TSA worker at Newark airport dies of COVID-19, becoming agency's first casualty

Jayme Deerwester, USA TODAY

The Transportation Security Administration has lost one of its own to the novel coronavirus: Francis “Frank” Boccabella III, who worked as a explosive detection canine handler at at Newark Liberty International Airport died Thursday, the agency said.

"He is the first federal TSA employee who we have lost to COVID-19,"  the agency said in a release posted to its website Friday. "The news of this loss strengthens our determination to work ever more closely with our interagency partners to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Boccabella, 39, joined TSA in 2004, screening cargo at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and later moved to Newark to work as a compliance officer before joining the canine handler team.

"Frank was dedicated to protecting the traveling public with his canine partner, Bullet, a 6-year-old German Short-haired Pointer and his previous canine partner, Zmay," the release noted. "Frank and his canine partners screened hundreds of thousands of passengers, keeping them and the transportation network safe." 

Boccabella, whose last day at work before becoming sick was March 19, was one of five TSA officers from Newark and one of 74 TSA workers across the country to contract COVID-19 in the past 14 days. (Out of that number 56 are screening officers; another 18 have limited interaction with the traveling public.)

Francis "Frank" Boccabella III and his previous canine partner, Zmay, are seen inspecting cargo for explosives in 2015.

Despite the fact that screening officers must come into close contact with passengers to do their jobs, at least one sick officer says he's been been denied a COVID-19 test three times.

"When we have to pat somebody down, you can’t do it from six feet away," Brian Shoup, a 17-year TSA veteran based at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, told USA TODAY. "We’re pretty much out there and exposed."

For more than a month, he's exhibited many of the symptoms of coronavirus, including fever, breathing difficulties and headaches.

Numbers rising:  Dozens of TSA workers nationwide positive for coronavirus

TSA employees are authorized, though not required, to use masks and respirators. They are required to use gloves, he wrote. The agency is providing hand sanitizer to its employees who interface with the traveling public.

They're not the only employees at airports becoming infected: Meanwhile, air traffic controllers at nearly two dozen airports have tested positive, resulting in the closure of control towers for disinfection and the cancellation or delay of hundreds of flights. 

Meanwhile, a veteran American Airlines flight attendant, Paul Frishkorn, died March 23.

The respiratory illness has sickened nearly 266,700 Americans and killed 6,921 as of Friday afternoon. A day earlier, Johns Hopkins data reported 1 million cases have been confirmed throughout the world. That number is now nearing 1.1 million There have been 58,243 deaths worldwide.

This TSA officer has COVID-19 symptoms:  Why can't he get tested?

FAA workers test positive for coronavirus:  Are further airport disruptions expected?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Newark TSA officer becomes agency's first casualty