Briefing: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad (April 10)

Briefing With Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Chung, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee, Bureau of Consular Affairs On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad




MR BROWN:  Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining today’s call.  Since January 29th of this year, the U.S. Department of State has coordinated repatriation of some 56,000 Americans from more than 100 countries.  To tell the story of the State Department’s historic effort to repatriate Americans from every corner of the globe, we have joining us for today’s on-the-record call Ian Brownlee, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs; Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations from the Bureau of Medical Services; and Julie Chung, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

By now you’re very familiar with PDAS Brownlee and Dr. Walters.  PDAS Chung has joined the call for the first time today having just returned on a repatriation flight from Peru to help shed some light on the effort to bring Americans home from that Andean nation.  Dr. Walters will begin with some opening remarks and turn it over to PDAS Chung.  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.

Dr. Walters, please go ahead.

DR WALTERS:  Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks again for the opportunity to update you with the latest statistics.  Currently there are a total of 55 cases domestically and one confirmed death.  Overseas the numbers are 285 confirmed cases; still holding at the previously reported three deaths, all within locally employed staff.  We extend our condolences to the employees and the families who’ve been affected by this virus, both those that have lost loved ones and those that are struggling in over 220 missions around the world.  With that, I’ll hand over to my colleagues.

MS CHUNG:  Good afternoon.  This is Julie Chung.  Thank you for the opportunity to brief.  I arrived back in the U.S. late last night after spending two weeks supporting our embassy team in Peru, so clearly an effort to get more than 6,800 Americans from all corners of Peru back home under extremely challenging circumstances.  Now that I’m back home – actually, I’m closer to home, as I’m currently self-isolating before reuniting with my family – I wanted to share some firsthand observations on our ongoing, around-the-clock work to repatriate U.S. citizens in Peru.  The entire mission in Peru came together to undertake this unprecedented repatriation effort.  Our volunteers included consular officers, military personnel from all branches, representatives from our U.S. Government agencies, and even family members who were volunteering.

And as a result, we have now successfully repatriated the vast majority of Americans in Peru who indicated that they wanted to return to the U.S.  The U.S. embassy has offered over 40 international flights, facilitated six international private charters, and facilitated three medevacs from Peru since the country closed its airspace on March 16th.  We have successfully repatriated Americans from a significant number of cities outside Lima, including Iquitos, Arequipa, Pucallpa, Puerto Maldonado, Trujillo, and all around in the Ica region.  And we also worked closely with the Peruvian coast guard to bring Americans by boat down a river in the jungle.  We hired buses to also bring Americans from coastal regions, and we’ve also used small U.S. Government aircraft to shuttle Americans from various cities around the country.

And so – and they’ve done all this while facing a really unique set of challenges in Peru given the extent of the restrictions driving the international airports closure.  The embassy team worked with airlines, local aviation authorities, police to create a system basically from scratch.  We used our own U.S. Government-owned hangar instead of the international airports’ facilites and we initially faced complications getting permits for flights due to the national quarantine and airport closure.  But the Peruvian Government has been cooperative in allowing expedited approvals, which allows for a more predictable schedule of flights.

We of course continue to improve communication to the U.S. citizens through social media, multiple MASCOT messages, and our website; we created a care response team to respond to emails and make direct calls to as many U.S. citizens as possible.

Now, we understand there’s still some groups of U.S. citizens who have requested assistance, and we will continue to work on getting them home.  At this point, the embassy has a good process for doing that.  So I delayed my departure from Peru already once to support our team’s efforts to set that process in motion.  And the U.S. mission throughout this process and beyond will continue to be led by a very senior Foreign Service officer, Charge Denny Offutt, who is continuing to lead the effort on the ground while Ambassador Urs continues to work these issues from Washington.

The U.S. Government is pressing for Peruvian Government concurrence to start commercially operated rescue flights in lieu of State Department chartered flights to repatriate the remaining Americans and we will continue to work with the Peruvian authorities and with the private sector to explore additional flight options.  But if you plan to return to the U.S., we have told the citizens we urge you to do so on available flights as soon as possible as we can’t guarantee when these flights will occur and when the international airport will reopen.  President Vizcarra has extended the national quarantine an additional two weeks until the end of April.

So I’ll be returning to my job in the bureau now that the repatriation efforts are starting to move to the next phase and we’ll look at other regions, other countries in the region.

So as of early this morning the department had repatriated nearly 30,000 U.S. citizens from Latin America and the Caribbean out of a total of 56,000 worldwide.  So we’re seeing now the highest levels of demand for repatriation shift over to the South and Central Asia region, but I’m proud of the tremendous work our Western Hemisphere team has achieved in repatriating the majority of U.S. citizens from the region back home.  We still have a lot of work to do, and I’ll be of course supporting our efforts to continue getting Americans home from places such as Colombia, Haiti, and Ecuador.

