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Two federal whistleblowers allege Dept HHS instructed them to downplay migrant coronavirus outbreak

Two whistleblowers have alleged the Department of Health and Human Services instructed them to downplay a coronavirus outbreak amongst migrant children that were held at a facility in Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas.

The outbreak is said to have occurred earlier this year in a complaint that was sent to four Congressional committees and government watchdogs on Wednesday.

The report details how COVID was widespread among children with 'hundreds of children contracting the disease in overcrowded conditions which eventually spread to many employees.'

Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced. 

Whistleblowers have alleged migrant children at the Fort Bliss facility near El Paso, Texas are receiving poor care and were told to downplay a coronavirus outbreak there. The picture was included in the whistleblower's report and used in a BBC News report in June

The whistleblowers are Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration

'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,' the report details, according to the whistleblowers Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration. 

The pair say describe 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.'

During a 'town hall' question and answer session, when a senior U.S. Public Health Service manager was asked about the virus, they refused to detail 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,' a manager is alleged to have said.

Hundreds of children are believed to have contracted the disease but the volunteer whistleblowers were allegedly told to keep the outbreak 'under wraps'

Several children had to be hospitalized, according to the facility. 

The whistleblowers 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. 

A manager justified such use as being 'unnecessary for the infected' despite uninfected staff working alongside the children. 

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, reports CNN. 

Other issues include a shortage of underwear and other clothes for the migrant children.  

In March, the Biden administration let a handful of photographers into its main border detention facility for migrant children in Donna, Texas. 800 miles from Fort Bliss (file photo)

More than 4,000 migrants, including children and families, were seen crammed into pods, with the facility running at 1,700 percent capacity . This picture was taken in Donna, Texas rather than Fort Bliss, some 800 miles away

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, 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.    

The tents, officially referred to as Emergency Intake Shelters, (pictured above) were set up at Fort Bliss in El Paso in March to cater for unaccompanied migrant children amid an influx of those arriving at the US-Mexico border

The Fort Bliss facility can house about 5,000 beds. Photo courtesy of CBS4

Pearlstein and Reinhold say 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 details 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. 

Monitored by a caretaker young unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, some 800 miles away from Fort Bliss (file photo)

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 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.' 

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.' 

There is believed to be space for up to 6,000 migrants at Fort Bliss after the US military built six tents that can each hold up to 1,000 people. 

Customs and Border Protection revealed that 188,829 migrants were stopped at the southwest border in June – a new 20-year high as the spike from March continues in an upward trajectory

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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Mexico. 

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