Faces of the Pandemic: Through the lens of a TSA agent
Local airport screeners kept travelers moving through Sardy Field with no illnesses
Within days of the first reported COVID-19 cases in Aspen in early March by a group of Australians, Transportation Security Administration agent Bob Helmus who worked at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, came down with a scratchy throat and shortness of breath.
“I was concerned that I had it and no one really knew how contagious it was or what was going on,” said Helmus, an Old Snowmass resident. “At the time, there were all these question marks.”
He was told by his employer to stop reporting to work and get tested.
COVID tests were few and far between back then, but Helmus was able to convince his physician to use one of his limited specimen swabs.
After almost two weeks, he got the results back: negative. Helmus had been quarantining for 14 days before going back out on the front line, which once lockdown orders were in place, was pretty quiet as hardly anyone was coming through the airport.
But once summer hit and the local economy opened, air travelers were showing up.
Helmus said he and his fellow TSA agents were anxious about their exposure but followed protocols first set up by the airport, and later by the federal agency.
“There were people who were working and were scared,” Helmus said. “We had to screen people, get close to people and touch their things.”
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
But with fast action by personnel at the airport, like installing Plexiglas and establishing 6-foot social distancing rules, Helmus and his co-workers felt more comfortable.
The TSA was slower to react, and the feeling was that administrators were hesitant to make a decision for fear of being held accountable.
“They didn’t want to be held responsible so they didn’t pull the trigger as fast” as the agency did when the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak occurred in 2011, when Helmus first started as a TSA agent, he said.
A media representative for TSA didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
Rich Englehart, interim airport director and the county’s deputy manager, said the staff at Sardy Field made more than 150 improvements to the facility in response to public health orders.
“The airport staff went into full-on mode,” Englehart said, adding that Sardy Field was one of the leading airports in the country to take such quick measures against the spread of the coronavirus.
That included a lot of educational signs, the installation of Plexiglas and hand-sanitizing stations, and fogging the facility nightly, among myriad other measures.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Englehart said, “but it’s worth it.”
As a result, no one who works at the airport has contracted COVID-19 from there.
Helmus said none of his former co-workers have been sick, and some TSA agents have been inoculated with the vaccine.
“Everyone stayed healthy in that environment,” he said.
He said he watched passengers evolve from not wearing face masks at the beginning to taking aggressive measures like a family Helmus screened who wore full hazmat suits.
“The majority of people were pretty good and that made us feel safer too,” he said.
A former Basalt firefighter and EMT, Helmus said he had been taking care of himself and was using whatever precautionary measures there were, whether it was bringing his own N95 mask or safety goggles to work.
He was supposed to retire in May but stayed with the TSA until September, and now Helmus, 65, is behind the wheel driving a Snowmass Village shuttle a couple times a week for something to do.
Englehart said he appreciates the dedication and work from the people on front lines.
“I absolutely admire those employees who provide services in this environment,” he said. “They are critical at the airport.”
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User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.