoon that DHS based its decisions on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies coordinating the federal government’s swine flu response.
Duke admitted that some Customs and Border Protection supervisors at U.S.-Mexico border crossings did not permit CBP officers to wear masks while screening travelers. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made the ultimate decision on protective masks, Duke said.
“Your excuses are lame when you say you’re following the medical advice,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) told Duke.
“If I’ve got to legislate that they have the right wear masks to protect themselves, their family and their communities, that’s what I’ll do. But I shouldn’t have to blow up the bureaucracy to get something done,” he said.
DHS began issuing guidelines in late April to Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration employees, instructing them to quarantine infected passengers, frequently wash their hands and stay home if they feel ill. The department instructed officers to wear protective masks if they came into contact with infected passengers. Unions urged the department to issue similar instructions to all officers working along the border or at international airports.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) blasted the department’s decision, suggesting it was more concerned with diplomacy and public relations than public health concerns.
“Madam, I’m sorry, but frankly this is an indictment of the system that they worry more about perceptions rather than allowing people to make their own decisions on their health,” he said to Duke.
Union representatives provided the committee with testimonials from workers they said were denied the right to wear protective masks. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley, whose union represents CBP and TSA employees, said some of her members working along the U.S.-Mexico border could see their Mexican counterparts wearing protective masks.
“It is unacceptable and shocking that more than three weeks after the onset of the so called swine flu and despite repeated urging from NTEU and others, there is still no comprehensive guidance in place to protect the health of these frontline employees,” Kelley said.
“The greater good is not well-served if the public servants become transmissions for deadly diseases,” said T.J. Bonner with the American Federation of Government Employees.
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