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Whistleblower: No Virus Protection     02/28 06:23

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- A government whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging 
that some 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.

   The complaint deals with Department of Health and Human Services employees 
sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California to assist the 
quarantined evacuees. The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that 
investigates personnel issues, confirmed on Thursday that it had received the 
unnamed whistleblower's complaint and had opened a case. 

   Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said the whistleblower recently contacted his 
office, also 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 said in 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 said it was "evaluating the complaint."

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

   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.

   Although team members had gloves at times and masks at other times, they 
lacked full protective gear and received no training on how to protect 
themselves in a viral hot zone, according to a description provided by the 
congressional office. They had no respirators. While helping the evacuees, team 
members noticed that workers from the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention were in full gear to protect them from getting sick.

   Gomez's office said the high-ranking 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.

   Lawyer Ari Wilkenfeld, representing the unidentified whistleblower, said in 
a statement: "This matter concerns HHS' 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."

   Oakley, the HHS spokeswoman, said the department had "nothing further to add 
at this time."

   The whistleblower complaint was first reported by The Washington Post.


(KR)

 
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