Feb 28, 2020 - Health

Whistleblower: Personnel handled coronavirus evacuees without proper training or gear

HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

A government whistleblower says the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen federal health workers to receive the first American evacuees from China amid the coronavirus outbreak without proper medical training or ample protective gear, the Washington Post first reported.

What they're saying: The whistleblower's complaint filed Wednesday alleges that employees were "not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation," potentially exposing them to the novel coronavirus.

  • The whistleblower also said she was "unfairly and improperly" reassigned after raising concerns about the situation. Per the Post, she was told on Feb. 19 that she must accept a new position within 15 days or be terminated.
  • According to the whistleblower's lawyers, she has decades of experience, received two HHS awards from Sec. Alex Azar in 2019 and has earned strong performance evaluations.

The state of play: Personnel from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) were deployed to receive evacuees in California, with roughly 14 ACF officials sent to March Air Force Base between Jan. 28-Jan. 31 and approximately 13 sent to Travis Air Force Base between Feb. 2-Feb. 7. The dates of the deployments align with the dates that the first and additional planeloads of evacuees arrived at the respective bases.

  • Per the Post: "Several people within HHS voiced objection to sending the ACF personnel to receive passengers, according to a person familiar with the conversations."

Azar said at a hearing on Thursday that if untrained personnel were exposed to the coronavirus, he'd "want to know the full facts, and we’d take appropriate remedial efforts."

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

The big picture: Reports of the complaint came one day after the CDC detected the first possible community spread of coronavirus in the U.S.

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The number of cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. soared to 1,037 and the death toll to at least 31 by early Wednesday, per data from Johns Hopkins and state health departments.

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WHO official leads criticism of Trump's coronavirus response

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The big picture: As the number of confirmed cases reaches 60 in the U.S., the top health professional — who was a health policy adviser in the Obama administration — is among several leading figures, in particular, Democrats, to criticize the president for his response to the outbreak.

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