Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf speaks at the Washington Homeland Security Roundtable on Dec. 4, 2019. (DHS photo by Tara A. Molle)

DHS ‘Very Comfortable’ with Its Coronavirus Measures, Wolf Says, While U.S. Cases Increase

The number of coronavirus cases not linked to travel or another person who had traveled to China continued to grow days after the current head of the Department of Homeland Security sought to assure concerned lawmakers that the government is prepared.

Local health officials reported positive test results on a woman from Solano County, Calif., and another woman in Santa Clara County, Calif. In Oregon, a person who worked at Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego tested positive for the illness. “At this point it appears that this person likely only had close contact with a few individuals; they will be asked to stay home from work or school for two weeks,” Lake Oswego Superintendent Lorna de la Cruz said in an email to the community. The school will be closed through March 4 for deep cleaning.

Washington state reported late Friday a case in a King County woman who had recently traveled to South Korea, and another case with no known source of transmission: a Snohomish County student who attends Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek. He is doing well under quarantine at home, officials said.

“It’s possible this could be the first instance of community spread – meaning the illness was acquired through an unknown exposure in the community. It’s also possible, however, that a thorough investigation may show that the patient had exposure through contact to a returned traveler who was infected,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, told reporters in regards to the Solano County case. A CDC team is investigating along with the California Department of Health.

“We are working as quickly as we can to get CDC test kits to state and local public health authorities. However, during any infectious disease response there is a great need for test manufacturers to rapidly make testing available in clinics, in hospitals, and at the bedside,” she told reporters Friday.

Testifying Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security about the president’s budget request, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the department has been “working hand-in-hand every day” with the Health and Human Services task force and said “we feel like… the threat right now remains low.”

“We are taking in the direction from the medical professionals at HHS. As they lay out a medical strategy to deal with the coronavirus, we are implementing measures to support that,” he said. “So particularly in the airport environment, the seaport environment, as well as land ports of entry we’re making sure that the measures we put in place, the medical screening that we put in place, are there for the protection of the American people. And that’s really what the president has asked us to lean into.”

“As we talk to CDC and others, I think they continue to expect the number of cases in the U.S. to increase… the department feels very comfortable in the measures that we’ve put in place.”

Pressed on whether DHS has the resources needed to confront a pandemic, Wolf replied, “We do. So we continue to look at that on a very close basis. We report every week to OMB on those resources. Right now we have them within our existing budget.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked if DHS could supply face masks “for the entire American public.”

“No. I would say probably not,” Wolf said.

“OK. How short are we?” Kennedy asked.

“I don’t have that number offhand, Senator,” Wolf replied. “I will get that for you.”

“You’re supposed to keep us safe and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy shot back.

Wolf disagreed, saying that “the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security in doing their job every single day” are keeping the country safe.

“We provide a number of resources to CBP officers as well as TSA officers to make sure that they are aware of the risk, that they understand the medical science behind it,” he said. “…Any briefing, any discussion about coronavirus, how the department is responding, my first or second question is always about the men and women of the department, how are they protected in doing their job every day. As you show up to work every day, you expect to be protected, and we need to make sure that we do that for our employees.”

On Wednesday at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Wolf said that a “whole of government approach” is being used and DHS would “adjust our operations accordingly.”

“Specifically, the department was involved early on in the funneling of all flights from China to 11 different airports. We were involved in standing up medical contracts through our CWMD office at those 11 airports. So, individuals that come off of those aircraft first will see a CBP officer, just a normal immigration officer. They will then go to contact medical screening, again, that the department has set up in those 11 airports, and then, if necessary, will be referred to CDC medical professionals to determine if the quarantine is needed or not,” he said.

“So, we do that at airports. We also do this at land ports of entry. We also do this at maritime ports of entry. So, we have a number of cargo ships arriving every day from China carrying goods, but also have crew that have perhaps visited affected areas as well. And so, we have Coast Guard involved. We have CBP involved. It is a whole of departmental effort to make sure that we are instituting the measures that the president has put in place, to include the travel restrictions to make sure, again, that the American public is safe and secure.”

Wolf reiterated that one of his “primary concerns” is protecting DHS employees with the virus.

“As of right now, they have all the equipment that they need … but also we are providing them a lot of training and a lot of medical information from the CDC on what we know about the virus to date. Some best practices on what we know about other coronaviruses that are similar. So we continue to do that; again, as the medical strategy from CDC or HHS changes we may have to change what we are doing with our officers,” he said. “But as of today, we feel very confident in the measures that we have put in place again from a variety of different perspectives including the protective wear, gloves and masks and things like that. So we’ll continue to do more if the virus and if our strategy demands that we do more.”

“I will say that the department continues to spend funding that we didn’t perhaps allocate for this virus and we’ll do that — right now we have the money that we need. We may be moving money around within this fiscal year and then we have to see depending on how long this proceeds and where we go.”

The American Federation of Government Employees filed a complaint Friday alleging that DHS employee who works for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Newark had returned from travel to China but was told by her supervisor to report to work in violation of the 14-day quarantine. Ward Morrow, an attorney for the union, said the woman told co-workers that she was “self-quarantining” by sitting on a different end of the room during a meeting, alarming other staffers who reported the incident to the union.

COVID-19: What You Need to Know About the Global Coronavirus Outbreak

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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