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US whistleblowers say HHS hides real COVID situation among migrant minors in Texas

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Young unaccompanied migrants ages 3 to 9 watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, US. (Via AP)

Two whistleblowers from the US Department of Health and Human Services have said agents there were instructed to conceal the actual scale of the coronavirus outbreak among unaccompanied immigrant children at a facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, at the beginning of this year.

According to an appeal, submitted Wednesday to four congressional committees and government watchdogs, the whistleblowers said the HHS Public Affairs Office would give them papers instructing them to "play down anything negative about the Fort Bliss " when asked. 

They pointed out that, "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 document reads "At a 'town hall' meeting with detailees, a senior US 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.'"

They said that, "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 whistleblowers, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, "served as volunteer detailees at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site from April through June 2021."

Numerous media reports said overcrowded migrant sites were violating coronavirus protocols, with many cases of sexual abuse having been revealed throughout the year amid a massive influx of unaccompanied minors at US border with Mexico.

The complaint reads, "COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions." 

US President Joe Biden is accused of inciting a chaotic migrant rush on the US border with Mexico after he vowed to unwind many of the immigration policies of his predecessor Donald Trump when he assumed office in January.

The Biden administration announced measures to halt the construction of Trump’s border wall and to allow asylum seekers to live in the US rather in Mexico until their claims are considered.

The administration, however, opened detention centers, used by Trump, to lock up refugee children — a move the Democrat had criticized as former president’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

The number of migrant children who arrived in US facilities has doubled over the past two months to 21,000, in comparison with 5,858 in January.

Border agencies are scrambling to house ever increasing groups of unaccompanied children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott raised concerns about the rising COVID cases among migrants in custody, where the number of unaccompanied children stands at around 15,000. 

Abbott said the "dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants who have made their way into our state."

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