USA News

Repatriation of Americans early in coronavirus pandemic put communities at risk, federal report finds

The U.S. government did a poor job repatriating about 1,100 U.S. citizens who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus abroad — including 195 Americans from Wuhan, China airlifted to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County in January 2020 — causing confusion and safety issues that put citizens, government workers and nearby communities at risk, a federal investigation has concluded.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office released Monday, April 19, said federal agencies involved in the repatriation efforts did not follow proper procedures and often did establish which agency was in charge, causing delays in quarantine orders and institution of safety protocols.

The report was critical of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for not coordinating with other federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

At times, each agency acted independently, instead of working together, the GAO report said.

The report cited as an example HHS personnel’s inconsistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“An HHS official also directed personnel to remove their PPE as it created ‘bad optics,’ ” according to an HHS report that examined the repatriation effort.

One of the reasons for the uncoordinated efforts cited in the report was a lack of planning. Though the HHS and other agencies practiced repatriation drills, no drills included the presence of a pandemic as part of moving American citizens from a foreign country.

“As a result, agencies lacked experience deploying together to test repatriation plans during a pandemic, which contributed to serious coordination issues,” the GAO report concluded.

In January and February 2020, the HHS and the U.S. State Department repatriated Americans from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. The efforts resulted in the quarantines of repatriates at five Department of Defense installations in an effort to stop the spread of the virus to others.

Problems began around Jan. 28, 2020, when the flight from Wuhan scheduled to land at Ontario International Airport was redirected at the last minute to March ARB. The decision was made by the CDC, after ONT and San Bernardino County Health Department officials set up cots 6 feet apart in an empty hangar.

Curt Hagman, First District Supervisor and chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, went on social media that night, explaining that the plans had changed. While agreeing that March ARB was the better choice for repatriation efforts, on Monday he remembered there was much confusion at the time.

“We got very little notice, first when they were coming to Ontario airport and less notice for March,” he said. “Obviously, the more communication the better. We were very limited on information.”

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, at the time had asked for an investigation, along with other local representatives. She criticized plans to put people from China who may have been exposed to coronavirus in a public airport, alongside air passengers and within the center of the airport’s robust logistics operations.

Although there’s no evidence any of those quarantined at March ARB were sick or had spread the virus, Torres in her early responses said she was never notified and only learned of the potential airlift to ONT and then the repatriation at March ARB from reading this news organization, while misinformation spread on social media.

“A flight was coming from ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak and there was no plan, no information on how our local residents would be kept safe,” Torres said Monday.

File source

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close