Briefing: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad (April 16)

Briefing With Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services; Deputy Assistant Secretary Hugo Yon, Bureau of Economic and Business 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, everybody, and welcome to what is our ninth briefing on the State Department’s unprecedented effort to bring Americans home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this effort began at the end of January, we’ve helped bring home over 63,000 Americans from all corners of the globe.

Today we have three subject matter experts for this on-the-record briefing to help tell that extraordinary story: Ian Brownlee, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs; Dr. William Walters, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations from the Bureau of Medical Services; and Hugo Yon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Transportation Affairs in our Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Dr. Walters will begin with some opening remarks and turn it over to DAS Yon. Following that, PDAS Brownlee will give the latest repatriation figures, and then we’ll have time to take a few of your questions. A reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Dr. Walters, please go ahead.

DR WALTERS: Thank you and good afternoon, colleagues. The Bureau of Medical Services continues to support the COVID response and the health and welfare of the workforce, and happy to say that our efforts and the efforts of the department in both social distancing and taking appropriate measures while continuing the meet the mission are paying off.

Current cases are 187 overseas with 125 recovered cases, and current cases domestically are 72. We’re showing four recovered cases, but part of the discrepancy there is likely cases that are picked up by state and local public health for monitoring, and so we anticipate that trend line is much closer to what you would see if you mapped out the overseas cases.

Overall, we have a healthy workforce, and look forward to taking your questions.

MR BROWN: DAS Yon, please go ahead.

MR YON: Okay. Good afternoon. Hey, I’m glad to be back along with Dr. Walters and Ian Brownlee. Last time I spoke with you, I highlighted a new way that we at the department have worked with the U.S. airline industry to deploy commercial rescue flights. Today I’ll quickly recap, provide a few examples, and note how we are putting the commercial rescue model in place as mass repatriation operations wind down country by country.

Since early March, the department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs has been coordinating with our embassies and airlines to facilitate over 280 commercial rescue flights. These flights have been used to repatriate more than 27,000 American citizens, and at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer. That 27,000 is over 40 percent of all Americans repatriated from around the world.

Amid the worst crisis in the aviation industry’s history, our commercial carriers and other partners helped double the department’s capacity to repatriate Americans. Our airlines are exhibiting flexibility to stand up these unique commercial rescue flights in the face of unprecedented challenges in host countries, such as reduced airport functions, curfews and internal travel restrictions in those countries, and quarantine requirements. Their provision of these flights has allowed the department to prioritize resources to where they are needed the most.

This commercial rescue model has been particularly successful in Latin America and Caribbean countries, from which the vast majority of Americans were repatriated. I’ll provide you just a few examples.

From Honduras we were able to repatriate 4,600 American citizens on commercial rescue flights without the need for any State Department-funded charters. We worked with our embassy and United Airlines to provide commercial rescue flights within 48 hours of the Honduran Government’s orders to close the country’s borders and suspend international flights.

In Ecuador, despite increasingly challenging flight restrictions, we worked with our embassy to facilitate the vast majority of the 3,500 American repatriations on commercial rescue flights operated by Eastern Airlines, Swift Air, Sun Country Airlines, and United Airlines.

In Haiti, within just a few days of suspended scheduled service flights, commercial rescue operations operated by American Airlines, Eastern Airlines, and Jet Blue facilitated the repatriation of over 1,300 American citizens.

In Peru U.S. Embassy Lima has been – has helped repatriate over 7,200 U.S. citizens to date. We continue to help the U.S. citizens who remain there to return to the United States. Embassy Lima’s repatriation efforts just transitioned to facilitating commercial rescue flights, with one scheduled to depart today and more planned in the coming days. The embassy is offering repatriation loans for U.S. citizens who request assistance to help pay for the flight tickets.

Overall, we are winding down department-chartered flights in countries where the vast majority of Americans have already come home. As we do that, we are focusing on our ability to conduct more commercial rescue operations. Our embassies play a critical role in convincing countries to provide the necessary approvals to allow these on-demand repatriation flights to happen.

