Posts in the category "Medical":

Airports working out how to deal with new pot laws

POT SIGN at the Airport

It’s been about six months since specialty shops selling recreational marijuana began operating legally in Colorado. In July, the first batch of shops licensed to sell retail weed will open in Washington State.

Both states prohibit locally-purchased pot from crossing state lines and marijuana remains illegal under the federal laws that also govern the aviation industry.

So as the busy summer travel season begins, we checked in with the TSA and some of the airports in the pot-pioneering states to see how they’re enforcing – or plan to enforce – rules prohibiting passengers from taking pot on a plane.

TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein emphasizes that the agency’s focus remains “terrorism and security threats to the aircraft and its passengers.” And if you search for “marijuana” on the TSA’s “Can I bring my … through the security checkpoint?” tool, you’ll get a message that begins “TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs.”

But if TSA officers discover something – let’s say a small amount of locally-legal pot – in a passenger’s carry-on or checked luggage that may violate the federal law, Feinstein says those officers are required to refer the matter to local enforcement, “whose officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation.”

In an effort to keep travelers from trying, even inadvertently, to take pot through security checkpoints, airports in Colorado have instituted a variety of measures.

In January, Denver International instituted a policy that bans marijuana anywhere on airport property, including pre-security areas where having small amounts of pot would otherwise be allowed. Signs announcing the rules are posted and remind travelers that the airport can impose fines of up to $999.

Denver Airport no pot sign

Word seems to have gotten out: Since the beginning of the year, only ten passengers have been found to have small amounts of marijuana on them at the TSA checkpoints. “The Denver Police Department was called for each person and they all voluntarily complied with our rules by throwing [the pot] away before flying,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery.

“We established our rules early and worked to educate people about our expectations. That seems to be an effective combination,” he said.

Other airports in Colorado are reporting much of the same.

At the Colorado Springs Airport, the local police department installed an amnesty box and as well as signs alerting passengers to the laws governing traveling across state lines with marijuana.

“We asking people to voluntarily comply,” said Lt. Catherine Buckley of the Colorado Springs Police Department, “and so far only a small amount – 1.4 grams – has been turned in on one occasion.”

In cooperation with its local sheriff’s department, in January the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport set up signs and an amnesty box as well.

“We haven’t really noticed too much of an issue,” said Brian Grefe, the airport’s assistant aviation director of administration, only that many images of its amnesty box have been showing up online. “It’s been one of our biggest social media hits,” said Grefe.

As Washington State gets ready for its first licensed recreational pot shops to open, “the best lesson it can take from Colorado is that while it is illegal to transport marijuana out of the state, people are still going to inadvertently show up with it at the airport,” said Jeff Price an aviation and security expert and an a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Price suggests airports in Washington take the approach Denver International adopted, “which is to ban it in the airport but then not prosecute people if they are caught with it – just send them back to their cars or confiscate and dispose of it properly,” or to follow the lead of other airports that have set up pot amnesty boxes at TSA checkpoints.

So far, that’s not what airports in Washington State seem to be planning.

Officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport say there are no plans to install amnesty boxes and no plans to change any airport procedures due to the opening of retail pot stores.

“I suppose a passenger could throw their pot in the garbage if they’d like,” said airport spokesman Perry Cooper.

There are no plans to change procedures at the Spokane International Airport either. There, airport police officers who currently encounter travelers with small amounts of medical marijuana “advise them of the option to surrender it to the airport police who can legally destroy it,” said airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

“Transporting marijuana across a state line is a criminal matter not an aviation issue,” said Woodard. “We will not be installing amnesty boxes. Nor will we be erecting signage.”

(My story about airports and pot first appeared as my June At the Airport column on USATODAY.com)

The germiest spots on airplanes & in airports

If you’ll be among the 24 million people expected to be in an airport and on a plane this Thanksgiving holiday period, Charles Gerba, the University of Arizona microbiology professor known as “Dr. Germ,” has some important travel advice for you: Pack light and carry hand sanitizer.

Gerba, whose travel souvenirs often include test swabs from airplane lavatories, has identified the three germiest spots on airplanes — toilets, tray tables and the latches on overhead bins.