And I close by emphasizing that, as I’m sure PDAS Brownlee will say as well, that if you’re an American overseas and you’re still considering whether to come home, it’s time to make that call.  We are dedicated to serving U.S. citizens abroad, but we cannot guarantee that our repatriation efforts will continue indefinitely.

And with that, I’ll conclude.

MR BROWNLEE:  Thanks very much, Julie.  Ian Brownlee here again.  I’m really glad that Julie is here with us today.  She’s able to offer a unique and personal vantage point into how our repatriation’s been working on the ground.  And Peru is a great example.  Although it hasn’t been without challenges, it really highlights all the tremendous work our staff has been doing around the globe and around the clock, from start to finish, to overcome these challenges.  And we will, quote, “finish,” close quote, our State Department charted flights sometime soon.

The Secretary stated on Wednesday that timeline will be based on demand and resources.  Although there are still U.S. citizens in Peru who’d like to come home now and we are committed to seeing them home, the department is looking into how to transition out of the business of setting up direct charter flights and leave that to the ones who know how to do it best: commercial airlines.  (Inaudible) heard this all week and we think it’s the most sustainable (inaudible) model.  So keep watching this space.

To those Americans (inaudible) calling or emailing our embassies for help, we hear you.  We’re working to get you out.  Whether it’s on a commercial flight, State Department charter, or a commercially operated rescue flight, we will not rest until we have explored every possible option to assist.

I really don’t (inaudible) belabor the point about STEP, but it is truly crucial that every American overseas enroll in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at  This is how they find out about the latest travel options out of the country and it’s how we find out that they are in the country at all.  Like I said, we’re working with commercial carriers to get more commercial flights out of – into Peru and the rest of South America.  We’d like to use this model for when we’re wrapping up our operation in other regions.

All of that information is on our embassy and consulate websites as soon as it’s ready.  If somebody has already enrolled in STEP, they will get an email with that information, so if one of your readers is not enrolled in STEP, encourage them to do so.  And if you’re thinking about coming home and there are flights available, get on that plane now.  With that, I look forward to your questions.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For our first question, let’s go to Matt Lee.

QUESTION:  Hey there.  Thanks, and usual caveat:  I apologize for Elmo and Peppa Pig in the background if they’re there.

I’ve got two – I got two really brief ones, one for Doc Walters.  The one confirmed death domestically, can you be just a little bit more specific?  Was that in D.C. or in one of the satellite offices?

And then for PDAS Chung, on Peru, could you – I think you gave the number, but I might have missed it.  What’s the total number that have been repatriated from Peru?  And did you guys really – did you know – maybe I’m just ignorant – I had no idea there were so many Americans in Peru.  Were all of these people registered?  What do they do?  I mean, were there a lot of them who had not registered in STEP?  Were you surprised at the amount of demand?  Thank you.

DR WALTERS:  Okay, it’s Dr. Walters.  The one domestic case fatality was in New York City.

MS CHUNG:  Okay.  And to answer the other part of your question – who knew – I think exactly right, we – I think we did not realize there – that Peru would be basically the – globally, the largest number of repatriations.  Again, the number of Americans that are there and registered in STEP increased day by day as that – they closed the airport and closed the borders.

But I think the unparalleled scale of this was not expected by either the Peruvian Government or by the embassy, and you – I’ve seen all walks of life and every diverse kind of American citizen out there, everyone from backpackers, long-term residents, a lot of missionaries from the Latter-day Saints and other faiths.  We’ve had adventure travelers, teachers, basically just a wide swath of people who, because they were really surprised by the sudden closure of the borders overnight and the airport closure, and then immediately started to – many of them had – who had not registered for STEP had started to do so.  And so I think the scale of this is beyond any magnitude that we’ve seen before.

And in terms of the numbers, I think as of yesterday it was at over 6,800.  And when we started this, we thought it was about 5,000, so we’ve already gone beyond that amount.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For the next question, let’s go to Christina Ruffini.

QUESTION:  Sorry, I was too stupid to get my phone off mute.  I was wondering – I have kind of a more general question – I’m wondering what’s being done to coordinate with the countries in Latin America on a response to the virus.  We’re reading a lot about what’s going on in Ecuador.  Some of the images coming out of there are quite startling.  I’m wondering if you can give us any idea of some of the places that you’re most concerned about in the region and what the State Department is doing specifically in those areas to mitigate the virus.  Because obviously, spikes in those places would be more likely to impact the U.S. on a possible second wave.  Thank you, guys, so much.

