Azar says he's personally overseeing investigation into HHS whistleblower allegations on coronavirus

Health secretary investigating allegations by coronavirus whistleblower

Washington — Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said he is personally involved in examining allegations raised by a whistleblower that agency employees who helped quarantined American evacuees from Wuhan, China, lacked the proper training and protective gear. He also denied any possible exposure to the coronavirus led to its spread on the West Coast.

"We are aggressively looking to see whether there is validity to the concerns," Azar said Sunday on "Face the Nation." "What the American people need to know is that we now have passed well over 14 days since any HHS employee had contact with the individuals involved. Nobody is symptomatic. Nobody has the disease."

A whistleblower filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging the agency sent more than a dozen workers to receive American evacuees from Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, who had neither "proper training for infection control of appropriate protective gear."

The whistleblower, an employee with the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, warned that the staff may have been exposed to the deadly virus since they hadn't been trained in using the protective equipment and had face-to-face contact with evacuees.

According to the complaint, the workers didn't show symptoms indicating they were infected and weren't tested for coronavirus.

Azar said the Department of Health and Human Services takes the protection of its workers "very seriously" and wants to ensure isolation and quarantine procedures are  followed. But he said it was "absolutely not the case" that the employees who received American evacuees tipped off the spread of coronavirus cases on the West Coast.

"Even if these allegations prove to be true, there was no spreading of the disease from this, and we have offered — even though it is not medically indicated — we have offered to test any HHS employees involved. If they would like that extra peace of mind, we want to do that for employees," he said.

There are currently 71 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and the first coronavirus death in the U.S. was reported Saturday. The death roll around the world is nearing 3,000.

President Trump has sought to reassure the country that the risk to Americans remains low, and selected Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Azar said Sunday that 3,600 people in the U.S. have been tested for the coronavirus, and public health officials have the capability to test 75,000 people in the field. In the next week or two, there will be a "radical expansion" of the testing available, he said.

"The risk to average Americans remains low. We are working to keep it low," Azar said. "We will see more transmissions of cases in the United States. We've got the finest public system in the world here. This is what we do. We cannot make predictions as to how many cases we'll have, but we will have more and we will have more community cases. It's simply a matter of math."

Azar said the Trump administration is not advising travel restrictions or closures, but said state and local public health officials can implement protective measures as they see fit.

"But at this point, we do not have sufficient spread in the United States that would indicate those measures, but we're not taking any of them off the table," he said.