WASHINGTON (AP) — A management breakdown led to some federal employees being sent to help American evacuees from the coronavirus epidemic in China without proper protective equipment, federal investigators have concluded.
Friday's report from investigators at the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed central allegations from a government whistleblower who complained in February that some HHS employees were deployed without adequate protection while others arrived with full gear. It found that some federal employees had to beg the local county for gear such as masks.
The report was released Friday evening by congressional offices.
"A repatriation and quarantine of this scale has never occurred in the history of the United States," said the report by the HHS general counsel's office. “In this unprecedented, dynamic, and evolving situation, the mission command and control structure ... temporarily broke down.”
The report focused on what happened as HHS employees were scrambled to help evacuees on a flight that landed at March Air Reserve Base in California the morning of Jan. 29. None of the evacuees showed symptoms during the flight but they were headed for quarantine.
“Initially, no procedures were in place at (the base) to ensure uniform infection-control and infection-prevention measures, including the proper use of personal protective equipment,” the report found.
Safety officers were not appropriately designated, nor was an infection prevention control plan in place, “a normal component of a deployment of this type,” the report said. Clear, written instructions for protective equipment were not posted until three days after the evacuees arrived.
The report faulted representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not properly addressing the safety concerns of their fellow federal workers.
“CDC personnel failed to provide formal training or written guidance regarding proper (protective gear) use to other (federal) personnel and responded to repeated inquiries ... with confusing, incomplete, and contradictory information,” the report said.
The unnamed whistleblower complained that CDC employees arrived with full protective gear, while other federal workers were left to fend for themselves. Some were forced to ask local officials from Riverside County for masks and other gear, the report said.
Investigators said HHS headquarters reacted quickly and sent a safety team to straighten out the situation. Nonetheless, some of the federal workers who had been placed at risk of exposure were later sent via commercial airline flights to help evacuees at other bases.
Although some federal workers were shaken by the experience, the report found that none of them tested positive or contracted COVID-19 as result of being deployed at March.
It's not the only whistleblower complaint arising from the government's virus response.
This week, a senior government scientist said he was summarily removed from his job and reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug touted by President Donald Trump.
Lawyers for Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said they intend to file a formal whistleblower complaint.
On Friday, the FDA warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in limited circumstances.