Health Agencies Compromised Safety of Evacuees and Staff Early in Pandemic, Watchdog Says

A new report from the Government Accountability Office on the repatriation effort last year said that poor training and bureaucratic infighting left Americans unsafe.


By Noah Weiland

WASHINGTON — The government’s confused effort to retrieve Americans overseas during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic compromised the safety of the evacuees, federal employees and communities where they returned, according to a report published on Monday by Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog.

The effort was so dysfunctional that federal health agencies could not agree on the purpose or terms of the mission, contradicting one another about whether it should be classified as an evacuation or a repatriation.

The investigation by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the evacuation of Americans from China was badly hampered as different divisions in the Department of Health and Human Services argued over which was responsible.

The Government Accountability Office said three agencies in the department — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the Administration for Children and Families — “did not follow plans or guidance delineating their roles and responsibilities for repatriating individuals during a pandemic — an event these agencies had never experienced.”

The infighting undermined the earliest attempts to protect federal staff assigned to the mission and the Americans after they returned from China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated.

The report, which took over a year to compile, built on previous reviews of the repatriation effort by health department lawyers and a whistle-blower complaint filed early last year. The department’s top lawyer concluded last April that federal health employees without adequate protective gear or training interacted with Americans quarantined at a base in California, validating the whistle-blower’s central complaint.

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