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