The US Department of Health and Human Services sent a dozen workers to investigate possible COVID-19 infections without giving them the training and personal protection equipment (PPE)needed for such a mission, a whistleblower charges.
A complaint filed with the independent Office of Special Counsel alleges that workers with the HHS’ Administration for Children and Families were sent to air force bases from January 28 to 31 and again from February 2 to 7 to meet with American evacuees from Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 first originated. The whistleblower charges that HHS broke protocol and ignored the whistleblower’s concerns about having the workers exposed to the coronavirus.
“We are hopeful that Congress and the OSC will investigate this case in a timely and comprehensive manner,” Ari Wilkenfeld, the whistleblower’s lawyer, tells Politico. “This matter concerns HHS’s 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.”
The whistleblower alleges that she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after voicing her concerns about the safety of HHS workers, The Washington Post reports. “She was told Feb. 19 that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated,” the Postreports.
The 24-page complaint says that the HHS workers were not properly trained in how to wear PPE, even though they came into close contact with evacuees in an airplane hanger. HHS workers were also exposed when they handed out identification ribbons and distributed keys for room assignments.
On the other hand, according to the complaint, workers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with whom the HHS employees worked side-by-side, were in “full gown, gloves and hazmat attire.”
“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. “We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time.”
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., tells USA Today that the whistleblower contacted his office when she feared that her superiors might retaliate against her. “My concern from the moment I heard it is that individuals at HHS are not taking the complaints of HHS employees seriously,” Gomez tells the newspaper. “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.”