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Evacuees from Wuhan to California at start of pandemic ‘were met by unprepared US officials’

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The first Americans who were evacuated from coronavirus epicenter Wuhan at the start of the pandemic were met by ‘unprepared’ US officials with no infection control training, a damning federal investigation has found.

Health officials at a California military base were even told to remove protective gear to avoid ‘bad optics’, according to reviews by the Health and Human Services Department and an investigation overseen by the Office of Special Counsel.

Evacuees arriving in the US as they fled the virus in China were not told to wear masks and there was no plan in place to stop the spread of the virus, the Washington Post reports. 

The first 200 evacuees landed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County on January 29 last year. They were screened four times over the course of the 14-hour journey.  

A team in white biohazard suits watch as some of the approximately 200 passengers walk to waiting buses upon arriving on a charter flight from Wuhan, China, at March Air Reserve Base

A team in white biohazard suits watch as some of the approximately 200 passengers walk to waiting buses upon arriving on a charter flight from Wuhan, China, at March Air Reserve Base

Passengers are seen deplaning after arriving at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, on an evacuation flight from the coronavirus outbreak epicenter in Wuhan on January 29 2020

Passengers are seen deplaning after arriving at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, on an evacuation flight from the coronavirus outbreak epicenter in Wuhan on January 29 2020

The health officials who may have been exposed later left the base and boarded commercial flights to other parts of the country.

There was also a lack of agency guidance on self-monitoring for symptoms after they had left the base. 

Personnel on the base were not given sufficient PPE or clear instructions about the proper usage of such equipment by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel – who were present on the base – until three days after the evacuees arrived. 

As a result, for 72 hours, they did not have PPE and received ‘confusing, incomplete, and contradictory’ information.   

There were 195 passengers - including a number of small children - and six crewmembers onboard

They filed out of the plane and stepped into awaiting buses

There were 195 passengers – including a number of small children – and six crewmembers onboard. They filed out of the plane and stepped into awaiting buses (left and right)

Government personnel and repatriated Americans were also authorized by leadership to leave the base for ‘various activities’, according to the report.  

There were ‘multiple containment issues’ at the base – for instance, a vendor supplying food to evacuees broke the quarantine area without permission. 

Meanwhile, a civilian who drove a bus with dozens of new arrivals from the airplane to the hangar was not wearing protective equipment, despite his close contact with the evacuees, witnesses said.   

‘The most troubling finding’ from the report is that the government’s handling of the situation at the time ‘increased the risk of infection transmission not only to deployed [government] personnel, but also to the American public as well’, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote in a letter to President Biden yesterday. 

While none of the evacuated Americans tested positive for Covid-19, the report found that the ‘[government] leadership was reckless with respect to the risk of endangering the broader public’.  

The investigation, which was prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint, supported their account of the chaos that ensued at the March Air Reserve Base.  

There were no procedures in place at the base to ensure infection-control and infection-prevention measures, including the proper use of PPE, the report said. 

Nor were there safety officers designated and in place from the outset of the mission and there was no Infection Prevention Control Plan in place – which is required for deployments of this nature.    

Special Counsel Henry Kerner criticised the general counsels’s office, led by Trump appointee Robert Charrow, for how is addressed the whistleblower’s allegations. 

‘It is reprehensible that HHS [general counsel] would use the investigation as an attempt to discredit [the whistleblower] when she showed tremendeous courage in bringing these allegations forward,’ Kerner wrote in his letter to the President. 

Officials in hazmat suits met the flight when it landed at the air base just after 8am PST. Pictured: People in hazmat suits are seen outside of the Kalitta Air plane

Officials in hazmat suits met the flight when it landed at the air base just after 8am PST. Pictured: People in hazmat suits are seen outside of the Kalitta Air plane

Charrow has since defended his former department’s response to the crisis, arguing that they responded immediately to any issues they faced. 

‘Was the Department of Health and Human Services placed in an untenable position? The answer is yes,’ Charrow told the Washington Post. ‘Were things corrected immediately? The answer is yes.’

The more than 200 Americans who landed at the March Air Reserve base had fled the epicentre of the virus. 

The 201 onboard had been screened twice before departure and twice more during a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, before landing at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, California.  

The evacuation was originally scheduled to fly to Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California, but was diverted to the March Air Reserve Base (pictured) 25 miles away without explanation

The evacuation was originally scheduled to fly to Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California, but was diverted to the March Air Reserve Base (pictured) 25 miles away without explanation

There were said to be 1,000 Americans living in Wuhan – but only 201 ended up on the flight which could hold up to 240. 

It is understood the others were not able to get through the screening process, while one was denied travel because they had a fever.   

The plane was originally scheduled to fly to Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California, but was diverted to the air base 25 miles away without explanation. 

The US has attracted criticism throughout the pandemic, particularly with Donald Trump’s dismissal of the virus as a ‘flu’ in its early stages.

Even after he contracted the virus and was treated in hospital, Trump said ‘many people’ die every year from the flu, adding: ‘Are we going to close down our country?

‘No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!’

To date, the US has recorded 25.6million cases and 429,125 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Institute.

Throughout the pandemic, Trump played down the severity of the coronavirus even while his own experts were urging him to take it seriously.

Top Trump administration officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and trade adviser Peter Navarro reportedly sounded the alarm about a pandemic reaching American shores as early as late January, but the former president failed to heed the warnings.

On February 25, just weeks before much of the country was forced to shut down because of the pandemic, Trump declared the virus ‘very well under control in our country’. 

Critics said the valuable time that was lost could have been used to ramp up testing as well as provide medical professionals adequate supplies of personal protective equipment in order to better deal with the pandemic.

In fact, US officials recommended against widespread mask wearing until April in part because of a shortage of protective masks required by front-line medical workers. 

Trump has also been criticized for mixed messaging – touting social distancing and preventative measures on the one hand but then urging his supporters to ‘liberate’ states through mass demonstrations on the other, and rarely wearing a face mask.

The then president also made comments that prompted mockery and scorn from the public, including his suggestion that cleaning disinfectants could be ingested into the body in order  treat the virus.   

This post was first published on DailyMail.

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