He’s found the norovirus, the influenza virus, diarrhea and MRSA on airplane tray tables, which he says are rarely disinfected. The latches on overhead bins also get “lots of touching, but no cleaning.”

Gerba says an average of 50 people (up to 75 on budget airlines) use the lavatory each flight and warns that even if everyone bothered to wash their hands before exiting, this is the ickiest spot on a plane. “The tap water shuts off when you try to wash your hands and the sink is too small for people with large hands,” he said. Gerba has found that the lavatory exit door on airplanes usually has E. coli on it after a long flight.

He advises travelers to use hand sanitizer to clean their hands after leaving the lavatory or, better yet, “hold it if you can.”

But don’t assume you’ll find complete relief once you make it to the terminal.

“If airplanes are number one, (lavatories at) airports are number two,” said Gerba. He used to rank gas station restrooms high on this list, but has noticed that many service stations no longer even have restrooms available for customers.

Airport restrooms by busy gates can get messy quickly during high-traffic times, but many airports put a high priority on trying to keep those areas clean.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has attendants in most restrooms that have received high marks (and a few YouTube video posts) for their attentiveness and good humor. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has restroom attendants stationed inside all women’s restrooms in the public areas and an attendant who floats between two assigned men’s restrooms. The assignment: “Clean, restock supplies and make sure everything is serviceable,” said ATL spokesperson DeAllous Smith.

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, QR codes are posted in the restrooms encouraging customers to notify airport officials if something needs attention. And on its website, the airport outlines the custodial staff’s restroom routine:

“Depending on the traffic in the various restrooms, they are given one to two thorough cleanings during the first and second shift. This includes wiping off the fixtures, mopping the floors and cleaning the mirrors, Walters said. Then, every 30 to 45 minutes, staff re-enters the restrooms to check the floors, dispensers, and trash. During the night, a deep cleaning is performed which includes scrubbing the fixtures, walls, and floorsâ?¦.”

The PHX custodial staff doesn’t just clean restrooms, it keeps a list of fun facts about restrooms supplies, reporting that more than 32,000 miles of toilet tissue and close to 15,000 miles of paper towels are used in the restrooms annually, along with more than 6,000 gallons of hand soap.

Gerba has praise for the handy gadget that automatically changes the toilet seat covers in bathrooms at Chicago O’Hare, but adds that “the fear of butt-borne diseases is overrated.”

Even the cleanest airport bathroom can be no defense against catching the flu while traveling this time of year.

“Anytime there are a lot of people in a small area, such as on a bus, in a train station, in the airport or on an airplane, there’s a lot of coughing, sneezing and touching things and an increased chance for spreading germs around,” says John Zautcke, medical director of the University of Illinois-Chicago Medical Clinic at O’Hare Airport.

Zautcke recommends that travelers wash their hands often, try to steer clear of the most crowded areas of airports, and get a flu shot before hitting the road.

Busy travelers who don’t have time to get a flu shot at home can take care of that task before or between flights at some airports.

Through the end of the year, flu shots ($30; pertussis/whooping cough and pneumonia shots also available) are being offered at the O’Hare Medical Clinic center and at several kiosks in the terminals.

Flu shots ($35; cash only) are also available at the AeroClinic in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Main Terminal (Atrium Level 3) and for $25 at both the Carehere! Walk-in Clinic and Wellness Store (Concourse C) at Nashville International Airport and the Airport Health Station (Ticket Lobby “B”) at Memphis International Airport.

The SFO Medical Clinic in the Departures/Ticketing Level of the International Terminal Main Hall (A side) has flu shots available for $30. In Los Angeles, Reliant Immediate Care, near the entrance to Los Angeles International Airport is offering flu shots for $25, and in New York, flu shots are available at the Airport Medical Offices at John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty International Airport (outside the terminals, but on airport property) as well.

“People are saying it’s a mild flu season,” said O’Hare’s John Zautcke, “But the flu season hasn’t really hit, so get the vaccine while the supply is plentiful.”

Charles Gerba (Dr. Germ) agrees. “If you’re at an airport and you have the opportunity, get in line.”

(My story about germs on airplanes and in airports first appeared on USA TODAY in At the Airport column.)