MR BROWNLEE:  Christina, Ian Brownlee here.  I think we’re really going to have to take most of that question, because we are focused – I certainly am focused on repatriating Americans, and not – we’re not really addressing foreign assistance issues or that sort of question.  So we’ll have to take that question and get back to you unless somebody else on the line feels confident to answer it.  Over.

QUESTION:  I was hoping PDAS Chung could maybe take a swing at it.

MS CHUNG:  Well I think, as the – Secretary Pompeo has said, we have been focusing on the needs of the American citizens in the U.S.  But we do have CDC attaches throughout the region and around the world, and USAID programs are building ongoing health care systems and providing capacity to that.  In regard to specific COVID-related assistance, I think we’ll have to get back to you on that.

MR BROWN:  Thanks.  For the next question, let’s go to Michele Keleman.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  I actually had a question about those CDC personnel, because we’ve heard that almost all of them have left a place like Kenya.  I wonder if they’re part of the chief of mission personnel, are you – at embassies.  Are you seeing many of them returning home on these authorized departures?  Thanks.

MS CHUNG:  I don’t know about the specific CDC personnel, but actually I do have some additional information on some of the assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

So for instance, humanitarian assistance is being provided to Colombia in the amount of $8.5 million to survey the spread of the virus, provide water and sanitation supplies, manage the COVID-19 cases, and more.  And in Colombia, the U.S. has invested approximately $32 million in health for the past 20 years, and nearly 12 billion in total assistance in that same timeframe.

Another example is in Haiti.  We have provided $2.2 million in health assistance that will help the Haitian Government scale up its risk communication efforts, water and sanitation, prevent and control infections, manage COVID-19 cases, strengthen laboratories, and more.  And the U.S. has invested 1.8 million – I’m sorry, $1.8 billion in health in Haiti, and nearly 6.7 billion in total assistance over the past 20 years.

So these are just two of the examples that we have ongoing assistance but also some additional assistance as we address COVID cases.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Next question, let’s go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  Could you please give us an update on how many folks you’re still tracking who might need help getting back from overseas?  And then do you feel that the airlines, specifically the major U.S. carriers, are doing enough to assist with these efforts on these charter repatriation flights?  And what more specifically are you asking them to help with?  Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE:  (Inaudible).  We are tracking (inaudible) – and you’ve heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again:  These numbers are somewhat fuzzy.  Julie went into this specifically with regard to Peru.  But we’re tracking about 20,000 who have indicated a desire to return to the United States.  Many people in Peru, India, and other places get a call from us saying we’ve got a seat for you on tomorrow’s flight, and then they say no thank you.  We’ve also found that many of these (inaudible) were entered in STEP by family members, so (inaudible) children of elderly parents in places like Peru are entering their parents —

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, I’m sorry to interrupt.  Would you mind repeating that?  It seemed to be breaking up a little bit.

MR BROWNLEE:  I’m sorry.  I’m explaining some of the uncertainty about these numbers.  (Inaudible) that in some cases the individual whose name is entered in STEP was not entered by that person but maybe by a family member who knew that person was living in, for example, Peru.  And then when we call the person and say we understand you want to leave, he says no, no, I’m at home here, I’m perfectly happy.  So again, the number is 20,000 but that remains somewhat – somewhat fuzzy.

We are working closely —

QUESTION:  And on –

MR BROWNLEE:  I’m sorry.  We’re working closely with the airlines.  A number of them have been assisting us.  So for example, United is working with us on the repatriations out of India.  We’re working with smaller ones in Central and northern South America.

I’m sorry, I’m getting a message saying I’m breaking up badly.  I think I better just stop it because, apparently, I’ve got a bad signal.  Can you hear me better now?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Yes, that’s better.  Go ahead.

MR BROWNLEE:  Let me just (inaudible).  We are working closely with the airlines and we find they are being cooperative with us.  Over.

MS CHUNG:  And if I could just add to that – this is Julie – and from what I’ve seen in Peru as well, we have called individuals, emailed individuals who have confirmed, and many have changed their minds or canceled at the last minute.  And yesterday at the hangar – I was at the hangar and somebody changed their mind right before they boarded and said, actually, I do want to stay here and just wait it out here.

So again, we want to make sure we take care of every American, every individual counts, and helping them get home whether it’s through our U.S. Government charter or a privately arranged charter, but we do get a lot of indecision and people who have for various reasons, whether it’s COVID cases in the U.S. or other family reasons have changed their minds, and so that number remains inconsistent.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  I have a WHA question.  Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador too have all asked the U.S. to halt removals and deportations of migrants.  Can you update us on those discussions and whether or not the administration is doing that, is halting them, because it can risk the spread of COVID?  There was at least one case of a migrant being deported to Guatemala who later confirmed positive for COVID.  Thank you.

