Briefing on COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much, and Happy Friday, everybody. Thanks again for joining us for the third briefing this week by senior State Department officials to provide the latest and most up-to-date information on COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on the health of the State Department workforce, and the unprecedented, historic mission to bring Americans home from all over the world.
Just a reminder that this call is on the record, and – but it is embargoed until the end of the call.
So to help us today, we have three briefers that are very familiar to all of you: Ian Brownlee, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from Consular Affairs; our Dr. William Walters, Executive Director and Managing Director for Operational Medicine in our Bureau of Medical Services; and Hugo Yon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Transportation Affairs in our Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.
You’ve already been introduced to PDAS Brownlee and Walters – and Dr. Walters. DAS Yon has joined the call for the first time today to shed some light on logistics management and engagement with the global aviation industry, which is an integral part, an essential part, of the U.S. Government’s effort to help bring Americans home. Doc Walters will begin with some opening remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to DAS Yon. Following that, PDAS Brownlee will give the latest repatriation figures and we’ll take a few questions, as always.
Just a reminder, again, that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.
MR WALTERS: Thanks, Morgan. Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for the opportunity to brief again today. Before I provide the latest statistics, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the tireless work of the department, its many partners, in ensuring the safety and welfare of Americans around the world in this unprecedented pandemic. I would specifically like to thank our private industry partners like Kalitta Air for their professionalism and dedication in safely completing over 10 evacuation missions on behalf of the department, bringing hundreds of Americans home from places like Wuhan, China or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Their speed and capability and flexibility have made it – our most difficult missions possible, and we can’t thank them enough.
Now moving on to the latest COVID-19 statistics for the Department of State, as of today, April 3rd, there are 108 confirmed cases overseas. There are 46 confirmed cases domestically, occurring in nine different cities. So far, there are no reported deaths domestically, but unfortunately there are now a total of three deaths overseas amongst our workforce.
Look forward to your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. DAS Yon.
MR YON: Well, thank you, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone. I want to begin by reiterating the comments made earlier this week by Secretary Pompeo: There is no greater priority for the U.S. Government and the Department of State than getting Americans home safely.
In the midst of this global pandemic driving unprecedented travel restrictions for Americans abroad, our Economic Bureau team has been wholly dedicated to supporting the State Department-wide effort of evacuation and repatriation of American citizens. We’ve done this by relying on trusted methods of evacuating Americans overseas, and given the unprecedented global scale of the evacuation needs, we also had to create and deploy new ways of arranging more flights faster.
As of April 3rd, the U.S. Government has repatriated over 37,000 Americans on 409 flights from 39 countries. Now, over 17,000 of these Americans have returned home on commercial rescue flights – a new method we developed and at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer. That’s almost double the number of Americans now home than if we had solely relied on the pre-existing government-funded tool set.
We initiated commercial rescue flights by working directly with the U.S. airline industry so that they could find a way to give American travelers a greater range of options to find their way home. Then our U.S. embassies and consulates, supported by our Economic Bureau team, across the world secured the landing permits and special permissions after those countries closed their borders and airspace, and we got those permissions for these new commercial rescue flights.
So our diplomacy in dozens of countries and jurisdictions has made a huge difference. As a result, these commercial rescue flights met repatriation needs in many countries, freeing up the bandwidth of the department to focus on the U.S. Government-funded charters on the most difficult locations where airspace, border closures, and internal curfews have been the most severe. Sometimes these department-funded charters must go to the most far-flung locations in the world where U.S. airlines are not as well positioned to provide commercial service. Our airlines, both large and small, have answered the call to serve America in a new and unique way. In addition to repatriating Americans, our airlines have repurposed their aircraft to deliver vital medical supplies and goods back home.
Our team is working to keep global supply chains functioning in the teeth of this crisis. The Economic Bureau’s transportation division continues to work around the clock. The department is committed to draw on every resource in the U.S. Government’s arsenal, including the capabilities of our U.S. airlines to bring Americans home.
Thank you. I look forward to your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. DAS Brownlee.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Morgan. Good afternoon. It’s nice to be back here with you once again. I know you’re probably tired of hearing from me, but I’m happy to have this opportunity to update you on our unprecedented worldwide efforts to bring Americans home in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a 24/7 operation that has been underway for weeks now, and our dedicated staff – both overseas and domestic – continue to give it their all to assist our fellow Americans in need.
