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Briefing With Dr. Walters and Principal Dpty. Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee
On COVID-19 Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad (April 28)
April 28, 2020

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you.  Good afternoon, everybody.  Great to talk to you today.  So it looks like we are now at 71,538 Americans who have been repatriated on 750 flights from 127 countries and territories since January 29th.  These are the numbers, but behind each of these figures stands a team of dedicated U.S. diplomats and locally employed staff, uncounted man-hours of consistent effort, and an unwavering commitment by the Department of State to help American citizens abroad.

So to that end, we’ve asked Ian Brownlee and Doc Walters to join us for today’s on-the-record briefing call to provide an update on this ongoing effort.  Doc Walters will begin with some opening remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to PDAS Brownlee, then we’ll take a few questions.  Per usual, dial 1 and then 0.  A reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Doc Walters.

DR WALTERS:  Thank you, Morgan.  Good afternoon, everybody.  The Department of State continues to have a healthy and an active workforce, both domestically and overseas.  Our current case counts are holding at 179 with 165 recovered cases and – overseas, and our current domestic cases are at 87.  There have been no additional deaths, either overseas or domestically.

Overall, the workforce continues to apply the best science and nonpharmaceutical interventions to protect themselves and each other.  And I look forward to taking your questions.  Over to you, Ian.

MR BROWNLEE:  Thanks very much, Will.  Thank you, Morgan.  Good afternoon to all of you again.  Morgan just gave you the update on the numbers, but let me just say what I said last week remains true this week:  We are still seeing the largest number of U.S. citizens requesting repatriation assistance in the South and Central Asia region, specifically in India and Pakistan.

Upcoming worldwide, we have another 63 flights planned with about 4,000 people on the passenger schedule, and we’re going to try to bring all those folks home sometime over the next week or so.

One notable update on our repatriation efforts over the weekend was from Cuba.  Our superb team at very small Embassy Havana was able to coordinate two Delta flights and brought home more than 300 passengers to Miami on Friday.  And this is particularly noteworthy given the difficulty of operation in Cuba and the very small size of our team there.  We have a single consular officer.  So kudos to those folks.

And an update on cruise ships since I know there has been continued interest in this.  We are still tracking a handful of cruise ships around the world with U.S. citizen crew members.  Some of those ships are still looking for docking permissions, and others have docked.  We are now working with the CDC, the cruise companies, and foreign governments on procedures to disembark those cruise members in order to arrange their safe transport home.  We continue to follow these developments closely and to help wherever appropriate.

As has been true throughout this crisis, we are not just coordinating flights from major airports.  We are doing everything we can to bring Americans home from wherever they are, whether that’s by helping a cruise ship find a port or sending a sweeper flight to pick up people from a remote area of Peru or the Philippines.

However, as I have said many times before, this will not continue indefinitely.  U.S. citizens remaining abroad who wish to come home should raise their hand to do so now by enrolling at step.state.gov.

Those are the highlights.  I look forward to your questions.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, thank you very much.  Just dial 1 and 0.  It looks like we have Matt Lee in the queue.

QUESTION:  Yes, I am here.  I am very sorry, I missed, Morgan, the numbers at the very top.  It was 71,538 on how many flights from how many countries?  And I have another one for Ian.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, hold on.  I’m just pulling it back up in front of me.

MR BROWNLEE:  And it was tracking something like 127, 128 countries and 759 or so flights so far.


DR WALTERS:  And that number, that number that I had, 71,538, that was correct?

MS ORTAGUS:  That’s right.


MS ORTAGUS:  So the number we briefed is 71,538 Americans, 750 flights, 170 – excuse me 127 countries and territories since January 29th.

QUESTION:  Great, okay.  Ian, I have a question for you on the cruise ships.  Are you aware of American citizen passengers still?  And then on the crew members, can you be a little bit more specific?  You say a handful of ships.  Like how many, and how many crew members are we talking about who are Americans?  Thanks.

MR BROWNLEE:  Matt, I’m sorry.  I’m going to take this question.  You’re asking very specific details I don’t have at my fingertips.  So we’ll have to get back to you with that.  I am not aware of U.S. citizen passengers still on board cruise ships, but I want to be absolutely certain of that.  In terms of the number of crew members, I really don’t have that at my fingertips, so I’m going to have get back to you.  I apologize.  Over.

