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Whistle-blower: HHS workers helped COVID-19 evacuees without proper training, equipment

Whistle-blower: HHS workers helped COVID-19 evacuees without proper training, equipment
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was back on Capitol Hill Thursday testifying to the House Ways and Means committee about his agency's 2021 budget proposal. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Health and Human Services workers interacted with Americans evacuated from the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in China without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistle-blower complaint.

The whistle-blower, a senior leader at the HHS, said the team was "improperly deployed" to two military bases in California to help process Americans who had been evacuated from Wuhan, China, and other areas affected by the coronavirus, according to a complaint submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel.

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The staff members were not provided training and safety protocols until five days later and some of the exposed staff moved freely around Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base after entering quarantined areas.

Many of the staff were unaware they needed to test their temperature three times a day and at least one stayed at a hotel nearby and left California on a commercial flight.

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"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 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.

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Lawyers for the whistle-blower said the workers did not show symptoms for infection and were not tested for COVID-19.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said the agency was aware of the complaint.

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"We take all whistle-blower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistle-blower Protection Act. We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time," Oakley said.

Public health labs across the country are also ramping up to test for the new coronavirus, just as concerns grow about the global epidemic spreading in the United States, officials said Thursday.

In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at least 40 public health labs can currently test specimens for COVID-19. That figure could more than double as early as Friday, he added.

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Azar made the statements as part of hearings for the agency's 2021 fiscal year budget.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to date tested 3,625 specimens for the virus in its facilities in Atlanta, according to Azar. The 40 public health labs are using test kits that were previously manufactured by the CDC and modified to test for coronavirus.

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The agency rolled out those kits two weeks ago, but technical glitches meant some of them yielded inconclusive results. Azar said Thursday that a newly manufactured CDC test is ready to be shipped to 93 public health labs by Monday.

In addition, a privately manufactured test based on the new CDC platform could be sent to those same labs as early as Friday, pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Also on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence appointed Debbie Birx as a new White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. Birx, who currently coordinates the U.S. government's global response to HIV/AIDS, will report to Pence and guide the administration's COVID-19 preparations, according to the White House.

She will also join the White House's coronavirus task force, which is led by Azar.

Birx's appointment marks the latest step by the Trump administration in its COVID-19 response, after it was announced Wednesday that Pence would lead the effort, taking over for Azar. Azar had told lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier in the day that he was the administration's "lead" on the outbreak.

Meanwhile, officials in Nassau County, N.Y., announced that more than 80 people remain under voluntary quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure after traveling to China. To date, there have been no confirmed cases in New York, though nearly 200 people have been placed in voluntary quarantine statewide after traveling to China.

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Nassau County Health Department officials said Wednesday that the CDC has contacted the agency each time someone who has spent time in China flies in, with the department then contacting and interviewing them within 24 hours to determine if they need to be quarantined.

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