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)

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.

Dear Reader,

When we asked recently what makes TPM different from other outlets, readers cited factors like honesty, curiosity, transparency, and our vibrant community. They also pointed to our ability to report on important stories and trends long before they are picked up by mainstream outlets; our ability to contextualize information within the arc of history; and our focus on the real-world consequences of the news.

Our unique approach to reporting and presenting the news, however, wouldn’t be possible without our readers’ support. That’s not just marketing speak, it’s true: our work would literally not be possible without readers deciding to become members. Not only does member support account for more than 80% of TPM’s revenue, our members have helped us build an engaged and informed community. Many of our best stories were born from reader tips and valuable member feedback.

We do what other news outlets can’t or won’t do because our members’ support gives us real independence.

If you enjoy reading TPM and value what we do, become a member today.

Latest News
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Director of Audience:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: