Special Briefing April 1 – Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad

Briefing With Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services; Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Special Coordinator, Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit (CGRCU); And Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee, Bureau of Consular Affairs On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad

Special Briefing

Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services

Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Special Coordinator, Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit (CGRCU)

Ian G. Brownlee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Consular Affairs

Via Teleconference
April 1, 2020


MS ORTAGUS: Okay, fantastic. Well, it’s 1:01, so let’s get started. Just reminding everybody, please, to keep this call embargoed until the end of the call. As always, we’re happy to provide the latest available information related to the Department of State’s unprecedented and historic effort to bring Americans home from all over the world during the ongoing global COVID pandemic.

To help us do that, we have three briefers joining us for today’s on-the-record call. Many of you already know them. Ian Brownlee, our principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs; Dr. William Walters, executive director, managing director for operational medicine in our Bureau of Medical Services; and of course, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, who leads – who heads up the State Department’s Coronavirus Global Resource [1] Coordination Unit.

PDAS Brownlee will be able to speak about the ongoing effort to repatriate American citizens. Dr. Walters will be able to give you the latest information on the impact of COVID-19 on the health of the State Department workforce. And finally, well, Dr. Rosenfarb can speak more broadly about the impact of COVID-19 on the department. Dr. Walters will begin with some opening remarks and turn it over to Dr. Rosenfarb. Following that, PDAS Brownlee will give the latest repatriation figures. Then we’ll take a few questions.

A reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. And we don’t have our normal AT&T line today, so we are back to, apologies, you have to text Ruben on his cell. Ruben, go ahead and give out that number just to make sure everyone has it.

MR HARUTUNIAN: (Number withheld.) Thanks.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Ruben. So please text him if you’d like to ask a question and go ahead and get in the queue now.

Okay. Doc Walters.

MR WALTERS: So thanks again for the opportunity to provide the latest statistics and interventions that the State Department is taking to protect our workforce both domestically and overseas. Currently, we’re tracking a hundred cases in our overseas population and —

MS ORTAGUS: Hi, I’m sorry. Can I just ask everybody to please mute yourselves? It’s really important. We have some background noise. Please, everyone mute yourself. Hi, whoever just dialed in, please mute yourself.

Go ahead, Doc Walters. I’m sorry.

MR WALTERS: No sweat. So a hundred cases overseas in a very large workforce. The non-pharmaceutical interventions that were applying overseas have been very effective, both in protecting our workforce and in keeping our embassy platforms open and functioning, delivering on the Secretary’s promise of diplomacy. And then 36 cases domestically in roughly nine cities – again, single or double cases in most cities with no evidence of ongoing sort of employee-to-employee transmission. Again, the State Department’s been very aggressive in implementing telework policies and in developing both the business practices and the technology necessary to continue vital functions while protecting our workforce. That’s all I have.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Dr. Rosenfarb.

MR ROSENFARB: Just to piggyback onto something Dr. Walters just said, as we’ve said many times, promoting the health and safety of American citizens overseas has been our primary responsibility and priority, and that includes our diplomats and their family members posted at missions around the world.

We have been – to address the latter, besides the medical program that Dr. Walters spoke of, we have used authorized departures to ordered departures to help keep American diplomats and their family members out of harm’s way if necessary. We have done about – we’ve evacuated about six – almost 6,000 American diplomats and family members since the beginning of this back in January, mainly from China initially and then from other locations around the world. Back on – it was February 15th – March 15th, I’m sorry, we initiated an unprecedented type of authorized departure, a global authorized departure for any employee or family member who was in a vulnerable category for high-risk complications from COVID. Most of the – about two-thirds of the folks who evacuated from our missions fall into that category.

We have about 24 posts currently on either authorized or ordered departure. And a lot of those departures are not based on risks from – direct risks from COVID, but more of the consequences of the pandemic, how it affected the ability to transit or leave the country because of travel restrictions, breakdowns or inadequacies of local health infrastructure, et cetera. So we continue to track it real well, very closely.

In terms of telework, we’ve followed OMB directives on telework, but even before those directives were issued, we were very forward-leaning. We encouraged posts to start experimenting with telework, domestically experiment with telework, to make sure that we protected our employees to the greatest extent possible, and that they would be ready for a time where we would have to really invoke more telework for our employees and buildings.