In addition to airlines operating large aircraft, airlines that operate smaller aircraft and private jets have also expressed a readiness to help, and we expect those airlines to play a larger role when numbers of Americans needing repatriation become smaller in each country.

That said, we can’t guarantee that there will be flights into an uncertain future, so Americans still overseas who want to come home should register with our embassies through the STEP program and get on available flights now.

I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Good afternoon. Thanks very much for the opportunity to speak with all of you again. I’m really glad to be back here because today I have this wonderful opportunity. Any incisive questions you may have can be directed to my good friend and colleague Hugo Yon, please. It may seem like Groundhog Day to you and me as we come together yet again to discuss the same topic, but really day in and day out, our State Department teams around the world and back here at home have been getting up, going to work all over again, and working relentlessly to help Americans and to get this job done. It is truly, as Cale said, an incredible and historic accomplishment.

I want to take a moment to recognize individually a few of those posts around the world that have been doing so much to get our Americans home via air, land, and sea. For example, yesterday the final repatriation flight with Greg Mortimer cruise ship, which had been stranded in Uruguayan waters since March 27th, brought home the last U.S. – the last six U.S. citizen passengers. Our embassy team down there in Montevideo worked closely with the Government of Uruguay to repatriate over 130 citizens on seven different cruise ships. Despite other countries in the region closing their borders and refusing to allow cruise ship passengers to disembark, the Government of Uruguay continued to work closely with diplomatic missions to ensure an emergency sanitary corridor was put in place to move passengers in the port side to the airport for their onward flights. Our embassy in Montevideo worked with several U.S. Government agencies, the cruise ship companies, and the Government of Uruguay to ensure flights were made available for American passengers to depart Uruguay.

As I previewed to you in earlier briefings, and as Hugo just told us, we have now shifted to commercially managed flights in Peru. Our embassy in Lima is still supporting those efforts by providing logistical advice to Eastern Airlines and by issuing transit letters for U.S. citizens to present to Peruvian security officials at checkpoints. The first of these flights left Lima today and there’s another scheduled for Saturday. We are happy to report this transition has been a smooth one, and that with the help of private sector partners and foreign governments, there are sustainable, long-term transportation options for Americans abroad.

I also want to take this opportunity to highlight our team’s efforts on repatriations from Africa since we haven’t focused as much on that region in our briefings so far. The department has coordinated the repatriation of 10,878 U.S. citizens from Africa so far, and we continue to work closely with host governments and partners on these efforts. Providing help to U.S. citizens spread across such a vast continent, including some on remote islands, has posed a particular challenge when host countries have imposed severe internal travel restrictions.

For example, in Namibia, our embassy in Windhoek helped get 43 U.S. citizens home on a special commercial flight, the logistics of which required many sections of the embassy to pitch in. The regional security office worked with local police to make sure Americans coming from around the country could pass through checkpoints. At the same time, the consular section was hard at work sending messages through STEP, e-mail, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and making phone calls to keep the 43 passengers informed about logistics.

We will continue to be creative and pursue all possible solutions, but as the Secretary has said, our ability to assist U.S. citizens is limited by demand and resources. In some areas, local conditions such as quarantines or remoteness may compel Americans on the ground to shelter in place until the crisis is passed. Given these challenges, it is especially important that the U.S. citizens who are 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.

With that, I look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.

MR BROWN: Okay, for our first question, can you open the line of Matt Lee?

QUESTION: I’ll be very brief. For Doc Walters, I just wanted to check to make sure that the fatalities, the deaths, are still where they were when we last had a call.

And then kind of a more esoteric question for PDAS Brownlee. You mentioned remote islands off Africa. I remember kind of early on in this whole thing there was concern about Americans who might be stranded on Easter Island. Did anything ever come of that? Were there people actually there? And also in places like the Andaman Islands off of India, which are – I know that you’ve talked in the past about getting people out of base camp at Everest and other places, but in terms of those islands that are really out of the – off the beaten track, are there any examples of repatriation from there? Thank you.

