Two whistleblowers claim the Department of Health and Human Services instructed them to downplay a coronavirus outbreak among migrant children at a facility in Texas
This article features Government Accountability Project and our clients Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold and was originally published here.
Two whistleblowers have accused the US Department of Health and Human Services of directing them to downplay the severity of a coronavirus outbreak among migrant children at a federal facility in Texas.
Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration, detailed their allegations in a complaint sent to four Congressional committees and government watchdogs on Wednesday.
They said the outbreak erupted at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site, near El Paso, between April and June of this year.
The report describes how COVID-19 cases ran rampant with ‘hundreds of children contracting the disease in overcrowded conditions which eventually spread to many employees’.
‘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,’ Pearlstein and Reinhold wrote in the report.
Pearlstein and Reinhold described themselves as ‘career federal civil servants’ and ‘whistleblowers’ who ‘served as volunteer detailees at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site from April through June 2021.’
Their report details how there was concern for the children in the tents known to contain coronavirus who were wearing basic disposable masks instead of N95 masks.
‘Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced,’ it states.
A manager justified such use as being ‘unnecessary for the infected’ despite uninfected staff working alongside the children.
The report references a town hall question and answer session with detailees where a senior US Public Health Service manager, when asked about the virus, refused to disclose how many infections were present fearing the media would instead be focused on the facility and its outbreak.
‘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 manager is alleged to have said.
According to a recent court filing, there were 327 children in medical isolation who had tested positive for Covid-19 at Fort Bliss, as of July 12, CNN reported.
Several children had to be hospitalized, according to the facility.
Other issues include a shortage of underwear and other clothes for the migrant children.
Some boys said they had no underwear at all, while most simply had only one pair with nothing to change into.
When the whistleblowers informed those in charge, they were told each time that ‘shipments hadn’t come in’.
At one meeting, they claimed a manager told them: ‘We are aware there is a shortage of underwear, socks, and shoes, and management knows.’
The pair detailed how anxiety ran high among the children who ‘did not know what to expect next’ and they say they witnessed mismanagement by private contractors working at the facility.
Pearlstein and Reinhold said they personally spent ‘hundreds’ on books, games and other items for children in an attempt to improve conditions for them.
In one disturbing instance, construction workers are said to have ‘lewdly and loudly gawked at girls as they walked outside to the meal tent.’
The whistleblower were shocked at witnessing such acts of sexual harassment but upon attempting to report the incident, managers ‘resisted taking their complaints.’
In another case of bad management, 48 children who were told they were going home were waiting to get on a bus when they were instead pulled from the line and sent back to their tents.
The report describes how on several occasions, children who were already at the airport or even on planes were pulled from their flights to be told it was a mistake, to get off and returned to the facility.
The whistleblowers had to comfort the distressed children when they got back to Fort Bliss.
When volunteers came to the end of their term at the facility they were given 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 Government Accountability Project, an organization which serves to protect whistleblower, said: ‘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.’
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.’
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.
Joe Biden’s administration promised in March that migrant families won’t spend more than 72 hours in US facilities, but unaccompanied minors, on the other hand, shared declarations of months inside emergency shelters in deplorable conditions.
Several claim they have been at the shelters for 60 days or longer.
Most children in custody are from Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Children generally reported in their testimonials that they were only permitted outdoor recreation for ‘as little as one hour daily.’
They also reported little to no privacy, limited calls to family and extreme boredom to the point of sleeping during the day to pass the time.
On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the border crisis still ‘poses an ongoing and imminent threat of disaster for certain counties and agencies in the State of Texas.
‘The border crisis is prevailing, with thousands of migrants crossing into the U.S. every day by surrendering themselves to Border Patrol and claiming they are seeking asylum.’
The system has quickly become overwhelmed, with limited space to house the migrants and limited staff to process them.
To help these overwhelmed immigration agencies, several states have sent law enforcement and members of their National Guard to assist with the high traffic areas between the US and Mexico.