Currently at the start of the week we had about 80 percent of people who were domestically employed on telework. That was before the situation happened locally where Virginia, Maryland, D.C. has enforced shelter-in-place restrictions. I suspect that that percentage will go up and should go up. We want as few people coming to the office as possible just to maintain mission-critical needs.

And I’ll leave it at that and take your questions. Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Let’s go ahead and go over to Ian Brownlee, PDAS.

MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, good afternoon, everyone. It’s nice to speak with all of you again as we continue our repatriation efforts. I’m sure you heard Secretary Pompeo speak yesterday morning and highlight some of the excellent efforts of our consular officers and other staff around the world who are working in unique and challenging conditions to bring Americans home.

First, let me update the numbers. We have now repatriated over 30,000 U.S. citizens from over 60 countries on more than 350 flights. There are more than 80 flights scheduled or in the planning stages from various locations. We are seeing the greatest demand for repatriation assistance from U.S. citizens in South Asia and Central and South America, though there is still demand to assist U.S. citizens in returning home from across the globe.

The Department of State is making every effort to assist U.S. citizens overseas who wish to return to the United States. But as the COVID-19 situation develops, our ability to provide such assistance, whether working with commercial airlines or arranging for evacuation flights, may become more limited or even unavailable.

I really want to encourage you to stress this to your audiences: If U.S. citizens wish to return to the United States, they should make arrangements to do so now, and contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance as needed now. There’s no guarantee the Department of State will be able to continue to provide repatriation assistance, and transportation options from many countries to the United States may become unavailable in the future, even in a few weeks’ time. Those who choose to remain overseas should be prepared to remain there for the foreseeable future.

If you were on the beach when an earthquake struck, you wouldn’t just stand there waiting for the coming tsunami. You would head for higher ground immediately. Well, in this case, the earthquake has happened. It’s time to seek higher ground now, and not hope for rescue later.

It bears repeating that the Department of State currently has a Global 4 Health Advisory, and repatriation efforts aside, we want to remind U.S. citizens – including those who live abroad – to avoid initiating any new international travel at this time. Many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little or no advance notice. Choosing to travel internationally at this time may result in travel plans being severely disrupted. You may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite time.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Ruben, I’m going to let you lead the Q&A.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Thanks very much. First question is from Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Hello there. Good afternoon. I just have a very brief question. I’m just wondering if the – for Dr. Walters: Is the death toll still at only two locally employed staff, the ones from Kinshasa and Jakarta?

MR WALTERS: So – Dr. Walters – we are tracking and still aware of only two deaths amongst locally employed staff members worldwide. I believe I put out yesterday three. The third case was evaluated and found to be of other causes and not related to coronavirus.


MR HARUTUNIAN: Thank you. Second question is from Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I had a question for Dr. Rosenfarb on the State Department. As far as I understand, individual bureaus had been given the discretion to determine their telework procedures early on. Can you talk about whether State has now implemented a uniform telework process or policy and how you’re handling State Department employees’ need to access classified information? Are they able to do that without coming into the office? Are there systems in place to do that or do they need to come into the office to do that? Thanks.

MR ROSENFARB: Hi. Thank you. We continue to follow OMB guidance. But as I said from the very beginning, our stance was we wanted to encourage maximum telework flexibility. Now, the situation the way it is, we are re-encouraging that. We’ve asked bureaus to ensure that only folks who are really mission-critical, who have an absolute need to be in the office to accomplish a function, that they should be in the office. Those who are telework-ready or telework-eligible are encouraged to work from home. The classified information issue is a tough one, and frankly, there are situations where the only ability to access classified information is to come into the office, though we expect those instances to be limited and when people do come into the office, we ask them to exercise good social distancing as CDC recommends. There are a limited number of classified units that are available for the senior-level people, but for most working-level people, it would – it might involve a trip to the office. Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Thank you. Next question is from Carol Morello.


MR HARUTUNIAN: Carol, you’re on mute.

QUESTION: Can you hear me? Hello?

MS ORTAGUS: We can hear you now.

