A whistleblower at the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking federal protection after complaining that more than a dozen workers who received the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, lacked proper training or protective gear for coronavirus infection control.
“We are hopeful that Congress and the OSC will investigate this case in a timely and comprehensive manner,” Ari Wilkenfeld, a lawyer for the whistleblower, told CNN. “This matter concerns HHS’s response to the coronavirus, and its failure to protect its employees and potentially the public. The retaliatory efforts to intimidate and silence our client must be opposed.”
The Washington Post was first to report on the complaint and cited a redacted complaint obtained from lawyers alleges that HHS staff were “improperly deployed” and “were not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” The whistleblower also alleges she was unfairly reassigned after raising concerns.
CNN has not independently reviewed the complaint.
William Walters, executive director and managing director for Operational Medicine in the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department, pushed back on the allegations when he was asked about the report during a coronavirus hearing Thursday afternoon before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
While he did not speak to the specific issues outlined in the Post story, he addressed the issue based on his own experiences while traveling with personnel to China for the evacuation missions of US citizens from China.
“I can speak, having been on those missions, and certainly the first trip out of Wuhan, the second, the third, the Diamond Princess, and based on a relationship that I’ve had with HHS, (Secretary of Defense Mark) Esper and CDC dating back to 2014. Every precaution has been taken,” he said.
When asked whether he saw anyone without protective equipment, Walters replied, “No I can say unequivocally that everyone involved with those evacuations was appropriately equipped and trained.”
During the hearing, another State Department official, Ian Brownlee, displayed a photo of HHS workers in full hazmat suits as they were processing folks coming off the Diamond Princess.