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As Holiday Travel Surges, Airport Sanitation Workers Worry About Virus Exposure

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This is traditionally one of the busiest travel weekends. That's a little different this year, but not as different as our public health professionals had hoped. The Transportation Security Administration says it screened more than a million people at airports across the U.S. the day before Thanksgiving, a record level of travel since mid-March. And that's after the CDC urged us all to stay home for the holiday as COVID-19 cases rise. Now as those travelers make their way home, they'll be passing by countless sanitation workers, security guards, retail and restaurant employees at America's airports.

ANDRE COOPER: Right now, I've been busy 'cause I've been making sure these planes get clean and be safe and for people to travel on time.

MCCAMMON: Andre Cooper cleans and conducts security checks in airplane cabins at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. He's been working the night shift this past week, 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

COOPER: I vacuum, make sure that the lavatories are clean. And also, I spray the plane, too. I got to make sure the plane is sprayed, make sure there's no virus there. I got to make sure I spray the plane good.

MCCAMMON: He was laid off when the pandemic first hit and air travel all but ceased. But even now, back on the job, he says he can't afford the 2- or $300 a month that health insurance would cost. So he tries to do what he can to stay healthy.

COOPER: I just got to, you know, pray and trust God that I'm going to be safe. I got to do what I got to do. I just got to protect myself, wear my mask and wear my gloves.

MCCAMMON: But Andre Cooper says the growing crowds of travelers, some with no masks, make him scared to go to work.

COOPER: I feel like I'm doing an important job because I'm doing a job that makes sure that the passengers are safe and comfortable. That's very important to me. We are on the front line, you know? We are putting our lives at risk. I just feel that the passengers - they need to - they got to play their part, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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