MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone. The Department of State continues its unprecedented effort to bring Americans home from all corners of the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first priority remains the safety and well-being of American citizens.
To help give you a more granular sense of the mission, we have joining us for today’s on-the-record call Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee, as well as Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations in our Bureau of Medical Services. Dr. Walters will begin with some opening remarks and then turn it over to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee, and then we’ll take a few of your questions.
A reminder that this briefing is – the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.
Dr. Walters, please go ahead.
MR WALTERS: Thanks for the opportunity to once again address my colleagues from the press. The department continues to sustain and protect our overseas workforce in over 200 locations around the world. With a large employee footprint, nearly 75,000 employees, our current caseload overseas is only 75 cases – five hospitalized, all locally employed. Domestically we have 30 cases in nine cities. Most cities are single case or two cases. We do not have a documented case of employee-to-employee transmission. We’re watching very closely to that. We’ve been very aggressive in identifying cases early, decontaminating or disinfecting any impacted spaces and getting those spaces back into operation to support State Department functions on behalf of the American people.
With that, I’ll yield to PDAS Brownlee.
MR BROWNLEE: Thanks very much, Dr. Walters. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for once again joining us here.
Our repatriation flights continued through the weekend, and I am pleased to report that we have thus far brought home over 25,000 Americans from over 50 countries. We are tracking over 100 additional flights over the next week, and we have identified an additional 9,000 U.S. citizens who have indicated interest in those flights. There is still space for more on those flights, though.
I know I’ve said this several times already, but we do not know how long commercial flights will remain available, nor do we know how long the U.S. Government will be able to facilitate additional flights where commercial options no longer exist. It is therefore imperative that U.S. citizens make plans now to avail themselves of these options. We are seeing more U.S. citizens decide to stay abroad and ride out this crisis where they are. If people decide not to take advantage of these flights now, they will also need to hunker down where they are.
Regarding Peru, to date approximately 2,800 U.S. citizens have been brought home. Two flights will be departing today, one each from Lima and Cusco. Buses are bringing U.S. citizens from outlying regions Ica and Trujillo to Lima for the citizens’ return to the United States. Approximately 120 who are in Arequipa have already reached the United States.
We are also aware of cases in Peru in which U.S. citizens were placed under quarantine in facilities where they are staying. Quarantine measures due to the outbreak of COVID-19 are enforced by Peru’s ministry of health, and exceptions are not made for international tourists. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung and Charge d’Affaires Denison Offutt spoke with Peruvian Government officials at the highest level to address this issue. We are working to ensure that travelers placed under quarantine have access to appropriate food and healthy living conditions.
In the meantime, we remind all U.S. citizens to adhere to the Peruvian Government’s quarantine measures. We continue to see the demand for repatriation assistance from U.S. citizens in Central and South America, and now we are seeing growing interest from U.S. citizens wanting to return from Asia, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. We had our first flight – repatriation flight out of Bangladesh today and are coordinating with the Indian Government to begin flights there.
I know I keep repeating this message, but I want to emphasize once again how important it is for U.S. citizens to enroll at step.state.gov so we can continue to get them the latest information. Our travel.state.gov website and embassy websites have a wealth of information and the latest traveler and health – travel and health alerts. If somebody isn’t getting their STEP alerts for some reason, they should look at the relevant websites for the country where they are located. All the information is there.
Our consular officers at home and abroad are working around the clock to bring home as many Americans as possible. From Dhaka, Bangladesh to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, our teams are on the ground coordinating these trips home for U.S. citizens. I am proud to represent these public servants as they work nonstop to get our fellow U.S. citizens back home.
With that, I will await your questions. Thank you very much.
OPERATOR: And once again, ladies and gentlemen, it is 1 followed by 0 if you’d like to queue up here for a question. It looks like our first question comes from the line of Jennifer Hansler of CNN. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I was wondering if you could get into a bit more detail about what you are telling those stranded travelers at that hostel in Peru about their situation, what they should do. There’s been some reported cases of positive tests in that hostel, and we’ve heard some concerns about the safety of the situation.
