Migrant child coronavirus outbreak: Whistleblowers say they were told to downplay infections at Fort Bliss

Whistleblowers allege extent of outbreak was kept under wraps

Two federal whistleblowers are alleging that Department of Health and Human Services instructed them to downplay a coronavirus outbreak amongst migrant children being housed at a facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, earlier this year, according to a complaint filed Wednesday. 

The complaint, which was sent to four Congressional committees and government watchdogs, was filed by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project on behalf of Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold – who they say are "career federal civil servants" and "whistleblowers" who "served as volunteer detailees at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site from April through June 2021." 

"COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions," the complaint says. "Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced." 

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The complaint added that "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 complaint also said "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." 

"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,’" it claimed. 

The manager at the Fort Bliss site reportedly "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," the complaint said. 

The Government Accountability Project says "Pearlstein was primarily assigned to work on two teams while at Fort Bliss: performing clinical assessments on the Clinical Assessment Team; and working with small groups and individual children on the Mental Health/Wellness team," while Reinhold "worked in the girls’ tent for the first half of her detail; and, during the second half, was on the Call Center Team, and worked in all tents." 

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A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, when contacted by Fox News for comment on the whistleblower's complaint, said Thursday that "the care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS.

"Currently, children at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children," the spokesperson added. "It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities."