Coronavirus whistleblower says U.S. health workers who had contact with quarantined Americans lacked training and gear

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar denied a whistleblower’s accusation that agency employees detailed to aid with the handling of quarantined American evacuees from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated, lacked both training and protective gear to do the job. In a hearing on Thursday, Azar was asked whether protocols were broken, perhaps because of the sense of urgency surrounding the coronavirus.

“Urgency does not compensate for violating isolation and quarantine protocols for personal protection,” Azar said in response to Congressman Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat.

He also said, “I’m not aware of any violation of quarantine or, or isolation protocols.” 

The Washington Post first reported Thursday that a whistleblower had filed a complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel saying that HHS had sent over 14 workers to receive American evacuees from Wuhan, and these workers had neither “proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.”

The law firm representing the whistleblower confirmed the complaint.

“We are hopeful that Congress and the OSC will investigate this case in a timely and comprehensive manner,” said attorney Ari Wilkenfeld. “This matter concerns HHS’s response to the coronavirus, and its failure to protect its employees and potentially the public. The retaliatory efforts to intimidate and silence our client must be opposed.”

The whistleblower said the staff may have been exposed to coronavirus because they had not been trained in using the protective equipment and had face-to-face contact with the evacuees, according to the complaint reported by The Post. The paper reported that the staff helped pass out keys for rooms and colored ribbons to identify the evacuees.

The workers exhibited no symptoms indicated they were infected, and they weren’t tested, according to the complaint, which cited the whistleblower’s lawyer. The whistleblower, a decorated employee who works at HHS in the Administration for Children and Families, claims she was reassigned unfairly after she brought up her concerns about the safety of the workers. After she made the report, the Post reported, she was told that if she didn’t accept her new position within 15 days, she would be terminated. 

The Post also cited another person, who said that workers weren’t tested because they didn’t have symptoms and didn’t meet the criteria, which requires that people who have either recently traveled to China or have had contact with a confirmed case be tested. 

CBS News confirmed that the Office of Special Counsel has received the whistleblower’s complaint. OSC spokesman Zachary Kurz said that the case would be assigned quickly. 

The administration has struggled to tackle the outbreak quickly and effectively, even as the president insists his administration has everything under control. The president on Wednesday tapped Vice President Mike Pence to spearhead the response to the virus, although Azar continues to be the chairman of the coronavirus response task force. 

Catherine Herridge, Julia Kimani Burnham and Alan He contributed to this report. 

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