And then separately, are you aware of any deaths among the State Department staff due to coronavirus? Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: With regard to the folks at the hostel, as I said, we are encouraging them to comply with the quarantine regulations. At the same time, we are actively working at the highest levels of the Peruvian Government to facilitate their move from that hostel to an area where we can bring them home again. In the meantime, we are encouraging the local health authorities to ensure that they are cared for well, that they are given sufficient food, and that any health needs they might have are met.
And I will turn it over to Dr. Walters for the other question about deaths.
MR WALTERS: So the department is aware of two locally employed staff – I don’t have locations and wouldn’t be able to provide further details – that have died overseas in their own country related to coronavirus. I don’t have any further details that I can pass on. There have been no deaths domestically or with any U.S. direct hires.
MR BROWN: Okay. Can we go to the line of Nick Wadhams for the next question?
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I just wanted to check with you guys to get a little bit of context. The Europe restrictions by the Trump administration were put in place around March 11th or so, but the State Department Task Force on Repatriating Americans was not actually instituted until March 19th. In the calls that we’ve had so far, I haven’t really heard an explanation for why there was such a lag by the department to set up this task force. Was it a sense that there was not really a belief that there was going to be a flood of Americans? I mean, I know some of these airport closures happened quite suddenly, as you’ve mentioned before, but that seems sort of like a somewhat predictable response.
Can you give a little bit more context on why that took so long? Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Certainly. Ian Brownlee here. Yes, President Trump signed that 212(f) declaration with regard to the Schengen zone and followed up with regard to the UK before we set up a task force, but we have our Office of Overseas Citizens Services works at normal times round the clock to assist U.S. citizens seeking repatriation. The Office of Logistics Management in the Bureau of Administration is always available to assist with chartering aircraft to bring people home. So both of those offices, both of those bureaus and directorates, were already vigorously working this issue.
So for example, in the case of Morocco, we had flights – it seems like a long time ago now. We had, I think, brought 1,200 people out of Morocco. That was right at the time the task force was preparing to stand up. So that is a demonstration that even without the task force we were meeting the need to bring U.S. citizens home. Over.
MR WALTERS: Yeah, it’s Dr. Walters. I’d add to that the task force brought together a series of disparate operations under some great leadership, but remember when this outbreak started very early on, we were bringing American citizens out of Wuhan, we were bringing American citizens back from Yokohama. With every disaster, not just this one, the State Department has a mechanism that it follows for rescuing and evacuating American citizens. It’s just the scope of this – it kind of drove a deliberate super structure for it. There’s 57 international airports on the African continent. I would say almost all of them right now are closed. That’s unprecedented, and it’s not isolated to Africa. And so while we were keeping pace with the requirements, even when you look at China early on, the airports didn’t close. Like Wuhan closed down and Hubei closed down, but China, from an international air travel, continued on. They didn’t – that didn’t shut off completely, and so there were still mechanisms for American citizens to find their way home. But as this spread and, I would foreshadow, as this spreads into the Southern Hemisphere, the repatriation and evacuation of American citizens outside of what would normally be commercial air travel is going to continue to be a significant challenge.
MR BROWN: Sorry. For our next question, can we go to the line of Christina Ruffini?
QUESTION: Hi. Sorry, I couldn’t get my mute button off. I’m wondering if you guys can give us any kind of context as to the staffing at the embassies. I had heard from some folks in Central and South America who said that one of the problems is a lot of the staff themselves have gone home, so they’re trying to do this with minimal bodies not only in the office but working remotely as well. Can you give us any kind of numbers? Are they down by half? Are they down by a third? Does it depend on the region? Anything you can do to help out, that would be great. Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Some posts around the world are facing reduced staffs, but where needed, we are sending additional staff out to assist. So for example, in the case of Lima, we have – seven additional people have gone down there to help out. One is my counterpart from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, who is down there to assist with dealing with the high-level communications with the Government of Peru. We also sent down six consular officers to augment the staff in the consular section there. We’re going to have to get back to you with numbers around the world. It really is a post-by-post situation.
