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
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, everybody, and sorry for our tardiness. We keep having a little bit of technical difficulties today, so we’ll try to allow for as many questions as possible. I believe you press 1 and 0 on this particular line if you’d like to ask a question, so please go ahead and do so.
And just a reminder, as with all of our calls, this is on the record but is embargoed until the end of the call, please.
The United States recognizes the critical importance of communicating clear, timely, and transparent information during a time of crisis such as the global outbreak of the COVID – excuse me, the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in that spirit that we have conducted numerous briefings on this topic from the State Department already and are committed to continuing that pattern in the weeks ahead.
To help us on that, we have joining us for today’s on-the-record call our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee as well as Dr. William Walters, Executive Director and Managing Director for Operational Medicine in our Bureau of Medical Services. They will provide an update on the State Department’s unprecedented and historic efforts to bring Americans home from all over the world as well as to give you a sense of the impact of the pandemic on the State Department’s global workforce. Doc Walters will begin with some opening remarks and then turn it over to PDAS Brownlee, then we’ll take a few questions. Just a reminder, again, that this call is embargoed until the end.
One thing that I would add is that all of you should have received from Ruben and his team the new one-pager that we’re updating every day. We’re trying to get that updated daily around 1 p.m., so you should be able to go to that link from here on out for – every afternoon for the newest facts and figures that we have from the State Department.
So let me go ahead and turn it over to Doc Walters in case you have any opening remarks.
MR WALTERS: Thank you, Morgan. Hello, everybody, and thanks for the opportunity to give you an update once again. The Bureau of Medical Services really within this outbreak context has two focuses. The first focus is protecting our workforce both domestically and overseas, and our second focus, equally important, is assisting Consular and the rest of the department in the repatriation of American citizens that find them stranded – find themselves stranded in a number of different places around the world.
I can report first on the – on our efforts to protect our workforce. I know there’s a desire to keep pace with sort of how our workforce is doing. I can report that in a workforce of roughly 75,000 people overseas, 220 locations, our current case – COVID-positive cases are at 68. We have one Medevac in transit or in process. That’s an individual who was mildly symptomatic, and we’re coordinating that evacuation back to the States.
And domestically, we have 25 current cases, and – in eight locations around the country, but all are doing well. And that’s about it on the dashboard for today.
With regard to evacuations, I’ll focus first on the medical evacuations. We recently completed a medical evacuation of a coronavirus victim on behalf of DOD out of Camp Lemonnier. That individual – critically ill – was evacuated using our biocontainment capability to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and is doing very well.
An American citizen taken out of Bhutan maybe a week and a half ago and brought back to the United States is doing very well. A chief of mission person that was evacuated out of Ouagadougou was coronavirus-positive and was brought back to the States, is doing very well, and will be convalescing – is being discharged from the hospital and convalescing.
And we have one more that I reported on the dashboard, individual who was minimally symptomatic in south – in – not – in southern Africa, not South Africa – and will be brought back to the States in coming days.
We’re currently running through the State Department’s contracted aviation assets as opposed to charters. We conducted evacuations out of North Africa today, Tunis specifically, completed an evacuation flight out of – that went Ouagadougou to Monrovia, Liberia, and then up to Lisbon, and then back to the States. We’ll be launching more evacuation flights as early as tonight covering Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, into Madagascar. We’ll have one more stop in Africa that we’re working through right now, and then back to the States. And we’ll be conducting these operations over the next several days.
Pending your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Let’s turn it over to Ian, please.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Morgan. Thank you, Will. And thank you, all of you. It really is good to be back here to talk to all of you again today.
Our work to bring Americans home has continued apace as we last spoke. We have now brought home over 15,000 people from over 40 countries and are tracking at least 64 flights over the next week. We have identified 9,000 passengers – about 9,000 passengers – to go on those flights, though there’s space for more, so we need to continue to get the word out that these flights are available.
I want to emphasize again for your audiences how important it is that U.S. citizens abroad, while they still have commercial opportunities, if they’re not prepared to hunker down where they are now, act now to get home. Avail yourself of those commercial opportunities while they still exist. We are still working to connect people to commercial options where those flights are available and to lay on charter flights where they are not. In some countries we are seeing demand for repatriation already beginning to drop as we bring home hundreds or thousands of Americans. We strongly encourage those still overseas to take advantage of the flights we are coordinating while they remain available.
