The federal government has announced it’s launching an investigation into complaints that health workers lacked proper training and protective gear when receiving Americans coronavirus evacuees on two California military bases. U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar will personally be leading the probe, he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday.
One thing Azar’s already sure of, though: Any possible exposure in these instances was not ground zero for the recent string of coronavirus cases on the West Coast.
“We are aggressively looking to see whether there is validity to the concerns,” Azar told CBS. “What the American people need to know is that we now have passed well over 14 days since any HHS employee had contact with the individuals involved. Nobody is symptomatic. Nobody has the disease.”
On Thursday, a whistleblower purportedly from within the HHS’ top ranks filed a complaint alleging that dozens of federal health employees did not receive sufficient training and protective gear when initially attending to quarantined Americans. According to reports, the complaint claims that department officials “improperly deployed” these staffers to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base in California, where evacuees flown in from hot zones in China and elsewhere are being quarantined, and that “appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor, or test [the workers] during their deployment and upon their return home.” After coming into direct contact with coronavirus patients, several workers purportedly scattered back into the general public without being screened for the virus since they lacked apparent symptoms.
This news broke just days after officials reported America’s first cases of “community spread” of the coronavirus, the first of which occurred near Travis Air Force Base. Just as a refresher, the CDC defines community spread as the spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown.
As a result, speculation kicked up that the two incidents could be related; that one or more of the employees described in the whistleblower’s complaint might have been patient zero for the recent string of outbreaks on the West Coast. Azar asserts this is “absolutely not the case.”
“Even if these allegations prove to be true, there was no spreading of the disease from this, and we have offered — even though it is not medically indicated — we have offered to test any HHS employees involved. If they would like that extra peace of mind, we want to do that for employees,” he told CBS.
As for everyone else, Azar reported that the risk of infection remains low for average Americans, and, “We are working to keep it low.” Roughly 3,600 people in the U.S. have been tested for the virus, and the department is rolling out a “radical expansion” of available testing in the next week or two, he continued.
According to the World Health Organization’s latest situation report, there are currently 62 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., including the country’s first death related to the outbreak on Saturday.