Briefing On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad (March 25)
MS ORTAGUS: Hi, thanks. Good afternoon, everybody. Apologize that we’re starting a few minutes late. But welcome to today’s briefing on the department’s efforts to repatriate American citizens from around the globe in the face of the historic challenge posed by the ongoing Wuhan virus pandemic. Our briefers today are Ian Brownlee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and he is also the lead of the department’s repatriation task force. We also have Dr. William Walters, Deputy Director of Operational Medicine at the State Department.
This briefing is provided on the record and the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call. Our briefers will start with some opening remarks and then we’ll take your questions. If you want to get in the queue for the questions, as we just said, please press 1 and then 0. Since Doc Walters is on a little bit of a shortened timeline, sir, why don’t you go ahead and go first with some brief opening remarks?
MR WALTERS: Right. So Dr. Will Walters, I’m the deputy chief medical officer for operations at State. The State Department has long held responsibility for providing for medical evacuation of chief of mission personnel and assisting our consular colleagues during noncombatant evacuations or other operations after natural or manmade disasters. Obviously, this is an unprecedented time, and we’re working very closely with consular and with post to make certain that both chief of mission and American citizens make it back home where they can receive the appropriate care.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Thank you. Ian?
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much. Thank you, all of us, for joining us here again today. We are continuing our efforts to bring Americans home, working those efforts round the clock, literally 24/7 here at the department. We’ve now brought home over 9,000 people from some 28 countries, and we’re planning on another 66 flights over the next nine days or so. We have some 9,000 people scheduled on those – identified for those flights, and we hope to move those numbers up.
The total we’ve brought home, that 9,000, includes over a thousand brought home from Peru, and I’m pleased to say that there are two planes in the air as we speak coming – one from Lima, one from Cusco. In Peru, senior U.S. officials are maintaining constant communication with the Government of Peru and working around the clock to secure authorization for more flights this week, as well as authorization for U.S. citizens in more remote parts of Peru to travel to Lima by land or by air.
This is truly a global operation. We also recently had flights depart from Guatemala, Haiti, Cabo Verde, Ghana, and Ukraine, and we’re working today to charter more flights and bring Americans home from countries in every region of the world. Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens and we’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can.
I want to emphasize once again how important it is for U.S. citizens abroad to enroll at step.state.gov. Folks abroad should know that if you entered your trip abroad as having an end date, you will stop getting messages from us as of that date. So if you’re still abroad, perhaps longer than you anticipated, be sure to update your STEP account settings so we will continue to get the – get you the latest information.
These are truly extraordinary times and we want your audiences to know that the State Department is working tirelessly all around the globe to fulfill our oldest and most important mission: the safety and security of the American people. Thank you very much. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much, and again, press 1 and then 0 if you’d like to get in the queue. Okay, can we start with Matt Lee, AP?
QUESTION: Hi there. Can you all hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: We can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. And I apologize for Peppa Pig in the background, but that’s just the way it’s got to be. (Laughter.) Anyway, listen, I do want – I did want to ask a broad question, but I’m going to have – but in the interests of being short and only asking one, I just want to ask about Peru. So what was the logjam or what continues to be the logjam, and what did you do to overcome it for the specific problem in Peru?
MR BROWNLEE: Sure, thanks very much, Matt. The logjam there was a capacity issue on the part of the Peruvian Government. To reduce this to simplicity, we had commitment from the senior-most levels of the government – from the foreign minister, et cetera, the ministerial level – that yes, the flight yesterday Monday would be able to go forward – flights yesterday Monday would be able to go forward. That information didn’t efficiently trickle down to the people in the regulatory agencies that had to issue the permits, the landing permits for the planes, and so the American Airlines flight that was going into Lima literally turned around as it was preparing to enter Peruvian airspace because it didn’t have the permit necessary.
The difficulty arises there from the fact that there was some infections in the civil aviation authority and in the civilian side of the airport, and they just shut down that entire entity and they’re trying to run it on a bit of a shoestring from the military side of the airport. We’re helping them address this shortfall by – we’ve taken the INL, the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement hangar on the military side of the airport, taken everything out of it. We’re arranging chairs in there at socially distant appropriate spacing and we’re preparing to use that as a working space, a processing space to move people through. We’re also preparing to send down a flyaway team of consular officers and we have a senior officer from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs going down to assist as well.