We continue to see the greatest demand for repatriation assistance from U.S. citizens in Central and South America. We have now brought home over 700 Americans from Ecuador and 2,000 from Guatemala, and our flights are continuing from both countries today and tomorrow and out into the future. Yesterday we had two flights out of Peru; today we have three. I think the third one is going wheels up right about as I speak. We have more planned right through the weekend. We are planning three flights a day, two from Lima, one from Cuzco through April 1st. If we need to continue beyond that, we will do so. In total, so far, we’ve brought more than 1,200 U.S. citizens home from Peru.
Meanwhile, we’re tracking increasing interest in other regions, across Africa but also particularly in India, as well as passengers on cruise ships across the globe. We recently had our first flight out of Jordan as well. We are continuing to work 24-7 to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can. I am very, very proud to be representing a global team of incredibly dedicated staff who are moving mountains every day and every night in every region to do something truly unprecedented (inaudible). And pending your questions, that’s it. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. I think I’m leading off on the Q&A part, and I think that we have Jessica Donati first, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. We received some photos from the flight that departed Peru today that showed that the flights were mostly empty. I was wondering if you could speak to the logistical problems that are causing this to happen.
MR BROWNLEE: Yes, let me mumble for a moment, try to pull up the data I have here on the flights, how many people were on those flights. We got 243 on one flight, 146 on another flight which is wheels up already. The 146 certainly does not come anywhere near to filling the capacity of that plane. I think the difficulty is this – and I have reason to believe that it’s going to improve tomorrow, the next day, and out into the future – but the difficulty is this: Until really today, we did not have approval from the Peruvians on a timely basis. We now have that. They’ve approved three flights a day, for today and the next several days: two from Lima, one from Cuzco. We can now start building these manifests with enough anticipation that people can make it to the airports on time.
What we were facing before and what we – we’re still facing today was we were getting in touch with people and saying, “Hey, we have a plane tomorrow. Can you get to the airport?” And people just weren’t able to get to the airport on time. It’s regrettable that that many seats went empty, but I am hopeful that as we move forward through the rest of the weekend and into next week, we’ll be able to address this problem by giving people enough time to get to the airport, and that is thanks to the fact that the Peruvians finally gave us multiple days’ worth of flight approvals. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Can we have Lara Jakes now, New York Times?
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I had to take you guys off of double-mute. So my question is about a group of Americans who appear to be doubly stranded in Nepal. These are people who were approaching Base Camp Everest and they are worried about coming back down to Kathmandu for fear of catching COVID, and if they can’t get to Kathmandu, they obviously can’t get any flights out of Nepal.
So my question is: What kind of guidance would you give them at this point? Have there been any attempts to reach them? Has the Nepalese Government been helpful at all? I also understand other countries have been able to get similar doubly stranded trekkers out, so if you could just comment in any way. Appreciate it.
MR BROWNLEE: I confess I am not familiar with this particular group of trekkers. We’re going to have to take that question and get back to you. I’m sorry.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. We’ll take that one, no worries. Carol of Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Say, Ian, I wanted to ask you a question about this doctor visas thing that you have on your web page. Are you moving medical professionals who can work on COVID-19 treatments basically to the front of the line or speeding up their processing or give them – giving them some sort of preference? And what would you say to people who say you’re essentially trying to poach people and you’re encouraging a brain drain? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: We had – excuse – thank you, Carol, for that question. We had some – I’ve got to confess maybe what we put up on the web page is not as clear as it might have been. We’re ready to work with people who are already accepted into existing U.S. programs and had otherwise planned to travel to the United States. We are not going out looking for others. These are people who were ready to come in. What we’ve done is around the world we have suspended routine visa services, but we are – we have not shut down visa services. We’ve suspended routine visa services, and our posts overseas are ready to work with applicants who are – who were already identified as being eligible for these visas. Does that answer your question?
MS ORTAGUS: I think they probably closed her line. Yeah, they probably closed her line. That’s okay. Let’s go next to Christina Ruffini from CBS.
QUESTION: Hi, guys. Thanks so much. I wanted to follow up on the flights out of Cusco. We’ve been in touch with a young woman there who has heart problems and has been enrolled in everything she can, and as far as she knows, she is not getting anything but the regular updates. What would you say to Americans who are in these places and haven’t gotten any kind of direct contact from the State Department? Is there something else they should be doing?
And then I wanted to ask about the U.S. mission in Peru and in the region and around the world. Are you seeing a large amount of voluntary evacuations? Have all of those been authorized? And are you having any kind of problem with people self-voluntary evacuating themselves necessarily without permission? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah. Ian here. With regard to the young woman in Peru, and frankly, everybody else in Peru, we are pushing out or the embassy is pushing out three messages a day – morning, midday, and evening – and that is how we are communicating with these people. We simply don’t have the resources to be reaching individuals. We’re still dealing with a population of multiple thousands in Peru. So we are communicating through these messages and asking people to – excuse me – to let us know when they’re ready to travel so we can build up the manifests. I don’t know of this particular young woman you’re speaking, but that’s how we’re communicating.