QUESTION: Okay, great. Thank you. I was wondering if you are aware of the – or if there are any countries that are about to cut off permissions for special charter flights or either have in the last day or so or are about to? And I was wondering if you’ve noticed any issue with student exchange programs telling students to shelter in place in the countries where they are? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, Ian Brownlee here. We have run into some complications with regard to our efforts in Africa because of the closures in airspaces there. I’m not aware of any looming closures, but as we’ve been saying for some time now, many of these sovereign decisions by these governments have happened with little or no notice. And I do – I’m sorry, I do not have any information for you with regard to the student exchange programs. Over.

MR WALTERS: This is —

MS ORTAGUS: We can – yeah, go ahead.

MR WALTERS: If I could add on to that. This is Dr. Walters. So we’re running a piece of the aviation repatriation mission out of the Bureau of Medical Services, and I’ll tell you the difficulties that we’re seeing in Africa, and now moving to other areas, are not to be under estimated. Of the, I think, 57 international airports on the continent, over 30 of them are either at restricted or no operations, and every repatriation flight is being negotiated by the country team on the ground on a case-by-case, flight-by-flight basis in a great number of the countries involved.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question is from Robbie Gramer.

QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, we can hear you.

MR HARUTUNIAN: We can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Thanks for doing this. With the number of State employees who’ve contracted the virus rising both domestically and abroad, can you tell us what the process is for informing State Department employees of new cases internally? Is there a standardized process? Is it sent out to State Department-wide or embassy-wide, or it done in a more ad hoc, case-by-case, office-by-office basis? Thank you.

MR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters. Each case is brought to the attention of a 24-hour task force within the Bureau of Medical Services where we work with the local health department, whether it’s DC Public Health or one of the country public health departments in Maryland or Virginia, to assist in every way in contact tracing. Every effort is taken to protect the privacy of the infected individual while getting the information out to coworkers that would be required for them to take appropriate action.

State is working with our colleagues in the Office of the Legal Adviser to get that information out both to coworkers and to supervisors, and we’re acting very aggressively at the sort of impacted workspace and building level to make sure that appropriate cleaning and disinfection takes place before people go back to work. But as far as dissemination, we’re not – we’re not disseminating daily statistics or building statistics or bureau statistics. We’re handling it at a building-by-building, space-by-space, limited distribution.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Thank you. Nike Ching is next.

QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to ask a question on the global coordination, if I may. Can we get confirmation that the COVID task force has suspended some U.S. COVID foreign aid, and is the administration placing a suspension on overseas shipments of PPE and asking that the equipment be sent to the United States? Thank you.


MR BROWNLEE: Sorry. So I think this question – sorry, go ahead.

MODERATOR: No, you —

MR ROSENFARB: No, Ian, I didn’t quite fully get the whole question. Is it a question about whether the U.S. Government suspended foreign aid in the terms of PPE?

QUESTION: The PPE equipment shipments overseas, and directing that those be sent to the United States.

MR ROSENFARB: Okay. Well, I can talk about a couple – a couple issues with this. So from the beginning, we – we’ve been tracking both requests from overseas governments for assistance from the U.S. for aid, and we’ve worked with USAID to help support filling those requests, and I don’t have the exact numbers and I think the Secretary this morning talked about that we’ve given to – up to $274 million worth of aid to 64 countries. Additionally, we’ve provided aid in the sense that CDC experts have assisted, FDA has established an international conference to build – to help build the vaccine.

In terms of shipping things, in terms of PPE, there are no restrictions I know of at the moment that say we are not restricting the export of PPE from the U.S. to overseas locations. Is – does that answer your question?

QUESTION: Actually, I would like to know – so is there any veracity to media reports that the U.S. has suspended some U.S. COVID foreign aid? And if you can’t answer that, could you talk about —

MS ORTAGUS: I think – hey, Nike, I’m sorry. I don’t – I don’t think we – we should have someone from F or USAID on the phone to answer that directly. So we’ll get back to you as a taken question on that. Thank you.

Go ahead, Ruben. Next question.

MR HARUTUNIAN: The next question is from Jessica Donati.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I was wondering if you could provide a bit more detail about the 6,000 diplomats and family members that have returned home, perhaps by region, and also give us a sense of what proportion of the workforce is still overseas.

