In his nearly 17-year career with US Customs and Border Protection, Officer Omar E. Palmer faced a number of precarious situations ranging from suitcases loaded with weapons and drugs to disorderly passengers at the international terminal of John F. Kennedy Airport.
“I often received calls when he stopped working in the middle of the night – what happened, or who he met, or a special seizure,” said Yvette Williams, Palmer’s longtime friend and significant other. “Omar was fearless.”
Williams, who lives in Ohio, where she teaches a college English course, began to feel distant and helpless. Palmer, who lived in New York with her aging mother, said long-term quarantine was not possible, and sent her selfie to personal protective equipment to ease her concerns.
Williams said, “His favorite phrase for me was, ‘I am not some delicate flower.” “I said, ‘You are not a delicate flower, but you are a human being.’ ‘
Williams’ gut feeling was right: Palmer contracted the virus at the airport, and died in early May after a month of intensive care.
Palmer was among hundreds of federal personnel whose responsibilities were adjusted to evaluate the health of travelers arriving from overseas. An agency spokesperson for JFK said, “Omar Palmer, US Customs and Border Protection Officer, performed many entrusted tasks with professionalism and integrity, his demise was tragic and we request you that in this difficult time you can provide for his family Respect privacy. “
The goal of the screening program was to identify and isolate sick travelers who were bringing the virus into the country, in the hope that it would thwart any potential community spread.
In interviews with dozens of federal employees and task force officials over four months, CNBC learned that the program not only proved ineffective, but has been dangerous since its early days. A former White House Coronavirus task force estimated that three to four dozen personnel had been infected by the end of May. To compare, nine out of hundreds of thousands of passengers in the program were detected to be infected by the end of September.
Yet the White House decided not to bid to avoid public concern.
A former Health and Human Services official said, “We are doing everything possible to protect the motherland.” “But at some point you have to adapt. You must say: ‘This is not working.’
The White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Health and Human Services and Transportation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for comment. The Office of the Vice President, who was appointed to lead the task force in February, once in the system, declined to comment.
The plan, created by the White House task force in mid-January, began largely: Passengers who had traveled to China would be sent to one of three airports, where a few dozen screeners would evaluate their symptoms.
As the virus spread west through the Middle East and Europe, the program brought in 15 airports, flights to 31 countries, and some 750 screeners and support personnel. According to the data on disease control and prevention, at the peak of the program, agents were conducting about 30,000 screenings daily.
The Department of Homeland Security administers the first line of defense: Customs and border security agents, dressed in gloves, goggles and N95 masks, will check the temperature and pass passengers, in addition to checking passports, a flu-symptom. Will manage the questionnaire. Nearly 500 agency analysts conducted by the CDC and anyone registered for external evaluation will be sent to rooms kept by outside contractors.
Publicly, the Trump administration attempted to boost confidence in the strategy, sending the nation’s top health officials to the White House briefing room to question reporters.
“These prudent and targeted actions will ease the pressure on public health officials investigating incoming passengers, expedite the processing of American citizens returning from China, and ensure that resources are focused on the health and safety of the American people, “Health and Human Services Secretary Alex said on January 31, two weeks after the program began.
But behind the scenes, early data suggests that the program was not doing what it was set to do.
“We were not looking for anyone. I mean, we were like zero people, “said Joe Grogan, who until May was the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.” It became relatively quickly apparent that this was from the point of view of public health, where It was a failure to identify those who were positive Kovid. ”
The number was actually near zero. According to data from the CDC, screeners rated 776,044 passengers from mid-January to mid-September. Only nine positive cases of coronavirus originated from the screen, or 0.001%.
‘A beautiful data point’
The nature of the virus – in particular, its widespread transmission by healthy-looking people – rendered the screeners’ search for visible symptoms useless.
“The people who actually had the temperature were really caught,” says Nate, who says the net was “very low.”
Groan and three task force officials, on the condition of anonymity, told what is more, while exposing airport employees at a higher rate to the airport, the nature of asymptomatic outbreaks caused infectious passengers to go undesirable. was. .
“It was a very important data point,” Grogan told CNBC in an exclusive interview to discuss the program. “It turned out that – not only are we not finding anyone, we are getting more CDC and DHS employees infected with Kovid at airports than we are looking for people.”
