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US health workers exposed to virus without protective gear: reports

A plane carrying American passengers, who were released from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, arrives at Travis Air Force Base in California on February 16 (AFP Photo/Brittany Hosea-Small)

Washington (AFP) - Federal health employees were sent to interact with repatriated Americans quarantined for exposure to the novel coronavirus without wearing protective gear or receiving training, a whistleblower complaint cited by US media said Thursday.

The filing, which was seen by the Washington Post and New York Times, was submitted by a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who said she was improperly re-assigned after raising her concerns and threatened with being fired if she did not comply.

According to the two newspapers, the incidents were in relation to two California air force bases, Travis and March. More than a dozen workers were sent to each site.

Travis Air Force Base is in Solano County, where the first US patient for whom the source of new coronavirus infection could not be immediately identified is from.

That case appears to be the first of so-called "community spread," signaling a new phase in the battle against the virus in the US.

The complaint said the HHS staff were sent into quarantined areas in the two bases, including a hangar where the evacuees were being received.

At times, these teams worked alongside personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who wore "full gown, gloves and hazmat attire," the complaint said.

The Washington Post said the whistleblower had decades of field experience and received two department awards from health secretary Alex Azar last year.

The deployments took place in late January and early February, the newspaper said.

Afterwards, the workers returned to their normal duties, some taking commercial flights back to their offices around the country.

US President Donald Trump has downplayed the potential spread of the novel coronavirus in the country, a message seemingly at odds with senior public health officials who have urged Americans to prepare to cancel mass gatherings and work from home.

As of Wednesday, there are a total of 61 confirmed cases in the US, including 46 of which relate to people repatriated from abroad.