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After employee complaints, the Transportation Security Administration is making N95 respirator masks available to screening officers at Detroit Metro and three other area airports during the coronavirus pandemic, a union representative said.

The shift comes after several weeks of requests to management for the hard-shell masks for TSA agents, many of who come into close contact with passengers daily, said Gregory Simpkins, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 778. 

Surgical masks had been available to employees, Simpkins said, but the N95 masks provide a higher level of protection by filtering out at least 95% of airborne particles.

"I’m relieved we have them now, but I’m kind of mad because they’re not as proactive as I would like them to be," Simpkins said of TSA management. 

"Every time I ask for something, they got to push it up to D.C. at headquarters, and the response comes back in a week."

Simpkins said he's worried about those employees who might have been exposed to the coronavirus at work during the interim. 

"We’ve been asking for almost a month," he said. "This virus has been around awhile."

A regional spokesman for the TSA confirmed Friday that 10,000 N95 respirator masks and 14,000 surgical masks are available for the four regional airports: Detroit Metro, Flint, Saginaw and Lansing. 

TSA employees are authorized to use masks and respirators but not required to do so. They are mandated to wear nitrile gloves when screening people and baggage, and are provided with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the agency said. 

Before receiving an N95 mask, TSA employees must take a 15-minute online class to learn how to properly be fitted and how to wear the mask, Simpkins said. 

“TSA remains committed to the health and safety of our workforce and is now authorizing the use of eye protection and N95 respirators for employees," the agency said in a statement. 

"TSA will continue to follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding workforce protection. We are working closely with CDC and will follow any additional guidance that is issued.”

The CDC late Friday advised all Americans to wear non-medical, cloth masks in public in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus by asymptomatic people. 

Deaths in Michigan due to the disease COVID-19 hit 479 Friday, as the state's confirmed cases topped 12,700. Nationwide 5,443 deaths are attributed to COVID-19 and over 239,000 cases. 

At least four TSA workers at Detroit Metro have tested positive for COVID-19, including one who remains hospitalized, Simpkins said. 

Across the country, 74 TSA workers have tested positive for COVID-19 during the past two weeks, including 56 screening officers, according to the agency.

TSA on Friday announced the first death among its ranks due to the virus: Francis “Frank” Boccabella III, 39, was an explosive detection canine handler at Newark Liberty International Airport. He died Thursday.

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn wrote this week to Administrator David Pekoske about "unsafe" working conditions for TSA employees at Detroit Metro, saying the agency's efforts to safeguard airport employees' health have been "insufficient." Detroit Metro sits in Tlaib's district. 

"From the beginning of this crisis, TSA workers at DTW have reported being denied access to masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). We have repeatedly inquired about this issue and have urged that workers who request masks be granted them," the Democratic lawmakers wrote.

"While the official response from DTW TSA management has been that any worker who requests a mask can have one, some reports suggest that employees are being sent home instead of being provided with masks."

The congresswomen also asked whether TSA plans to request hazard pay for its employees from the federal government. 

In response to an inquiry last month by Democratic Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, Pekoske said the agency is evaluating what additional pay "flexibilities," including a form of hazardous duty pay, could be implemented as part of TSA's COVID-19 response.

Janitorial staff at Detroit Metro Airport are sanitizing the terminals daily, said Lisa Gass of the Wayne County Airport Authority. 

The frequency of cleanings in the McNamara Terminal and North Terminal have increased since January, concentrating on the Federal Inspection Stations and “touch points” such as doorknobs, water fountains, handrails and toilet seats, she said.

The airport authority is also requiring critical infrastructure employees who continue to report to work to undergo daily health screening for COVID-19 to reduce the risk of community spread, Gass said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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