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U.S. workers without protective gear assisted coronavirus evacuees, HHS whistleblower says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/28/2020 Lena Sun, Yasmeen Abutaleb
a group of people standing around a plane: Passengers board buses past personnel in protective clothing after arriving on an aircraft chartered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate Americans from Wuhan. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo © Mike Blake/Reuters Passengers board buses past personnel in protective clothing after arriving on an aircraft chartered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate Americans from Wuhan. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

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 whistleblower complaint.

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

The whistleblower is seeking federal protection, alleging 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 whistleblower 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 whistleblower’s lawyers provided a copy of a redacted 24-page complaint to The Washington Post. A spokesman for the Office of the Special Counsel confirmed that it has received the complaint and assigned the case.

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The complaint alleges HHS staffers were “improperly deployed” and were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” The complaint also alleges the workers were potentially exposed to coronavirus because appropriate steps were not taken to protect them and staffers 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.

In some instances, the teams were working alongside personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in “full gown, gloves and hazmat attire,” the complaint said.

“We take all whistleblower 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.

The whistleblower, in her complaint, 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 personnel from the Administration for Children and Families, or ACF, 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 Solano County, Calif., according to the complaint and the whistleblower’s lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld. In Solano County this week, the first U.S. patient was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus who did not travel to a region where it is spreading or have known contact with someone diagnosed with the disease.

Several people within HHS voiced objections 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, which was restricted at that time to people with symptoms and either a recent trip to China or close contact with a person confirmed to be infected with covid19. If the workers had exhibited symptoms, appropriate protocol would have been followed.

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 whistleblower is also seeking assistance from the office of Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), 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 ACF could have been sent to help with the repatriation of Americans from Wuhan 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.

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

“I don’t believe that has taken place,” Azar said said, adding that health and safety protocols “should always be followed.” He said he did not personally know the names of the team, but 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.”

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The whistleblower said she received an email Jan. 25 about a potential deployment within ACF to support repatriation of the evacuated Americans, according to her lawyer. She initially supported the efforts because they had the “appearance that this was within ACF’s scope,” Naylor said. But later, she discovered the teams were dispatched without her knowledge by other senior officials at HHS. It was part of the agency’s “all-hands-on-deck” mission, Naylor said, but it broke agency protocol about what kinds of employees should respond to health emergencies. The whistleblower said she later found out about the deployment when she heard directly from some employees and other senior officials at HHS.

Some workers expressed concern about the lack of protective gear to the ACF team leader on the ground. That person joined ACF in September and had “no training or experience in any federal emergency management, public health emergency response, or safety or operational protocols to run the mission,” the complaint states.

ACF personnel typically deal with supporting people recovering from natural disasters, such as floods and fires, and helping victims apply for temporary assistance, all of which are under the category of human services, the whistleblower’s lawyers said. HHS officials broke established protocols for emergency support by sending ACF workers to a health emergency for which they have no training, Naylor said. ACF, which has about 1,300 employees, has been criticized in recent years because of its role in sheltering and taking custody of migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and were separated from family members by the Department of Homeland Security.

The workers’ concerns about potential exposure to coronavirus were not addressed, the whistleblower’s lawyers said.

“She was involuntarily assigned to a position in a subject matter where she has no expertise,” Wilkenfeld, her lawyer, said in an interview Thursday. The agency said the reason for the reassignment was “necessary to meet the needs of the department,” according to a memo she received. “If I did not accept involuntary reassignment, I would be terminated from federal service through adverse personnel action,” according to her complaint.

Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

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