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 (May 5)
MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to what is our last scheduled on-the-record briefing on our global and historic mission to bring Americans home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we began this effort at the end of January, we’ve helped bring home almost 78,000 Americans on some 833 flights from 128 countries. This is a pretty staggering set of figures and symbolizes the mobilization of the State Department’s efforts both domestically and around the globe to service our number one mission, and that’s the welfare of Americans abroad.
Our briefers today, as has been the case on many of these, is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee and Dr. William Walters, who you all know well. They’ll offer brief remarks and then take your questions. A reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.
Let’s begin with Dr. Walters.
DR WALTERS: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy to report that our current cases continue to decline. Overseas we’re working with 161 current cases with 195 recovered cases, and so those two lines continue to diverge in a quite positive direction. Domestically we’re working with 102 cases. The number of deaths have not changed, and overall it’s a very healthy and productive workforce, of course, both domestically and overseas.
Over to you, Ian.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Will. Good afternoon, everybody. Just to update those numbers Cale gave us at the top, I’d say by the end of the day today we’ll be at or maybe even a little bit over 80,000 folks brought home from some 133 countries on about 850 flights. We are continuing to bring lots of people home from South America, particularly Ecuador and Colombia, and we’ll have planes coming in today from Jordan, Colombia, and other places.
We are still seeing the highest demand in South America, Africa, and South and Central Asia, although demand has been on a steady decline as we’ve worked tirelessly to bring thousands more Americans home.
While demand is in decline, we haven’t applied the brakes yet. We continue to explore all possible options to assist U.S. citizens in need and are working with airlines and foreign governments through our direct-bill charter flights. As long as there are U.S. citizens in a country, we’ll do everything we can to make sure that they know their options so they’ll know whether to get on the next flight out, if there is one, or whether they’ll need to shelter in place for some time.
From a Washington perspective, we’ve run the U.S. Government-chartered repatriation flights with an eye to an eventual finish line. That said, we still don’t have a hard end date. That will be dictated by need, and we will continue to assess closely conditions on a country by country basis.
But to bang on the drum I’ve been banging on since the beginning, U.S. citizens who are thinking of coming back need to act now. They should enroll in step.state.gov, go the embassy’s website to see if there are any flights out, and follow the embassy’s instructions to get on that flight if they do want to come home.
Now, in the hopes of saving you all from the excruciating experience of hearing me repeat these same messages time after time after time after time, this will be my last planned weekly briefing for now. I look forward to joining you all again as needed, and of course, our press team members remain more than happy to assist with any questions you or your audiences might have. In the meantime, I’ll continue to chair the team of incredibly dedicated State Department staff who have been working around the clock on repatriations, and we will continue our aggressive work to assist our fellow Americans.
With that, I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time. And one moment, please, for your first question. The first question comes from the line of Matthew Lee. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks again and I’ve got two questions, one for each. For Doc Walters, in terms of returning to work domestically, and overseas I suppose, are there any guidelines in place other than just what like OPM has, is, or will say, and is there any timeline in terms of at least like at HST or the annexes around town for people to stop teleworking and come back?
And then for Ian, we and I know others have had stories about Americans – this is specific to China – who were having problems getting out because of exit bans. And I’m just wondering if you can speak specifically to how and what CA or EAP were doing to help these people out. Thank you.
DR WALTERS: Sorry, it’s Will Walters. The Secretary, through the Under Secretary for Management, has rolled out and is in the midst of rolling out this Diplomacy Strong initiative that defines a, or describes a conditions-based return to work. The department, like the rest of the federal government, like the rest of the United States, is on the one hand very anxious to bring people back to the workplace and keep the productivity up, supporting our mandate to the American people, while at the same time balancing risk. So his decisions are made day-by-day, based on trends, looking for a 14-day downward trend in cases in the localities where our either domestic officers or overseas posts work and live. And so the policy in the District, and in northern Virginia and southern Maryland, will be based upon case rates in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and we’re watching those numbers very carefully.
Again, very assertive in getting people back to work, but not overly aggressive in a way that puts people at increased risk. And that translates out to our posts overseas. It’ll be done in phases. There’ll be risk mitigation steps that are in place, and that has been put out to the department’s employees by email from the under secretary.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Matt, for the question. I can’t go into specific cases, but we are aware of some cases where the Government of China has denied permission to U.S. citizens to depart the country. We have – we continue – our consular folks there continue to provide assistance to those U.S. citizens who’ve been denied permission to leave China. And we have also frequently stressed to the government in China, including at the very highest levels, our concern about their using coercive use of exit bans on U.S. citizens. So for example, the under – the assistant secretary – excuse me, the assistant secretary for consular affairs met with Chinese counterparts I think it was back in January of this year and raised the issue of the use of exit bans. And we’re going to continue to do so until we see a fair and transparent process.
We do note that we encourage U.S. citizens to exercise increased caution in traveling to China, specifically – and this is one of the reasons why – because of this arbitrary enforcement of local laws, in particular the use of exit bans. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Jennifer Hansler. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I was wondering if you could tell us approximately how many Americans you’re still tracking who may seek help getting back to the U.S. And then secondly, is there any plan to lift Level 4 Global Advisory? What steps need to be met before that is lifted? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Jennifer. Ian here. Yeah, we’re – the raw number we’re looking at is somewhere a bit under 10,000. But just sort of an indication of how unreliable that number becomes – the closer we get, the smaller it becomes. We did a survey, a very detailed survey of some nearly 2,000 – 1,900-some people in Peru who were expressing some degree of continued interest in coming back to the United States. Of those 1,900 and some, we got responses from I think it was 800 and some, and of those there were about 250, 260 who really were ready to go and were just sort of pending some sort of assistance, like issuance of a new passport or something like that. So we go from a number of 1,900-plus to a number of about 250. Anyway. So it remains hard to tell exactly how many people there are out there.
