As the first American evacuees from Wuhan, China, touched down at a California military base a year ago, fleeing the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, they were met by U.S. health officials with no virus prevention plan or infection-control training – and who had not even been told to wear masks, according to a federal investigation.
Later, those officials were told to remove protective gear when meeting with the evacuees to avoid “bad optics,” and days after those initial encounters, departed California aboard commercial airline flights to other destinations.
Those are among the findings of two federal reports obtained by The Washington Post, supporting a whistleblower’s account of the chaos as U.S. officials scrambled to greet nearly 200 evacuees from Wuhan at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Calif., on the early morning of Jan. 29, 2020. The handling and quarantining of those evacuees – the nation’s first up-close confrontation with a virus that has now sickened more than 25 million Americans – and the resulting whistleblower complaint prompted internal reviews by the Health and Human Services Department and an investigation overseen by the Office of Special Counsel.
The “most troubling finding” is that the government’s handling of the Wuhan evacuees “increased the risk of infection transmission not only to deployed [government] personnel, but also to the American public as a whole,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday.
“In this unprecedented, dynamic, and evolving situation, the mission command and control structure during the March deployment temporarily broke down,” acknowledges an accompanying November report conducted by the HHS general counsel’s office. That report faulted a last-minute decision that resulted in HHS overseeing the operation – rather than the state of California, which had planned to house the evacuees but lacked medically adequate facilities – for the slew of ensuing problems.
In a notable rebuke, the special counsel criticized the general counsel’s office, led by Donald Trump appointee Robert Charrow, for its “attempts to shame the whistleblower,” such as by publishing a nine-page supplemental report that repeatedly highlighted inconsistencies in her account and circulating it with members of Congress.
“It is reprehensible that HHS [general counsel] would use the investigation as an attempt to discredit [the whistleblower] when she showed tremendous courage in bringing these allegations forward,” Kerner wrote in his letter to Biden, adding that he worried about the effect on future whistleblowers.
A top Democrat seized on the special counsel’s findings, calling them “a damning account of how HHS political officials campaigned to discredit and retaliate” against a whistleblower. “Thankfully, we have turned the page on the Trump era, but we must now work to repair our damaged institutions, which includes ensuring that whistleblowers can come forward without fear of reprisal,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Reached by phone, Charrow dismissed the special counsel’s critique as an interoffice quarrel. “The reputation of the Office of Special Counsel is less than stellar and does not compare with the reputation of the Office of General Counsel,” Charrow said, touting the credentials of his former team and insisting they rushed to investigate the allegations. “We work on large law firm hours, not on bankers’ hours.”
Charrow also defended his former department’s response, saying that officials were blindsided by their role in the evacuation and moved quickly to resolve safety concerns, such as by providing more protective equipment.
“Was the Department of Health and Human Services placed in an untenable position? The answer is yes,” Charrow said. “Were things corrected immediately? The answer is yes.”
The Washington Post last year detailed the whistleblower’s allegations, which prompted the HHS review. The Office of Special Counsel subsequently became involved because it receives complaints from whistleblowers and protects them from reprisal as it investigates their allegations of misconduct.
The reports paint a vivid picture of the disarray in the days leading up to the arrival of the Wuhan evacuees, with staff from the federal government’s Administration for Children and Families – who typically help with social-work services during natural disasters, and are not trained for infectious-disease outbreaks – receiving conflicting instructions about where to meet the evacuees, what to wear and even what to do.
While the reports note that none of the Wuhan evacuees tested positive for coronavirus, and that “infection transmission apparently did not occur from the deployment,” HHS repeatedly faults Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, some of whom were also at the base during the group’s quarantine, and the department’s regional leaders,for failing to prepare government workers and other personnel for the encounter.
For instance, a civilian contractor who drove a bus containing dozens of new arrivals from the airplane to the hangar wasn’t wearing protective equipment, despite his extended, close encounter with the evacuees, witnesses said. A food vendor also repeatedly “broke the quarantine area without permission,” investigators found.
Meanwhile, government health workers were told they didn’t need protective gear as long as they stayed six feet away from the evacuees. But evacuees, faced with overflowing trash cans in their quarantine area, would repeatedly approach the officials and personally hand them their trash.
In one episode that stretched for more than seven hours on Jan. 29, an evacuee sought to “immediately” leave the military base and eventually prevailed on public-health service officers to drive her off-site, investigators found. The effort was halted only when a county health official stepped in front of the car and later put the evacuee under a state-mandated quarantine. Neither the evacuee nor the three public health service officers who had been in the car with her wore any protective equipment, the report said.
The CDC ultimately issued a two-week quarantine order to keep the evacuees on the base in an attempt to reduce potential coronavirus risks, the agency’s first mandatory quarantine order in more than 50 years – and a sign of the restrictions that were yet to come.
In another striking moment, staff who attended a Jan. 30 “town hall” with the evacuees said they were ordered to remove their masks and gloves, with witnesses suggesting that a senior official was worried that photographs of the garbed health workers – which some evacuees were posting on social media – would alarm the public and spark media interest.
That official acknowledged to investigators that she warned health workers that wearing protective equipment would “freak out” evacuees, but disputed she was giving an order. Investigators also found a photo showing health workers without masks or gloves at the town hall, appearing to be within six feet of the evacuees.
The CDC did not provide clear guidance on the need for health workers to wear protective equipment until Feb. 1 – three days after staff had spent hours working with the evacuees on planning and paperwork, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, the report concluded.
HHS, in its report, said that staff who received a second round of Wuhan evacuees at Travis Air Force Base Solano County, Calif., on Feb. 5. 2020, were given proper training and protective equipment. The HHS report also concluded that the CDC must play a more formal role in providing infection-control guidance and handling future quarantines.