OPERATOR:  And if you would like to ask a question today, please press 1 and then 0.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  Ruben, do we have any more questions in the queue?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Yes, I’m sorry.  Jennifer Hansler is next in the queue.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks.  I was wondering if you would tell us approximately how many Americans you’re still tracking, who have contacted State for assistance in getting home.  And then is there any specific deadline on when you’re going to sunset the – these department-chartered repatriation flights?  Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE:  Hey, Jennifer.  Ian here.  We’re tracking something around 13,000 people still who have indicated some degree of interest in being repatriated.  As always, I have to caveat this with “some degree of interest” covers a huge range.  It’s people who are waiting to go tomorrow, and it’s people who were signed up by their children and don’t even know they’ve been signed up.  So it remains a somewhat fuzzy number.

We have – as I think I said earlier on, we’ve got about 4,200 people scheduled to go out in the coming week or so.  And I’m sorry, I’ve gone blank on what your second question was.  Jennifer?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  She asked about an end date.  Is there an anticipated end date?

MR BROWNLEE:  Oh, I’m sorry, the anticipated end date.  Gotcha.  No.  I mean, we’re looking at the circumstances in each individual country around the world, and where we are able to facilitate to reestablishment of commercial carriers, that’s what we’re doing.  Excuse me.  But this is very much country-specific, so there is no single end date to State Department charter operations.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks, Ian.  Okay.  Abbie Williams.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks so much for doing the call.  I’m not sure – I think this might be for Doc Walters.  But I wondered what factors might be involved in determining whether or not those that had left embassies and consulates on ordered departure due to health care systems or the spread of COVID in country would be returning.  And also, how that might affect those who are expecting – those Foreign Service officers who are expecting to deploy to new posts this fall.  Thanks so much.

DR WALTERS:  Yeah, thanks for the question.  The – it’s important to differentiate two factors.  One is individually specific.  So a specific Foreign Service officer who has a medical history and they have to – had to make an individual determination as to whether or not they felt safe in the country to which they were assigned, and under the global AD, which was an unprecedented and very assertive move taken by the Secretary, they were allowed to do that.  And they made an individual determination, came back to the United States.

That’s a little bit different than taking a broader view of the infrastructure in a particular country as it is and as it will be as this coronavirus pandemic proceeds.

This department, like every other department and agency in the federal government and most states in the country, are working through the science to very carefully return to work – return to work here domestically, return to work and return to post overseas.  The things that we’re currently looking at, outside of an individual’s medical history, is:  How is a host nation responding to the corona outbreak?  Have they peaked and moved past their peak down the downhill slope?  What is the likelihood that, if they were to experience a second wave, we would recognize it and be able to respond quickly?  That – those and a number of other variables are currently being explored, again, very carefully, very deliberately.  We want to get this right and be very safe about how we do it.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  Great.  Thank you.  I think we have Conor next.  Is that right?  Yeah, Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION:  Hey, I had a similar question to – can you hear me?

MS ORTAGUS:  You’re good.  We can hear you.

QUESTION:  Okay.  I just had a similar question to Abbie for Doc Walters.  As those countries are starting to reopen, do you anticipate resuming visa services anytime soon, other sort of routine operations?  And then how will you do that?  Will you have testing at all missions?  Are you providing more PPE for consular officers that would sort of be exposed?

And a question for Ian as well.  I know you said to Matt you don’t have the specific number for U.S. citizen crew members, but do you have any sense of the magnitude?  Are we talking about dozens or hundreds or thousands, or something like that?

MR BROWNLEE:  Hey.  I’ll take – Ian here.  I’ll take both of those question, really, because you’re talking about the reestablishment of consular operations.  That’s my daytime job.  And with regard to the numbers, I really – I don’t want to guess if I’m talking about dozens, hundreds – I don’t think it’s thousands, but I’m not sure what the number is.  So we’ll just have to get back to you guys with a number of U.S. citizen crew members.

