Briefing: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad (April 22)

Briefing with Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services, 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 I believe is our 10th briefing on the State Department’s historic effort to bring Americans home from every corner of the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have two subject matter experts joining us for this on-the-record briefing, and you’ve all become quite familiar with them both: Ian Brownlee, our principal deputy assistant secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs; and Dr. William Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations from the Bureau of Medical Services. Dr. Walters will begin with opening remarks and turn it over to PDAS Brownlee. After that 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: Yeah, thanks, and good afternoon, everybody. Daily statistics: our overseas current cases are 169. I’m happy to say that our recovered cases are at 152, and I would anticipate that those two lines will cross probably in the next couple of days where we have more recovered cases than current cases, and that’s a good-news story for everybody and a testament to the countermeasures that have been put in place in each of our embassies around the world. We still have no trends to show employee-to-employee transmission either domestically or overseas. Our current cases domestically are 79. Our current fatalities are unchanged, so very happy to see that. And our current medevac numbers are unchanged as well.

And so overall we have a very healthy workforce overseas that are continuing to deliver on the Secretary’s promise. Back to Ian.

MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Will. Hello to my friends in the Fourth Estate. Hello, it’s good to be back here with all of you.

The Department of State has coordinated the repatriation of 65,000 U.S. citizens and family members from 122 countries on 687 flights so far.

I’d like to focus today on our efforts in India and Pakistan. We are still tracking significant numbers of U.S. citizens requesting repatriation assistance. In India, we’ve already coordinated the repatriation of more than 4,000 U.S. citizens. We have four more flights scheduled in the coming days. Getting people to New Delhi and Mumbai, the outbound hubs for those two – for those flights, is no small feat in the midst of a nationwide lockdown, but Mission India team is up to this challenge. They are actively coordinating with passengers arriving on feeder flights and buses from all across this huge country.

In Pakistan —

QUESTION: I can’t hear you.

MR BROWNLEE: — the department has helped bring home more than 1,000 U.S. citizens with six more flights planned. The Pakistani Government’s strict lockdown on internal travel has posed significant challenges for us. All internal domestic flights are grounded, and all ground transportation is banned for vehicles holding more than three people. Our team in Pakistan is making every effort to help people get to Islamabad and Karachi to board our repatriation flights, and will continue to do so.

We strongly encourage U.S. citizens in both India and Pakistan and elsewhere to register at and also to monitor our embassy websites carefully for the latest information on flights. Consular sections around the world are consistently sending out detailed messages about the status of repatriation flights and local health conditions via STEP as well as through our embassy websites and social media accounts.

Communicating safety and security information to U.S citizens overseas is always a top priority for the Department of State, and especially so during this difficult time. We are tracking many cases of U.S. citizens overseas who are not necessarily close to a capital or other major city, and we’re making every effort to help people get to where they can take advantage of our repatriation flights, of course local travel conditions permitting.

For example, in the Philippines we have coordinated sweeper flights to collect U.S. citizens from Cebu, Davao, and Iloilo and get them to Manila to fly home. In Cabo Verde, the team is working to arrange a charter repatriation flight that will collect U.S. citizens from several island locations before an onward connection to Boston. We are working hard and creatively to help those who have come forward to request our assistance, but as I’ve said on multiple occasions, these flights will not go on forever.

And I think with that, I look forward to your questions. Out.

MR BROWN: All right. If you’re on a speaker line and you’re not speaking, please mute your line. And if you want to get into the queue, of course, press 1 and 0. I think we have one person in the queue right now. Let’s go ahead and open the line of Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, everyone. I wonder if both of you can address different parts of this. Ian, for example, can you say how many American citizens who have registered through STEP are still waiting for some assistance, or do you have any kind of sense of how many thousands of Americans are still hoping to get on some kind of repatriation flight?

And Doc Walters, I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about risks of people trying to take commercial flights now. I know that in some places the State Department is no longer offering chartered flights and the urging is to get on commercial flights if they want to come home. But I wonder if we have reached a point where there are no good options for coming home, if people are now running the risk of catching the coronavirus if they go through commercial flights or any other kind of commercial transport where they could be in contact with people who have not been in self-isolation. Thanks.

MR BROWNLEE: Lara, yeah, we’re tracking – I’m always kind of reluctant to give this number out, but we’re tracking something like 17,000 people who have expressed some degree of interest in maybe getting our help, and this – these – there’s a range of people out there, which is why the number is not all that meaningful, and some of these are people who say, “Yup, I’m waiting at the airport; you give me a call and I’ll show up tomorrow and get on a flight.”

There are others who have been registered by, for example, their children in the United States saying, “My aging parents are in country X,” Peru or wherever, “and they should be getting out of there,” and in fact those aging parents have no particular interest or desire to leave.

So it’s this big – a big range. The number is still up in the multiple thousands, though. Over.