DR WALTERS: Afternoon, Matt. No change in the deaths from previous report.

MR BROWNLEE: And Matt, Ian here. Yeah, we were hearing reports about folks on Easter Island. I’m not seeing anything, so I do not know. Either they weren’t there or they’ve made it back, because there were still commercial flights out of Santiago, so it could very well be that these folks managed to make their way back from Easter Island to the mainland and come on in.

And what I was really referring to was some – a young woman who was on one of the really remote islands in the Maldives, and there were complete inter-island restrictions imposed there, and so it took a great deal of effort to get her moved from where she was to the airport so she could get out. But I believe that has now been effected. I have not heard anything about the Andamans, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, for the next question, can we go to the line of Lara Jakes?

QUESTION: I was wondering – I think, Ian, this goes to you, but if somebody could explain to me whether there is a policy that requires embassy staff to book flights out before it’s offered to American citizens. I understand that’s happening and was just curious as to why.

MR BROWNLEE: I’m not sure I’m clear on the question. To book flights out before they’re made available; is that what you’re asking?

QUESTION: So – yes, embassy staff get first priority to leave on the flights before they’re open to American citizens in whatever country to book flights out.

MR BROWNLEE: No, we had – we are on worldwide authorized departure and ordered departure in some areas, and in some areas we are continuing to bring what we call chief of mission personnel, either employees or family members, out. This is an ongoing thing, so no, they’re not getting first dibs, because we’ve brought out whatever it is, 64,000 private U.S. citizens, and we’re still continuing to bring out some chief of mission personnel.

Does that answer the question?

MR BROWN: Yeah, I believe it does. Thanks. Let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Thanks. One of you – I think it was Hugo – mentioned repatriation loans that travelers can avail themselves of. Could you talk a little bit more about that? I mean, how do you qualify, how do you apply for that? I assume a traveler doesn’t have the money to pay for his or her ticket home and you guys lend that person the money, but how does it all work? I don’t know about —

MR BROWNLEE: Yes. Tracy, hi. This is Ian. That’s really a consular question.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR BROWNLEE: This is a long, longstanding program, and I’ve been at this for 31 years now, and I was doing repat loans back when I was a first-tour vice consul. So it’s been around for at least that long. And it wasn’t a new thing then, I don’t think. And essentially, what it says is, if we’ve got a U.S. citizen who is overseas and destitute, unable to pay their way home again, we may lend them the money to buy that ticket. And as I say, this is a program of longstanding, used many, many times a year around the world.

Now, obviously, in these circumstances with a near-complete shutdown of international air travel and the stranding of so many people, we are processing more repat loans than we previously did, but essentially, it is the same program that has existed for a long time. So we have people availing themselves of this program in – I know in Peru and in other places, in Africa, a great many places. Over.

MR BROWN: Great. For our next question, can we go to the line of Carol Morello?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Say, I saw on your repatriation website that you at one point got nine Americans on two flights out of Somalia. Are you still able to get Americans out of Somalia when it’s such small numbers and it’s such a difficult place to get someone out of? Can you still extract people from Somalia? Thank you.

DR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters —

MR BROWNLEE: Hi, Carol. Ian here. It is an – yeah, I’ll let Doc Walters come in on the specifics of those nine, but let me just say that with regard to folks who are in many, many parts of Somalia, our ability to assist them is very limited given the dire security situation on the ground there. Our folks rarely leave the compound except to go to the airport. But with regard to the specifics, I’ll let Doc Walters answer.

DR WALTERS: Yeah. So the Bureau of Medical Services, working closely with posts and Diplomatic Security, maintains a contract aviation capability. As Ian pointed out, any operation inside of Somalia is dangerous and complex, but yes, we still have the ability to extract certainly chief of mission personnel, DOD service members, and in rare instances that can be carefully coordinated and choreographed, others that, again, coordinated carefully through the mission there in Mogadishu.

