About 13,500 Americans are stranded abroad and have reached out to the State Department for help in returning to the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a senior State Department official said Monday.
A repatriation task force is “working around the clock” to help Americans get home, said the official, who was authorized to speak only on condition of anonymity.
Since the effort began, the State Department has repatriated 5,000 Americans from 17 countries and will bring home “thousands more in the coming days and weeks,” the official said.
“We’re hearing about people who are in very remote locations and very remote parts of the world. It’s complicated,” the senior State Department official said. “I’m hesitant to give a guarantee we can move every single person. We are moving very large numbers of people, and we will continue this effort.”
Below is a full rush transcript of the press Briefing With Senior State Department Officials On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global challenge, one that has affected a great number of Americans abroad. Here at the Department of State, we’re rising to meet that challenge. We’re working around the clock to bring U.S. citizens who are stranded overseas back home. Our consular officers posted overseas and our local – their local employee colleagues have been working night and day to help Americans get on flights. And, as just said, there’s a 24-7 task force here in Washington supporting that effort.
Though we stood up the task force last week, this was not our first effort to bring Americans home in response to this pandemic. We evacuated over 800 people from Wuhan and over 300 from the Diamond Princess in Japan. In date – in total to date, we have brought home more than 5,000 Americans from 17 countries, and we’re bringing home thousands more in the coming days and weeks. This is truly an unprecedented effort to bring Americans from every region of the world in these rapidly changing conditions on the ground.
We urge all Americans traveling overseas at any time, but particularly now, to enroll in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov. This is how embassies communicate important health and safety information to U.S. citizens in real time. If you are not involved – excuse me, enrolled – you may be missing the most up-to-date information from the embassy during this crisis.
And I would like to just relate a little bit of a brief exchange I had with one of our ambassadors just an hour ago in one of the regions that is not yet heavily affected by the crisis. The ambassador asked me what advice we should – he should be giving U.S. citizens, and I said you should do something along the lines of, “Consider whether you are ready to ride out an undetermined period of time where you are now, or do you want to go to the United States to wait out events? If it’s the latter, do so now,” and that last bit all caps.
That is our advice to people: Avail themselves of commercial opportunities probably still exist. Enroll in STEP so that if we have to help you get on subsequent flights or subsequent means of transportation, we can do so.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The bureau remains first and foremost focused on our 75,000-person workforce in over 220 locations around the world and is working very closely with our consular colleagues and folks at post to assist American citizens overseas, whether they are stranded and looking for a ride home or find themselves infected with coronavirus. We are part of a broader interagency effort, and any movement of American citizens or chief of mission personnel during a pandemic outbreak is complex and requires the partnership of HHS, DHS, and others, and I’ll leave it there pending your questions.
QUESTION: Do you have an updated total of the number of State Department employees who have tested positive? And when you say that thousands more Americans are coming home in the coming weeks, this – this is due to your efforts in – or organizing charter flights or get – and such or something – or they’re just coming back on their own?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So the domestic numbers are easier to quantify just based on communications with posts abroad. Obviously, this is a rapidly evolving situation, especially in the overseas environment. I can tell you we’re still at single digits here in the United States with cases – one each, two each, three each in Washington; Houston; Boston; New York; Quantico, Virginia; and Seattle. So the numbers themselves are – overseas are still double-digit. We’re looking at less than 30 scattered over 220 posts around the world, and it remains a challenge. Obviously, the – this type of outbreak, had we known earlier what the epidemiology was and had some of that data, perhaps we would have a better feel for how this was going to move across our overseas posts. But we are keeping pace with it. And again, the number at this point is less than 30. Over.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are encouraging people to, as I said at the top, to avail themselves of commercial means while they still exist. That is the case in a number of parts of the world, but that window is closing fast. So what we are doing after that is we are using a variety of different means. For example, out of Central America we had some U.S. military DOD craft, aircraft return who have carried some folks back on a space-available basis. So for example, out of Honduras I think the number was 90 sometime late last week or over the weekend. We’re also facilitating through the Economic Bureau, we’re helping private charters go into places. So some mission groups have asked for our help in getting the necessary permissions for their privately chartered aircraft to go in.
We are using in some cases – and I expect this will be happening in an expanded fashion as we go out from here – we’re using what’s called the K Fund. It’s a special fund authorized by Congress to allow us to meet unexpected emergencies. We have organized a number of flights already on the K Fund, K Fund charters, and there are going to be more of those starting today, in fact.
We’re tracking some 13,500 U.S. citizens abroad who are seeking assistance in being repatriated.