With regard to your question about, if I understood you correctly, self-authorized departure, what – are you suggesting people are abandoning their posts? I’m sorry.
MS ORTAGUS: No, I think she was referring to Americans that are coming home maybe by booking their own chartered airplane or something like that.
MR BROWNLEE: Ah, ah, ah. Okay. Yes, yes, yes, quite right. Yes. What we have found is in a number of countries, people have found other ways to return to the United States. Haiti is a good example. It’s nearby and relatively easy to travel back to the States, so a number of people have traveled from there.
We have also found an increasing number of people who have decided that, all things considered, they’d just as soon hunker down where they are. So we’ve noticed that people who, a week ago, 10 days ago, had indicated a desire to be repatriated to the United States, in many cases, in quite a few cases, are now saying they’re going to stay where they are. We’ve seen this to a fairly high degree in Ecuador, for example. So we initially were tracking a number of some 7,000 who were going to seek to be repatriated. We’ve made our way through far fewer than that, maybe roughly a thousand, and we’re finding that demand is tapering off. So that’s what we’re seeing. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Abbie Williams, NBC.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. You mentioned a particular interest from Americans in India. I wondered if you could give an estimate in the number of Americans there who are trying to come back to the U.S. with the suspension of flights. And also, could you possibly give an approximation of where we are from the 50,000 that was mentioned the day before?
And if I could, one more. Regarding Foreign Service officers abroad, is there a discussion of a broader plan to bring a mass of U.S. diplomats home when private U.S. citizens have come back to the United States?
MS ORTAGUS: Ian, did we lose you?
MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry. I’m talking to a muted microphone. I apologize for that.
MS ORTAGUS: That’s okay. I do that all the time. Okay.
MR BROWNLEE: Not the first time. These are very rough numbers for India. We’re looking at 1,500 or so people in the New Delhi area who have identified themselves. We’re looking at multiple hundreds in the Mumbai area and another probably 6-, 700 in the Mumbai area who have identified themselves as being interested, and then another multiple hundreds – 3-, 400 range elsewhere in India who have identified themselves.
We are working with a multiplicity of options here. There is a church group that has chartered a large aircraft. We are facilitating the necessary permits for that aircraft. They’re ready to take out 150 or so Americans. We are working directly with both U.S. and foreign carriers to lay on aircraft direct from India to the United States.
The permitting is what’s complicated at the moment. We’re ready to act on this, but it’s the permitting that takes a while both in India and the United States. So we’re hopeful, and I think with reason we are hopeful, that those flights will begin within several days, within about three days or so.
You asked about the number of 50,000 that I cited whenever that last was we spoke. We are now tracking about 33,000. This is not because we’ve brought home 15,000 people in the meantime. It’s because – I’m going to be perfectly honest – some of that was some fat-fingering errors by a few of our posts. When we put out a data call asking people to tell us how many they were looking for, in one or two cases, an extra zero got added and that boosted the numbers way up. Once we did a scrub of the data, we got it down to where it should be.
But also, it’s the fact that, as I mentioned a little while ago, in some places, people have decided they’re just going to wait it out, wait out the curfew or wait out the quarantine where they are. And these, I guess, in many cases are the people who are expats resident overseas and they’ve just decided to wait it out in their home in whatever country they may be in at the moment. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. For one of your questions that you asked Abbie about the numbers, all of that now is – you should have the link. I think Ruben sent it out to everyone. So you should be able – we tried to make it easy for all of you to check those numbers on a daily basis. I think we’re at just very close to 14,000 that we have repatriated since we started this, but again, you can check that link and get all of the statistics.
QUESTION: My question is that – can I actually just follow up on Carol’s question about the visas with regards to the medical professionals? Thank you for the clarification, and I appreciate you saying the initial tweet maybe wasn’t clear enough. Can you – based on what you just said, can we just say now that there is actually an exception to medical professionals who already have their jobs secured but they need their visa to be processed? So can we say that State Department is actually processing those visas, because at the moment all other visas are suspended? And can you elaborate a little bit more on the motivation to process those visas over others? Thank you.
MR WALTERS: Well, let me clarify one point. All other visas are not suspended. They are not suspended. We have suspended routine visa services so that we can concentrate our efforts on assisting U.S. citizens. But all other visa services are by no means suspended. So for example, adoption visas. We are still processing visas for U.S. couples who are adopting children overseas. In some cases where there are immigrant visas where an applicant would be at risk of aging out under the law, we are still processing those visas. What we’ve done is substantially reduced our – the provision of visa services.
