Whistle-blower says US health workers responding to coronavirus lack training and protective gear

Passengers board buses past personnel in protective clothing after arriving on an aircraft, chartered by the US State Department to evacuate government employees and other Americans from Wuhan, on Jan 29, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US federal health employees interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population, according to a government whistle-blower.

In a portion of a complaint filing obtained by The New York Times that has been submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel, the whistle-blower, described as a senior leader at the health agency, said the team was "improperly deployed" to two military bases in California to assist the processing of Americans who had been evacuated from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere.

The staff members were sent to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base and were ordered to enter quarantined areas, including a hangar where coronavirus evacuees were being received. They were not provided training in safety protocols until five days later, the person said.

Without proper training or equipment, some of the exposed staff members moved freely around and off the bases, with at least one person staying in a nearby hotel and leaving California on a commercial flight. Many were unaware of the need to test their temperature three times a day.

"I soon began to field panicked calls from my leadership team and deployed staff members expressing concerns with the lack of HHS communication and coordination, staff being sent into quarantined areas without personal protective equipment, training or experience in managing public health emergencies, safety protocols and the potential danger to both themselves and members of the public they come into contact with," the whistle-blower wrote.

In a statement on Thursday (Feb 27), the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the complaint without elaborating.

"We take all whistle-blower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistle-blower Protection Act," said Caitlin B. Oakley, deputy assistant secretary and a national spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs.

"We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time."

The account surfaced after President Donald Trump sought to play down the danger of a domestic coronavirus outbreak amid bipartisan concern about a sluggish and disjointed response by the administration to an illness that public health officials have said is likely to spread through the United States.

The first US case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact with hot zones or other coronavirus patients emerged near Travis Air Force Base this week.

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