Whistleblower: US Workers Without Protective Gear Helped Coronavirus Evacuees
A whistleblower complaint from an official at the Department of Health and Human Services claims that HHS sent more than a dozen workers to assist Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, without adequate training or protective gear, according to The Washington Post.
None of the workers displayed symptoms of the coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan, and none of them were tested, lawyers for the whistleblower said. Their client is “a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS,” The Post reported.
After first raising her concerns, the whistleblower claims she was reassigned and has now sought whistleblower protection, according to the report. On February 19, the official was told “that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated.”
A copy of the complaint, which was filed with the Office of Special Counsel on Wednesday, was provided to The Post. It alleges that staff “improperly deployed” and were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.”
The complaint also alleges that the workers might have been exposed to coronavirus “because appropriate steps were not taken to protect them, and staff were not trained in wearing personal protective equipment, even though they had face-to-face contact with returning passengers.”
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley told The Post: “We take all whistleblower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act. We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time.”
The whistleblower claims that about 14 staff members from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) were sent to March Air Force base in Riverside County, California, and about 13 ACF personnel were sent to Travis Air Force in Fairfield, California.
"The workers were in contact with passengers in an airplane hangar where evacuees were received and on two other occasions: when they helped distribute keys for room assignments and hand out colored ribbons for identification purposes," the complaint contends.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) questioned HHS Secretary Alex Azar on the issue during a Thursday hearing. The whistleblower reportedly turned to his office for assistance on the matter.
Azar said although ACF personnel were sent to assist with the evacuees, “They never should have been without P.P.E,” which refers to personal protective equipment.
Gomez asked if protocol might have been broken due to urgency on the ground, but Azar was convinced no such thing had happened.
“I don’t believe that has taken place,” he said, adding that health and safety protocols “should always be followed.”