DR WALTERS: And hey, it’s Dr. Walters. I – you bring up a great question, and that is – and it’s really been the question since, like, February: Is it safer to stay where I am or to make my way back to the United States if I am an American expatriate, I’m an American citizen that finds themselves them in – pick a place, Bujumbura. It’s a tough – it’s a tough calculus for anybody to sort through and it’s an individual decision. On the one hand, if you get on a repatriation flight, you are going to be well inside social distancing distances for a short period of time, where you can come back to the United States where you are a citizen and you have access to health care and you have access to an infrastructure that is still intact; or you can stay where you are, understanding that if you’re in a place where the infrastructure wasn’t good to begin with, that when the peak – when that steep uphill climb starts and when it gets to peak, you will be an American citizen in a foreign country that didn’t have great infrastructure to begin with, and now you have less rights and less access to less infrastructure.

I think that is an individual decision that people have to make, but they need to make it very clear-eyed, understanding that the State Department remains committed to taking care of American citizens wherever they are, but taking care of them doesn’t necessarily mean a repatriation flight in a timeframe where it’s needed. And so we’ve been keeping up as well as we could, and Africa is a great example, where the vast majority of international airports and the vast majority of international airspace has been closed down, and we’ve still been working through those problem sets. But if you look at the epidemiology curves for Africa right now, they’re only about to start the uphill climb. And so whatever problems we’ve had in the past getting repatriation flights in and out of Africa and many other places in the Southern Hemisphere are only going to get worse.

And so to Ian’s point over the last many calls, if you’re going to make a decision – if you’re an American citizen and you find yourself overseas and you feel the earth quake, don’t continue to stand on the beach waiting for the tsunami. The tsunami will come. And they still have time to make decisions – make decisions regarding repatriation flights, make decisions based on international commercial flights. Really, there is no difference in the distance between the two seats, and quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of distance with regard to self-isolation and any assurance that the person sitting next to you has been doing the right thing.

That’s not the question. The question is: Are you safer in the United States as an American citizen than you are overseas? I hope that answers your question.

MR BROWN: Okay. For our second question let’s go to the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks again. I can’t remember exactly when this was. Maybe it was last week, maybe it was a month ago, but time runs together. But you guys had talked, or at least one of you had talked about the situation in Brazil, and your concern that there were a huge number of Americans – like more than – significantly more than there were in Peru or ended up being in Peru – who are in Brazil and who are at risk if they – and I’m just wondering if anything more has come of those concerns. Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Matt, Ian here. Yeah, I was probably the one who mentioned that. There’s a very large expat population in Brazil. Who knows how many – a couple hundred thousand or so. And there are still commercial flights from Brazil to the United States. There are fewer than there were just a couple of weeks ago, but there are still something on the order of nine or so flights a week between major Brazilian cities and the United States. And so we’re strongly encouraging people to focus on where they are, should they stay there, should they go through that analysis that Will just went through and decide, “Am I going to stay here or am I going to head back to the United States?”

Take advantage of those commercial options while they exist. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, for our next question can we go to the line of Courtney McBride.

QUESTION: Thanks. Do you have a breakdown of the number of Americans who traveled commercially versus on K Fund flights and perhaps the number who availed themselves of the repatriation loans? And then beyond India and Pakistan, and Matt just asked about Brazil, are there other countries with large numbers of Americans who have contacted the department seeking a return?

MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Courtney. Ian here. So I got three questions, right? Number of repat loans, other large countries. I’m sorry, what was the first one?

QUESTION: Yes, and just the commercial versus K Fund flight breakdown, if you have it.

MR BROWNLEE: Oh, commercial v K Fund. Really broadly speaking – and it’s not just commercial v K Fund – it will be sort of commercial v USG-funded, because Doc Walters’ MED flights have brought home a very large number of people. So – and then we also had some come in on DOD Space-A, et cetera. So – but broadly speaking, if you go appropriated funds versus commercial repat, it’s something like 60, 65 to 35 to 40 percent, 35-40 being the commercial rescue flights.

The number of repat loans overall, I don’t have that. I do know that we’ve been doing a lot of them in Brazil – I’m sorry, Brazil – Peru, and I’ve got a figure here that last week we did 59 in Peru alone. I don’t have the number for – the worldwide number from the beginning of this crisis.

And then in terms of other large populations, really – the really heavy populations where we are pulling people out now, we’re identifying people, are those that I identified earlier: Pakistan, India. The other populations are smaller. They may accumulate to a fairly large number. Bear with me a second. I’m going to pull up a data point here to give to you. Bear with me just a moment.

Yeah. So looking across the entire world, we’re looking, we’re tracking – the greatest number are still in South Central Asia, India, Pakistan. And the vast bulk of those are in India; it’s like 6,000 or so. Western Hemisphere, we’re tracking somewhere in the 4,000 range. Africa comes next with about 3,000.

And after that, it goes down to – I mean, it goes down to much smaller numbers in the rest of the world. So really, the big one – I’m rambling on – the big one is India. Over.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, let’s hear from Jessica Donati.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I – this is just a continuation from Courtney’s question. I’m wondering, when you give us the figure of 65,000 Americans that were aided by the State Department to come home, do you have a number for the number of people that were on special – specially organized State Department flights and those that simply got onto commercial flights that became available?

