US coronavirus staff were untrained and unprotected, says whistleblower

Amanda Holpuch
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The US health department sent workers to assist Americans evacuated from China because of the coronavirus outbreak without proper training or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistleblower complaint filed by a senior department official who said she faced retaliation.

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The workers were “improperly deployed” to two military bases in California where Americans who had been in the center of the outbreak, Wuhan in China, were being processed, according to a complaint first reported by the Washington Post.

The whistleblower’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, confirmed the Washington Post accurately described allegations made in a complaint filed to the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and said his law firm was hopeful the case would be investigated in a “timely and comprehensive manner”.

“This matter concerns HHS’s response to the coronavirus, and its failure to protect its employees and potentially the public,” Wilkenfeld said in an email to the Guardian. “The retaliatory efforts to intimidate and silence our client must be opposed.”

The staff in question were from the health department’s Administration for Children and Families, or ACF, and were not medical workers. They were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation” according to the complaint, which said they had face-to-face contact with evacuees on multiple occasions.

After potentially being exposed to the coronavirus, the workers moved freely off the air force bases and at least one left California on a commercial flight. About 14 personnel were sent to March air force base in Riverside county, California, and about 13 personnel were sent to Travis air force base in Solano county in late January and early February.

Solano county is the first location in the US to see coronavirus confirmed in a person who had not traveled to an area where the illness was spreading and who had no known contact with someone diagnosed with the illness.

The whistleblower, who reportedly received two awards from the health secretary last year, said she was unfairly reassigned after raising concern about the workers.

Related: Tell us: are you a US healthcare worker concerned about coronavirus?

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

A Democratic representative from California, Jimmy Gomez, received a copy of the whistleblower complaint. At a House ways and means committee hearing on Thursday, Gomez asked the US health secretary, Alex Azar, whether workers from ACF were exposed to evacuees from China.

“They should never have been,” Azar responded, unless they had the proper suits needed to protect against infection. “To maintain quarantine, that should be the case.”

Gomez, and the House ways and means committee chairman, Richard Neal, formally requested a briefing from Azar within a week in a letter. “We are deeply troubled that HHS seems to have ignored valid public health concerns, and also about reports that HHS immediately retaliated against a whistleblower instead of taking action to protect its staff and the public from being exposed to a potentially fatal virus,” they wrote.

A top medical official at the state department denied protocols had been broken at a hearing after the whistleblower’s allegations were made public.

“Every precaution has been taken,” said William Walters, the head of operational medicine at the department’s bureau of medical services, on Thursday. “I can say unequivocally that everyone involved with those evacuations were properly equipped and trained.”

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called on Azar to resign after the content of the complaint was made public.

“Allowing HHS workers to be exposed to Wuhan evacuees without adequate protection is gross mismanagement that jeopardizes American lives,” Markey tweeted. “We need someone in charge who will rise to the level of responding to this threat.”

Responding to the report, Massachusetts’ other senator, Elizabeth Warren, tweeted: “The Trump administration’s careless incompetence has put lives at risk.”