TSA offers medical notification cards

Travelers with medical conditions should check out a new TSA medical notification card that can be presented to airport security screeners.

The new cards do not exempt a passenger from screening, but they do provide a way to discreetly inform and alert a security officer about a health issue, disability or medical device that may affect screening.

TSA Medical Notification Card back

“Travelers can write their disability information on the wallet-sized card and hand it to the security officer,” said TSA spokesperson Greg Soule. He said the agency worked with a coalition of about 70 representatives from disability and health organizations to develop the cards.

The TSA first released the cards in October to some disability rights groups and on disability.gov.

The wording on the front of the new TSA notification card says: “I have the following health condition, disability or medical device that may affect my screening” with a box marked “optional” for travelers to write in. Below that, the card reads, “I understand that presenting this card does not exempt me from screening.”

The reverse side of the card reiterates screening may still be necessary and says the “TSA respects the privacy concerns of all members of the traveling public” and that “alternate procedures which provide an equivalent level of security screening are available and can be done in private.”

Travelers can find more information about the cards on a link on the TSA’s website under “Travelers with Disabilities & Medical Conditions.”

‘Great first step’

“Wow! I love those cards,” said Kate Hanni of the airline consumer organization FlyersRights.org. “We receive complaints every day from folks with all types of disabilities who felt completely disregarded and/or violated during their security checks. These cards will be a great first step in alleviating the disabled flying public’s concerns about their medical devices and the ability to communicate with the TSA before there is another disaster like Tom Sawyer and so many others have encountered.”

If he’d known about the new TSA notification cards, Guenter Roesch, 71, and his wife might be packing for their vacation in Las Vegas.

The Roesches, of St. Marys, Ga., canceled their trip after they read about Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor who was left covered in urine on November 7 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport following a security pat-down in which screeners refused to let him explain his medical condition. TSA Administrator John Pistole later called Sawyer to apologize.

“We’d finally saved enough frequent flier miles for the tickets,” said Roesch. “But I’m also a bladder cancer survivor who wears an ostomy pouch to collect my urine. And I just didn’t want to be put in the same situation as Mr. Sawyer.”

Some doctors, patient advocacy groups and medical-equipment suppliers created their own notification cards and letters long before the TSA’s new stricter security screening rules and enhanced pat-downs went into effect. But Linda Aukett of United Ostomy Associations of America  said: “Some TSOs (transportation screening officers) responded with ‘Don’t bother showing me that paper. Everyone has a printer. You could have forged that letter.’ So that had a lot to do with the TSA coming up with its own card.”

News to TSOs

Because the cards are so new, many airport security screeners haven’t even seen them. Chris Soulia, president of AFGE 1234, a union representing TSA workers in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii, said officers at many West Coast airports he contacted on Monday weren’t yet aware of the cards.

But Soulia says he can’t wait to see the cards in action. “Any mechanism that helps facilitate better communications between the passengers and the federal security officer to address a passenger’s special needs is a great idea. This card is an idea long past due.”

“I think doctors, nursing homes, rehab facilities and organizations with websites that get millions of visitors, such as Susan B. Komen [a breast cancer site], should know about this card,” said Eric Lipp of Open Doors, a disability rights organization. He’d also like to see the card on airline websites.

In his phone call apologizing to Sawyer, Pistole asked for input on how the TSA can do a better job in its dealings with travelers with medical conditions. In response, last week a coalition of 24 patient advocacy groups sent the TSA a letter outlining suggestions that include better training for TSA employees, clear and uniformly applied policies “that reasonably limit the use and scope of pat-downs” and better publicity for the TSA’s notification card.

Digging deeper

For his part, Sawyer is planning to fly to Washington, D.C., in January to meet with TSA representatives and give them his own suggestions for improved service.

“I think the coalition nailed it with their ideas,” said Sawyer. “But I want TSA to dig deeper.

“I’m going to suggest that even without being handed a card, TSOs ask any passenger getting a pat-down if there’s a medical condition they should know about.”

Sawyer also plans to suggest that a nurse be available at all airports for travelers who’d like to request one during an enhanced pat-down, and that people with medical issues participate in TSA training.

