Whistle-Blower Reports on U.S. Health Workers Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

WASHINGTON — Federal health employees interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population, according to a government whistle-blower.

In a portion of a complaint filing obtained by The New York Times that has been submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel, the whistle-blower, described as a senior leader at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the team was “improperly deployed” to two military bases in California to assist the processing of Americans who had been evacuated from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere.

The staff members were sent to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base and were ordered to enter quarantined areas, including a hangar where coronavirus evacuees were being received. They were not provided training in safety protocols until five days later, the person said.

Without proper training or equipment, some of the exposed staff members moved freely around and off the bases, with at least one person staying in a nearby hotel and leaving California on a commercial flight. Many were unaware of the need to test their temperature three times a day.

“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,” the whistle-blower wrote.

In a statement on Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the complaint without elaborating.

“We take all whistle-blower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act,” said Caitlin B. 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.”

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020

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      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
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      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
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      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
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    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world was not ready for a major outbreak.

The account surfaced after President Trump sought to play down the danger of a domestic coronavirus outbreak amid bipartisan concern about a sluggish and disjointed response by the administration to an illness that public health officials have said is likely to spread through the United States. The first American case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact with hot zones or other coronavirus patients emerged near Travis Air Force Base this week.

The whistle-blower’s account raised questions about whether the Trump administration has taken adequate precautions in its handling of the virus to date, and whether Mr. Trump’s minimization of the risks has been mirrored by other top officials when confronted with potentially disturbing developments.

Similar episodes appear to have happened elsewhere. Employees with the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families were also dispatched to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to help other evacuees from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, someone with direct knowledge of the effort said.

It was the first time to his knowledge that employees of the family administration had ever dealt with a federal quarantine. Employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared to have one set of guidance. Other employees of the Health and Human Services Department operated under a different protocol.

The levels of protection varied even while he was at Miramar, he said. Standards were more lax at first, but once people arrived who appeared to be sick, workers began donning personal protective equipment. He is now back at work, and has yet to be tested for coronavirus exposure.

In the complaint, the whistle-blower painted a grim portrait of agency staff members who found themselves on the front lines of a frantic federal effort to confront the coronavirus in the United States without any preparation or training, and whose own health concerns were dismissed by senior administration officials as detrimental to staff “morale.” They were “admonished,” the complaint said, and “accused of not being team players,” and had their “mental health and emotional stability questioned.”

After a phone call with health agency leaders to raise their fears about exposure to the virus, the staff members described a “whitewashing” of the situation, characterizing the response as “corrupt” and a “cover-up,” according to the complaint, and telling the whistle-blower that senior officials had treated them as a “nuisance” and did not want to hear their worries about health and safety.

Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, whose office received the complaint, appeared to allude to it on Thursday morning at a hearing with Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of Health and Human Services, in the House Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Gomez was contacted by the whistle-blower, whom he had met before his congressional service, in part because his committee has jurisdiction over the health agency.

At the hearing, Mr. Gomez had a tense exchange with the secretary in which he suggested that staff from the Administration for Children and Families had been exposed to the virus without the requisite training and equipment, and then dispersed elsewhere in the United States.

“To your knowledge, were any of the ACF employees exposed to high-risk evacuees from China?” Mr. Gomez asked Mr. Azar.

“They should never have been, without appropriate PPE,” Mr. Azar responded, using the abbreviation for personal protective equipment, the term used for special suits designed to protect against infection. “If you were anyone in quarantine, to maintain quarantine, that should be the case.”

Mr. Gomez said his understanding was that the teams sent to March and Travis air bases faced a “chaotic” situation.

“I would not accept your proposition that it was chaotic at all times,” Mr. Azar said. “I am not aware of any violation of quarantine or isolation protocols.”

“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?”

“I don’t believe that has taken place,” Mr. Azar replied.

The complaint, which was reported by The Washington Post, surfaced the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first known instance of a person testing positive without exposure to anyone known to be infected with the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, or recent travels to any of the countries where it is circulating. The C.D.C. said that it was possible the patient, who is a resident of Solano County, Calif. — home to Travis Air Force Base — could have been exposed to a returning traveler who was infected.

March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., housed 195 people evacuated from Wuhan, China, for 14 days beginning in late January, while Travis in Northern California has housed a number of quarantined people in recent weeks, including some of the approximately 400 Americans on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had docked in Japan.

The staff members, who had some experience with emergency management coordination, were woefully underprepared for the mission they were given, according to the whistle-blower.

“They were not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation,” the official wrote. “They were potentially exposed to coronavirus; appropriate measures were not taken to protect the staff from potential infection; and appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor or test them during their deployment and upon their return home.”

Some of the staff raised concerns with top officials with the agency, but saw no changes. The whistle-blower said they complained to Charles Keckler, an associate deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, in an email on Feb. 10. After the email, the complaint said, top officials, including Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, “admitted that they did not understand their mission,” and that her agency “broke protocols” because of the “unprecedented crisis” and an “‘all hands on deck’ call to action” by Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top official for public health emergencies and disasters.

Since learning of the whistle-blower’s concerns last Wednesday, Mr. Gomez’s office and officials with the Ways and Means Committee have repeatedly pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for details. The whistle-blower has also notified the C.D.C. and the health agency inspector general about the concerns.

Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the complaint appeared to be part of a pattern of ineptitude and mistrust of civil servants by the Trump administration.

“The president has spent years assaulting our health care system, draining resources from key health programs, and showing utter disdain for career federal employees who are the backbone of our government,” Mr. Neal said in a statement provided to The Times. “It’s sadly no surprise we’re seeing this degree of ineptitude during a terrible crisis.”

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