March 2, 2020 / 3:26 AM / a month ago

U.S. investigating whistleblower allegations; vows to keep federal workers safe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Sunday said it was investigating complaints that federal workers were not given proper protective gear and training before greeting U.S. citizens evacuated from a cruise ship that had 691 people infected with the new coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar speaks to reporters about Trump administration efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak outside the White House in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File photo

U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told CBS’s “Face the Nation” he was personally involved in the probe, and the government was determined to make sure its workers were kept safe.

Azar told CBS it had been 14 days since any HHS worker had contact with the evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and none had contracted the disease.

About 70 cases have been reported in the United States, including 47 cases among people repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the supposed epicenter of the outbreak, or from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan.

“Even if these allegations proved to be true, there was no spreading of the disease from this,” he said, adding that the department had offered to test any HHS employees involved if they wanted what he called “that extra piece of mind.”

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Azar said the government would not allow any retaliation against the HHS worker who first raised concerns about the issue or other employees.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal and Representative Jimmie Gomez, a Democrat from California, last week asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to provide answers within a week about reports that HHS had retaliated against the whistleblower in question.

In a separate letter to Azar, the lawmakers said the whistleblower alleged that “staff were 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.’”

They said the whistleblower also reported that when staff raised safety concerns, they were “admonished ... for decreasing staff morale, accused of not being team players, and had their mental health and emotional stability questioned.’”

On Sunday, Azar declined to provide details on whether the whistleblower had been reassigned to a different position, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss personnel matters.

“Nobody would ever be reassigned or discriminated against or prejudiced or retaliated against because of raising concerns about the functioning of the department,” Azar said. “If our employees raise concerns about our processes, if something proves not to be right, we are grateful.”

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool

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