HEALTH

Whistleblower: HHS Staff Who Met Coronavirus Evacuees Had No Training Or Protection

Health and Human Services staffers interacted with Americans who were quarantined for potential exposure to COVID-19, according to multiple reports.

A government whistleblower has alleged that federal health employees who interacted with Americans quarantined for potential exposure to coronavirus were not wearing protective gear or given proper medical training, according to several media reports on Thursday.

Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen ill-equipped workers to California earlier this month to receive the Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, according to the whistleblower’s 24-page complaint filed Wednesday and obtained first by The Washington Post and later by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

According to the reports, the complaint alleges that HHS employees were “improperly deployed” and “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” The whistleblower also said that some workers were potentially exposed to coronavirus because they were not trained in wearing protective equipment — despite having face-to-face contact with passengers returning from Wuhan, where the outbreak originated.

The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested or quarantined for the virus, COVID-19, before flying home from the March Air Reserve Base and Travis Air Force Base, lawyers for the whistleblower told the Post. The whistleblower is reportedly a senior HHS official who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within the agency. The workers who were allegedly exposed to the outbreak came from the whistleblower’s unit.

In her complaint, the whistleblower wrote that she received “panicked calls” from “deployed staff members expressing concerns with the lack of HHS communication and coordination.” They also told her about “being sent into quarantined areas without personal protective equipment, training or experience in managing public health emergencies” and worried that they would pose a “potential danger to both themselves and members of the public they come into contact with,” according to the Times. 

“We take all whistleblower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act,” HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told HuffPost. “We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time.”

The whistleblower is seeking federal protection because she said she was unfairly reassigned after raising concerns to HHS about the workers’ safety, according to the Post. Lawyers for the whistleblower told the newspaper that she was told on Feb. 19 that she would be terminated if she did not accept the new position.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez’s (D-Calif.) office also reportedly received the whistleblower complaint, in part because he sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over HHS. Without mentioning the whistleblower complaint, Gomez asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a Thursday budget hearing if there was a lapse in basic safety protocol at the quarantine sites that could have “endangered the employees and other Americans.” Azar said he did not believe that there was any violation of quarantine or safety protocols at the sites (though the whistleblower said she raised her concerns with him).

The complaint raises questions about whether the Trump administration has taken adequate precautions in handling the outbreak. The president tried to downplay the danger of a domestic coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, despite bipartisan concern about the government’s slow response. Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to oversee operations related to preventing an outbreak.

The whistleblower’s complaint comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first known instance of someone testing positive for coronavirus without exposure to anyone known to be infected or without recently traveling to a country where it is confirmed to be spreading. The patient lives in Solano County, California ― where Travis Air Force Base is located.

This article has been updated with a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.

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