Apr 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Watchdog: Agency infighting increased health and safety risks at start of pandemic

Photo of health officials sitting in a hearing with lawmakers

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci (R) and Stephen Redd of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response participate in a briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus in March 12, 2020. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Management failures among federal agencies contributed to "health and safety risks" as the U.S. tried to return citizens from abroad and quarantine them domestically at the outset of the pandemic, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report requested by Congress out Monday.

Why it matters: The 13-month investigation revealed that lack of preparation led to infighting at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) as divisions repeatedly clashed about who should oversee rescue operations, according to the report.

Zoom in: The chaotic federal response led officials to delay issuing a mandatory quarantine for travelers returning from Wuhan in January 2020. The two-day delay increased the risk of the coronavirus spreading to the community surrounding the March Air Reserve Base in California where travelers were housed.

  • Disputes over terminology also negatively affected the federal government's ability to ensure enough protective equipment for federal workers and decide who would lead rescue efforts to evacuate Americans out of China.
  • The health agencies "operated independently of each other without coordinating their efforts at March Air Reserve Base," the GAO says.

"Until HHS revises or develops new plans that clarify agency roles and responsibilities during a repatriation in response to a pandemic, it will be unable to prevent the coordination and health and safety issues it experienced during the COVID-19 repatriation response in future pandemic emergencies," the GAO wrote, noting that HHS agrees with its recommendations.

The big picture: Prior probes have already documented federal failures, including an HHS review that found health officials were told to remove protective equipment when meeting with Wuhan evacuees to avoid "bad optics," the Washington Post notes.

Go deeper: U.S. life expectancy fell by a year in the first six months of the pandemic

Go deeper