MR ROSENFARB: Yes. We’ve done evacuations from all regions. I think the highest number has been from EUR, the European region. I don’t have the exact percentages but like I said, they’ve come from all over. The – I don’t have the numbers in front of me by percentage-wise. We are able to maintain our (inaudible) – maintaining operations overseas, and each of our embassies or missions have been able to maintain essential operations. To date, only two posts have fully closed. One is Vladivostok, with all services and personnel transferred to Moscow, and the other closure was – I just lost it – it was —


MR ROSENFARB: — Bangui. Wuhan, I’m sorry, Wuhan. Thank you very much. I should have known from the very beginning. So we have – we’ve been able to maintain our workforce overseas to fulfill all our functions.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, next question is from Lalit, Press Trust of India.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I have two questions, basically. I would like to know the status of repatriation of U.S. nationals from India. How many have been repatriated so far and how many are still left?

And my second question is about the concerns among Indian students who are on a student visa and they feel stranded here, and they have concerns also about their visa status if the university closes for – goes on for long time and the online courses also continues for a year long. So what happens to the visa status in that case? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Lalit. I think – Ian Brownlee here – I think I can address both of those questions.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: We began our repatriation efforts from India yesterday with a flight that brought in some 170-some U.S. citizens. We will begin a steadier flow of flights out of New Delhi and Mumbai in the coming days, really beginning toward the end of this week and into the weekend. I’m reluctant to get into specific numbers because these remain highly dynamic, but I will say that it is in the multiple thousands who are – who have indicated a possible interest in being repatriated to the United States.

I’ll note one thing, that in some other countries we have found that people have come forward, identified themselves as being interested in seeking repatriation assistance, but at the – when the time came to be put on a manifest and put on an airplane, they indicated then that they would stay where they were and ride out the crisis in the country where they were.

With regard to the student visas, these are really questions better addressed to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once a student enters the United States, their status is governed by – is regulated by USCIS and not by the Department of State. Over.


QUESTION: Yeah. Can I follow up with one small question?


MS ORTAGUS: Hey, somebody is – somebody needs to mute themselves.

Go ahead. You can do one quick follow-up.

QUESTION: Yeah. Has the Indian Government given you any deadline that that’s the last day of flights, outgoing flights from India?

MR BROWNLEE: We have found the Government of India has been very cooperative and very helpful with us in arranging these repatriation flights. We are thankful to them for their assistance and their support as we undertake this important mission. Over.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thanks.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Jennifer Hansler with the next question, please.

MR ROSENFARB: Ruben, Dr. Rosenfarb.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you.

MR ROSENFARB: Can I just go back one second to the question about sort of how many folks are overseas, just a perspective? So generally, as the – the medical program which I used to direct, we take care of 75,000 people under chief of mission authority. That includes diplomats, their family members, other agencies’ employees overseas. So as a perspective – comparison – in terms of about 6,000 evacuees, we take care of 75,000 people overseas. Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Jennifer, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Do you have an updated number on the number of folks overseas you’re tracking who may need assistance? And then for the folks in Peru in that hostel, is there any update on that situation? Our understanding is some have been able to leave, some may have even made it to the airport. What’s the situation there?

And then lastly, is there any sort of tracking of people who come back on these flights and they later develop symptoms or test positive for COVID? Are they being asked to report that back to State? Any contact tracing there? Thank you.


MR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters. I can address the last part of the question. I think the first part would actually be to PDAS Brownlee. For folks who’ve come back to the United States on a repatriation flight and who later go on to develop illness, whether – it’ll always be a question whether they contracted the illness where they came from or they contracted the illness in the United States. The fact of the matter is they’re here. We’ve got a great public health and curative medical infrastructure. They plug in like every other American does to the public health system at the state and local level and we don’t have visibility on it at that point.

MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry, mute is on. With regard to the folks in the hostel – hostels – in Peru, our team on the ground, including the senior diplomat from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, who’s down there assisting with the efforts – we’re working very closely with the central government in Peru, health authorities at both the provincial and the municipal level to seek to move those people out. I can’t go into specific cases for privacy reasons, but we’ve had some success and we’re looking forward to future success.

