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US workers without protective gear assisted coronavirus evacuees, whistle-blower says

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex AzarAndrew Harnik/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistle-blower complaint.

The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistle-blower, who is a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS.

The whistle-blower is seeking federal protection because she alleges she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials, including those within the office of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She was told Feb. 19 that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated.

The whistle-blower has decades of experience in the field, received two HHS department awards from Azar last year, and has received the highest performance evaluations, her lawyers said.

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The complaint was filed Wednesday with the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog agency. The whistle-blower’s lawyers provided a copy of a redacted 24-page complaint to The Washington Post. A spokesman for the Office of the Special Counsel said he could not comment on complaints filed with the office.

The complaint alleges that HHS staff were ‘‘improperly deployed’’ and were ‘‘not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.’’ The complaint also alleges that the workers were potentially exposed to coronavirus because appropriate steps were not taken to protect them, and staff were not trained in wearing personal protective equipment, even though they had face-to-face contact with returning passengers. The workers were in contact with passengers in an airplane hangar where evacuees were received and on two other occasions: when they helped distribute keys for room assignments and hand out colored ribbons for identification purposes.

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‘‘We take all whistle-blower 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 her complaint, the whistle-blower states that ‘‘appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor, or test [the workers] during their deployment and upon their return home.’’ The repatriated Americans were among those evacuated from Wuhan and quarantined on military bases in California and Texas because they were considered at high risk for contracting the flu-like illness.

About 14 ACF personnel were sent to March Air Force base in Riverside County, Calif., and another team of about 13 ACF personnel were sent to Travis Air Force in Fairfield, Calif., according to the complaint and the whistleblower’s lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld. Several people within HHS voiced objection to sending the ACF personnel to receive passengers, according to a person familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

A second person familiar with the situation said the workers were not tested for coronavirus because none of them met the criteria for testing, which only calls for testing people who had recent travel to China or contact with a confirmed case. The workers also did not exhibit any symptoms, the person said. If they had, appropriate protocol would have been followed.

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The deployments took place Jan. 28 to 31, around the time when the first planeload of evacuees arrived at March, and Feb. 2 to Feb. 7, during the time when additional flights were arriving at Travis. The planes each carried about 200 Americans who were repatriated from Wuhan.

After their deployments, the workers returned to their normal duties, some taking commercial airline flights to return to their offices around the country, the lawyers said.

‘‘Our client was concerned that ACF staff — who were potentially exposed to the coronavirus — were allowed to leave quarantined areas and return to their communities, where they may have spread the coronavirus to others,’’ said Lauren Naylor, one of the whistleblower’s lawyers.

The whistle-blower is also seeking assistance from the office of Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, a member of the House Ways and Means committee and vice chair of the House Oversight Committee, according to a Gomez spokesman.

During a hearing Thursday, Gomez asked Azar whether any employees from the Administration for Children and Families could have been sent to help with the repatriation of Americans from Wuhan, China without any training in emergency response. Azar replied that some ACF employees were involved.

Asked what sort of health and safety training the personnel received, and whether any of them were exposed to high-risk evacuees from China, Azar said, ‘‘They never should have been without P.P.E,’’ referring to personal protective equipment.

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Asked whether any protocols may have been broken, given the urgency on the ground, Azar replied that urgency was never a reason for breaking safety protocols.

‘‘I don’t believe that has taken place,’’ Azar said, adding that health and safety protocols ‘‘should always be followed.’’ He said that he did not personally know the names of the team, but that other department officials did. Pressed by Gomez what the department would do if untrained employees were exposed to the virus, Azar said, ‘‘I’d want to know the full facts, and we’d take appropriate remedial efforts.’’