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A confused federal effort to retrieve Americans overseas in the initial outbreak led to safety risks, a new report says.

  • April 19, 2021

The report built on previous reviews of the repatriation effort by health department lawyers and a whistle-blower complaint filed early last year. Last April, the department’s top lawyer concluded that federal health employees without adequate protective gear or training interacted with Americans quarantined at the base, validating the whistle-blower’s central complaint.

According to the G.A.O. report issued Monday, as the Administration for Children and Families, or A.C.F., began its role overseeing the repatriation of the evacuees, lawyers at H.H.S. determined that the flights from Wuhan, China, constituted an evacuation, not a repatriation, and therefore were the C.D.C.’s responsibility.

For that reason, A.C.F. officials said resources from the federal government’s repatriation program were not used. But the decision from H.H.S. lawyers was not communicated to the C.D.C., the report said, and G.A.O. investigators were not given an explanation of the distinction between a repatriation and evacuation.

A focus of the report is the federal government’s response at March Air Reserve Base, near Los Angeles, where the health agencies functioned independently and without coordination, the G.A.O. said. As the A.C.F. prepared for the evacuees in late January, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response was abruptly put in charge on the day they arrived.

A.S.P.R.’s Incident Management Team “was not mobilized until after the flight landed and did not deploy to the site until January 31,” the report said. That led to broad confusion about who was in charge, with A.S.P.R. officials believing they were only supporting other agencies there.

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