Coronavirus workers lacked adequate equipment, training: Federal whistleblower

Senior Health and Human Services official filed charges

A government whistleblower accused the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday of failing to provide adequate equipment or training to federal employees who received American evacuees from a Chinese city stricken by the coronavirus outbreak.

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The whistleblower, identified only as a senior HHS official within the department’s Administration for Children and Families, said the federal employees had direct contact with Americans who were considered at high-risk to contract coronavirus. Employees were dispatched in late January and early February to receive two planes full of Americans, each with about 200 people, who were to be quarantined at military bases in Texas and California after their evacuation from Wuhan, China.

The complaint, first obtained by the Washington Post, claims that the federal workers were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” The workers, who are employees of the HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, at times worked alongside employees for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who wore full hazmat suits, according to the whistleblower.

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“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,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement obtained by the Washington Post.

The complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, which has opened an investigation into the allegations.

Following their interactions with American evacuees, the federal workers were allowed to leave the bases and return to their duties without screening for potential infection, according to the whistleblower. Some workers flew home on commercial airplanes.

After informing superiors, the whistleblower was told to accept a reassignment or be fired. The whistleblower petitioned for federal protection.

To date, none of the exposed workers have tested positive for coronavirus.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar addressed the whistleblower complaint during a congressional hearing on Thursday.

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“I’d want to know the full facts and would take appropriate remedial measures,” Azar said.

The coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China and has since spread to countries around the world. As of Thursday afternoon, at least 2,811 people had died and more than 82,000 individuals were infected with the virus.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average entered correction territory suffering its worst one day drop ever on Thursday as fears related to coronavirus continued to roil the market.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.