“If TSOs knew the whole story, I can bet you a million dollars everyone would have a whole new understanding of why we’re so sensitive about this topic,” said Sawyer.

(A version of this story appeared on msnbc.com: TSA embraces new medical notification cards.)

Souvenir Sunday: Cheese curds, cheesy cup holders and toothbrushes

Although Outagamie County Regional Airport (ATW), in Appleton, Wisconsin, isn’t very big – it’s served by just 4 airlines – it does have a couple of free, much appreciated, amenities.

Like what?  Well, in addition to free wireless internet access, the airport stocks the post-security bathrooms with free, pocket-size, dental kits complete with mouthwash, dental floss and toothbrushes with a dollop of toothpaste.

Once you’ve freshened up (or “Freshin’ed Up”) with the complimentary dental supplies, perhaps you’ll want to hang around and do a bit of  souvenir shopping in the airport gift shop. If you do, you’ll find plenty of  cute, Wisconsin-identified items.

Like this cheese-shaped cup holder.

And this bag of cheddar cheese curds that, an airport official assures me, are OK to take through the security checkpoint.

Have you found a great souvenir while you’ve been stuck at the airport? If it is under $10, “of” the city or region and, ideally a bit offbeat, please snap a photo and send it along.

It may end up on a future edition of Souvenir Sunday.

Holiday Guide to Germ-Free Air Travel

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 03 23.24

While the rest of us were preparing for Thanksgiving, the CDC was kicking off its largest-ever public awareness campaign about staying healthy while traveling.

And not a moment too soon.

Peak flu season coincides with the busiest weeks of the winter travel season. And although the CDC reported this week that flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the drop, an agency spokesperson notes that flu cases “are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year.”

So, in preparation for the next big wave of holiday travel, this week I devoted my Well Mannered Traveler column on MSNBC.com to a review of tips for germ-free air travel and an update from airlines about change fees should illness strike.

You can read the Holiday Guide to Germ –Free Air Travel on MSNBC.com and vote on whether or not you think all airlines should waive change fees for passengers who are ill. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from that story.

Steer Clear of Germs

To stay healthy while traveling, begin your trip well-rested and head for the airport early. That way, you won’t be pressed for time, and the stress of traffic and long security lines will roll off your back.

To help ward off illness, experts suggest boosting immunity with exercise, healthy foods and vitamins and, in case you should begin to feel ill, a supply of prescriptions and cold medications to save yourself the hassle of searching for a pharmacy at an airport or in an unfamiliar city.

A sink in every suitcase
Frequent hand washing remains the best way to avoid germs while traveling, so that kitchen sink in your seatmate’s carry-on bag may actually come in handy.

The CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine too, but when you pass through security, those small bottles of sanitizing solution must go in your quart-sized plastic bag. Fishing out the bottles after screening can be a hassle, so keep a supply of individual packets of sanitizing wipes in your pocket. That way you can clean up after touching the plastic bins that have held dirty shoes and other germ-laden items and also wipe down the tray table, armrests and lavatory door handles when you’re on the plane.

Flying with the flu

If you do get sick, CDC suggests you change your plans and stay home. But many travelers will ignore that advice because of hefty change fees levied by most airlines.

Many doctors would like all airlines to waive cancellation and change fees for ill passengers and while some do, you can get dizzy trying to wade through some airline Web sites trying to locate the relevant policy.

To confuse matters even more, some airlines said policies regarding change fees for ill passengers were “under review.”  So it’s sort of a moving target. But for now, here’s what I found out:

  • JetBlue, Northwest and Delta deal with ill passengers seeking changes “on a case-by-case basis.”
  • If you’ve got a non-refundable ticket on American or US Airways, changes to accommodate illness will still cost $150, plus the difference between the old and new fares.
  • AirTran Airways will waive cancellation and rescheduling fees for any passenger with a doctor’s note documenting that they have H1N1, but the policy does not apply to seasonal flu or other illnesses.
  • Virgin America, Continental and United have ongoing policies to waive change fees for customers who can provide documentation of illness from their doctor.
  • And, whether you’re sick, or just sick of flying on airplanes seated next to sneezing, wheezing people, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling a flight.

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