Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks with reporters about the coronavirus at the White House Friday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks with reporters about the coronavirus at the White House Friday. Evan Vucci / AP

White House Pledges to Protect Employees From Coronavirus, Let Experts Speak

The promise follows reports of federal officials facing gag orders and being improperly exposed to the virus.

After facing criticism for potentially exposing federal employees to the novel coronavirus and for gagging experts from speaking about it, the White House is now promising to protect its workers and allow them to discuss the issue with the public.

Vice President Mike Pence created a firestorm after he informed agency officials that all messaging related to the coronavirus must be filtered through his office, but a senior Trump administration official said on Friday that was only a temporary pause to ensure proper coordination. Pence’s policy led to some career experts canceling television appearances, though they have told lawmakers the administration is not silencing them. 

“We want open, clear, rapid, fast, transparent communication,” the senior administration official said, pointing to a Friday press briefing with White House officials and Health and Human Services Department Secretary Alex Azar, and other media events. “[Pence] is just trying to make sure they’re not unintentionally scaring the American public by having people on at every hour of every single cable network, and saying different things each hour.” 

The senior official added that not everyone in the administration has the same information, which could lead to individuals sounding unnecessary alarms. 

“All we are trying to do is to get everyone coordinated and move in the same direction,” the official said.   

Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, condemned the White House for imposing what he called a gag order on career workers. 

“We not only need an army of dedicated civil servants and contractors to respond to this potential pandemic, but we need an army of employees willing to exercise their rights to raise the alarm about gross mismanagement and dangers to public health so we have the information to contain the crisis,” Clark said on Friday. “Gag orders that attempt to chill employees from blowing the whistle and swift retaliation against those who dare to speak up will only exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the potential danger to public health and the economy.” 

Asked if the White House would allow career experts to speak publicly on novel coronavirus developments, the senior administration official responded by noting Pence this week tapped Debbie Brix, a State Department ambassador at large who coordinates U.S. global AIDS efforts, to serve as White House coronavirus response coordinator. 

“We just hired a career expert yesterday,” the official said. 

Eric Ueland, the White House legislative affairs director, said on Friday the White House has made experts available to members of Congress for briefings on response efforts every week Congress has been in session since the outbreak began. Those officials came from HHS, the departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, State and Defense, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Office of Management and Budget. The administration held a conference call with lawmaker offices Friday afternoon as part of its ongoing outreach. 

At the press briefing, Azar said HHS is taking seriously a whistleblower complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel that suggested department employees assisting with the repatriation of Americans from coronavirus hot spots were not provided with protective equipment or properly trained before coming in contact with quarantined individuals. The secretary added the most recent novel coronavirus diagnosis—the 15th in the United States not directly tied to a government repatriation—that occurred in close proximity to the Defense Department base at the center of the whistleblower complaint was most likely not related to HHS employee contact. Instead, he said, citing the timing of when the individual developed symptoms, it was more likely to be the first U.S. case of community transmission. 

Azar vowed to take appropriate action in connection to the whistleblower complaint and the potential exposure of department employees. 

“We are fully investigating the allegations in the complaint,” the HHS secretary said. “Interviewing, gathering data to get to the bottom to see if there is any validity to the allegations. We will take remedial measures if needed.”

Azar did not answer whether HHS has added any new guidelines to ensure employee safety, but said it is a priority. He added the component involved in the whistleblower complaint, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, is no longer engaged in the response effort. 

“Protecting our employees is of vital importance,” he said. “We insist on compliance with isolation and quarantine procedures, personal protection.”

Office of Management and Budget acting Director Russ Vought said at the briefing the administration has sufficient funding to handle its response efforts through March and into April. The administration is seeking $1.25 billion from Congress through September to bolster that work, as well as permission to transfer another $1.25 billion from existing funds. Lawmakers from both parties have called that request inadequate and said it will dangerously short other accounts, but Vought said on Friday the White House would be open to a higher number if Congress deems it necessary. 

“We need a supplemental, we need it soon,” Vought said. “There’s no doubt about that. But we haven’t run out of money. We’ve got some time and we think Congress is taking this very seriously.” 

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