A number of government workers from the Department of Health and Human Services met and interacted with Americans who had been evacuated from Wuhan, China, even though the workers had not been wearing proper protective gear and had not been trained for handling infectious diseases in a health emergency, a whistleblower alleged Wednesday.
According to the complaint, which was reviewed by the Washington Post, about 27 people from the Administration for Children and Families, a unit of HHS, were sent to two California bases to greet the evacuated Americans in late January and early February.
None of the Americans had confirmed cases of COVID-19, but they were considered high-risk and were quarantined upon arriving in the country. The complaint alleges that the ACF workers should not have been sent to the scene, given that they are usually sent to help people recovering from natural disasters, not health emergencies.
After the visit, the ACF workers were not tested before returning to their homes around the country—some of them on commercial flights—because protocol only required screenings for people who had come in contact with known cases or recently traveled to China. None of the ACF workers have shown signs of contracting COVID-19.
The complaint, filed with the Office of the Special Counsel, was intended to protect the unnamed whistleblower after she was allegedly reassigned improperly for raising concerns. The whistleblower has been identified as a senior HHS official, and she still reportedly faces the threat of being fired.
In hearing Thursday, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who received the complaint, appeared to ask HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the allegations made in the complaint. “To your knowledge, were any of the ACF employees exposed to high-risk evacuees from China?” he asked. Azar responded, “They should never have been, without appropriate PPE,” in reference to personal protective equipment.
Gomez then made the implications of the complaint clear. “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?” Azar said he didn’t believe that such a contamination had occurred.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the U.S. from a person who had no known connection to an infected person or recent travel to a high-risk country. The day before, the CDC warned Americans that they should expect that a coronavirus epidemic is “not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”
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