So we’re doing what we can to help the Peruvians fill that sort of capacity gap, and we hope – we hope – that this will keep things moving more fluidly in the future. Out.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Ian. We’ve got two people on from FOX, both Hunter and Ben Brown. Can one of you pick who’s going to speak for FOX and go ahead and ask your question?
OPERATOR: Hunter’s line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, yeah. So this is Hunter. I can speak for both of us from FOX. So I think my first question – it was one that was asked yesterday, so just kind of following up on it today. I’ve been talking to some Americans that are currently in Argentina. I was just wondering if I can get a confirmation of how many Americans we know of that are in Argentina as well as confirmation on whether or not there is a charter flight scheduled to get those Americans out of there. I think they said that there’s one scheduled this weekend, but just wanting to get some confirmation on that.
MR BROWNLEE: Hunter, that would be a question for me, and bear with me a moment, I’m going to see if I have information on that. I don’t know it off the top of my head, but if I keep talking, I might be able to fill the time. No. Just a moment, I’m going to see if I have any information on that. I’m sorry, I do not. I’m going to have to get back to you on that. I apologize.
MS ORTAGUS: No problem. We can make sure that we get – we can make sure that we follow up on that.
Fox, did you have anything else? Okay.
QUESTION: Mexico’s president relaxed —
MS ORTAGUS: Let me back up.
MR BROWNLEE: I’m sorry, this is Ian again. This is Ian again. Let me back up and ask Hunter a question instead. Hunter, are you asking about people who are U.S. citizens who are resident in Argentina or people coming off a cruise ship?
QUESTION: Asking about just any Americans. There are some that came off of a cruise ship. There’s also some others that were just traveling abroad in Argentina, but they are U.S. citizens.
MR BROWNLEE: Okay. We’re going to have to get you some information on the situation in Argentina. I’m sorry, I don’t have that at my fingertips.
MS ORTAGUS: No problem.
QUESTION: Okay. That’s okay. Can I ask a follow-up?
MS ORTAGUS: We’re going to try to – we have a tight timeline and we’re going to try to get – there’s a lot of people in the queue, so I will come back to you if we have more time.
Let’s go over to Ed Wong from The New York Times. Ed, you still on?
QUESTION: I’m right here.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Go ahead, Ed.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Yeah, as these countries are changing their policies on travel and many are shutting down their borders or ending – or telling commercial airlines not to fly anymore, are they giving you enough advance warning so that you can get messages out to Americans and telling them to get commercial flights or take – or leave some other way, or is it happening so suddenly that oftentimes you’re finding that Americans are caught unaware as the countries make their announcements and change their policies? And the one country to come across my radar just because I heard from an American there is Thailand, which is a major – probably the biggest travel hub in Asia. And it sounds like that they’re shutting things down fairly quickly and going to a state of emergency. I’m just wondering whether you have any thoughts on whether you’ll see a lot of stranded people there and when flights from there might end.
MR BROWNLEE: Ed, in fact, you’ve got it right. These – we’re getting notice in real time. We are not being told well in advance that this is coming. We often get the same – we really get the same notice that the public gets, 12 hours, 24, 36 hours, whatever it is in the case of a particular country. This is why the message we’ve been pumping out for well over a week now is so important to – I think it’s so important to people that if they’re in a place now where they’re not prepared to stay for an indefinite period of time, that if their home is somewhere else, they should get themselves home quickly while there still are options, because in so many cases, they’re finding out that tomorrow morning they’re not going to be able to get out.
In the case of Thailand, I think you’re absolutely correct. It is a hub for a great deal of air traffic and a lot of tourism there. Royal Thai Airlines is shutting down all of its operations. And again, I don’t have that – I don’t think I have that right in front of me, but they’re shutting down all of their operations on very, very short notice. And so, no, we are not getting a great deal of pre-notice. People need to think about what’s – what might be coming up soon. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Let’s go now to Jennifer Hansler from CNN.
QUESTION: Hi there. Can you give us an updated number of how many State Department staff have been tested positive for coronavirus and how many of those are domestic, how many are abroad? And then, separately, how many Americans are you currently tracking who are still seeking assistance overseas? How are you prioritizing where to perhaps escalate the situation to sending military aircraft? Is there any criteria for that? And then —
MS ORTAGUS: All right, that’s two. Thanks, Jennifer. Let’s try to get this – we only have a few more minutes.
