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Whistleblower: Feds helping evacuees lacked virus protection

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 Health and Human Services Department 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 Thursday it has received the unnamed whistleblower's complaint and has opened a case.

The office of Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez of California said the complaint was filed by a high-ranking official at the Administration for Children and Families, an HHS 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 social services that they might qualify for. The team was there from mid-January until earlier this month.

Although team members had gloves at times and at other times masks, 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.

None of the workers from the agency has become infected with the virus.

Without referring directly to the 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 quarantine or isolation requirements. “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.

Ari Wilkenfeld, a lawyer 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.”

HHS did not respond to requests for comment.

The whistleblower complaint was first reported by The Washington Post.

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Associated Press writer Carole Feldman contributed to this report.

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