MR BROWNLEE: Ian here. What we have a hard time doing is assisting anybody who isn’t right within that – right within Mogadishu. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Next, can we go to the line of Courtney McBride?

QUESTION: Thanks. Just to return quickly to the cost question, do you have any details – and this may be something to take to the record – but on the cost to individual citizens for the various methods of repatriation, the commercial flights and charters?

And then on the repatriation loans, what account within the department covers that, and what are the terms or the timelines for repayment?

MR BROWNLEE: Let me take – Ian here. Let me take the last part, and I think Hugo is better placed to address the first part. There is a fund made available to the Bureau of Consular Affairs for repatriation loans. In normal times, it is at about a million dollars that gets replenished and – as they get drawn down. These are not entirely normal times in this respect, so I couldn’t tell you what the running balance is. What happens is somebody takes out the loan, we purchase the ticket, they come home again, and we pass the loan to another part of the State Department for a collection effort. We have a very high repayment rate on those loans, so it’s – I don’t know, does that answer your question?

DR WALTERS: And it’s Dr. Walters. I can take the first one, actually.


DR WALTERS: The first part of the question was with regard to calculation of what amounts to a ticket price, right, what – on a repatriation flight that is not a commercial rescue, but a – what we would call a K Fund flight, the amount due for reimbursement legally required by the department to seek is the cost of a full-fare, Y-class economy ticket from that location back to whatever the destination is – in most cases, back to Washington, D.C. And so our office of transportation management goes back through the ticketing system, identifies what the price of that type of ticket would be – and essentially, this is the ticket you would get if you walked up to the counter prior to that – this global pandemic. And that is the amount of money that becomes the basis of a promissory note.

MR YON: Hi, this is Hugo. Let me add to that, is – so that’s for the K Fund flights and – so it’s – there’s a upper limit on what the charge is. For a commercial flight, the State Department doesn’t determine that price. That is a price that the airlines charge themselves. In this time of COVID-19 with the unprecedented response from multiple – all the countries around the world, there are a number of obstacles to normal flight. So these special flights have to overcome a number of obstacles, including our own K Fund flights, and those obstacles increase the risk and the cost of these flights.

And we understand that those are the factors that go into the pricing that the airlines price, and again, some of those hurdles severely reduced airport services due to internal host country curfews. There simply aren’t enough airline workers to service the airport.

Second, requirements to fly the planes empty to the country. As a country’s borders are closed, you can’t fly any passengers down, so there increases the cost.

Another one is the internal movement restrictions that can cause American citizens to not make it to the airport in time for their flight, so then you have people who don’t get on the planes, and that also increases price pressure. So that’s a little bit more on the commercial rescue side of the pricing. I hope that answers the question. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, can we go to the line of Conor Finnegan?

QUESTION: Hey, I have two questions. First, there are a handful of Americans who are working on one of Holland America’s cruise ships, the MS Volendam, and they’re unable to disembark in the Bahamas. What kind of consular service or advice would you have for them as they’re sort of trapped in that scenario? And generally, what kind of recommendations are you making for the hundreds of Americans, if not more, that are still out to sea on these cruise ships?

And then secondly, and this may not be relevant to what – it may not be a question the three of you can answer, but on Secretary Pompeo’s call yesterday with Yang Jiechi of China, he noted the importance of continued exportation of medical supplies. Are you seeing shortages here in terms of either particular medicines or equipment because of China’s export controls that they’ve put in place over COVID?

MR BROWN: We’ll tackle the second question as a taken question, but we can tackle the first one.

MR BROWNLEE: With regard to cruise ships, you are correct that I think almost all of the passengers are off almost all of the cruise ships by now. That one I mentioned at the top, the Greg Mortimer, was one of the last that I’m aware of. This does leave some number, some fairly significant number of U.S. citizen crew members on cruise ships. And there are a number of them around the world that are seeking to get into port and then to be able to disembark their crews.