We have not found it necessary to send additional staff out to the other countries in Central America, where we’ve had such great demand in the past 10 days, nor in Ecuador. So I think that’s an indication that it’s very much a post-specific situation. Lima, yes, we did send additional staff. The other countries we did not. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, if we could go to Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Awesome. Wanted to focus to – my questions today on cases inside of State. It doesn’t look (inaudible) been updating, have updated in the last few days. So if you could just go over the number of positive cases pending tests both in the U.S. and overseas. And I want to specifically ask about the large number of overseas self-isolating. Just wanted to see whether that was indicative of any hot spots in any particular embassies or countries or any other context you can give on the fact that more than 1,700 are self-isolating. Thanks.
MR WALTERS: Yeah, your question broke up a little bit at the beginning, but from what I understand, I think you’re really just sort of digging into the statistics. Let me go over those that I have available for you now.
As stated earlier, positive cases domestically are 30 and 75. Important to remember that of the 75 overseas, 21 have recovered and we’re seeing that. We’re seeing people who had mild illness, were treated very well through the embassy health unit at home, and went on to recover and sort of return to the embassy community.
Yet we’re looking at persons under evaluation of 79 domestically and 488 overseas reflecting really two things: One, we have a much larger footprint globally than we have in the United States, because we are the lead federal foreign affairs agency. But second, we have a much lower threshold to sort of move someone out of the embassy community and into their home, in part because it is such a small community within those embassies that people are noticed right away and self-isolated right away to keep them away from or to socially distance them from what is otherwise a very small and sort of walled-in community. And so the threshold may be a little bit lower, even, and it’s not anything by policy, just by practice. Cases are recognized earlier, they’re isolated earlier, and with a much lower threshold to do so.
So we’re not seeing high numbers of cases. We’re not seeing a ton of Medevacs. I mean, we’ve done a total of two Medevacs, both with very mild symptoms, only 85 tests pending overseas. So what we’re doing seems to be working but we’re being very aggressive in self-isolation.
MR BROWN: Yeah, and we’ll update those statistics on the page this afternoon.
Okay, for the next question, can we go to Abbie Williams?
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. Given the developments that are coming forward and the fact that it seems like even those outside of the special risk categories are not entirely immune from danger, has there been any consideration of expanding the mission-wide authorized departure to go a little broader to outside of just diplomats at high risk? And what is the current number of U.S. missions on ordered or authorized departure? Thanks so much.
MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry, Ian Brownlee here. I am not aware of conversations about broadening the authorized or ordered departure list, and I am trying to find – and I may have to get back to you with that number, the number who are – the posts that are on authorized or ordered departure. I will have to take that question. I’m sorry.
MR WALTERS: Although what I would point out is the Secretary took sort of the unprecedented step of a global authorized for the most high-risk individuals. And so there – the safety of those Foreign Service officers at any post has been taken into consideration with the ability for either a no-cost curtailment or authorized departure no matter where they are, because what we recognize now that we didn’t recognize at the beginning of the outbreak because we didn’t have the epidemiology information from the Chinese from the early outbreak is that this is – this spreads very rapidly. And that’s – really there aren’t any posts that are immune to the spread of coronavirus.
MR BROWN: Okay. I think we have time for one more question, so if we could open the line of Deirdre Shesgreen from USA Today.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. You mentioned early on that you were paying for these repatriations through the K Fund. Can you say how much is – how much you’ve spent, how much is left, and any concern that you may run out of money? Any plans to go back to Congress to ask for more?
MR BROWNLEE: Ian Brownlee here. As to the specifics of that question, we’re going to have to get back to you. We don’t have anybody from the Office of Budget and Planning on this call.
I will say this: I’ve either been directly or participated in numerous call with both appropriators, authorizers, and other members of Congress over the last several weeks, and have found in every case a readiness to assist us in assisting our fellow U.S. citizens overseas in getting home. So at this point I’m not concerned about the K Fund running dry, but with regard to specifics, we’re going to have to get back to you with data coming from the Office of Budget and Planning. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thanks, everyone, for joining today. I know that our briefers have other commitments that they’ve got to break away for. Thanks for joining. As we’ve reached the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted on this on-the-record briefing. Thank you. Source: U.S . DEPARTMENT of State