Protecting America Against an Invisible Enemy
From her station at Seattle’s international airport, CBP Officer Shannice Brown checked the passports of international arrivals.
“Thank you. Next, please!” she said as she finished talking to one traveler and readied for the next.
In a lot of ways, it’s business as usual for this recent transplant from the East Coast to America’s Pacific Northwest. But in this time of COVID-19, or coronavirus, in an area that has been a hotspot for the disease, the protective measures and increased awareness of what she needs to do to protect America – and herself – remains at the forefront of her mind.
“There is a good amount of personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, etc. – available to all of our officers,” she said, pointing out many of the safe practices during this time of coronavirus have always been done. “Even before this outbreak, [personal protective equipment] was always available. It’s an officer safety concern.”
As a CBP officer she doesn’t medically screen passengers; that’s left to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees located at the airport. CDC actually goes up to the gates of the planes, visually checks everyone, and gives them CDC contact forms to gather phone numbers and addresses of those arriving.
“By the time they get down to us in the primary processing area, they’ve already been seen, and we already have their contact information,” Brown said. “We enter that contact information into our system as well in the event we need to access it later.”
CBP continues to process cargo, international mail and express consignment packages. The CDC has not identified any threat as it relates to these shipments. Currently all CBP ports of entry are following the same operational guidance as issued by recent presidential proclamations and the Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. citizens returning from abroad from certain countries are proceeding to standard customs processing. They will then continue to CDC enhanced entry screening where the passenger will be asked about their medical history, current condition, and asked for contact information for local health authorities. Passengers will then be given written guidance about the coronavirus and directed to proceed to their final destination, and immediately home-quarantine in accordance with CDC best practices.
Recent travel restrictions slowed the rate of international travelers coming through her airport to much lower volume than normal, but the work is still there.
“Whether or not our passenger count has changed, our duty is to remain constant, identifying anything that could potentially be a risk to our nation,” she said.
It’s a scene being played out across CBP. Supervisory Marine Interdiction Agent Kris Goland said he told his agents headed out to patrol off San Diego’s Pacific Ocean coast to exercise extra caution with whomever they might encounter.
“It’s a constant reminder to slow down, gather your situational awareness, and look at the circumstances, rather than quickly jumping on board [a smuggling vessel] like we normally would be doing,” Goland said. He added safety officers are counting face masks to make sure agents and possible violators have the needed protective equipment before the crews hit the seas. “We’ve already come across a migrant vessel, and all the migrants were given face masks to protect themselves and the law enforcement officers involved in the action.”
He said many of the precautions they’re taking now mirror protections the marine agents were already practicing to protect themselves against diseases, such as tuberculosis, and dangerous drugs like fentanyl, which can kill if not handled properly.
Further up the west coast, Marine Interdiction Agent Bill Scammell said the “Stay-at-Home, Stay Safe” orders in Washington state are helping them do their job. This time of year would be a crowded time as Canadian and American fishermen chase salmon in the shared waters each are allowed to transit. But now, there’s not a thousand boats to watch; maybe just a handful.
“It’s kind of like what we deal with in the winter months, when the weather is more adverse and less people out on the water,” Scammell said. “It makes it a little easier for us.”
Scammell said their boats are also well-stocked with the gloves and face masks needed to do the job.
In the desert of Arizona, Border Patrol Agent Monica Cruz said they’re taking the same safety precautions as always – face masks, gloves – when encountering people who have illegally crossed the border. Only now, they don’t take them back to her Border Patrol station near Yuma.
“We’re doing everything in the field,” she said, following certain protocols, depending on the person’s country of origin: Mexicans and Central Americans have their records checked for any criminal history and expelled to Mexico expeditiously at the port of entry; persons from other countries are isolated within Border Patrol holding facilities to the greatest extent possible until they can be put on a flight back to their home country. “We’re trying to limit the [physical] contact we have with the detainees.”
Cruz said as a certified emergency medical technician, she finds many are actually unaware of the pandemic and the dangers it brings.
“If they are infected and taking it to their loved ones in the states, it just defeats the whole purpose of the safety measures federal, state and local officials have put out,” she said. “We need to protect our people, but they also need to protect theirs.”
To make sure all CBP frontline personnel have what they need and the knowledge to protect themselves, Dr. David Tarantino, CBP’s senior medical advisor, works closely with CBP human resources and safety and health professionals.
“CBP developed a comprehensive, mission-specific, risk-based job hazard analysis and personal protective equipment assessment,” Tarantino said. “This analysis is based on guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, CDC and other experts.”
Tarantino said the information is available to all CBP employees through the agency’s internal intranet website. The site contains that CBP guidance, DHS guidance, CDC information and much of the same information the general public has been hearing – wash your hands frequently and for 20 seconds with soap and water, recognize the signs of COVID-19, and practice social distancing, among others. In addition, it advises CBP employees what they should do for protective equipment: gloves, face masks and respirators for direct contact with high-risk passengers down to maybe just good hygiene techniques for those in offices or working from home.
“We encourage everyone concerned about a potential exposure to the coronavirus to alert their supervisor,” Tarantino said.
CBP also stood up an emergency operations center at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 1. Staffed by experts from components throughout CBP, it supports the agency's planning and response to the coronavirus and assists people in the workforce.
"When we stand up an operation such as this, it's in response to a major event," said Dario Lugo, operations manager for the center. "Our main concern is the safety of CBP personnel in the field and their families. The accountability of our staff is paramount. This is not unlike how we respond to hurricanes, floods, or other acts of nature."
Scammell is glad to get the equipment, knowledge and support from the experts back at headquarters. He said the agents he works with just want to be good CBP employees and good citizens.
“As a community here, we need to do our part, including using [protective measures] and social distancing,” Scammell said. “One day, we’ll have this in the rearview mirror, and it will be gone.”
“Our job is to protect our borders and the people who are here. This is one way that we can do so,” Cruz said.
Brown said she hopes the public understands how hard CBP is working to make sure everyone is safe.
“We are doing our best to maintain their safety, as well as ours, during this time,” Brown said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between official ports of entry. CBP is charged with securing the borders of the United States while enforcing hundreds of laws and facilitating lawful trade and travel.