Two whistleblowers have accused members of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of directing them to minimize the size of a coronavirus outbreak among migrant children housed in detention facilities.
Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration, wrote in their complaint regarding the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site, near El Paso, Texas, between April and June of this year, “COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions. Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced. Every effort was made to downplay the degree of COVID infection at the site, and the size of the outbreak was deliberately kept under wraps.”
The complaint continues, “At a ‘town hall’ meeting with detailees, a senior U.S. Public Health Service manager was asked and refused to say how many were infected because ‘if that graph [of infections] is going to The Washington Post every day, it’s the only thing we’ll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we’re about reality, not perception.’ All the manager would acknowledge is that several children had to be hospitalized. The manager also dismissed a detailee’s concern that the children in the COVID tents were wearing basic disposable masks instead of N95 masks. The manager said N95 masks were unnecessary for the infected – even though uninfected detailees were working with the infected children.”
“Federal detailees witnessed significant waste, fraud and abuse,” the complaint alleges. “When they attempted to express their concerns to federal managers they were told — time and again — it was the contractors that were in charge and government employees needed to be responsive to the contractors’ needs. The contractors ignored or rejected most detailee concerns.”
“For example, the shortage of underwear and other clothing for children has been widely reported,” the complaint notes. “The problem persisted for weeks and months. Countless children reported these shortages to detailees. Boys said they had no underwear at all, while most simply had only one pair with nothing to change into. Detailees insisted that the children be supplied with underwear. Each time the answer was that shipments had not come in. Whenever detailees brought it up, they were told it was the contractor’s responsibility. Detailees, private contractors and managers were well aware of the problem.”
The complaint concludes:
Detailees were frequently reminded that everything at Fort Bliss was confidential. This ensured no effective oversight or accountability. Especially noteworthy was the fact that the identity of the federal contracting officer — responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts handed out to the private contractors — was never provided to the detailees (they repeatedly asked). Yet perversely, the detailees were also told that the contracting officer was the only federal employee authorized to bring any significant issues to any Fort Bliss private contractor.
In other words, other than the useless “Suggestion Box” (discussed at length in our July 7 letter), detailees had no internal recourse. Complementing the penchant for secrecy was management’s reflexive aversion to bad news. For example: Regularly, when detailees reached the end of their term, a sheet was passed around with detailed instructions from the HHS Public Affairs Office on how, when asked, to make everything sound positive about the Fort Bliss experience and to play down anything negative.
“The tents, officially referred to as Emergency Intake Shelters, were set up at Fort Bliss in El Paso in March to house unaccompanied migrants amid an influx arriving at the US-Mexico border. The only images of the tents that have been made public have come from two lawmakers who visited Fort Bliss to inspect the intake shelters in the spring,” The Daily Mail noted.
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