MR BROWNLEE: Well, it’s that percentage breakdown I just gave. I’m not very good at math. I can’t do the math precisely and I – it’s that range, that percentage breakdown. Somewhere in the high 30s, 40 percent are on commercial flights where the State Department and our embassies overseas put in a heavy lift in pressing the local government, wherever that is, to permit these flights to come in.

So a good example would be Peru, where we’ve had these four Eastern Airlines flights in the past week or so. That took quite a lot of work on the part of the embassy to get permission from the Government of Peru for those flights to take place. Something similar is – there’s an outfit down there called Solange. We’ve not been as heavily engaged on behalf of Solange, but we have been involved there.

Something similar takes place in, for example, the Bay Islands of Honduras, big tourist destination. There are a lot of U.S. citizen tourists on the island of Roatan, and the embassy in Tegucigalpa had to play quite a heavy role in getting permission for U.S. commercial flights to go into Roatan airport and bring those folks home. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay. Christina Ruffini, next question.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Ian, I’m wondering if you can address the President’s announcement about the 60-day immigration freeze and what that means for consular officers of the State Department, visas already in progress, things like that. He also said there would be an easier way for those farm workers to come into the country. Are there any changes in the work to how you’re processing H-2A seasonal worker visas or any changes to that program? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Well, Christina, I have been, I think, a hundred percent involved in repats ever since this whole thing started. So I think what I can say about two points there – and I’ve said this before – is that we have substantially ended routine visa operations around the world in response to the crisis, and we’ve – folks have been coming home on authorized or ordered departure, or they’ve been pivoting to do other work, specifically, in many cases, American citizen services. So as I say, routine visa services have been substantially terminated –suspended.

With regard to H-2As, we recognize that these H-2A workers are a priority for the maintenance of the U.S. food supply, and so our posts around the world, and particularly in Mexico and Central America where the vast majority of the H-2As come from, are prioritizing H-2As. Other than that, I’m – I can only speak about repatriations. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay. Next question let’s go to Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you. Two questions – I may have missed this off the top, but how many Americans are you still tracking that are asking for assistance to come back? And do you have a percentage of the State Department workforce internationally that has come back to the U.S.? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Kylie, Ian here. As I said earlier, we’re tracking a number of around 17,000 who have expressed some degree of interest in maybe being repatriated. As I said, these range from people who are eagerly waiting with their bags packed and would hop on the next air – next flight out, to folks who maybe they want to be on a list, to folks who are on the list because their kids put them on there. So that number of about 17,000 is – that’s not 17,000 people lining up at airports around the world waiting to get onboard. The number of people who are seeking immediate assistance is much, much smaller, and that’s one of our challenges at the moment is determining exactly what the real, comma, current demand is. Over. And I’ll defer to Will on the percentage question.

DR WALTERS: Yeah, I don’t happen to have the percentage of the folks that have rotated back. We’d have to take that.

MR BROWN: Okay. Looks like the last question we have in the queue is from Humeyra.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Just to follow up on Christina’s question, Ian, I understand you said the consular, like, visa services have been reduced substantially, but you also mentioned that the process was still continuing for some people in the pipeline, say, like medical professionals who have secured a job in the U.S. Could you talk a little bit about what happens to them, the people who had put their applications already in and may be, like, waiting for an appointment or, like, waiting for paperwork? What happens to those people in the pipeline? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Humeyra, I’m sorry, I am going to have to take that question. This is something that has come up in the past very short while, and I have been entirely focused on repatriation, so I’m sorry I’m not in a position to answer that question. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay. Looks like we have one more. If we could, again, try to keep this on repatriation, and go to the line of Carol Morello.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing that. Can you hear me?

MR BROWN: Sure can.

MR BROWNLEE: We hear you.

QUESTION: Great. You’ve been saying for quite some time now that these flights will not last forever, but you’ve also said they’re winding down. So while I realize you can’t foresee what various countries will do in terms of closing down their airspace, could you give a rough estimate? How much longer do you think at least the U.S. Government-paid-for flights will continue? Are we talking days? Will it go into next month? Do you – can you give a rough idea? What is your sense of how much longer you will continue with this work? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Carol. This really – it’s hard to say on a worldwide – or better said, there is no single worldwide answer to that question. What we have found in a number of places – and I mentioned Honduras earlier, Guatemala, for example, is another case where intermittent commercial options are now available and relatively frequent. They’re not daily, there aren’t multiple flights a day, but there are multiple flights a week out of those places. We’re looking – we’re hoping to see a similar sort of rhythm out of Peru soon. Places like India are more challenging at the moment. Pakistan I mentioned is – both of those places – there is a complete lockdown on internal movement, and there are also relatively large U.S. citizen populations. So we have multiple authorized K Fund charter flights out into the future. It really is going to be very much a country by country, case-specific answer to your question. Are we going to get into May? I – yes, we are. Are we going to get deep into May? That question I cannot answer at this point. Over.

MR BROWN: Okay, that looks like it was our last question, so thank you to our briefers once again for joining us and for everybody who dialed in. That concludes the call and the contents of the call are – the embargo is lifted. All right, thanks.