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Concerns grow over US handling of outbreak as government seeks to silence whistle-blower

By Xian Jiangnan (People's Daily Online)    17:29, February 28, 2020

A whistle-blower is seeking federal protection after alleging that US federal workers lack adequate protective gear when treating coronavirus evacuees, prompting growing concern over whether the US government is taking adequate precautions against the COVID-19 outbreak.

The whistle-blower, a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), alleged last Wednesday that more than a dozen federal health employees were “improperly deployed” to Travis and March Air Force bases in California to assist the quarantined Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, and were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation”, according to a Washington Post report and portions of the complaint filing obtained by other media.

(Screenshot from The Washington Post)

(Screenshot from CNN)

(Screenshot from The New York Times)

In her complaint, the whistle-blower stated that “appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor, or test [the workers] during their deployment and upon their return home”, with some exposed staff members moving freely around and off the bases. In addition, at least one person stayed in a nearby hotel and later left California on a commercial flight. The team was there from mid-January until earlier this month.

After the complaint was filed, the whistle-blower was reassigned, and will be fired if she does not accept her new position in 15 days.

According to the whistle-blower’s lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld, the 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,” Wilkenfild stated.


(Screenshot from The New York Times website)

The whistle-blower’s account raised doubts about whether the Trump administration is adequately prepared for the handling of the coronavirus. Some said that this could become Trump’s “Katrina”, a disaster that reveals the government’s incompetence and lack of preparedness.

“The Trump administration's attempt to cover up its own incompetence and silence whistle-blowers will only hamper the response to the coronavirus, and will aid in its spread,” one comment from The New York Times website read.

The complaint, first reported by the Washington Post, was revealed the day after the first U.S. patient from Solano County, California, where the Travis Air Force Base is located, was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus without having been exposed to anyone known to be infected or to have had recent travels to virus-hit countries, causing public anxiety over the possibility of the two episodes being linked.

(Screenshot from The New York Times website)

A user named LAD commented that it seemed logical that the first “unexplained” case was tied to Travis Air Force Base personnel or people going to and from there. The user then questioned if the personnel had taken adequate precautions. “I guess the answer is no”.

At a hearing on Thursday, when asked what the department would do if untrained employees were exposed to the virus, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar responded, “I’d want to know the full facts and would take appropriate remedial measures.”

Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, is now assisting the handling of the complaint, and has repeatedly pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more details. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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