US officials increased COVID-19 risk when they were ill-prepared to meet first batch of US evacuees from Wuhan, watchdog says

  • US health officials did not take appropriate infectious disease management steps when they met the first batch of evacuees from Wuhan last year, The Washington Post reported. 
  • The findings arose from investigations from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Special Counsel. 
  • The investigations were prompted by a whistleblower account. 
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US health officials increased the risk of the coronavirus spreading in the country after they were ill-prepared to handle the first batch of American evacuees from Wuhan last January, The Washington Post reported, citing a government watchdog investigation. 

The Post obtained two federal reports, which supported a whistleblower’s account that officials meeting the almost 200 evacuees at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California, did not wear proper PPE or do much to limit the spread of the infectious disease on January 29, 2020.

In a letter to President Joe Biden,  Special Counsel Henry Kerner said the “most troubling finding” was that the handling of evacuees “increased the risk of infection transmission not only to deployed [government] personnel but also to the American public as a whole.”

The reports, however, note that none of the Wuhan evacuees tested positive for the coronavirus.

The reports, one by the Department of Health and Human Services and the other by the Office of Special Counsel, detailed several mishaps starting with the fact that staff from the federal government’s Administration for Children and Families got conflicting instructions on where to meet the evacuees, what to wear, and how to handle the situation. Staff in the department are also not trained to deal with infectious diseases. 

Health workers and evacuees also attended a “town hall” on January 30 and were told not to wear masks or other protective equipment because of “optics,” The Post reported. 

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Other issues noted in the report include a civilian contractor who drove a bus from the airplane to the hanger with dozens of the evacuees not wearing a mask, and a food vendor who had “broke the quarantine area without permission.”

One evacuee also attempted to leave the military base. The ordeal took over seven hours and eventually health officials drove a woman off the base before county health officials stepped in front of the car and put her under a state-mandated quarantine so she couldn’t leave. Neither the woman nor the health officials who were with her in the car wore masks, The Post reported.

The HHS report noted that officials who met with another batch of evacuees from Wuhan who arrived in the US on Feb. 5 had proper protective equipment and training. 

The coronavirus has spread throughout the US over the past year and has so far infected over 25.7 million Americans and resulted in the deaths of over 433,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

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