MS CHUNG:  I apologize —

MR BROWN:  Our focus —

MS CHUNG:  Go ahead.

MR BROWN:  Julie, unless you have an answer, my default would be that we cover that separately.  Our focus here is on repatriation efforts.

MS CHUNG:  Yeah, I’m sorry.  I apologize.  I’ve been on the ground in Peru for the past two weeks, so my entire focus has been on the – coordinating the Peru repatriations, but I’ll have to consult with my colleagues on that.

QUESTION:  Can I just follow up then with a different question?  On Tuesday there were, I think, 78 countries that you had repatriated Americans from.  Ian, I think you said today that there were now over a hundred or nearly a hundred.  Why the big jump in terms of numbers of countries where you’ve been able to repatriate folks?

MR BROWNLEE:  Yes, as of today, we’re looking at 101 countries.  This is really because we’re bringing more people out of Africa (inaudible) operations (inaudible) in Africa, including, for example, Mbabane, Eswatini, places like that that previously we had (inaudible).  So we’re getting some of the smaller pockets of U.S. citizens, so the overall number of countries is going up.  Over.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay, thanks.  Next, Jessica Donati.

QUESTION:  Hi, I was wondering if you could just add some more details to the staffer who died in New York.  Was that an FSO and is that an American citizen?

DR WALTERS:  This was – the case involved a contractor and was not a U.S. direct hire, and I don’t have any other information available.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay.  And next, Humeyra Pamuk.

QUESTION:  Hi, Dr. Walters.  My question was actually pretty much the same with Jessica’s and you just answered, but you sort of broke up as well.  You said – so I can hear it properly, you said it was the person who passed was a contractor and wasn’t an American?  Can you repeat that, please?  Thank you.

DR WALTERS:  No.  Yeah, what I said was that – sorry for the disruption.  The impacted individual was a contractor, was not a direct hire.  I don’t have any information on nationality.  And really, I don’t have any other information available.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay, thanks.  Looks like our last question is from Abbie Williams.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up on what is happening in Moscow and the inability to coordinate with Aeroflot about getting American citizens on those planes.  I wondered if you thought there was any other motivation there, and if you could just kind of give us a general update.  Thanks.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Ian, are you still on?

MR BROWNLEE:  Sorry, I was talking with the mute on.  I apologize.  I will repeat what I just said.  There have been several flights out of Moscow bringing – and I’m sorry, I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but hundreds of U.S. citizens out.  The embassy is reaching out through STEP and similar programs to U.S. citizens in Moscow and elsewhere to see if there’s interest in anybody else coming home.  So that’s where we are on Russia.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay, we’ve had one more add themselves to the queue.  Nike Ching, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  My question I would like to ask PDAS Julie Chung.  Do you see certain governments in the Western Hemisphere are taking advantage of the COVID-19 emergency to enact autocratic measures that encroach on citizens’ civil liberties, including press freedom and other rights?  Thank you.

MS CHUNG:  I think in general these – this is an unprecedented time, not for just this region but globally.  So governments are taking measures to put in quarantines, curfew, other things to protect the health and safety of our citizens.  And so I think, again, in the time of crisis we turn to each government to do what they think is the best for their communities and able to ensure that safety and security.  So I defer to each of the separate governments on what individual measures they are taking, and this is an unprecedented time for us to all take certain actions.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  As one last question for Dr. Walters, I just wanted to ask you to clarify a point.  You briefed confirmed cases.  I believe these guys are seeing our reports of current cases on the website.  If you could explain the difference.

DR WALTERS:  Yes.  So when we report positive cases, we’re reporting both the current cases, which are people who are currently being treated and those that have recovered.  And so – and that’s important I think for everyone to take away from this is you’re going to see the number of cases sort of on our dashboard.  Those recovered cases are going to continue to grow because people are getting better from this virus.  It has horrible impacts on people’s lives, absolutely, but there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  And that discrepancy, if you will, is hopefully going to become more apparent, right, where people get better.  We are transparent.  We are trying to be sort of an example of the transparency that we wish we had from others earlier in this outbreak.  So we’ll report current cases and we’ll report total cases, and the difference between them is either an unfortunate death or, more hopefully, the – those that recovered.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Thanks to all of our briefer for joining us and taking their time to share.  And thanks to everyone for joining today.  This is the end of the call.  The contents – the embargo on the contents is lifted.  Have a great afternoon.