Briefing With Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee, Bureau of Consular Affairs On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to our daily briefing call. So since January 29th, the U.S. Department of State has coordinated the repatriation of almost 62,000 Americans from 107 countries and over 560 flights. These figures alone are staggering, but they symbolize the countless hours of preparation, follow-through, and personal attention from State Department personnel working around the clock in very difficult conditions around the world.
To help us tell us this story, we have joining us for today’s on-the-record call Ian Brownlee, who everyone knows now, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and also everyone’s favorite doctor at the State Department, Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations from the Bureau of Medical Services.
Doc Walters will begin with some opening remarks and then turn it over to PDAS Brownlee and then, of course, we’ll take a few questions. Just a friendly reminder to everyone that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. And I think as you all know, if you want to go ahead and get in the queue, please press one and then zero to ask a question.
DR WALTERS: Thank you, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone. The State Department continues to strongly enforce and practice the appropriate social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions, and that continues to be reflected in our own disease curves. Currently there are – we’re tracking 297 overseas cases, including 182 active with 115 recovered, holding at – thankfully holding at three overseas deaths, all within locally employed staff.
Domestic cases are 71 current cases, 67 with four recovered. Important to note that we started to see domestic cases in the second into the third week of March, and so this is the point at which we would expect to see those cases start to recover. So I would anticipate over the next week, we’ll start to see the recovery cases start to climb.
I am saddened to say that we’ve had our first – our second domestic death, our first within the U.S. direct-hire population, a civil servant serving here in Washington, D.C. And our condolences do go out to the family and to all families that have been impacted by coronavirus.
With that, I’ll turn it over to PDAS Brownlee.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Dr. Walters. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s nice to be back with you again this week. If you observe Passover or Easter, I hope you had a nice albeit different celebration with your families this year.
As you know, our repatriation efforts have continued on a global scale for two and a half months. In some areas, such as Central America, we have begun to wind down the State Department-sponsored charters and transition to commercially managed flights. In the near future, we will look to do so in other regions.
As Secretary Pompeo has stated, our timeline is based on demand and resources. We’re doing all we can to ensure that transition is a smooth one and that, with the help of our private sector partners and foreign governments, there are sustainable, long-term transportation options for Americans abroad.
Of course, it’s worth remembering just how much we’ve already accomplished in service to our fellow citizens. As Morgan said, we’ve repatriated almost 62,000 U.S. citizens on over 560 flights from six continents. We have brought home over 30,000 people from Central and South American alone, over 10,000 from Africa, and more than 5,000 so far from South and Central Asia.
We still estimate there are around 15,000 U.S. citizens who have some interest in coming home, but as I’ve said before, that number fluctuates. As I’ve also said many times before, if you’re on the fence about returning, get off that fence now. State Department-sponsored options will not continue forever.
During this challenging time for countries around the world, coordination of likeminded partners is crucial in the fight against COVID-19. We appreciate the messages of gratitude from our allies and partners like the Republic of Korea, Australia, Canada, India, Japan, and many transatlantic partners, where we have helped repatriate their citizens. And we likewise thank our partners around the world for help they have provided to get – in getting Americans home. Free and open societies standing together in the battle against COVID-19 – this is what we do.
I would also like to take a moment to recognize our dedicated Foreign Service officers and locally employed staff abroad; our countless Civil Service and other domestic staff coordinate – coordinating efforts domestically; our private partners at the airlines running the charter and commercial flights; our foreign diplomatic counterparts; and the U.S. citizens who have shown tremendous resilience and flexibility under difficult conditions. It is truly an extraordinary team effort.
A few recent examples in the current repatriation efforts:
This past weekend, three flights chartered by the government returned to the United States from Pakistan after staff at the embassy there made more than a thousand calls to U.S. citizens. Because of the overwhelming demand, the mission prioritized seats for those most at risk for COVID-19 complications based on the CDC criteria and Department of State guidance.