MR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters.
MS ORTAGUS: Dr. Walters, do you want to start? Yeah, go ahead.
MR WALTERS: Yeah, I’ll take the first. So it’s important to remember that the State Department is about 75,000 – a 75,000-person workforce overseas. We’re tracking 58 current cases in our overseas workforce, spread across the – each – one to 11 cases – I’m sorry, 33 cases is the largest number in any particular regional bureau. But at 58 cases, that’s less than one in 1,000, and that’s a direct result of aggressive actions through the Bureau of Medical Services, through the chiefs of mission at post, and implementing social distancing and telework and all the things that the department has been working so hard at over the past several weeks.
Domestically, we’re tracking 16 cases in five cities, the largest at just eight. So that’s 16 cases across thousands of employees. Again, the department has taken this very seriously, has implemented just the right non-pharmaceutical interventions to keep that workforce safe.
MS ORTAGUS: Great.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, Ian Brownlee here. I can try to address the other questions. At the moment, we are keeping a running tally of the number of U.S. citizens we estimate will seek our help in returning to the United States. This number changes daily, hourly. At the moment, we’re tracking approximately 50,000 we think might seek to return to the United States.
With regard to MILAIR, we’re talking to the Department of Defense as to how they might assist us particularly in terms of contracting authorities. As we seek to contract aircraft to travel to one country or another to bring U.S. citizens home, this is fairly complex contractual work and inasmuch as this is a truly unprecedented event, the State Department’s capacity to do this is being strained. We’re talking with the Department of Defense as to whether they can essentially help us out in lining up aircraft. These would be what are called – in the industry known as whitetails. They would be contracted civil aviation planes that would go in, but we would – if this comes to pass, we would be getting help from the Department of Defense in arranging those contracts. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Nick Schifrin, PBS.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks so much for doing this. Ian, forgive the anecdotal nature of these questions, but of course this is what we hear from various Americans. I’ve talked to about half a dozen today, a handful in Peru and then one in Uganda. And so the question about Peru is: How are you deciding who gets on these flights? There was a message among the Americans in Peru that it was supposed to be the elderly or the people who have underlying conditions, but some of the people in Peru noticed that some younger people got on the flights. So that’s the first question: How are you deciding who gets on the flights?
And on Uganda, a specific case but maybe it applies elsewhere: This one American was facilitated a flight through the embassy and Qatar Airways tried to charge him $5,000 a person in his family. In general, have you seen price gouging, have you heard of that case in particular, and how do you prevent price gouging? Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Trying to press un-mute. Thanks very much, Nick. We are prioritizing the more vulnerable populations. I do not know exactly the demographics, et cetera, of the people that are on those planes out of Lima and Cuzco today. I do know that there were – some quite elderly and ill people were put on the plane out of Cuzco. Whether there were some others who would not necessarily fit that definition, I’m not sure. But that is – our policy is prioritize the more vulnerable populations. Part of it comes down to who is available at the airport at the time the manifest is being built up, so that could be an explanation. I’m not certain it is.
With regard to the possibility of price gouging, I don’t know the particular case out of Uganda where that airline might have charged that much. Some – in some cases people go in and it turns out the only seat available on the plane is at one of the more expensive classes. I don’t know if that’s the case in this case. I was happy to be on a call a couple of hours ago, a domestic call where the Department of Justice was decrying and saying they were going to be prosecuting in the United States people who were engaging in hoarding, price gouging, et cetera as a result of this pandemic. We have heard stories from overseas about people being over – apparently being overcharged for services, but I don’t know that particular case. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Jessica Donati, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi. On a different topic, would you be able to update us on the status of H-2A visas? Because consular officers last week were doing hundreds of face-to-face interviews, which is not really in line with the social distancing guidelines, and yet State said that they would continue to process them. So I was wondering where we are.
MR BROWNLEE: Yes, I can address that. We recognized the importance of the H-2 visa worker pool to the U.S. agricultural industry and to the food supply in the United States. That said, we also recognize the serious importance of preventing the spread of this disease. And you are absolutely correct, moving a thousand, two thousand people a day to the U.S. consulate in Monterey, Mexico doesn’t really satisfy the latter criterion. What we are doing is we are seeking to the greatest extent possible to waive visa interviews. Under the law, we’re permitted to waive interviews for broad categories of people, and we are seeking the broadest possible application of that waiver authority.
