Congresswoman Norma J. Torres (CA-35) today requested investigations into the federal planning, coordination and communication for a chartered flight carrying approximately 200 Americans from Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak – to California. The Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were both involved in coordinating the repatriation flight, which was initially planned to arrive at Ontario International Airport (ONT) but was diverted at the last minute to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.
In two separate letters, one to the Inspector Generals for State and HHS – the offices charged with overseeing each respective agency – and one to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congresswoman Torres requests investigations that thoroughly explore interagency coordination, communication with Congress, coordination with state and local officials, communication with the public, screening and quarantine protocol, and the last minute destination change.
Rep. Torres released the following statement:
“For two days, the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services left Inland Empire residents alarmed about the risks posed by potential coronavirus patients being flown into a public space at the heart of our community, and confused by the utter lack of a coherent plan to keep anyone safe,” Rep. Torres said. “ONT was up to this task immediately, but that does not excuse the dismal lack of communication by the federal government.
“What little information we had was often contradictory and came from anonymously-sourced public reporting or social media feeds,” Torres continued. “It competed with conspiracy theories and predictably frantic online posts of misinformation as local residents scrambled to learn what little they could about the incoming flight.
“State and HHS are categorically responsible for this,” Torres added. “Set aside how ill-conceived a plan is to land a plane like this in a heavily populated area when there’s an airfield in the desert less than 30 miles away. Set aside the complete and utter lack of coordination with local, state and federal officials, or the fact that this region is the logistics hub for nearly every cargo shipment moving around the western United States. The gross incompetence on display here isn’t just unacceptable – it’s dangerous to the public, who expect to turn to government officials to keep them safe and informed.
“I’m requesting investigations into both of these agencies because their behavior this week leaves me no choice. This event appears to be ending in the best-case scenario – the passengers are safe and so is our community. But what is clear is there was no plan in place in the event of worst-case outcomes, and that is completely unacceptable. My constituents deserve better than to be whipped into a frenzy over impending health threats and then left to scramble for what little information seeped out of the cracks.”
Congresswoman Torres’ letter to the Inspector Generals is available here.
Congresswoman Torres’ letter to the Government Accountability Office is available here.