To date, our embassy in Peru has repatriated approximately 7,150 U.S. citizens. While there are no further U.S. Government charter flights from Peru planned at this time, our embassy has coordinated with Eastern Airlines to offer a private charter flight from Lima to Miami. This flight is tentatively scheduled for this Thursday, April 16th, provided sufficient tickets are booked. Embassy Lima is supporting Eastern Airlines with logistical advice and will continue to provide U.S. citizens transit letters to show to security officials at checkpoints. If you are in Peru and have an urgent need to return to the United States, please seriously consider using this option.
Finally, I’d like to turn your attention to Brazil. We have the same message for U.S. citizens and permanent residents in Brazil as we have for their counterparts around the world: Make plans to return home now or prepare to stay where you are. Airlines continue to fly between Brazil and the United States, but the number of flights has declined significantly over the last week. Many tens of thousands of U.S. citizens live in communities all across Brazil, an enormous country. Without commercial flights, it would be exceedingly difficult for the U.S. Government to organize repatriation efforts. We are working closely with U.S. air carriers on maintaining some commercial flights. If you want to return home, you should do so now.
From Nigeria to India, to Senegal to Indonesia, our U.S. and local staff are working night and day to get as many U.S. citizens as we can back home. We ask that all U.S. citizens still abroad make sure they are registered in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, STEP, and make themselves known to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Please make your decision to come home now or hunker down where you are for the duration of your – this crisis.
With that, I will stop for your questions. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you, guys. And just a reminder to everybody to press 1, 0 if you’d like to ask a question.
Okay. First up in the queue is Said Arikat. Said, are you there?
QUESTION: Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead. Yes.
QUESTION: Hello? Yeah. Yeah, sorry, I think I was on mute. Yes, very quickly, yesterday the Secretary – or in fact as well as earlier today – Secretary Pompeo told BILD-TV, German TV, that there will be a response to China, and like a punitive response to China in the near future, because China was not quick enough to share whatever information. Could you elaborate on that or explain it to us? Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Said, Dr. Walters and Ian Brownlee, they – that’s not something that’s in their mandate. I’ll ask Ruben to get back to you for any points that we have that we can send to you on that. But the two of them – that wouldn’t be a question for them.
Okay. So let’s now go over to John Hudson.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I was wondering if you guys could provide a sort of full picture of what countries have contributed to America’s medical response apparatus and what they contributed. Obviously this has been, like, something the State Department has had a significant role in processing and coordinating. I was just wondering if you could talk about what countries have contributed to America’s sort of medical readiness.
DR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters. It’s probably a question we’d have to take back. The – within State, I think the relevant bureaus there would be obviously the econ bureau, but also the Coronavirus Task Force itself would have visibility on those type of transactions, which are largely coordinated by DHS or HHS and simply facilitated by the department.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks, Doc. Okay. Next we have Tracy Wilkinson.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Maybe this one will work for Ian. I wondered if I could get sort of the universal picture of the status of embassies and consulates, in terms of how they’re working. And I ask because some of these repatriated Americans or stranded Americans complain that their embassy was closed and things like that, which I know is not quite the case. So I wondered – I know a lot of consulates have been either shut down or dramatically reduced and that a lot of embassies are working with sort of skeleton personnel. But could you give me a bigger picture? What percentage of embassies are at full level and reduced level, et cetera, and consulates as well?
MR BROWNLEE: What I can say is this, that there – around the world there are two U.S. consulates that are closed: Wuhan, China and Yekaterinburg, Russia. Every other consulate is open. They are open for emergency services to U.S. citizens; they’re open for, in many cases, for routine American citizen services. So if a child is born abroad, the parents can go in and get a consular report of birth for that child. So it is a mistaken impression to say that many consulates are closed and that embassies are working on skeleton staffing. They are, to be sure, working to reduce staffing, as we’ve drawn down many of our visa operations. But those people who were working on visa operations have pivoted to working on American citizen services. So as I say, only two are closed – Wuhan and Yekaterinburg. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Great, thanks. Christina Ruffini. And – oh, sorry. Right before Christina goes, Tracy, I think – and Ruben can correct me if I’m wrong – I think we have a list of any press guidance that we’ve put out for any authorized or ordered departures. You guys should have access to all of that. But if you don’t someone from Ruben’s team can make sure that you have everything that’s up to date.