We’re also facing a bit of an issue in some of these places in that our officers have been ordered out of the country or have availed themselves of the opportunity to depart the country because they have family members who are in vulnerable populations.
Put it all together and we expect some diminution in the issuance of H-2As, but that said, we are committed to the greatest extent possible to continuing processing H-2As in Mexico, Central America, and the other main sending countries. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. I’m trying to cram one or two more in. We’re going to have to go soon. I’ve got a Hannah Critchfield from Phoenix New Times.
QUESTION: Hi, yeah. My question actually really mirrors Hunter’s from Fox. It was just if you had any exact numbers on the number of people who are U.S. citizens who are trying to get home from Honduras currently. But it sounds like that might be something you would have to follow up with me on later.
MS ORTAGUS: Ian? Did we lose Ian?
MR BROWNLEE: No, I’m sorry. I’m speaking with a – I’m sorry. I was speaking with my mike muted. We are – hang on a sec. I’ve got a number here somewhere. I think we’re looking at several thousand out of Honduras.
MS ORTAGUS: We’ll make —
MR BROWNLEE: We can look it up as we speak.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great.
MR BROWNLEE: We’ll have to get back to you. We’re looking at several thousand. We – Honduras is one of those countries where we’ve been quite successful to date. The Honduran Government has been very good about allowing commercial aircraft in, and so there’s been a steady flow of people out of Honduras, out of both Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. So while the number going in was quite large, it seems to be coming down fairly quickly. We had multiple flights today. So for example, today, there were – there was – there were two United Airlines flights, one out of Tegus, one out of San Pedro Sula. They’re coming – people are coming out of there at the rates of the upper hundreds a day. I hope that answers your question. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Okay. I think we have time for one more. I apologize, everybody, that we can’t get to everyone today, but it looks like I have Conor Finnegan from ABC up next.
QUESTION: Hey, just two quick questions, then. The U.S. embassy in Peru tweeted that there were 4,000 Americans left to be repatriated there. Is that the largest number? Can you give us a sense of what other countries have numbers in that magnitude?
And then just generally, I think a lot of us have heard from many Americans who are angry, frustrated, confused by the process that you all are undertaking, that the U.S. seemed initially unwilling to arrange flights or embassies were referring people to commercial airliners that were no longer able to have flights. Can you just respond to some of that – to the frustration and the anger?
MR BROWNLEE: Sorry, I pressed the wrong button again. Yes, we were referring people to commercial air – commercial means while those still existed in the hopes that people would get themselves home before the commercial option went away. We are also still, in some cases, referring people to the commercial option even in places where most air traffic has been shut down, because we’ve been successful in helping commercial carriers go into countries – go in empty in order to bring people out again. So we’ve seen that. That’s what happened today in Peru. We’ve seen that in some other places as well. Honduras, we’ve seen that, that the companies have been willing to go in empty – Haiti is another example – companies are willing to go in empty and bring people back out. So we are referring people to those carriers as a way to get home.
And I’m sorry, I missed the first part of your question. I’ve forgotten it. What was it?
QUESTION: I don’t know if you can still hear me.
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, we hear you.
MR BROWNLEE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just that the U.S. embassy in Peru said that there were 4,000 Americans left (inaudible) —
MR BROWNLEE: Yes, yes, I’m sorry. Yeah, that’s probably about right. That’s consistent with the number – we’re tracking that number. We’re looking at a very large number in Ecuador as well, and we’re beginning – we’re helping people get out of Ecuador now. There are some commercial options coming out of Ecuador and we’re seeking to enhance those, and also to look at charter flights going into Ecuador beginning very soon. In Ecuador, we’re looking at something more than that, something in the 5 to 7,000 range. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Well, guys, we’re going to continue these daily briefings. I can see that Ian is popular. We’ll try to bring him back as soon as he’s able to do so. We’ll see all of you tomorrow, and thank you for dialing in.
MR BROWNLEE: Let me just say I apologize for being late. I was stuck in a call with the Hill, so I’m sorry to keep you all waiting.