Federal officials at a facility housing migrant children at Fort Bliss in Texas made “every effort” to keep the extent of a COVID-19 outbreak under wraps, with one allegedly saying “politics will take over” if the word got out, volunteers claim.
The allegations were made in a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project on behalf of Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, who are described as “career federal civil servants” who volunteered at the Fort Bliss facility between April and June of this year.
“COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees,” reads the complaint, which was initially obtained by Fox News. “Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions. Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced.”
The complaint goes onto allege that a senior official with the US Public Health Service, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), refused to say how many detainees were infected, allegedly telling volunteers at a “town hall” meeting: “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.”
The official did admit that “several children had to be hospitalized,” but did not provide further information.
The complaint also alleges “significant waste, fraud and abuse” at the facility, with federal officials essentially handing over operational control to private contractors from , who “ignored or rejected” volunteers’ concerns.
Those concerns included shortages of underwear, shoes and socks. When Pearlstein suggested buying needed supplies at stores in nearby El Paso, he was told by a federal manager, “I don’t have time for this s–t.” In the end, the whistleblowers say, they spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on “books, visual aids, games, and other items.”
The whistleblowers further allege that construction workers “lewdly and loudly gawked at girls as they walked outside to the meal tent” and that managers “resisted” hearing complaints about such behavior.
In addition, the complaint claims that volunteers were apparently assigned to perform duties on a first-come, first-served basis, with no regard for their skills. In one instance, a Spanish speaking volunteer who was a licensed social worker spent weeks as an observer before being allowed to counsel struggling children.
The whistleblowers go on to describe children experiencing “depression and depressive episodes,” including suicidal thoughts, and alleging that their requests for counseling were “ignored or denied”.
“[I]n one case, a clinician’s primary response to a boy – who had complained of feeling very depressed and sad – was to tell him that he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given,” the complaint states.
Despite the chaos, volunteers were allegedly told to put a happy face on their experience at Fort Bliss. At the end of their time, the complaint alleges, volunteers would receive a sheet 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 was filed to four congressional committees, the HHS inspector general’s office and the Office of Special Counsel.
In a statement to CNN, a HHS spokesperson said: “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. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”
Lawmakers have expressed concerns that the surge of migration at the southern border is contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the US. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that more than 7,500 new coronavirus cases had been reported in government detention centers between April and the end of June.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed to Fox News last week that 30 percent of detainees have refused a coronavirus vaccine when offered.