The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has received a complaint that was then leaked to the New York Times that makes allegations that health workers responding to coronavirus lacked training and proper protective gear, as well as health agency leaders being involved in a “corrupt cover-up” when complaints were issued by staff.
According to the New York Times:
The team was “improperly deployed” to two military bases in California to assist the processing of Americans who had been evacuated from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere, according to a portion of a narrative account shared with Congress and obtained by The New York Times ahead of a formal complaint to the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent government agency that handles federal whistle-blower complaints.
Staff members from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families were sent to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base in late January and early February and were ordered to enter quarantined areas, including a hangar where coronavirus evacuees were being received, the complaint said. They were not provided safety-protocol training until five days into their assignment, said the whistle-blower, who is described as a senior leader at the health agency.
Without proper training or equipment, some of the exposed staff members moved freely around and off the bases, with at least one person staying in a nearby hotel and leaving California on a commercial flight. Many were unaware of the need to test their temperatures three times a day.
According to the complaint, which was filed with the Office of the Special Counsel, “I soon began to field panicked calls from my leadership team and deployed staff members expressing concerns with the lack of H.H.S. communication and coordination, staff being sent into quarantined areas without personal protective equipment, training or experience in managing public health emergencies, safety protocols and the potential danger to both themselves and members of the public they come into contact with.”
The Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the complaint.
“We take all whistle-blower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act,” said Caitlin B. Oakley, a deputy assistant secretary and a national spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. “We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time.”
While President Trump has downplayed the risks of coronavirus in the US, apparently, it will become an election issue now.
The whistle-blower’s account raised questions about whether the Trump administration has taken adequate precautions in its handling of the virus to date, and whether Mr. Trump’s minimization of the risks has been mirrored by other top officials when confronted with potentially disturbing developments.
The report went on to point out that the handling of the issue seems to not be proper.
The first American case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact with hot zones or other coronavirus patients emerged this week near Travis Air Force Base.
The complaint raised questions about whether the Trump administration had taken adequate precautions in its handling of the virus, and whether Mr. Trump’s minimization of the risks had been mirrored by other top officials when confronted with potentially disturbing developments.
The levels of protection varied even while he was at Miramar, he said. Standards were more lax at first, but once people arrived who appeared to be sick, workers began donning personal protective equipment. He is now back at work, and has yet to be tested for coronavirus exposure.
In the complaint, the whistle-blower painted a grim portrait of agency staff members who found themselves on the front lines of a frantic federal effort to confront the coronavirus in the United States without any preparation or training, and whose own health concerns were dismissed by senior administration officials as detrimental to staff “morale.” They were “admonished,” the complaint said, and “accused of not being team players,” and had their “mental health and emotional stability questioned.”
After a phone call with health agency leaders to raise their fears about exposure to the virus, the staff members described a “whitewashing” of the situation, characterizing the response as “corrupt” and a “cover-up,” according to the complaint, and telling the whistle-blower that senior officials had treated them as a “nuisance” and did not want to hear their worries about health and safety.
Representative Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) appeared to allude to the complaint on Thursday morning at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing with Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services.
“To your knowledge, were any of the A.C.F. employees exposed to high-risk evacuees from China?” Mr. Gomez asked Mr. Azar.
“They should never have been,” Mr. Azar responded, unless they had special suits designed to protect against infection. “To maintain quarantine, that should be the case.”
Mr. Gomez said his understanding was that the teams sent to March and Travis air bases faced a “chaotic” situation.
“I would not accept your proposition that it was chaotic at all times,” Mr. Azar said. “I am not aware of any violation of quarantine or isolation protocols.”
“Do you think that breaking basic protocols and exposing untrained human service employees to the coronavirus before allowing them to be dispersed around the country could have endangered the employees and other Americans?” Gomez asked.
“I don’t believe that has taken place,” replied Azar.
The complaint, which was reported by The Washington Post, surfaced the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first known instance of a person testing positive without exposure to anyone known to be infected with the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, or recent travels to any of the countries where it is circulating. The C.D.C. said that it was possible the patient, who is a resident of Solano County, Calif. — home to Travis Air Force Base — could have been exposed to a returning traveler who was infected.
March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., housed 195 people evacuated from Wuhan, China, for 14 days beginning in late January, while Travis in Northern California has housed a number of quarantined people in recent weeks, including some of the approximately 400 Americans on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had docked in Japan.
The whistleblower claimed that the staff were not properly prepared for what they were engaging, even though some of them had some experience with emergency management.
“They were not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation,” wrote the official. “They were potentially exposed to coronavirus; appropriate measures were not taken to protect the staff from potential infection; and appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor or test them during their deployment and upon their return home.”
If the reports we are getting from China are to be believed and this stuff spreads as easily as it is claimed, then this could be a very serious thing.
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