As the country’s largest employer, it is no surprise that the government saw a high incidence of Kovid cases. After the Postal Service, the Department of Homeland Security saw the highest transition rates among federal agencies, with more than 4,000 in customs and order protection alone. CBP did not respond to requests for breakdown of how many of those cases at airports.
Unlike other agencies, the CDC does not provide information about the agency’s transition to publicly available dashboards. When requested by CNBC, the CDC refused to provide data regarding infection rates between screeners. CDC to discuss its concerns about the program with Director Drs. Robert Redfield and Drs. Interview requests with top executives, including Marty Ketron, also declined.
‘We knew they were getting sick’
According to the six task force officials involved in the discussion, the program’s ineffectiveness became widely understood by mid-March, which led the White House and federal agencies to weed it out and divert resources to other hot spots. These officers requested anonymity because they still serve, or do business, the administration and did not have the authority to discuss the matter.
A task force official said the debate was not about the screeners themselves. “We knew they were getting sick, but that was what [the testing of passengers] Was effective, ”the official said.
A second task force official said whether to end the funneling and scatter CBP and CDC personnel from other tasks, “an ongoing discussion for a pair of games,” began in April.
A third task force official said the decision to retain it was made because “it presents a display of force” to the American people, “and it did not cost much, relatively speaking.” A fourth official said the role of these screeners was an important “deterrent” to flying for otherwise sick passengers.
Ken Cuccinelli, who served as deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, worked on the task force and helped to carry out his efforts, admitting that passengers there missed the program due to simply incurable proliferation. He also suggested that responsibility for the shortcomings of the program is shared throughout the government.
“We were experts in transportation logistics, but we didn’t make medical decisions,” Cuccinelli told CNBC, who said his workforce was handicapped by training limited to “visually impaired” passengers, and limited to taking an instrument set temperature . “Some of it was done – or continued – because it caught some people.”
Three task force officials, including Grogan, recalled a tension between the Department of Homeland Security – whose staff did an essential job at the airports regardless of the epidemic – and the CDC, whose leaders to serve their people from airports There were early supporters of the shuffle. Nursing homes and other important requirements around the country.
“If you just take out all those CDC public health workers and say, ‘You’re on your own,” “Grogan said.”[DHS] He would not have got rest. “
The CDC declined to comment on the discussion. A report released in November described the program as “resource-intensive with low yields” and concluded that “symptom-based screening programs are ineffective.”
Cuccinelli said it was unjustified that DHS would have withdrawn its cadres at a time when the country was facing significant threats.
“The idea that we won’t do anything strikes me as an inability – it’s not even possible for Monday morning,” he said.
The program remained largely intact until September 13, when the CDC announced its official termination – eight months after its inception and six months after officials remembered that it was not working.
The former HHS official said “the number of federal employees who fell ill was not an eye-popping amount,” adding that it was enough for what you are doing.
‘Exposure on the front line’
Until the detected passenger rate exceeded, Cuccinelli told CNBC that he did not find an incidence of infection among his workforce: coronovirus transmission rates were broadly similar to the public, and the agency was not sure they could not ‘Pick it out of work.
“There is always a risk to people on the front line,” Cuccinelli said. “But what we have found, including our own front-end people, is that individuals find that those who have caught the virus have acted at similar rates as communities.”
Unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees lobbied for the Kovid incentive bill to be included in “automatic estimates of workplace illness” to help workers access more sick leave and workers’ compensation. Until the final text of the $ 900 billion relief deal is made public, it is unclear whether lawmakers have included these protections. They have not been a major object in negotiations.
Customs and Border Protection had not recorded the death of an officer since 2015. In 2020, there have been nine deaths due to Kovid-19. A memorial page set up in memory of Palmer and his colleague CK Yan said that two people contracted the virus during work.
Palmer lived with her mother, herself a former DHS employee, and took strict precautions to protect her health, Williams said.
They limited their contact, and wore gloves and masks. On April 1, he planned to visit Williams’ adult daughters at his home in Brooklyn, to drop a package of N95 masks and gloves, then run short supplies nationwide. Instead, he called him to inform him that he was calming down after coming in contact with Kovid at the airport.
By the end of the week, he was in intensive care, and two weeks later, was on a ventilator and in a coma.
Palmer died on 4 May. He was 40. Williams went to his grave, and wondered what government brass could do to save him.
“It is irresponsible. This is murder, ”Williams said, holding tears. “When you know better, you should do better. there is no excuse.”