Excuse me. You asked for the total number of folks still seeking repatriation. We are tracking at the moment 24,000-some – approximately 24,000 people who have indicated that they may seek repatriation, and again, I emphasize that word “may” because as I’ve said several times, sometimes people get to the front of the queue and then say, “No thank you, I’m going to stay here.” But somewhere in that range, 24,000. Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Lara Jakes with the next question, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is for Ian. I was really struck by your opening comments comparing the situation to an earthquake and urging people to come back now, to take it seriously. Are you finding that Americans abroad are not taking this threat seriously or are delaying coming back? And also I’m sure you’ve heard some of the criticism that the United States is moving a little slower than some of the other countries, especially in Europe, to repatriate some of their citizens, and I’m wondering if you can expand a little bit on why that might be. You’ve indicated some problems with host nations. I’m wondering if airlines are reluctant to bring back Americans for the cost that it incurs to them, or if there are other issues that we are not aware of. Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Thanks very much, Lara. Yes, in fact, we are finding people who – we get in touch with them at countries around the world, and they say, “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see. Doesn’t look so bad now. We’ll be back in touch with you in a few weeks.” And so that’s why I think the tsunami analogy is a useful one. The earthquake has happened. This appears to be spreading everywhere, and so that’s why we’re emphasizing that point, that people need to make their own choices. They need to decide are they ready to ride this out where they are, and if that’s – if the answer to that question is yes, that’s fine. Ride it out where you are. If the answer to that question is I don’t know, come on in and talk to us and we’ll help you get home now, but we’re saying we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do this weeks from now. So yes – and I’m sorry, I’m drawing a blank on the second half of your question.

QUESTION: It had to do with why the United States has been criticized for being a little slower.

MR BROWNLEE: Oh, yes, yes. Well, I can’t comment too closely on what our fellow – what other countries have done with regard to bringing their citizens home. I will note that we have an extraordinarily large population overseas, somewhere in – at any given moment, close to 20 million – or at least prior to the crisis close to 20 million U.S. citizens who were overseas. A great many of them are in far-flung places – for example, India, where Lalit had asked about – and bringing those people home from India is going to require many wide-body flights to bring them home. I think some of these other countries, their expat populations are relatively close by. They could be brought home by land means and the populations who are far overseas were somewhat smaller.

So I think we have been extraordinarily successful. We’ve brought home over 31,000 people so far. I’m not very good at math, but that’s an awful lot of plane loads. We’ve flown 378 plane loads so far. I think we have been very, very successful, and we will continue this effort until we achieve complete success or until our options are cut off. Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Roz Jordan has the next question.

QUESTION: Hi, this question is for Ian. Thanks for doing the call. I wanted to follow up on the question about the people in the hostels in Peru. Are their flights scheduled in the next week or so? If so, how many flights are being scheduled? And given that all of these Americans are ostensibly in Peru at the Peruvian Government’s approval, is the U.S. helping them extend their visa so that they can stay in country until they decide to return to the U.S.? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: You’re very welcome. Yes, we have flights coming out of both Cuzco and Lima today. We are seeking permission for future flights. We have not reached the end of this effort with regard to Peru. We are looking at flights – I guess we’re going to pause things tomorrow. We will continue – we are looking to continue the 3rd through the 6th for flights coming out of Lima, continued flight out of Cuzco on the 3rd, so – what is that – Friday. So it is an ongoing effort there.

With regard to the estadia, the permission to stay in country, our consular officers and our mission in Lima are aware that some of these people are going to be compelled to stay beyond their original permission period, and we will provide all appropriate assistance to them in their interactions with the Government of Peru. Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN: The last question is to Abbie Williams.

QUESTION: Sorry, I – Lara pretty much asked my question, I admit. I just would add my voice to the request to have someone speak more about the PPE efforts from other countries. If anyone else has a question, go ahead.

MS ORTAGUS: Got it. Okay. I think – thanks, Abbie, appreciate it. We’ll get back to you on that, and I think that’s all we have in the queue for now, so thanks, everybody, for dialing in. We appreciate it and we will talk to you tomorrow.

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