U.S. lawmakers demanded answers from administration officials Friday about the whistleblower who said workers from the Health and Human Services Department without proper training or protective gear were sent to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. The workers were deployed to March and Travis military bases in California.
The whistleblower’s complaint alleges the workers had face-to-face contact with returning passengers in an airplane hangar and when they helped distribute keys for room assignments and hand out colored ribbons for identification purposes. The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower, a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversaw the these workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS.
The whistleblower is seeking federal protection, alleging she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials, including those within Azar’s office. She was told that if she does not accept her new position by March 5, she would be terminated.
After House Democrats had a closed-door briefing Friday morning, they said they were not satisfied by the answers they received and asked for a follow-up briefing from HHS. They were initially told they could expect such a briefing Friday afternoon, but that second briefing never came through.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who represents March Air Force Reserve Base, told reporters: “The question I asked was: What assurances do we have that proper protocols were followed during the federal quarantine? And it was not as responsive as I would have liked.”
Takano said Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, had agreed to meet with him and other California lawmakers to follow up. As of Friday afternoon, that follow-up was not scheduled.
“I think those of us who represent these bases, you know, deserve and merit this extra attention,” Takano said. “But this, the possibility that procedures weren’t followed, proper protocols weren’t followed, and proper training was not in place is really concerning.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to Azar on Friday saying the whistleblower’s complaint showed that “mismanagement on the part of HHS placed these human services staff at risk.”
Wyden has asked Azar to describe in detail why the person was reassigned and details about the department’s protocols for deploying medical and agency personnel to health emergency locations, training and what steps HHS has taken to quarantine, monitor or test the ACF employees after their assignments.
HHS officials have said they take all whistleblower complaints very seriously, are providing the person “all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act” and are evaluating the complaint.