QUESTION: You mentioned there’s 13,500 Americans. Is that the estimated number of Americans stranded abroad? And do you have a breakdown of the numbers in different geographic areas? And finally, how many Americans have enrolled in STEP?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t have the exact numbers for you, but let me say this: We estimate there are some 10 million U.S. citizens living abroad. Mexico alone has a million to a million and a half U.S. citizens living there. But that is not the entire universe of people who would be seeking to return to the United States. A vast, vast majority of those people are resident in those countries; they’re at home in those countries. The people who are seeking our assistance at the moment are what we might consider the expats, or tourists who are overseas temporarily. They’re the ones whose homes are here in the United States, in other words trying to come home to ride out this crisis.
So we’re not looking at a total would-be evacuee population of 10-plus million. It’s much, much smaller than that. As I said, we have so far seen 13,500 or so thousand U.S. citizens who have requested some form of assistance and registered with us seeking some form of assistance in returning home.
QUESTION: Two things. First, for the Senior Official One, can you respond to Senator Menendez’s letter yesterday in which he calls for the administration to invoke authorities within the Civil Reserve Air Fleet readiness program to facilitate chartering these flights to get people back, and in which he also calls for the military or the Department of Defense to make military aircraft available.
And then secondly, for Senior Official Two, as I’m sure you’re aware, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Ambassador Marks self-quarantined on Thursday at least four days after she returned to South Africa from the United States after having spent time among other things on a U.S. Naval vessel. Why did she self-quarantine on Thursday? Was there something that happened between Monday and Thursday that caused her to do that, some kind of exposure? And if not, why didn’t she self-quarantine immediately upon return to South Africa? Or indeed, why did she return to South Africa in the first place if she had a potential exposure?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: With regard to MilAir, with regard to using those assets, we are in conversations with the Department of Defense through what is called the ExecSec – ExecSec process. They are one of the options that we might find ourselves calling on down the road. At the moment, though, we are finding that – excuse me – that laying on charters via the K Fund, via other mechanisms we have here in the State Department is an efficient way to do this.
As I said, we are also helping private carriers increase the number of flights they have. So, for example, going into Peru, our Economic Bureau is facilitating conversation amongst the U.S. Government agencies involved in providing this end of the regulatory approval while our embassy in Lima is working with the Peruvian authorities on getting the necessary regulatory approvals down there.
And so we’re able to increase the capacity that way. This is a – whole-of-government is a cliche.
QUESTION: What about the question that I had regarding Ambassador Marks and why she did not self-isolate prior to Thursday?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I can’t speak on an individual case, but I can give you from a policy perspective and sort of the way we’re addressing the disparate self-quarantine and isolation requirements in over 220 locations around the world. First, we’re not tracking any specific exposure to any specific individual at the ambassadorial level, but I can tell you when any traveler from the State Department returns to a host nation, we respect – to the extent that we can we respect their requirements. It’s the right thing to do, and I think we would expect their diplomats to do the same when they come to the United States.
QUESTION: When it comes to the number of State Department employees in consulates and embassies abroad, can you tell us how many authorized departures there have actually been so far, and have you developed any contingency plan for personnel if the situation worsens?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, and we have done so already in some places where air travel has become more complicated. When we do that, if we have to charter an aircraft to bring out what we call chief of mission personnel and there’s additional space available on those flights, we will make those additional seats available to private U.S. citizens seeking to depart those countries. So this is an ongoing dynamic situation as the virus spreads and more and more posts go on authorized or ordered departure, yes, we are taking account of this. We are bringing those officers back to the United States, and in a great many cases, certainly I know in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, we’re putting those people to work here assisting the task force, as we mentioned earlier, or otherwise assisting in dealing with this worldwide crisis.
QUESTION: Can you say how many K Fund charters there have been, and does that include the medical students stuck in Peru? I know there’s been a lot of claims that there is a flight ready to go pick them up and they’re waiting on getting some red tape cleared from the State Department.
And then what should we be telling people who are reaching out to us, quite frankly, stuck in other countries, and saying they’re not getting any response? Should they contact the embassy, contact the airline? And should we be telling them that they – there will be a way to get them home one way or another at some point, or can you not guarantee that for every country around the world at this point?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: With regard to the people in Peru, maybe I could ask you to elucidate a little bit on the question of red tape. I think I know what you’re referring to, but I want to make sure I’m responding to your question.
QUESTION: I believe at the university or a private company that says they have a plane that could go pick them up, and they’re saying that they are waiting and waiting to get the correct clearance and they’re waiting on the State Department. Is that something that’s being worked through?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know the particulars of the case, but this is what I referred to earlier. The State Department, the Economic Bureau here, is working, I mean, round the clock assisting with putting together the FAA, CBP, et cetera, TSA regulatory approvals on this end, and whatever the regulatory approvals are on the other end. We are – we in the State Department are facilitating the communications, so it might be that we haven’t fully achieved that yet. I have heard my colleagues in the Economic Bureau say that, at least at this end, the U.S. end, everybody is lashed up and ready to move very quickly and is moving quickly. In some cases, it’s at the other end. In this case, maybe in Peru we don’t yet necessarily have all the necessary Peruvian authorization.
