The Trump administration’s scorn for the “bad optics” of protective health gear heightened the risk of spreading COVID-19 after American evacuees landed in California from China following the outbreak of the coronavirus there, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The government’s mishandling of the 200 evacuees increased the risk of infection transmission to government personnel and “the American public as a whole,” special counsel Henry Kerner wrote in a letter Thursday to President Joe Biden following a probe overseen by his office.
The American evacuees were met at a California’s March Air Reserve Base a year ago by health officials with “no virus prevention plan or infection-control training” — or personal protective equipment, according to the Post, which obtained a copy of investigations by the Officer of the Special Counsel and by the Department of Health and Human Services Department. HHS was in charge of handling the evacuees.
Both investigations supported a whistleblower’s complaint of the poor planning and chaos dealing with the returning Americans, according to the Post. The whistleblower reported that health officials were instructed to remove what PPE there was to avoid “bad optics,” according to Kerner’s letter to the president.
Despite the risk, evacuees were allowed to return to their normal activities elsewhere, with some traveling on commercial flights, Kerner noted. There was no “agency guidance on self-monitoring for symptoms,” he added.
Ultimately, no repatriated Americans were knowns to test positive for COVID-19. But the “leadership was reckless with respect to the risk of endangering the broader public,” Kerner wrote.
There were no known deaths in America at that time from COVID-19. In the year since, the death toll has topped 433,000.
The investigation by the Office of the Special Counsel criticized the HHS general counsel’s office, headed by Trump appointee Robert Charrow, for “attempts to shame the whistleblower,” including publishing a nine-page report highlighting “minor” inconsistencies in her account that was circulated to 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. Such action presents a chilling factor to future whistleblowers, he warned.
Charrow dismissed the special counsel’s criticism, and characterized it to the Post as an interoffice quarrel. He also said initial problems dealing with the evacuees were immediately corrected.
Check out The Washington Post’s full story here.
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