We are working with governments where these ships are trying to put ashore so that U.S. citizens and likeminded government, fellow – other governments are working in the same ports to try to get their nationals off the ships. But what we’re finding is, in a great many places, the governments are simply refusing to allow the ships to come in and to dock. What we’re doing is continuing to press to let these folks get off the ships. In the meantime, they’re on board the ship, where they’re being fed and taken care of by the cruise line themselves. Over.

MR YON: Hi, this is Hugo. Let me try to address the second part of the question. In terms of the part of the question on the short supply, I want to defer you to FEMA. They are the ones tracking that, could give you a better answer.

What I can say is that we in the State Department and the Economic Bureau, along with other agencies in the White House, have been working very hard with the Chinese to keep cargo and critical cargo moving between our countries, including air cargo that carries this PPE that’s important in the battle against COVID-19. So we’ve had good communications and working on facilitating planes and crews to keep those kinds of goods moving. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, for the next question, I think we have time for two more. Let’s go to the line of Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have a very quick question. Your call for all Americans to return includes security contractors that are maybe under contract with the U.S. military or foreign governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: My call is not necessarily for all Americans to return; it’s for all Americans to decide whether they seek our assistance in returning now, or to be prepared to ride out some indefinite stay where they are. Over.

MR BROWN: Nick? Okay, I hear nothing there. Let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing this. Two questions. So when you guys are done, to the best of your ability, with these repatriation efforts, what does the task force plan to do? Like, how long will you guys be stood up, and is there another mission related to coronavirus that you guys will refocus on, I guess?

And then the second question is General Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command, said that they got three Americans out of Kabul this week to treat them for COVID. And I’m just wondering, were any of them U.S. embassy officials? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: I’ll take the first part of that. We have no intention of pulling down or terminating this task force. This is going to be an ongoing effort. It may cease to be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, in-person operation at some point in the future – may cease to be that. We are beginning discussions as to what this should look like going out into the future. But it will continue. There’s no end date in mind. So we will not be turning to something else; we’ll be continuing to address the needs of U.S. citizens overseas as the pandemic hopefully wanes, but as it develops over the future months. Over.

DR WALTERS: Hi, this is Dr. Walters. The three individual – it’s tough to say for certain, so I would direct your question over to TRANSCOM. But I can confirm on the Afghanistan piece that they were not U.S. embassy personnel.

I would add to what PDAS Brownlee stated that from the Bureau of Medical Services has two separate task forces that are in addition to the repatriation task force, and I think that probably goes across the department. A number of bureaus have their own component to what is the most complex problem set weve seen in a very long time. And those efforts will continue. Our duties under occupational safety and health, and that MED HART task force and contact tracing and providing guidance will continue for the foreseeable future, and we will continue to focus very hard on the safety and security of our overseas embassy populations, managing complex logistics and supply chains not necessarily related to PPE, but everything else it takes to run an embassy in during a time, as DAS Yon pointed out, where the usual backbone of commercial flights and cargo flights has been significantly disrupted.

So theres going to be a lot of work to do for the various task forces at the State Department well after the repatriation flights start to slow down.

MR BROWN: Okay. It seems like Nick has gotten back on the line, if our briefers have time for one more.


MR BROWN: Okay. Nick, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey. Hey, thank you. Hugo, I was just hoping you could follow up on the answer you gave to Conor. You mentioned that the State Department is working hard with China to keep critical cargo moving between our countries. Can you at least indicate whether there has been some concern or delay about some of these Chinese measures resulting in exports to the U.S. being held up, and give us some sense of degree to which thats a challenge and a concern at the State Department? Thank you.

MR YON: Hi, Nick. Im sorry, on that one I personally have not been following that particular factor. The part that I and my team have been working on are the flight crew testing issues that have been that caused a block to a number of flights coming in. And that is getting resolved. In terms of the other factor you mentioned, I actually dont have that information. Sorry. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, well take that as a taken question, Nick.

All right, thanks everyone. Thanks to our briefers for joining us again today, for your valuable time. Thanks, everybody for joining the call. Now that weve reached the end, the embargo on the call is lifted. Have a great day, everybody.