We need to be aware of the fact that the Peruvian capacity for handling these flights is very limited. They’ve been – due to COVID infections in their civil airport in Lima, they’ve had to close that airport and they’re operating out of the military, the other side of the airport, which has much, much, much less in the way of capacity, so they are able to process far fewer flights through. I don’t know the particulars of this case, but that could explain it, that the Peruvians have not yet granted authority.
You asked about people who have not had contact with the department. I hope that they have enrolled in STEP, and I sincerely hope that they’ve heard back through what we call a MASCOT message. The messages get pushed out to STEP enrolees. As a test of the system, I enrolled myself in STEP last night saying I was in Peru and would be for the next 10 days, and I’ve already received two messages from the embassy. So if you’re hearing otherwise, it would be good to know.
QUESTION: Could you just sort of flesh this out what the message is to people overseas? Are you confident that there will be a way for everyone who wants to come home to come home at some point, or can you not make that promise quite yet?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are hearing about people who are in very remote locations in very remote parts of the world. It’s complicated. I mean, again, going back to the case of Peru, we are tracking a number of people who are in Iquitos. The only way in and out of Iquitos is by air. We are working with the Peruvians to try to get permission – and the Peruvians have shut down internal air travel. We’re trying to get permission to move those people by air to Lima so we can bring them out.
I’ve heard about individual people in remote areas in Peru, in Samoa, in Banda – in Aceh in Indonesia. So I am hesitant to give a guarantee we can move every single person. We are moving very large numbers of people and we will continue this effort.
MODERATOR TWO: To reiterate the point from the beginning of the call, this is an unprecedented effort. These are historic times, and the department is rising to the challenge. Safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is our first priority, and we will continue to work 24/7 on the task that we’ve been given for the American people.
QUESTION: I just wanted to clarify. You mentioned 5,000 people already repatriated. Those are people who were brought home with charters or DOD flights by the – organized by the State Department? Is that correct? And then when you mentioned 13,500, what was this figure exactly about? And then one other thing. The President yesterday talked about the case of a young woman that was brought back, but he wouldn’t elaborate. Do you have more details about that woman who was horribly treated and then brought back to the U.S.?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I cited some 5,700 people have been brought back. The vast – the great majority of those were coming back through State charters – State Department chartered aircraft. Some 800 – 800-plus out of Wuhan, China back on – in late January, 300-plus out of Yokohama, Japan, approximately 1,200 came out of Morocco last week. We’ve had other – we had other people come out of Central America recently. We’re looking at now 16 or so flights in the next five days, and we’ve got, at this point, about 1,600 passengers – over 1,600 passengers identified for those flights. There’s room for more.
That 13,500 number I gave, those are the people who have reached out to our posts in all parts of the world, saying they’re interested in our assistance. So what we do when we have space on a flight coming out, we reach out to those people and say we have space, a plane leaving at X hour on Y day, if you’re interested, let us know. We are then prioritizing amongst those people, taking account of, really, vulnerability. If we have somebody who is 70 years old with an underlying condition such as diabetes or heart disease, that person is going to get a higher priority on one of those flights than the hale and hearty 20-year-old.
QUESTION: Just following up on the 13,500, how many countries do they represent? The K Fund flight – I guess you sort of answered that in saying that you’ve got 16 flights over the next two days – those are all charter flights, correct you mentioned testing State Department people overseas. Have you run into the same shortages of tests and problems that the United States is experiencing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I can’t tell you exactly what countries are involved in that number of 13.5 I gave you, but they are worldwide. I’m sure that there are countries somewhere. It’s probably – it’s not every single country worldwide. It’s certainly every single region of the world, but specific number of countries I do not have.
K Fund – you asked about the K Fund and chartering. Yeah, we’re scheduling – those are chartered planes – those K Fund charter planes – over the next, whatever, some five days or so. In some other cases, we’re – they’re DOD back halls. We’re also working with the Department of Homeland Security. They’re flying planes into Central America and they are prepared to bring folks back on those aircraft. So it’s a variety of different U.S. Government aircraft.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: With regard to testing, there are essentially three scenarios overseas. In the first scenario, it’s in a very modern country – UK, France, and so forth, and we rely on testing on the host nation medical infrastructure, and we’ve not had problems where we’ve needed testing – getting testing for chief of mission personnel.
At the other end of the spectrum are places that don’t have testing, and those – there is no deployable test that we can put in our embassies overseas. And so in those countries where there is no host nation testing, if we have a case that we’re following, which to date we’re not, the intent is to care for them as – assume that they have coronavirus and treat them accordingly. Provide care in place, and medically evacuate them when we otherwise would for someone who had a bacterial pneumonia or a bad case of influenza.
