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Whistleblower accuses HHS of dramatic coronavirus mistake

Team Trump clearly wants the public to have confidence in its "total preparedness," but these folks aren't making it easy to trust them.
Image: Dept of Health & Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington on April 5, 2009.Alex Brandon / AP file

During his public remarks this week on the coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump went to great lengths to argue that Americans have great confidence in his administration's competence. "Whatever happens, we're totally prepared," the president declared, adding, "[W]e are totally ready, willing, and able."

There's some alarming evidence to the contrary. The New York Times was one of several news outlets to report overnight on a whistleblower report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Federal health employees interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population, according to a government whistle-blower who lawmakers say faced retaliation for reporting concerns.

Following up on Rachel's coverage of this from last night, it's worth pausing to consider the events leading up to the alleged mistake, because this isn't just some bureaucratic snafu.

A group of Americans contracted the virus abroad, and Trump administration officials, rejecting the advice of the CDC, recently decided to bring those people back to the United States. More specifically, they were brought to two Air Force bases in California.

Staff members from the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families ... were not provided safety-protocol training until five days into their assignment, said the whistle-blower, who is described as a senior leader at the health agency. Without proper training or equipment, some of the exposed staff members moved freely around and off the bases, with at least one person staying in a nearby hotel and leaving California on a commercial flight. Many were unaware of the need to test their temperatures three times a day.

The whistleblower specifically wrote, "I soon began to field panicked calls from my leadership team and deployed staff members expressing concerns with the lack of H.H.S. communication and coordination, staff being sent into quarantined areas without personal protective equipment, training or experience in managing public health emergencies, safety protocols and the potential danger to both themselves and members of the public they come into contact with."

As the Times' report added, House Democrats have said the whistleblower has faced "professional retaliation" for bringing attention to the administration's dangerous mishandling of the matter.

The result is a dynamic in which alleged Trump administration incompetence may have directly contributed to the public-health threat.

What's more, if the reporting is accurate, it was the Department of Health and Human Services that made the mistake. HHS is led by Secretary Alex Azar -- the cabinet secretary who's also leading the administration's task force on the coronavirus outbreak.

Team Trump clearly wants the public to have confidence in its "total preparedness," but these folks aren't making it easy to trust them.