Let me begin by updating the numbers. As of this morning, we have repatriated roughly 37,000 U.S. citizens from over 60 countries on more than 400 flights. That includes over 20,000 U.S. citizens repatriated in the past week alone. We have approximately 70 flights scheduled in the coming days which should bring back several thousand more U.S. citizens.
South Asia now has the most U.S. citizens wishing to return. So far, we’ve brought home almost 1,000 Americans from South Asia and are working aggressively to assist thousands more who have expressed an interest in returning. To date, we have helped repatriate over 5,000 U.S. citizens from Africa, and we continue to see demand for repatriation assistance in that region. We have repatriated nearly 25,000 individuals from Central and South America and continue to assist U.S. citizens across the hemisphere.
In Peru, we have received Peruvian Government approval for chartered repatriation flights through this Monday, April 6th, and we will continue to work with the Peruvian authorities and with the private sector to arrange additional flights. But again, we urge Americans who wish to return to the United States to do so as soon as possible and to take advantage of commercial opportunities where those still exist.
Peruvian authorities continue to work cooperatively with us to arrange these flights, even as they tighten public health restrictions in order to fight the pandemic. But we cannot foresee the effects of any future quarantine efforts. Each day and each night, but especially during a crisis like this, we are committed to keeping Americans well informed so they can navigate ever-changing travel conditions. Over the past 10 weeks, our 24-hour call centers handled over 33,000 calls from all over the world from concerned U.S. citizens or family members or loved ones of U.S. citizens.
Since early March, U.S. embassies and consulates have sent out over 14,000  messages through our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a program I know you’ve heard me mention before, and I’ll say it again: step.state.gov. Please remind your audiences to register there at step.state.gov to get the latest messages from the country where they are located. We’re also seeing more than 4.9 million page visits to our travel.state.gov website.
Now, let me give you an example of how our messaging works; in this case, a case arising in Nepal: The U.S. embassy in Kathmandu began issuing health alerts on March 14th. These were posted to its website and sent to U.S. citizens enrolled in STEP. These alerts warned of potential quarantines and restrictions to airspace. Then on March 20th, the Government of Nepal announced it would close its airspace to all flights and severely restrict road travel effective March 24.
The embassy has been pushing out alerts to U.S. citizens nearly daily for almost two weeks, advising them of the health situation and of potential flights to the United States. Just this morning, our embassy in Nepal sent out another alert confirming they have organized a second repatriation flight to the United States this coming Sunday, April 5th. We are sending these types of alerts for all missions around the world via STEP, on our embassy and travel.state.gov websites, and on embassy social media and at our TravelGov Twitter feed. We are trying to get the message out on all our platforms so people have the timely information they need to get home.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a phone briefing with me if I didn’t stress the urgency of U.S. citizens taking advantage of flights that still exist now. For U.S. citizens contemplating whether or not to come home, the time to act is now. Flights will not continue indefinitely, but we want to do all we can to assist you while we are still able to do so.
So on behalf of our 24/7 taskforce, let me say Happy Friday to you. Only two more working days till Monday. I look forward to your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks so much. Ruben, why don’t you go ahead and start with calling the queue, and if anybody doesn’t remember, please press 1 and then 0 if you’d like to ask a question.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Nick Wadhams has the first question.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I just had a question about the number of State Department deaths and a testing question. The first is: Can you give us any more information about the employee, the third person who had died or what country that was in and any other information you can give us?
And second, does State currently have a standard policy on testing? Do – for example, people who think they may be – may have the virus but are not showing symptoms, are they able to get tested? What is the standard guidance on department employees getting tested? Thanks.
MR WALTERS: So as to the first question, I can tell you that it was a locally-employed staff member overseas. I don’t – can’t really go into any further detail because it becomes easier and easier to identify individual people when you do that, so I’m afraid I can’t.
With regard to testing, domestically we all exist within a broad public health architecture. From an occupational health perspective, we have a responsibility to protect the workforce, but we live within and work within the city of Washington, D.C., or in Virginia or Maryland, and ultimately testing and contact tracing is a local and state responsibility and authority. And so we cooperate very closely with the state and local and county public health teams to make sure that we keep the workforce safe and make sure testing is used appropriately.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Great. Next question is from the line of Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hi, there. Thanks. Sorry, I was – I missed part of the answer to Nick’s question because of Elmo, but – (laughter) – did you, Doc Walters, say that the third death was a locally employed staffer? And is it correct that there are still no American staffers overseas who have been —who have succumbed?
And then secondly, the – how many of the more than 400 flights that Ian is talking about were commercial flights that – for which the U.S. Government did not have to pay anything? Thank you.
