In a nearly 17-year career with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Officer Omar E. Palmer had encountered many precarious situations, from suitcases of guns and drugs to disorganized passengers, in the John F. Kennedy International Terminal, according to his long-time friend and significant others.
“I got calls a lot when he left work in the middle of the night – about what happened or who he met, or about a specific occasion that happened,” said Yvette Williams. “Omar was fearless.”
Williams, who lives in Ohio where she teaches a college English course, felt scared and helpless from afar. Palmer, who lived in New York with his aging mother, said long-term quarantine was not an option and sent her selfies in personal protective gear to ease her worries.
“His favorite phrase for me was, ‘I’m not a delicate flower,'” said Williams. “I said, ‘You are not a delicate flower, but you are human.'”
Williams’ gut feeling was correct: Palmer contracted the virus at the airport and died in early May after a month in intensive care.
Palmer was among hundreds of federal employees whose responsibilities were adjusted to assess the health of overseas passengers.
Yvette Williams and Omar Palmer
Courtesy of the Palmer family
The goal of the screening program was to identify and isolate sick travelers who brought the virus into the country in hopes that it would prevent possible community spread.
In interviews with dozens of federal employees and task force officials over four months, CNBC learned that the program was not only ineffective but also dangerous from the start. A former White House coronavirus task force official estimated that three to four dozen employees were infected by the end of May. For comparison: by the end of September, nine of the hundreds of thousands of travelers examined in the program were found to be infected.
However, the White House chose not to dismantle it so as not to alarm the public.
“‘We are doing everything we can to protect the homeland’ – that was the message sent by the continuation of the screenings,” said a former health and welfare official on condition of anonymity to discuss private consultations. “But at some point you have to adapt. You have to say, ‘It doesn’t work.'”
The White House, the National Security Council, the Department of 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 head of the task force in February after the system was implemented, declined to comment.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Human Services noted that the administration has little institutional knowledge to provide early policy guidance and accused China of covering up information about the nature of the virus. “The airport review appeared to be an immediate tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19 entering the country undetected, so strong measures could be taken to slow its spread within the country,” the spokesman said in one Statement sent after this article was published.
The plan, worked out by the White House Task Force in mid-January, started modestly: travelers whose itineraries originated in China were rerouted to one of three airports, where a few dozen screeners assessed their symptoms.
As the virus spread westward in the Middle East and Europe, the program grew to 15 airports, flights from 31 countries, and around 750 screeners and support staff. At the height of the program, agents were doing around 30,000 screenings a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Department of Homeland Security manned the first line of defense: Customs and border guards, wearing gloves, goggles, and N95 masks, checked the temperatures and, in addition to checking passports, gave incoming passengers a questionnaire with symptoms of flu. Anyone who has registered above average will be sent for further assessment in rooms that employ nearly 500 agency analysts and external contractors organized by the CDC.
In public, the Trump administration sought to increase confidence in the strategy, sending the country’s top health officials to the White House briefing room to answer questions from reporters.
“These prudent and targeted measures will ease pressure on public health officials to screen incoming travelers, expedite processing of US citizens returning from China, and ensure resources are focused on the health and safety of the American people,” Alex, Minister of Health and Human Services Azar said on January 31, two weeks after the program began.
But behind the scenes, early data showed that the program wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.
“We didn’t find anyone. I mean, we found about zero people,” said Joe Grogan, who was director of the White House Home Affairs Council until May. “It became clear relatively quickly that from a public health perspective, identifying people who were Covid-positive was a failure.”
The numbers were actually close to zero. From mid-January to mid-September, screeners rated 776,044 passengers, according to CDC data. Only nine positive cases of coronavirus resulted from the screenings, or 0.001%.
The nature of this virus – particularly its widespread transmission by healthy-looking people – made screeners’ search for visible symptoms useless.
“The people who actually had a temperature that the net actually caught,” says the former HHS official, “I mean it was so minimal.”
According to Grogan and three task force officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were still in the administration, the nature of the asymptomatic spread meant that contagious travelers went undetected and airport staff were exposed to the virus at high rates.
“It was a pretty blatant data point,” Grogan told CNBC in an exclusive interview to discuss the program. “It was announced that not only will we not find anyone, but that more CDC and DHS employees at airports will be infected with Covid than people.”
It’s no surprise that as the country’s largest employer, the government recorded a high incidence of Covid cases. According to the postal service, the Department of Homeland Security recorded the highest infection rate among federal agencies, with more than 4,000 in customs and law enforcement alone. CBP did not respond to a request for a breakdown of the number of these cases at airports.