Okay. Christina Ruffini.
QUESTION: Thanks, guys. If there’s a centralized list of those that could be distributed to us, that would be great. Because the only way we’ve been able to track it is on each different release, and it’s hard to figure out percentages from that. So it would help to be more accurate if there was a centralized list that could go out. That’d be awesome.
My question was for Dr. Walters. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you can offer on the civil servant working in D.C. who unfortunately passed away. I’m wondering if they worked at HST and how long they’d been with the department.
DR WALTERS: Yeah, thanks for the question. I’m afraid I don’t have that information. And frankly, going any deeper into the specifics of the individual would almost certainly allow others to sort of identify who it was. And out of respect for their privacy, I think I’d have to withhold. But to be clear, I don’t have that information.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Shaun Tandon.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up with Christina’s question? I know there’s a limit to what you can say. Do you know when the death occurred? And can you say if there are any additional precautions being taken at HST or elsewhere in light of this? Thanks.
DR WALTERS: So I can say that the individual did pass over the weekend after a prolonged illness. We have been following this case for some time. The – and it has been more than two weeks that the person has been out of work, and so no additional precautions were required at the facility that they worked in.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hi there, two very brief ones. Sorry to kind of harp on this again, but I mean, did that mean when you said “prolonged illness” that they had some underlying condition in addition to the virus?
Secondly, for Doc Walters, you said two consulates, Wuhan and Yekaterinburg. Maybe my memory is really, really bad, but I could have sworn you said the second one was Vladivostok in a call not so long ago.
And then for PDAS Brownlee, do you have any insight – and I realize it’s not a charter flight – charter flights or anything like that, but what is going on with Aeroflot? I mean, just looking at social media, it seems like they’re just throwing together flights at the last minute, not really telling anybody. Do you have any idea what the – insight what’s going on there? Thank you.
DR WALTERS: Yeah, hey, (inaudible).
MR BROWNLEE: And Matt, that was Ian, not Doc Walters who said Yekaterinburg, and you’re absolutely correct. Indeed it is Vladivostok, not Yekaterinburg, so I was mistaken in that. And so it’s Wuhan and Vladivostok that are closed as a result of drawdowns.
With regard to Aeroflot, I do not have any information about that, what is driving their decisions to allow or not allow particular flights. The embassy in Moscow is continuing to work with U.S. citizens in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia to see if they are interested in returning to the United States and providing to them all the information available, but the individual commercial/regulatory decisions are not something that I have any insight into. Over.
DR WALTERS: And Matt, it’s Doc Walters. First thing, thank you for getting me off the hook on Vladivostok, but with regard to this unfortunate individual, he had a prolonged hospital course related to coronavirus, so it’s not – I don’t have further information on what his other comorbidities were, but he was hospitalized for some time fighting the coronavirus and ultimately did succumb.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hey, thank you. Have you heard from any of the diplomatic posts overseas that they are having issues obtaining proper PPE given kind of the global shortages, particularly those who are interacting with folks who are being repatriated?
And then Morgan, you might be able to answer this: Are top officials at State who are still coming in wearing masks, for example, gloves? What sort of protective measures are they taking? Thank you.
DR WALTERS: Yeah, it’s Doc Walters. So with regard to PPE overseas, our – as part of our ongoing preparedness well in advance of this pandemic, the Bureau of Medical Services has small stockpiles of PPE and other countermeasures at each post. We have supplemented that, again, well in advance of the crush on the supply chain that’s occurred. And so our health care providers overseas and our consular officers are provided with PPE appropriate to their interaction, understanding that there are going to be times when you come into unexpected contact with American citizens and no one’s going to stop what they’re doing in helping an American citizen.
But we – as part of the safety net, both there’s the PPE side, but there’s also the small community in each of our posts that is overseen by a medical provider from the bureau, either a direct hire or locally employed, and that – that drives the statistics that I provide at the beginning of each one of these briefs, and what we’re seeing is a fairly flat curve and no ongoing employee-to-employee transmission patterns that we’ve been able to identify.
