HHS Officials Sent Workers to Coronavirus Hot Zone Without Protective Gear

Published Mar 17, 2020

What happened: A scientific expert who brought forward important information regarding the safety of workers was improperly reassigned to another position at HHS and told she would be terminated if she did not accept the new position in 15 days. The information that alarmed her was that officials at Health and Human Services (HHS) sent over a dozen workers to Wuhan, China in late January and early February, in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic, without proper training or personal protective equipment.

Why it matters: When political leaders fail to incorporate science-based health measures into their decision-making process, this can put lives at-risk. In this specific situation, by failing to incorporate science into their decision-making process, political leaders likely increased the risk that the novel coronavirus would spread within the US population. When federal workers are ordered into a situation with serious health and safety concerns, it is contingent upon the federal government to provide the workers with proper safety protection based on the best available science.

Health and Human Service (HHS) workers were deployed to Wuhan, China in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic without the safety equipment or training, items that the science suggests would have significantly reduced their risk of infection. The workers had been sent to evacuate about 200 Americans from the area, and directly interacted with the potentially exposed evacuees on multiple occasions. Occasions of face-to-face contact included the workers receiving the evacuees in an airplane hanger, distributing keys to the evacuees for room assignments, and handing out color ribbons to the evacuees for identification purposes.

According to the whistleblower complaint, the HHS workers were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” At times, the HHS workers were working alongside Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) employees who were in “full gown, gloves and hazmat attire.” Some of the workers voiced concerns to their team leader about the lack of protective gear during the operation, though the concerns did not prompt any action by officials. Upon return to the US, the workers were not tested for the novel coronavirus, and they were allowed to return to their communities without undergoing quarantine procedures.

The whistleblower who brought forward this complaint had decades of experience, had received two awards from the HHS Secretary last year, and had received high marks on their performance evaluation. However, after lodging the complaint, the whistleblower was involuntary assigned to a position where she had no prior expertise in. The whistleblower was informed that, if she did not take the reassignment, she would be terminated after 15 days. This is not the first time that the Trump administration has improperly reassigned an employee after they voiced science-based concerns.

The novel coronavirus and the highly contagious disease it causes, COVID-19, is considered to be a major threat to the public’s health and safety. It is now well established that the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 is wholly lacking in effectiveness, as the administration is lacking capable scientific leadership, is restricting the ability of scientists to speak directly to the public, and is trying to conceal data and other scientific information on COVID-19. And, as the whistleblower complaint shows, since the earliest days of the coronavirus epidemic, the Trump administration has failed to follow the science on the best ways to protect people from COVID-19. Safety training and personal protective equipment are a staple features of how our government protects its workers from emerging diseases, and the Trump administration’s failure to carry out these basic precautions not only endangered the safety of the workers, but potentially helped spread a highly contagious disease throughout the US.