With regard to the reestablishment of routine consular operations overseas, we are looking at this very carefully to try to determine how we would do it and when we would start to phase such routine operations in around the world.  I can say this:  Our first priority is always going to be American citizen services.  So as we start to re-staff or staff up again these posts around the world, the first thing we’ll be trying to do is take care of U.S. citizens there.  We are still providing extraordinary visa services, in the sense that life and death cases and certain high priority cases are still being processed.  So for example – excuse me – the H2As in Mexico and Central America and elsewhere.  But it’s really too early yet to say how we are going to go about fully reestablishing routine visa operations around the world.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great.  Thank you.  Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Yes, thank you.  I’m wondering if you could – I’m just curious, can you tell us anything more about the people that were brought from Cuba?  I think you said about 300.  Since in theory there are restrictions on travel there, were these Cuban Americans visiting family?  Was it a school group?  Was it some artistic mission?  What – who were these people?  Thanks.

MR BROWNLEE:  Yeah, Ian here.  I don’t know the characteristics of the people who were brought back.  They were – most of them were U.S. citizens.  There were a handful of legal permanent residents accompanying U.S. citizens.  What they were doing there, I’m sorry, I don’t know.  The Government of Cuba did permit them to travel internally across the islands in order to gather at the rally point in Havana for those two flights back.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you.  Christina Ruffini.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Sorry, I was too stupid to unmute my phone.  I have two questions.

Ian, I’m wondering if you could go through what the hotspots still are.  Is it still that most people are coming back from Southeast Asia and India?

And Doc Walters, regarding some of my colleagues’ questions, I’m wondering if there are any countries that you feel are far enough ahead that State Department staff might be able to start going back.  I’m thinking – New Zealand is the first one that comes to mind, but I’m wondering if there are any countries at the top of that list.  Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE:  Yeah, hi.  Ian here.

DR WALTERS:  (Off-mike.)

MR BROWNLEE:  Go ahead and take that, Will.

DR WALTERS:  I’ll take the last question first, and the answer is we’re looking at all of our diplomatic posts right now.  We’re not at a position yet to place them into their – where they sit in their progression through the phases toward resumption of normal operations, but certainly we’ll be looking for the safest and best places to get our team back out on the field and continue operations.

MR BROWNLEE:  Yeah, and with – Ian here – with regard to the hotspots, the places with the greatest continuing demand, you’re right, those are still South Central Asia – India, Pakistan.  We’re getting to the point in India where the yet-to-be-repatriated list is not as clear as it was two weeks ago.  Two weeks ago, we had a list of folks and we were pretty sure if we called folks they’d show up at the airport and say, “Yes, please.”  We’re now getting to the point on that list we’re having to make multiple calls for individual seats because people are deciding no, they’d just as soon ride it out where they are.  So it’s – I’m not really willing to say what the number of people yet to be repatriated from there is just for that reason.

Same sort of thing is going on in Nepal – I’m sorry, Pakistan, where there a fair number of people have expressed some interest in repatriation, but it’s just not clear how many of them really would go, push come to shove.  Those are the two big pockets we’re looking at, and then people across Africa in smaller groups.  Collectively, it comes to a fairly good-sized group, but individually they’re smaller groups of people.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  So I think that’s all the questions that we have in the queue.  If you have one before we end this call, just press 1 and 0.  If we don’t have anything come through in the next 30 seconds, we’ll call it a day.  Ruben, anything?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Christina Ruffini.

MS ORTAGUS:  Oh, I thought we just called her.

QUESTION:  I had a follow-up if I – if you can still hear me.

MS ORTAGUS:  Oh, you have a follow-up.  Oh, okay.  Great, sure, go ahead.

QUESTION:  If that’s allowed.  Doc Walters, I was wondering —

MS ORTAGUS:  Why not?

QUESTION:  I was wondering if you guys are waiting partially because of that second wave that you mentioned earlier, if you want to make sure that countries that seem to be handling this – if you want to make sure that they’re really handling it, since this virus has such a long latency period.  Is that a factor?

DR WALTERS:  So I’m not predicting a second wave.  What I’m saying is there is – there are enough unknowns about this virus, the way it responds within a population, and the way it responds to seasonal changes, that we’re taking a very deliberate approach to return to current operations.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great, thanks.  All right, everybody.  Thank you so much for dialing in.  We’ll talk to all of you tomorrow.  Thank you, Ian and Doc Walters.  Bye.

MR BROWNLEE:  See you all later.  Bye-bye.