A whistleblower from the Department of Health and Human Services is alleging that the Trump administration, without providing adequate medical training or protective equipment, sent more than a dozen federal workers to two military bases in California to help process Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, China and quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus.
The senior HHS official, according to the New York Times and other outlets, has shared their account with Congress and is preparing to file a formal complaint with Office of the Special Counsel accusing the Trump administration of improperly reassigning them as punishment for raising concerns about the handling of the virus.
"The Trump administration's careless incompetence has put lives at risk. Punishing whistleblowers shows how unwilling they are to take responsibility."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
"In a narrative prepared for Congress, the whistleblower painted a grim portrait of staff members who found themselves suddenly thrust into a federal effort to confront the coronavirus in the United States," the Times reported late Thursday. "After a phone call with health agency leaders to raise their fears about exposure to the virus, the staff members described a 'whitewashing' of the situation, characterizing the response as 'corrupt' and a 'cover-up,' according to the narrative."
The whistleblower wrote in the complaint that they "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."
Federal health officials who interacted with possibly infected individuals were permitted to move freely on and off the military bases, according to the whistleblower, with one worker staying at a nearby hotel and departing from their assignment on a commercial flight. The person said federal officials who raised concerns about the administration's handling of the coronavirus and failure to provide necessary protections for staffers were treated as a "nuisance."
"The Trump administration's careless incompetence has put lives at risk," tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. "Punishing whistleblowers shows how unwilling they are to take responsibility."
The whistleblower's allegations came just hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that a person in California tested positive for the coronavirus, despite apparently having had no interaction with anyone exposed to the virus.
"The utter ineptitude of this administration is infuriating," wrote Parker Molloy, editor-at-large with Media Matters for America. "They are going to get people killed, and all that will matter is whether or not they win re-election and what the stock market looks like. They don't care if people die."
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Those are words about the administration’s role in spreading the virus in the US pic.twitter.com/AWtf3o8Kwc
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) February 28, 2020
"So here's what appears to be chain of events," tweeted MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "The Trump administration repatriated infected Americans over the objections of the CDC. HHS then sent federal workers to interact with the infected population without adequate training or protection."
"Then those workers went out into the public with no monitoring or testing regime in place. And now the first U.S.-contracted case has appeared right near one of the airforce bases where this all happened," Hayes added. "When someone at HHS raised alarms about all this s/he was criticized for hurting morale and then ordered to another position or be fired. This is real, real, real bad."
President Donald Trump and other White House officials have publicly attempted to downplay the risk the coronavirus poses to the U.S. population and brushed aside concerns of lawmakers who say the administration's response has been slow and inadequate. The White House has also accused the media of intentionally stoking panic about the virus.
"Media refuses to discuss the great job our professionals are doing!" Trump tweeted Thursday night.
Meanwhile, the White House is reportedly working to clamp down on its coronavirus messaging by forcing all federal scientists and health officials to clear public statements with Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump appointed Wednesday to lead the administration's coronavirus response—a move that was met with outrage by lawmakers and experts.
According to the Times, Trump told people around him that he selected Pence to coordinate the coronavirus effort because the vice president didn't "have anything else to do."