With regard to level 4, we are going to continue working closely with U.S. public health authorities, including the CDC, get their assessment on what conditions are and that’s an ongoing conversation, and we will make a change when the time is appropriate. Over.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Christina Ruffini. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Morning, guys. Doc Walters, you addressed this a little bit, because Matt asked you, but are there any specific places, any spots that you’re closer to identifying where people might be able to go back to work first overseas? I’m again, thinking about New Zealand. Or are we just not there yet? And then Ian, you said you’re seeing – you mentioned South America as one of the hot spots. Are you seeing more people now still wanting to come out of South America than Central Asia? And is there any country in that region or in any of the regions you think might be first up to start ending or winding down the charters? Thank you both.
DR WALTERS: So yeah, it’s Dr. Walters. The guidance went out on Friday. Certainly there are – in full recognition that there are countries that are further along in their own curve. Each chief of mission is evaluating those conditions and circumstances. They’ll do so through their EACs and their country teams and they’ll be making the recommendations back to the under secretary and ultimately to the Secretary for decisions. No decisions have been made yet. But we are anxious to put the team back out on the field as soon as they can safely do so. But there’s nothing that’s teed up right now.
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Christina. Ian here. Yeah, I mean, we continue to watch Brazil very closely, given its size, highly dispersed U.S. citizen population there, et cetera. That said, we continue – there are direct flights available out of Brazil back to the United States. I mean, there are far fewer than there used to be, of course, but there are still flights, so we do not anticipate at this point having to start anything like charter flights.
And having promised not to bang the drum anymore, here I am about to bang it. U.S. citizens who are there should make a decision: Are they going to stay or are they going to go? On the other hand, we’ve got countries like Chile where flights are – commercial options are resuming after a brief interruption.
And I’m sorry, I misunderstood the last part of your question. Was that where might we end charter flights? Was that the question?
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s because I asked it badly. That’s – is there any one country where you’ve been doing a lot of operations that you see being first up as the place you can wind down?
MR BROWNLEE: I mean, so far – I mean, I’ll go back to those numbers I cited with regard to Peru. If the number really is of folks who are – want to get out and are ready to get out is somewhere in the 250 range, I’d say we’re pretty darn close to being done there because the commercial option, Eastern Airlines, has a flight for tomorrow, albeit as sold out, but they’ve got permission for other flights coming up next week and the week after. LATAM is running a flight on whatever day the 8th is – Friday. There are sufficient commercial options, so unless something changes radically in Peru, I would say we’ve crossed that end line there. Over.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Lara Jakes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, everyone, and by the way, I’d like to say just thanks for doing this series of briefings. It’s been helpful over the last eight weeks, so thank you for being responsive and taking our questions. It’s appreciated.
And Ian, I have two for you. One, just broadly, is there any end date – or I’m sorry, beginning date for restarting consular services on your horizon? And I was just wondering if there’s any consideration being given to refunding charges for booking consular services overseas given that those appointments all had to be canceled when the services – the routine services were postponed. Thanks.
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah, two really good questions to which I’m probably going to have to get back to you with a more detailed answer.
We are clearly thinking closely about what it’s going to take to be able to restart more routine services. We’ve continued ACS services throughout. We’ve continued limited visa services throughout. What is it going to take to manage to get something closer to routine visa services going? That’s going to be a bit down the road because visa operations, if you’ve ever visited an embassy or a consulate – suspect you have – you’ll see those involve big waiting rooms, lots of people all gathering in close spaces. So how do we deal with that in the time of COVID-19?
So I’m not trying to evade your questions. Just it’s – it is probably not going to be the first thing to come up, the first service to restart.
In terms of refunds for fees paid, I’m sorry, I’m just going to have to take that question. I know it’s under discussion, and I do not know the answer, so we’ll have to get back to you with that one. Over.
OPERATOR: If there are any additional questions, please press 1 then 0. Next, we’ll go to the line of Conor Finnegan. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I actually missed the very beginning of the call, so I apologize if this is repetitive, but I just had three quick questions if I could, since no else is in the queue.
First, are there – is there any movement towards reopening the offices of the department in Washington and the DMV area, given the push in certain places to begin loosening restrictions?
Second, I know that the consulate in Wuhan has remained closed. China says that the city is, quote-un-quote, “open again.” So do you anticipate sending any officials back to Wuhan even if it remains at very limited services?
And then third, the Secretary said last week that he is asking his team to dust off plans to reopen the embassy in Caracas. What is actually happening? Is there any movement on that? What does that actually mean? Thank you.
DR WALTERS: So I can address the first part, and that is the Secretary, through the under secretary for management, has articulated a stepwise phased plan for return to work. We’re anxious to get the workforce back in to work and maintain the productivity in delivering for the American people, but it’s going to be stepwise.
And so it’s trends-based. We’re looking at – whether it’s in D.C. or around the world, we’re looking at where are we in the epidemiology curve and then taking a assertive but not overly aggressive approach to bringing people back. We don’t have a timeline established for that at this point.
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Conor. Ian here. I think on both the Wuhan question and Caracas, we’re going to have to get back to you. Part of the issue on Wuhan is just staffing. We need to get the people back into the country. So we’re going to have to get back to you on both of those, really. Caracas, I have no information. I’m sorry. Over.
OPERATOR: And at this time, there are no further questions.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thanks again to our briefers for today and for their efforts over the last two months, really, keeping us all up to speed on this effort, and thanks, everyone, for dialing in with your valued questions. We have a number of them to get back to you on, and Ruben will assure we get back to you with responses.
Thanks, and have a great day.
MR BROWNLEE: Thanks, everybody. Goodbye.