Azar Ordered Probe Of Coronavirus Whistleblower Claim, ‘Will Never Tolerate’ Retaliation

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 26, 2020: Alex Azar, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaking at a press conference about the Coronavirus.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaking at a press conference about the coronavirus on February 26, 2020. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
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February 28, 2020 4:48 p.m.

Health Secretary Alex Azar said Friday that he had ordered a probe into a whistleblower’s claims that federal officials sent to repatriate Americans from coronavirus-striken Wuhan, China were not given protective gear or prepared to follow safety protocols.

The whistleblower also alleged they were reassigned after raising concerns about the situation. Azar said he wouldn’t tolerate retaliation.

“I have ordered an immediate, full investigation,” Azar said in an interview on Fox News. “What matters to us? First, our employees must be protected. Second, they must follow all isolation and quarantine protocols. Third, we must have a full investigation to learn if there’s any truth to these allegations. And fourth, we will never tolerate any form of retaliation against a whistleblower.”

The remarks were in stark contrast to Azar’s testimony Thursday night after Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) asked Azar about safety protocols. Gomez appeared to draw questions from the whistleblower’s complaint, which hadn’t yet been reported publicly.

Gomez asked the Department of Health and Human Services secretary, who’s also leading the White House’s coronavirus task force under Vice President Mike Pence, “Do you think breaking basic protocols and exposing untrained human service employees to the coronavirus before allowing them to be dispersed around the country could have endangered the employees and other Americans?”

“I don’t believe that has taken place,” Azar responded, before emphasizing isolation and quarantine protocols.

Azar told Fox News’ Bill Hemmer Friday that he didn’t learn of the whistleblower’s complaint until later Thursday night.

On Friday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to Azar with a list of pointed questions about the complaint.

According to the whistleblower, Wyden wrote, human services staff from the HHS Administration for Children and Families “were asked to interact directly with quarantined individuals without adequate procedures, safety protocols, training, or protective equipment.”

“Such mismanagement on the part of HHS placed these human services staff at risk,” he said. “Not only that, but the general public was also put at risk since your employees were then immediately returned to their communities and jobs at the Department post-deployment, by commercial air flights with no precautions.”

The complaint was submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel, which is investigating the whistleblower’s concerns.

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