MS ORTAGUS: And Ian, do you have anything on her second question? Not Ian, I’m sorry —
MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry. Say again?
MS ORTAGUS: I’m sorry. I meant that for Doc Walters.
DR WALTERS: I’m sorry. Could you repeat the second question?
MS ORTAGUS: Jennifer? Oh, they may have muted her line already. I think she was asking what – I think it was related to who’s coming into the State Department in terms of —
DR WALTERS: Oh, regarding the masks, right.
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.
DR WALTERS: So both the President and the Centers for Disease Control have been fairly clear on face coverings rather than masks being encouraged but optional, and the Bureau of Medical Services and the department has taken the same approach. It’s an individual decision. We encourage it. We explain the rationale for it, but it is not enforced at this time.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Okay, Lara Jakes.
QUESTION: I was just wondering, Ian, if you could elaborate on the situation in Brazil, how many American citizens there have indicated that they wanted to come home, and if it’s just a matter of the commercial flights looking at ending is the reason why you’re bringing this up to us now in contrast with other nations where American citizens are looking to come home. Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Sure. Hi, Lara. I think I’ve mentioned Brazil before because it’s such a – there’s such a large Amcit population, and until recently there was still quite a significant number of flights. I think as recently as 10 days, two weeks ago, there were 16 flights a week between Brazil and the United States. That dropped to nine and it’s down from there now.
The reason I keep mentioning it is – and what I said at the top – there’s this large population of U.S. citizens scattered across Brazil. If the government clamps down on internal movements, it’s going to be nearly impossible for us to go in and get people out of all of these remote areas. That’s why I keep banging on about making this decision, decide are you going to leave or are you going to stay. We don’t know how many U.S. citizens might want to leave because we haven’t been inquiring. Our message has been get out or get ready to stay.
So there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens in Brazil at any given moment. They need to make that decision now. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Abbie Williams.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I wondered if you could say if there are any countries that have proved particularly challenging to repatriate Americans from, and more specifically, how many Americans are still on board the cruise ship Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, and is the U.S. at all involved in that investigation taking place about the passengers who disembarked and were later found to be COVID-positive?
MR BROWNLEE: Well, I think – Ian here – I think the Secretary has cited a couple of times a group of people who were literally climbing Mount Everest and were at the Everest base camp seeking repatriation from there, so that qualifies as a particularly challenging undertaking.
I think on a much broader scale, though, countries where people keep coming forward. We’ve been undergoing – we’ve been undertaking efforts for an extended period and people keep coming forward and raising their hand and saying, “Now I’m ready to go home.” I can point to Morocco, which was near the beginning of this mass effort in mid-March, almost a month ago now. When we took 1,200 people out in something like six flights, we thought we were down to everybody, all the tourists were out, and then I think it was a week ago we brought another planeload of people out because they had come out of the mountains, out of wherever to say they were seeking to be repatriated.
So those are the challenges – people off in truly remote areas, whether it’s up the Amazon, up on Everest, or people who are just coming forward later in this process than otherwise. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. And last question goes to Rosiland Jordan.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the call. This is a question for Ian. Just wanting to go back, I guess, about 30,000 feet. I know that people aren’t required to register with step.travel.gov when they’re overseas, but have you seen an uptick in the number of people registering with the website, and is that giving you a better sense of how many Americans are living or are traveling abroad and who might possibly need the State Department’s help down the road?
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, Rosiland, thanks. That’s a really good question. One of the key things we face in doing consular work overseas: How many U.S. citizens are there in our consular district? We estimate, for example, in Mexico there are somewhere between a million and a million and a half U.S. citizens. That’s obviously a huge range. How many are registered with the U.S. Government there? Far, far fewer than that, so it really does come down to estimates.
In terms of specific numbers of people who registered with STEP at the moment, I’m sorry, I don’t have that number at my fingertips and we’ll have to get back to you. But we have seen – I can say that anecdotally we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of people registered with STEP, but we’ll have to get back to you with more specifics. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great, guys. Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody, for dialing in.