The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has us in a thick fog of moral decision-making. Every individual is daily facing a barrage of questions about whether a certain action is “right.”

We want to see our friends and family members in person, but close contact raises the chance of passing on or catching an infection. And if we do pass it on, does it imperil the health of the other person and potentially strain an already-taxed healthcare system?

We want to go outside and sit at a café as the weather warms. We want to get a haircut, get the oil changed in the car, or enjoy the pleasure of seeing someone other than just ourselves in the mirror. For some of us, we want to go back to work or secure a new job, but we have to weigh that against the risk to our own health and that of our loved ones.

We ask ourselves, what is the correct balance between need, desire and ethics?

The core of philosopher David Hume’s Is-Ought Guillotine, as it’s called, is that empirical facts do not logically translate to what one should do. When we connect “what is” with “what ought to be,” we are making an inherently moral link between facts and proper action. It’s about ethical choice.

Enter the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and 1.3 million N95 respirator masks.

On Thursday, TSA announced a requirement for employee “facial protection.” Masks for airport screeners, no doubt. ProPublica reported on Wednesday that TSA has a huge stockpile of the medical-grade masks; 1.3 million of them.

For months, we have seen reports of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers clamoring for these masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). And we citizens have been strongly urged, even shamed, by leaders and by our neighbors to leave these masks for the medical professionals and caregivers tasked with providing life-saving treatment for the sickest among us.

If this is a war against a microscopic enemy, as the President has posited, healthcare providers are the frontline soldiers, knee-deep in the mud and fighting like hell with not even the bare minimum needed to safely accomplish their tasks. Most would agree that we ought to leave PPE to the warriors, dig the paisley bandanna out of the coat closet, and stay home unless absolutely necessary. Yet, TSA has 1.3 million N95 masks on hand and has decided they will not be donating them to healthcare workers.

Before considering what TSA ought to do with these masks, let’s first inspect “what is.”

Empirical Facts on N95 Masks and TSA

TSA put out a 13-page “Public Affairs Guidance” document, dated April 27, 2020, on its actions during the pandemic. From the document, here’s what is, as it relates to the N95 masks:

“TSA is receiving approximately 1.3 million N95 respirators from Customs and Border Protection (CBP).”

“N95 respirator masks will be made available to TSA employees who ask for them until supplies are deplenished.”

“These masks…have exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended shelf life. Nevertheless, the CDC states that these masks will still be effective in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it’s important to provide protection to our nation’s front line security professionals.”

“The CDC has not recommended the use of N95 respirators by our employees and TSA has been following guidance from the CDC, OSHA and FDA regarding N95 respirators for COVID-19.” (Emphasis added.)

“TSA does not plan to donate its N95 masks to healthcare workers. All of the N95 respirator masks have exceeded their shelf life.”

Did you catch it? The CDC says the expired masks are effective and has not recommended their use for TSA screeners. TSA is following CDC guidance…but TSA will not donate the masks because they have exceeded their shelf life. From an empirical standpoint and by TSA’s own words, the masks work, and they don’t need them. Still, TSA has refused to donate them to the medical soldiers.

Again from TSA’s document:

“Due to the current shortage of respiratory personal protective equipment, TSA recommends 1 surgical mask or N95 respirator per employee each shift.” (Emphasis added.)

Another empirical fact is that doctors, nurses and others at hospitals are re-using their N95 masks because they simply don’t have enough to be discarding them as they did in the past. The CDC has released guidance on how to re-use N95 masks, including:

“Hang used respirators in a designated storage area or keep them in a clean, breathable container such as a paper bag between uses.”

In April, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that air traffic worldwide has fallen 80%. In the United States, testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee from airline and airport officials revealed the air traffic drop to be in excess of 90%. On the day ProPublica reported on TSA’s cache of masks, the total traveler throughput for the entire country was 140,409 passengers; a year ago, that number was nearly 2.3 million passengers.

So we have medical professionals looking into the virus-shedding orifices of thousands of very sick people, and they’re storing their N95s in a paper bag between uses. Meanwhile, TSA officers, who are screening just 6% of the number of passengers they might otherwise, have a stockpile of 1.3 million medical-grade masks.

The TSA guidance document reveals that these 1.3 million masks are expected to last just 30 days, though there’s no mention of the 94% drop in screening throughput. And in an article by Government Executive, it is reported that most TSA employees are on home paid leave for most of their work weeks, on top of 8,000 paid TSA screeners who are not coming into work at all because of the risk to their health.

One empirical question this writer would love answered is who is making these decisions on masks, and how did they arrive at the decision of what they ought to do?

TSA’s (A)Moral Decision-Making During the Pandemic

The aforementioned ProPublica article notes a number of federal executives who disagree with the TSA leadership’s decision to retain the N95 masks, rather than donate them to medical professionals. They are all making moral calculations on TSA’s stated bridge between “what is” and “what ought to be.”

  • DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Management Randolph Alles sent an April 7 memo instructing that TSA officers should wear homemade cloth facemasks.
  • A TSA security director in the Midwest sent several messages to superiors that his staff did not need the 9,000 N95 masks sent to him and asked permission to donate them to medical staff. His requests were denied.
  • A TSA attorney filed a whistleblower complaint about TSA’s decisions to keep, rather than donate, the N95 masks it was receiving.

The empirical world doesn’t tell us what to do with these masks. There is nothing inherent in a supply of PPE that dictates who has the luxury of using it. We must turn to our intuition of what is right and wrong, our internal compasses that guide us in deciding, no, I don’t need that haircut, I don’t need to go to the café with friends, and I certainly do not need an N95 mask when there are people in harm’s way who desperately do need it.

In a democratic society, morality is defined through plurality. All we need to do is look out our window from the safe confines of our self-imposed isolation to see the empty streets, the dog walkers social distancing, the skies free of airplanes, and we know intuitively that TSA’s decision on these masks, while “legally allowed,” is morally wrong.

Americans are evidencing everyday our ethical calculations. The vast majority of us are showing that our view on what “ought to be” is a selfless decision-making process that prioritizes the health of our countrymen and women and collective acknowledgement that we must share the things we just don’t need with those who do.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More