In contrast to other agencies, the CDC does not provide information on agency infections in a publicly accessible dashboard. At the request of CNBC, the CDC declined to provide data on infection rates among screeners. The CDC also declined requests for interviews with top officials, including Director Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Marty Cetron to discuss their concerns about the program.
The program’s ineffectiveness was largely understood by mid-March, prompting the White House and federal agencies to weigh the downsizing and reallocate resources to other hot spots, according to six task force officials involved in the discussions. These officials asked for anonymity because they are still in the administration or doing business with it and were not empowered to discuss the matter.
A task force official said the debate was not about the screeners themselves. “We knew they were getting sick, but we were [the testing of passengers] was effective, “said the official.
A second task force official said the question of ending the funnel and moving CBP and CDC staff to other roles was “an ongoing discussion for a few months” beginning in April.
A third task force official said the decision to keep it intact was made because “it is a show of force for the American people,” “and it did not cost much in relative terms.” A fourth official said the role of these screeners is an important “deterrent” to otherwise ill passengers from boarding a flight.
Ken Cuccinelli, who served as assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on the task force and helped carry out its efforts, admitted that there were travelers who simply missed the program due to the asymptomatic spread. He also suggested that responsibility for the program’s shortcomings should be shared among the entire government.
“We were the experts in transportation logistics, but we didn’t make any medical decisions,” Cuccinelli told CNBC, who said his workforce was through training limited to “eyeball” passengers and a toolset limited to temperature measurements , with special needs. “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 performed an essential role at airports regardless of the pandemic – and the CDC, whose leaders advocated early evacuation of their people from airports to serve nursing homes and other critical needs across the country.
“If you just pulled out all of these CDC public health workers and said, ‘You are alone,'” Grogan said.[DHS] would not have been comforted by it. “
CDC declined to comment on the discussion. A report published in November described the program as “resource intensive with low yield” and concluded that “symptom-based screening programs are ineffective”.
Cuccinelli said it was incomprehensible that the DHS withdrew its workers at a time when the country was facing significant threats.
“The idea that we wouldn’t do anything strikes me as unbearable – that’s not even plausible for quarterbacking on Monday morning,” he said.
The program remained largely intact until September 13, when the CDC announced its official end – eight months after its inception and six months after officials recalled it wasn’t working.
And while the number of federal employees sick wasn’t particularly high, “it was enough to keep you busy with the operations,” said the former HHS official.
Although Cuccinelli was far higher than the number of passengers detected, he told CNBC that he had not found any frequency of infection among its staff in relation to the following: the rate of coronavirus transmission was about the same as that of the general public, and the agency could not be certain that it wasn’t I don’t take it outside of work.
“There is always a risk for people on the front lines,” said Cuccinelli. “But we found that those people who contracted the virus were also doing so at rates similar to those in the communities they worked in.”
Unions like the American Federation of Government Employees have campaigned for lawmakers to be included in Covid’s “automatic presumption of illness at work” stimulus to make it easier for workers to access more sick leave and compensation. Until the final text of the $ 900 billion aid agreement is published, it remains unclear whether lawmakers have incorporated these safeguards. They weren’t an important subject of negotiation.
Customs and border guards have not recorded any deaths of officials since 2015. There were nine deaths in 2020, all of which were due to Covid-19. Memorial pages commemorating Palmer and colleague CK Yan said the two men contracted the virus while working.
“US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Omar Palmer has performed many assigned tasks with professionalism and integrity. His death was tragic and we ask that you respect his family’s privacy during this difficult time,” said a spokesman for the agency at JFK.
Palmer lived with his mother, who was herself a former DHS employee, and took strict precautions to protect her health, Williams said.
He restricted his contact and wore gloves and masks. On April 1, he planned to visit Williams’ adult daughters at their Brooklyn home to drop off a package of N95 masks and gloves that was then in short supply across the country. Instead, he called to tell her he was being quarantined after being exposed at Covid Airport.
At the end of the week he was in intensive care and two weeks later on a ventilator and in a coma.
Palmer died on May 4th. He was 40 years old. Williams visits his grave and she wonders what government brass could have done to save him.
“It’s irresponsible. It’s murder,” Williams said, holding back tears. “If you know better, you should do better. There is no excuse.”
Wreath dedicated to Omar Palmer.
Courtesy of the Palmer family
– CNBC’s Patrick Manning, Karina Hernandez and Scott Zamost contributed to the coverage.