MR WALTERS: Thanks, Matt. I can answer the first part and then I’ll hand over to Ian and DAS Yon for the last part.
Yeah, so locally employed staff member overseas – we are not aware of any chief of mission personnel overseas who have succumbed to the illness.
MR BROWNLEE: Hugo, I’ll defer to you if you’re able to answer the question about how many were arranged commercially. Over.
MR YON: Matt, I don’t have that at my fingertips at the moment. I’m going to look that up and I may come back just in a few minutes with that number, okay? Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Ruben, let’s go to the next question while we’re waiting on that.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Michele Kelemen.
QUESTION: I have a question about – a specific question about something today, this Aeroflot plane out of Moscow was all loaded up and then canceled. I wonder if you have any sense of why that was. It seems like a pretty chaotic scene there, and I thought that it was coming here to repatriate Russians back to Moscow. And the more broad question I have is about the cost of these commercial rescue flights. Does the State Department have any control over how much these companies are charging people? Because there was some concern from people in Guinea, for instance, that it was $3,500 a ticket and that they had to pay in cash. Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Michele, Ian here. I’ll let Hugo address the second question. We were not tracking this Aeroflot flight. I’m just checking my notes now. Bear with me a sec, but I don’t think we were tracking that one. Checking, checking.
Why don’t we let Hugo answer the second question? If I come up with anything, I’ll bust back in. Over.
MR YON: Yeah, hi. This is Hugo. Thank you for that question. These are – these commercial flights, what we do is we ask the airlines to volunteer to serve a country, and if they volunteer to provide the flight, we get the clearances for them. The pricing, it’s commercial basis, so based on their cost and their own calculations, they put a price out there. So we do not have a influence on that because they’re volunteering to serve. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question is from Kylie Atwood.
MR BROWNLEE: So – Ian here, I may have something on the – on Michele’s question. Just a moment, please. Just a moment, sorry. Sorry. Loading, loading.
No, I’m sorry. I have nothing further on that. If we get more on it, Michele, we’ll get back to you. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Kylie, go ahead.
MS ORTAGUS: Kylie Atwood, are you there?
QUESTION: Sorry, I was muted. Can you hear me?
MR HARUTUNIAN: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay, great. So with regard more broadly to Americans in Russia, I noticed that Russia isn’t on the list of the countries where the U.S. Government has repatriated Americans from. What is the reason for that? Is it because there have been regular commercial flights coming in and out of Russia so you guys haven’t needed to focus there? And we are seeing some reports in local Russian state media that they are going to be cutting off all of their commercial flights Friday at midnight. So what is the status generally of what the State Department is doing to make sure they can get American citizens out of there?
And then just with regard to assistance coming in from other countries to the United States, who’s in charge of coordinating efforts to kind of streamline everything that’s coming in from China, Russia, other countries? Does that rely on the State Department, is it the task force, is it DHS? Whose responsibility is it? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Ian here. The aid question is not – we are – I’m sorry. My group is seeking to repatriate U.S. citizens from overseas, so we are not tracking questions regarding aid from overseas. The State Department does have another element that may well be tracking this, or it might be happening at the White House level. So I think we’ll have to get back to you on that question.
With regard to Russia, this is a good example of what we’ve been saying, that people should avail themselves of existing commercial opportunities because they do go away at some point. And therefore, we have not had to repatriate people from Russia till now. Another good example is Nicaragua, where Aeromexico has flights going out of Managua into Mexico City still, and from there people can get onward flights. So what we’re doing in Managua is helping U.S. citizens make arrangements on those commercial flights – those U.S. citizens who seek to leave Nicaragua – make arrangements on those flights so they can move on to their ultimate destination. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I think we have Nick Kalman from Fox next.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I wanted to see if State was tracking any U.S. citizens on work visas being detained in Vietnam? A family of one reached out to us saying he was taken from his apartment there a couple weeks ago and has been shuffled around to holding centers ever since. They say they were doing self-isolation that their employer had directed when they were rounded up. Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, Ian here. We’re aware of some U.S. citizens who have been detained in Vietnam. However, for privacy reasons I can’t go into any particular cases. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. I think we have Carol Morello next.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. Can you hear me?
MR HARUTUNIAN: Yes.
MS ORTAGUS: We can hear you.