But let me just – for the sake of absolute clarity, I will read you the – what we are saying about these student – excuse me, about these doctors. The Department of State stands ready to work with doctors and other medical professionals who are already accepted into existing U.S. programs and otherwise expected to travel to the United States to work or study. Even though routine visa services are suspended, the Department and our post services are working to serve the most urgent visa applicants as resources and local government restrictions allow. We encourage medical professionals who already have an approved U.S. visa petition or certificate of eligibility in an approved exchange visitor program, particularly those working to treat or mitigate the effects of COVID-19, to consult with the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to determine what services that post is currently able to provide. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much. Appreciate that. Okay, let’s move over to – okay, let’s go over to Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. You’d be happy to know we’ve been tracking three or four people all week – the piece runs tonight – and two of them have actually gotten back, and both of those – all those people say that the problems initially with communication have gotten better. One exception is the one that I brought up yesterday, Uganda. A missionary there says he’s been trying to get out and now has an offer from the embassy to get on a flight, but the tickets are $2,500 each and his family is seven people. So can you give me some context about why certain flights, whether you can talk about the Uganda case or not, but you can talk about why certain flights are so expensive? And for Will, can you talk about the 1,700 who are isolating – self-isolating across the world, whether any hot spots or just the fact that they’re following CDC guidelines? Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, Ian here. I’m not sure of the exact nature of that Uganda flight. If it is a State Department chartered flight, we are required by law to take a promissory note in the amount of the pre-crisis fare. So whatever the fare would have been on a commercial flight immediately prior to the crisis, not – I don’t know the exact circumstances, what it normally costs to get a flight from Uganda to the United States, but that could well be the explanation. If this is other than a State Department chartered plane, if it’s a commercial airline, it’s up to them to decide what they are going to charge for a flight. Over.
Have I lost everybody?
MR HARUTUNIAN: Morgan, did you drop?
MR BROWNLEE: Ian is still here.
MS THOMPSON: Okay. I think Morgan is having some technical difficulties here. So I guess we can go ahead and take – I think we are at about time. I guess we can take one more, maybe from I think Nick’s in queue, Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Hi, I just had a question for you guys on as to how long you anticipate doing these flights. Is there a time horizon after which you’re anticipating that you won’t be offering these flights anymore? Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Nick, thanks for the question. It’s very, very much country specific and demand specific. So we’re working to get everybody who wants to get out out of these places. A good example here is in Haiti where we are finding that demand is tailing off very quickly. We’re working with a contract carrier who will continue to offer flights through the weekend but has said they’re going to stop on Monday because they’re just seeing the – they’re seeing the demand go away. They’re prepared to stop – to start up again should demand return, but – I’m just pulling up my notes here – they don’t plan to offer any further service after Monday, March 30th. So they’re open to discussing future flights should demand resurge.
And so that’s just an example. We’re seeing something similar in Honduras, something similar in Guatemala. As other places come online, I mentioned India earlier – it will be a big deal for some period of time until we can deal with that. Very much driven by the circumstances of the particular country. Over.
MS THOMPSON: Okay, I think we can take a question now from Matt Lee from the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Hi there. I’m sorry, I’m still confused about this whole physician, medical professional visa thing. If in fact there’s no special treatment being given to them or you’re not specifically encouraging them, why did you put out this tweet or this statement that was also on the travel.state.gov? It wasn’t just a tweet. I don’t get it. It just seems to be – if there is no special treatment, it seems to be a bit tone deaf, considering this mad scramble that everyone else in the world is going through, and including in the U.S.
And then the other thing I’d just like to point out is for everyone else who got that fact sheet, which is great – thank you very much – but make sure you scroll down in the repatriation section, because you don’t see all of the countries at first, and I made that mistake just now. Anyway, thank you for doing this.
MS THOMPSON: Okay, I think we’ve got time for one more. We can take one from Roz Jordan of Al Jazeera.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Sorry, Ian didn’t answer Matt’s question.
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry.
MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry. Once again, I had mute pressed. Matt, I – what I said to myself here was I’m going to have to take the question as to how this all came to pass. But we are still processing visas around the world for certain cases. These are one, certain H-2As are another. But otherwise I’m happy to take that question. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay, and we’re going to need to cut it off there, Nicole. Thanks, everybody, for joining the call. Remember this is provided on the record and now that we’re at the end of the call, the contents, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Thanks for joining, and we’ll look to continue these briefs next week.