February 28, 2020

Whistleblower alleges HHS sent untrained workers without proper gear to meet Wuhan evacuees

Daily Briefing

    HHS sent workers without proper training or protective gear to help Americans who were evacuated from the epicenter of the current coronavirus epidemic, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday by a senior HHS official.

    About the epidemic

    Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.

    As of Friday, officials reported more than 83,700 cases of the virus globally, with most of those cases occurring in mainland China, the New York Times reports. Officials said as of Friday there had been at least 2,858 deaths linked to the virus, and all but 70 of the deaths occurred in mainland China.

    The number of newly reported cases in China has started to slow, but the number of newly reported cases in other countries has surged over the past two weeks.

    In the United States, officials had reported a total of 60 cases of the virus as of Friday, the Times reports. According to CDC, 45 cases involved Americans who contracted the virus elsewhere and then repatriated to the United States.

    Whistleblower says HHS workers were unprepared to handle Wuhan evacuees

    CDC in January evacuated a group of 195 Americans from Wuhan and placed them in quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in California for 14 days. Officials later evacuated hundreds more Americans from Wuhan and placed them under quarantine, as well.

    The whistleblower, who oversees staff at HHS' Administration for Children and Families (ACF), alleges that HHS broke department protocol and sent more than 12 ACF workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan without first providing them with the proper training or protective gear needed "to operate in a public health emergency situation." She claims that, because of the lack of adequate preparation, the workers potentially were exposed to the coronavirus while workers from other departments were equipped with "full gown[s], gloves, and hazmat attire." According to the complaint, the ACF workers weren't given proper safety training until five days into the assignment.

    Further, the whistleblower alleges that "appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor, or test [the workers] during their deployment and upon their return home." Lawyers representing the whistleblower said none of the workers have been tested for the virus, but added that none of the workers have showed symptoms of the virus.

    According to the Washington Post, a person familiar with the matter said the workers were not tested because they didn't fit the criteria. CDC at the time restricted lab tests for the virus to individuals who were exhibiting symptoms of infection and had recently visited China or had contact with someone who had a confirmed case of the virus. The person said the workers would have been tested if they had shown symptoms of infection.

    The whistleblower also alleges that she was wrongly reassigned after she raised concerns about the workers' safety to HHS officials. She claims that officials on Feb. 19 told her that she would be terminated within 15 days if she did not accept her reassignment.

    The whistleblower's lawyers said she has decades of experience in her current field, she was given two department awards by HHS Secretary Alex Azar last year, and she has been given the highest performance evaluations.

    The whistleblower filed the complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel and is seeking federal protection. According to the Post, a spokesperson for the office confirmed that it received the complaint and said the office has assigned the case.

    HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said the department "take[s] all whistleblower complaints very seriously and [is] providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act." Oakley added, "We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time."

    White House seeks to coordinate messaging on coronavirus

    News of the whistleblower's complaint comes as the White House on Thursday directed federal health officials and researchers to coordinate all statements and public appearances related to the coronavirus with Vice President Pence's office, officials familiar with the situation told the New York Times. President Trump on Wednesday announced that Pence would oversee the country's coronavirus response.

    According to the Times, the officials said Pence is not seeking to control what health officials and researchers say about the coronavirus. Instead, Pence wants to ensure the federal government's coronavirus efforts are coordinated and to avoid conflicting information that could create confusion, the officials told the Times (Sun/Abutaleb, Washington Post, 2/27; Lai et al., New York Times, 2/28; CDC website, 2/26; Cochrane et al., New York Times, 2/28; Shear/Haberman, New York Times, 2/28).

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