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Coronavirus whistleblower: Feds helping evacuees lacked protection

Although the team had gloves at times and masks at times, they lacked adequate gear and received no training, a congressional office said.
Image: A group of ambulances from the Solano EMS Cooperative stage at the visitor center at Travis Air Force Base, adjacent to Fairfield
A group of ambulances from the Solano EMS Cooperative stage at the visitor center at Travis Air Force Base, adjacent to Fairfield, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020.Hector Amezcua / AP

WASHINGTON — A government whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that at least a dozen federal workers did not have the necessary protective gear or training when they were deployed to help Americans evacuated from China during the coronavirus outbreak, NBC News has confirmed.

The complaint deals with Department of Health and Human Services employees sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California earlier this month to assist the quarantined evacuees.

Vice President Mike Pence, who's leading the administration's response on the coronavirus, told radio host Rush Limbaugh on Friday that "we're initiating a full-scale investigation into the allegation."

"We'll get to the bottom of it," Pence added. "We want all the facts."

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates personnel issues, confirmed that it had received the unnamed whistleblower's complaint and is "evaluating" it.

The complaint was first reported by the Washington Post, and the contents were confirmed to NBC News by the whistleblower's lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld.

The complaint says HHS sent at least 12 workers to interact with Americans evacuated from Wuhan — where the virus first erupted — without proper training or protective gear, the lawyer said.

The workers had face to face contact with the returning passengers, and, in some instances, were close enough to the travelers that they handed out keys for room assignments and colored ribbons for identification purposes, Wilkenfeld confirmed.

The complaint says staffers were "improperly deployed" and were "not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation." Adding to the whistleblower's concerns, the staffers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who were present were in full protective suits, the complaint said.

The whistleblower alleged that no steps were taken to quarantine, monitor or test workers during their deployment, which included exposure to Americans returning from Wuhan — where the virus first erupted — in airplane hangars in Texas and California.

The workers did not show symptoms of the virus, Wilkenfeld said.

Under Office of Special Counsel procedures, lawyers will review the whistleblower's complaint and determine if there is a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing. If they find there is substantial likelihood, they will then refer that matter back to HHS.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said the whistleblower recently contacted his office, alleging retaliation by higher-ups for having flagged safety issues.

“My concern from the moment I heard it is that individuals at HHS are not taking the complaints of HHS employees seriously," Gomez told the Associated Press an interview. “Their superiors are not supposed to brush them off. By retaliating against people if they do call out a problem, that only discourages other people from ever reporting violations.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement that, “We take all whistleblower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act."

Gomez's office said the complaint was filed by a high-ranking official at the Administration for Children and Families, an HHS social service agency.

The whistleblower was among a team of about a dozen employees from the agency who had been deployed to help connect the evacuees with government assistance that they might qualify for to ease their return. The team was there from mid-January until earlier this month.

Gomez's office said the whistleblower complained to superiors and was given the choice of being reassigned or being fired. Gomez said as far as he knows none of the workers from the agency has become infected with the virus.

The COVID-19 illness caused by a new coronavirus that emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan has stretched well beyond Asia. The global count of those infected as of Friday exceeds 83,000, with China still by far the hardest-hit country. Dozens of cases but no deaths have been confirmed in the United States.

Without referring directly to the whistleblower's complaint, Gomez questioned HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the situation during a congressional hearing Thursday.

“Were any of these ACF employees exposed to high-risk evacuees?” asked Gomez, adding it was his understanding that "it was kind of chaotic on the ground" when the team was sent to California.

Azar responded that he was not aware of any violation of protective practices. “Urgency does not compensate for violating isolation and quarantine protocols,” he said.

“I'd want to know the full facts and would take appropriate remedial measures,” Azar added. If one of the HHS workers had become infected, that person could then have unwittingly infected others, Gomez said.

Associated Press and Dareh Gregorian contributed.