KEY POINTS

  • A whistle-blower from DHHS claims health workers who assisted COVID-19 evacuees might have been exposed to the virus
  • These people were improperly equipped and trained to handle this risky situation
  • These COVID-19-exposed people later circulated in communities outside three Air Force bases housing the evacuees

A whistle-blower from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said agency personnel sent to assist Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China were neither trained medically for this dangerous task nor provided with adequate safety protocols. They weren't also provided with the proper protective gear.

As a consequence, these people might have unknowingly become carriers of COVID-19 as they moved freely around and outside the two U.S. Air Force bases in California (Travis Air Force Base in Solano County and March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County) where the evacuees were quarantined for 14 days.

The first confirmed community spread of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed Wednesday in a woman hailing from Solano County. On the other hand, none of the DHHS employees sent to help the American evacuees have as yet shown symptoms of the infection. These people, however, haven't been tested for COVID-19, the whistle-blower’s lawyers told The Washington Post.

DHHS employees were also sent to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar outside San Diego to help other evacuees from Wuhan. March Air Reserve Base housed 195 people evacuated from Wuhan while other Wuhan evacuees and some from the Diamond Princess were sent to Travis.

The whistle-blower also said these DHHS people were “improperly deployed” to Travis and March to help process Americans evacuated from COVID-19 infected zones in China and elsewhere. The DHHS people moved inside and outside quarantine areas, including a hangar where coronavirus evacuees were being received.

The whistle-blower, a senior DHHS official, also said many of these DHHS people were unaware of the requirement to test their temperature three times a day. The DHHS people were only trained on safety procedures five days after deploying to both bases.

At least one of the exposed staff has stayed at a nearby hotel and left California on a commercial flight. 

“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,” wrote the whistle-blower in her complaint submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel, said The New York Times.

A jump in the number of deaths and infections in South Korea and elsewhere outside China has fanned concerns the COVID-19 outbreak could last longer and hammer the global economy A jump in the number of deaths and infections in South Korea and elsewhere outside China has fanned concerns the COVID-19 outbreak could last longer and hammer the global economy Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

The whistle-blower also said she was shunted to a job she knew nothing about after making the complaint and threatened with termination if she refused this new job. In the complaint, she also said the health concerns of DHHS people assigned to monitor the evacuees were dismissed by senior administration officials as detrimental to staff “morale.” These people were “admonished" and “accused of not being team players."

They also had their “mental health and emotional stability questioned.” The whistle-blower said senior DHHS officials treated those that complained about their safety as a “nuisance” and refused to hear their complaints about health and safety.

After the mismanagement of the DHHS response was made public, the whistle-blower said DHHS leadership began “whitewashing” the situation. The whistle-blower described the response of DHHS leaders as “corrupt” and a “cover-up.”

The whistle-blower complaint also highlighted a disturbing lack of coordination between DHHS, which is under Trump appointee, Alex Azar, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) led by Dr. Robert R. Redfield. It reveals CDC employees operate under one set of professional guidelines. On the other hand, DHHS employees operate under a different protocol.

DHHS acknowledged receiving 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 Oakley, deputy assistant secretary and a national spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs. “We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time.”