QUESTION: Great. I was hoping you could give a little bit more clarification on the situation in Peru. I thought I heard you say that the last flight out would be on Monday but that you were going to continue to try to make arrangements for charter flights. So I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit. And also, if you are aware of any countries where the last flights out are looming. Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, thank you, Carol. The situation in Peru is this. We had a hiatus yesterday, April 2nd. We had – were a number of flights up through April 1st. We had a hiatus yesterday. Flights resume today, April 3rd. We have several coming out today. We will have several running through the weekend and through Monday. We are talking to the Peruvian Government about getting permissions for subsequent flights if needed. And that’s an important caveat at this point, because we are finding that demand particularly in Peru seems to be fluctuating. I’ve mentioned to you guys before that we’ve had people show up at the airport literally with suitcases in hand and then decide to stay. As we put out calls saying is anybody else out there, we find new people coming in even now saying, “Well, yeah, I thought I’d bring myself forward.” It remains a somewhat dynamic number as to how many want to come out of Peru, and if need be, we will continue.
We are also – and Hugo might be able to shed more light on this – we are talking to the commercial carriers about resuming direct bill operations into Peru in lieu of the State Department chartered flights. The bottom line: Got flights through Monday, talking about more, we might want to – we might go the commercial option. Hugo, do you want to say anything on that score?
MR YON: Absolutely. This is Hugo. Yes, in Peru that is correct. It is actually the Peruvian Government has – after we’ve done a number of these charter flights from the State Department, the Peruvian government has softened and are willing to let some limited commercial rescue flights go in, so we are in discussions actively now with our U.S. airlines to provide that lift in future days.
Let me also just give the number that Matt had asked about in terms of the commercial rescue flights, how many number. The number we’ve gotten from our airlines collectively is 166 flights that carried the over 17,000, and each day that does grow – 166 flights. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Conor Finnegan.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. Just a couple quick questions. First of all, Ian, when you say that you weren’t tracking the flight from Russia, that’s because it was a commercial flight, correct? And are you now going to have to start looking into different options to get Americans out?
Do you have an update to the total number of Americans still overseas who are asking for help, and then specifically on Peru, there are a lot of Americans in remote areas. Are you still doing busing or other ways of getting them to Lima or Cusco to get them out, and are you considering outside contractors to do some of that work, like Warrior Angel Rescue.
MR BROWNLEE: Sure. Let me go back to the Russia question. You’re absolutely correct, we were not tracking – I was not tracking that flight, but I’ve received an email since I was asked that question saying yes, it was a commercial plane. We don’t know – at this point know why it was literally on the tarmac taxiing when it was denied permission to take off. We don’t know why that would be. The Russian Government apparently denied it permission to take off. We will look at other options for helping U.S. citizens return from Russia now that that last commercial flight has been pulled down.
The total number we’re looking at overseas at this point is – and bear with me a moment – we are tracking approximately – we’re looking at about 22,000 overseas still. The greatest number of those – certainly the plurality of those – are in South and Central Asia, many of them in India. We’re also looking at a large number of people still in the Western Hemisphere – in WHA – and Africa. It’s really those three regions are the bulk of people who are overseas, but the total number we’re tracking is about 22,000.
In – with regard to Peru, yes, we’re still running what we call sweeper operations to bring people in from remote areas. In some cases this is by bus, in some cases we’re using the INL, the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement plane. It’s a 15-passenger plane, so we’ve sent that out to a number of remote areas to bring people into Lima for repatriation. Other people are being brought in, as you say, by NGOs such as Angel Warrior. But we’re running a pretty effective operation, I think, pulling people out of the remoter areas. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. We have time for one more question and that’s from Lara Jakes.
QUESTION: Hi. I wanted to say I appreciated the comments about that there’s just two more working days until Monday. I think we all share that sentiment.
I wanted to ask about the situation of some Chinese students who are stuck in the United States because China is not doing the evacuations of students from this country. Wondering if the State Department is tracking that or assisting them in any way. Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Thanks, Lara. I’m not aware that we are tracking Chinese students in the United States who are seeking assistance inasmuch as we are seeking to repatriate U.S. citizens from overseas. I’d have to ask you to come back and maybe talk to our colleagues in the East Asia-Pacific Bureau about that. Thank you. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Lara, we’ll take – we’ll get that as a taken question and get back to you on that, and I have a taken question for Kylie as well. All right, thanks everybody for dialing in today. We’ll have at least one if not two briefings on Monday, so have a great weekend. Thank you.
 As of April 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of State has coordinated the repatriation of 38,296 Americans from 78 countries since January 29, 2020.
 Since early March, U.S. embassies and consulates have sent out over 1,400 messages through our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.