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Pilot: 'Others Have Called in Sick' to Avoid Potential Ebola Contamination

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"The only way to tell if someone is that sick is if they look haggard, and half of America travels that way anyway," he said.

In this photo made Friday, May 9, 2014, American Airlines pilots Bill Elder, left, and Jim Dees work inside a Boeing 787 flight simulator with New York’s JFK airport gate scenery, in Fort Worth, Texas. In the next few months, dozens of American Airlines pilots will sit in the same simulator and learn the nuances of the controls before they can fly the real plane, which the airline will begin using for passenger flights early next year. (AP Photo/LM Otero) AP Photo/LM Otero\n

Pilots for at least one major airline may be avoiding flights to parts of the world most affected by the spreading Ebola crisis.

One pilot for a major United States carrier told TheBlaze he knows reserve pilots have been called in to complete flights to some West African countries.

AP Photo/LM Otero

“There are some crews that are starting to get a little antsy, and others have called in sick to avoid some trips," said the pilot, speaking on condition of anonymity. "For just one flight from New York to West Africa, three different flight officers canceled and the reserve crew had to be called. Now these guys may have legitimately been sick, they'll have to deal with that process on their own, but there does seem to be some fallout on the scheduling side because people are refusing to go.”

The pilot also raised concerns that there hasn’t been enough training for Transportation Security Administration personnel who may be the first to encounter sick travelers.

“In this day and age, the first human someone could interact with at the airport is the TSA agent when they present their ID," he said. "People can check in online and print their boarding passes or just scan their phones — it’s likely the TSA agents might be the first people sick travelers speak to or interact with, so I wonder how they are prepared to handle that,” he said.

Jason Harrington, a former TSA agent who worked as a screener for six years, agreed with the pilot’s assessment.

"There was zero training like that, as far as a person potentially infected with Ebola and a deadly virus like that, it wasn't addressed," Harrington told TheBlaze. "At the most -- at the most -- it was once every few years, sending the employees off the floor to sit down at a crappy government computer going through PowerPoint slides."

“When H1N1 was the disease in the news, and everyone -- especially anyone Asian -- was wearing surgical masks everywhere, it was a huge joke, there was no real preparation," Harrington said. "They did tell us if someone coughed or sneezed on us to pull that person aside and immediately report it to the supervisor and a hazmat team would be called in."

But asked whether he ever saw that happen, Harrington told responded, "Hell no."

"If anything it was more a 'save your ass' attitude like, 'Oh, there's a virus coming in? I'm going to use up all my vacation days and call in sick as much as I can to avoid it."

Harrington, who says he hasn't flown since he blew the whistle on his former employer by exposing how TSA agents approached the security screening process, said he has no confidence that TSA agents or airline officials would be able to identify, contain or turn away sick travelers.

Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade organization representing multiple U.S. airlines, told TheBlaze the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has "issued guidelines for airlines and crew, which our members are following, and airlines are sharing this information directly with crewmembers, who are trained on infection control precautions."

When asked what that training entailed, Day said individual airlines were responsible for the training.

One training video released by the CDC earlier this month was created as a training tool for aircrew members. As of Thursday morning, it had been viewed only about 13,000 times. There are more than 200,000 commercial pilots and flight attendants working for U.S. carriers.

Day insisted the concern was likely unnecessary.

"All of our members’ planes are equipped with Universal Precautions Kits ... [and] the CDC has consistently noted that there is virtually no risk to air travelers, no matter where you travel," she said.

Such precaution kits include gloves, protective aprons and biohazard disposal bags, and "combines personal protection and cleanup items mandated by OSHA, CDC, and State Health Departments to aid in the cleanup, transportation, and disposal of infectious blood or body fluid spills," according to one site that sells them. But the contents pale in comparison to the protective covering nurses were wearing around the infected Ebola patient in Dallas before they contracted the deadly virus.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has given airline employees the authority to deny boarding to air travelers with serious contagious diseases that could spread during flight, including travelers with possible Ebola symptoms. The rule applies to all flights of U.S. airlines, and to direct flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines.

The airline pilot, who previously served in the military and has flown for more than 20 years, said the real issue begins way before the airport. He said the CDC “seems to be utterly failing” in its ability to protect the health care workers with proper training and protocol, and the fact that the second nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, was allowed to travel appears to be a joint failure on behalf of the hospital and the government health agency.

“This is also a personnel management issue,” he said. “How do you let your workers go out of town knowing what they just did -- directly treating a deadly disease? I would have expected that to be part of some sort of contingency plan with respect to personnel management at the hospital."

He continued, "You hold your Ebola response personnel to certain criteria, and one of those criteria would be not traveling for 21 [days] and subjecting yourself for further screening … but maybe the CDC and the hospital didn't think that was necessary."

protective kits for airlines Universal Precaution Kits are provided to every air crew, but they pale in comparison to the protective covering nurses were wearing around an infectious Ebola patient in Dallas before they contracted the deadly virus. (Image source: Safetec)

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said during a House panel hearing on the CDC's response to Ebola Thursday, "We need to hold public health systems to a standard."

Waxman said he's certain Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas would have failed those standards. "I suspect many, many hospitals would also have struggled to respond."

CDC Director Thomas Frieden expressed regret Tuesday that his agency had not done more to help the hospital control the infection. Starting now, he said, “Ebola response teams” will be dispatched within hours to any hospital in the United States with a confirmed Ebola patient.

In the hearing Thursday, Frieden said, the agency has "a system at multiple levels to control the disease at the source," and "there are no shortcuts, everyone has to do their part."

The airline pilot who spoke to TheBlaze said he believes if patients or health care workers don't self-report and keep themselves at home, neither airline crews or TSA agents are properly trained or prepared to spot travelers with infections diseases and prevent them from flying.

"The only way to tell if someone is that sick is if they look haggard, and half of America travels that way anyway," the pilot said.

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Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter

 

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