And there are cases in the middle – or places in the middle where there is host nation testing available, but to subject the individual to the test may trigger an interaction with a host nation government where there’s a movement by a host nation to forego Vienna protections and place the person in institutional quarantine. While we’ve not faced that problem, we have plans for that problem, and the plan on that, quite frankly, is to medically evacuate them then, and at that time, bring them back to the States and put them in an appropriate facility.
We’re working with industry right now. We anticipate and hope that there will be emergencies authorization of another testing platform that we will be able to deploy to our embassies overseas in the coming week or two.
QUESTION: Could I follow up on one thing that said, please? You said flights that Homeland Security is sending down to parts of Latin America would bring American – these would be deportation flights, so flights that are deporting migrants would then bring stranded Americans back? Is that correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: DHS, ICE ERO has indicated a willingness to use those planes for that purpose, yes.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you guys have heard any complaints about the website and that people insert information and they don’t end up hearing back. It sounds like you’ve tested it out yourself, but I wonder if there is an effort to address that issue at all that some people are having.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: we recognize it’s an issue. What we’ve found – a colleague of mine tried to do what I did, tried to register for a trip to Peru, didn’t quite get the data put in correct, and therefore didn’t hear anything back and thought, “Oh my God, the system doesn’t work.” So sometimes it’s a question of operator error. Other times it is – it can be a question of the system getting overloaded. I mean, here we are asking through this unprecedented effort to get people to register through STEP.
There’s going to be some latency issues, but we are trying to address those. Just in the last 24 hours, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has doubled our – the – I’m not a computer guy – doubled the capacity of the system to process cases by bringing up another server center to handle this. So we hope this addresses the latency and other issues we had seen.
QUESTION: And do you guys feel like you have the capacity in general to deal with this global crisis? There’s obviously been some complaints on the Hill from lawmakers that feel like it really has been a scramble. How have you guys responded to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It has been a lot of hard work, and it is going to be a lot of hard work going forward, but yes, we are dealing with this. Yeah, we are devoting all of our resources to this.
For example, we have instructed posts worldwide, all posts worldwide, to suspend routine visa services. So those posts in China or Mexico or wherever they are where we have hundreds of officers doing visa services and we have thousands of locally employed staff assisting in doing those visa services, we are largely shutting down those routine visa services so we can devote all of that officer and locally employed staff time to American citizen services.
The officers who are coming home – the consular officers who are coming home on authorized or ordered departure we are in large part putting to work doing what we call ACS work, American Citizen Services work. We have a number of them working on the task force now, and we will have – probably have more by the end of the day and more by the end of tomorrow. So we are devoting all available resources to addressing this crisis. Over.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could elaborate a little further on those (inaudible) cases, how many are contractors versus staffers, how many are locally employed staff versus Foreign Service officers?
Then, how many folks are actually working on the repatriation task force? And what message do you have to Americans who are really scared, they feel like they’re not being heard right now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: How many – is the question how many people are on the task force? I think with each passing minute it’s more. It’s a little bit hard to say only because we have a certain number of people working in a task force room, but of course, we’re trying to be socially distant these days, so we have people sort of dispersed across the Washington area and elsewhere who are working task force issues. But they’re also working their daytime jobs, so it’s a little bit difficult to say specifically that we’ve got X number of people.
I can put it this way: As the head of the task force, I can call on any resources within the Bureau of Consular Affairs to address task force issues, and we have a very, very large workforce. We’re some 14,000 worldwide. We are also able to pull in representatives from the regional bureaus, from other functional bureaus.
I mentioned already the Economic Bureau. Diplomatic Security is in there. Bureau of Legislative Affairs is in there. Our colleagues from Global Public Affairs are in the room. I know I’m leaving some out, but it is a very large group, some of whom are physically present in the task force room, the vast, vast majority of whom are not. They are working in a dispersed fashion.
QUESTION: And then, any message to Americans abroad who are scared and feel like they’re not being heard?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m going to go back to what I said in the beginning. If you are a U.S. citizen and you are abroad at the moment, take a look at your circumstances; determine whether this is a place where you would be willing to hunker down for an indeterminate period of time as airspace and borders, et cetera, close down.
Now, if you’re at home in central Mexico and that’s where you live, fine. But if you are somewhere where you think no, this is not where I would want to be over the long haul, take advantage of existing commercial opportunities and get out now. If the borders have closed – or actually, even before the borders close, people should register with us, make contact with the U.S. embassy or consulate in their area, and then listen carefully for instructions and advice from that embassy or consulate.
When the time comes, assuming the time comes to try to organize a repatriation flight, the only way we’re going to be able to find somebody is if they’ve registered with us in STEP and provided in pretty detailed information about who they are, how to get in touch with them, et cetera. That’s how we build the manifest for these flights.