A whistle-blower at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has reportedly alleged that US health workers who helped American evacuees from China had not been provided with proper training or protective gear, which may have exposed them to the coronavirus.
The complaint alleges that more than a dozen HHS employees were sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California without full protective gear and training on how to protect themselves and adds that those workers who did not show symptoms of infection were not tested for the disease, US media reported.
The Washington Post first reported about the complaint filed to the Office of Special Counsel, an independent watchdog agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints.
The whistle-blower, who according to the New York Times is a senior official in the HHS, is now seeking federal protection, claiming she was unfairly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of workers.
One of the whistle-blower’s lawyers, Ari Wilkenfeld, confirmed the complaint to US media on Friday.
“We are hopeful that Congress and the OSC will investigate this case in a timely and comprehensive manner,” Wilkenfeld told Politico. “This matter concerns HHS’s 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.”
Late on Thursday, Democratic Senator Ed Markey called on HHS Secretary Alex Azar to resign.
Allowing HHS workers to be exposed to Wuhan evacuees without adequate protection is gross mismanagement that jeopardizes American lives. We need someone in charge who will rise to the level of responding to this threat. Sec. Azar isn’t that person. I’m calling for him to resign. https://t.co/nXAQEYZf2w
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) February 27, 2020
Azar on Friday said the US plans to invoke a law called the Defense Production Act to boost production of protective equipment, including masks and gloves, to combat the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, officials confirmed that a woman in California had contracted the disease from an unknown source, raising fears of “community spread” of the virus in the US.
There are 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those cases include 47 people who were repatriated.
The coronavirus outbreak originated in China and has spread to 59 countries around the world, affected markets, grounded flights and shuttered schools.
It has infected more than 83,000 people and killed nearly 3,000 – mostly in China.