Here is the special briefing with senior State Department official on updates on State Department’s Response to COVID-19.
Office of the Spokesperson
March 24, 2020
MODERATOR ONE: Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks for joining today’s call. As discussed yesterday, we’re going to try to keep a drumbeat of daily briefings heading your way, briefings that relate to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our briefer today is [Senior State Department Official One]. His comments today will be provided on background; attribution will be to a senior State Department official. We’d ask you to embargo the contents until the end. At the end of the call, the embargo will lift. With that, I will turn it over to him. He will have some initial comments, and then we’ll take a few of your questions. [Senior State Department Official One.]
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. And thanks, everyone, for joining so late in the day. I’m thinking back in a simpler time, we all might be planning our evenings at this point. But I know my colleagues are still working hard and I suspect everyone on the call is as well.
Anyway, let me start with a few remarks, and then like [Moderator One] said, I will take questions and try to do my best as I can to respond to them.
The COVID-19 pandemic is truly an unprecedented global challenge, one that’s affected so many American folks here and abroad. Protecting and assisting Americans abroad is the department’s highest priority. Our ongoing efforts to bring home Americans from every region of the world are truly unprecedented both in scale and scope. On March 19th, we stood up a 24/7 repatriation task force here in D.C. to coordinate and support those efforts. But even before then, our overseas consular officers, along with their locally employed colleagues, were working night and day to help repatriate Americans who are either stranded or had let the department know and let the embassies know of a desire to return home.
As this COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves with new cases everywhere around the world, countries have instituted their own travel restrictions, adding to the complexity of the task we as a department are committed to fulfill. Let me just share a brief summary of what’s been accomplished to date. Since our efforts began on January 29th with evacuation flights from Wuhan, China, we’ve brought home approximately 9,300 U.S. citizens on over 70 flights. Included in that number are more than 800 American citizens and mission personnel evacuated on department charters from Wuhan and the over 300 American passengers we repatriated also on State Department charters from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
We’re bringing home thousands more on at least 40 flights that are scheduled over the next six days. We expect 3,400 identified passengers to be in this flight – be on those flights. And that number will probably rise before these flights actually take off. To facilitate the repatriation efforts, we continue to urge all Americans overseas to enroll in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov. This is how embassies communicate important health and safety information to U.S. citizens in real time.
Secretary Pompeo has also made very clear that protecting the department’s globally deployed workforce is another of his highest priorities. For our 75,000-person workforce working in over 220 locations around the world, our globally deployed State Department medical staff continues to ensure that all official Americans and their families covered under our overseas medical program have access to the health care they need.
In an unprecedented move, the department has authorized departure from post for all employees abroad who are considered to be especially medically vulnerable to the consequences of COVID-19. To date, we’ve also granted ordered departure and authorized voluntary departure to 17 posts and will continue to assess the need to grant more as time progresses. Our offices in Washington and our chiefs of mission overseas have been given authority to maximize telework, encouraging all telework-ready employees to telework as appropriate.
And to date, our management team here in D.C. has published eight cables and department notices to provide guidance directed to our workforce on a multitude of work-related issues that affect them.
Before I take your questions, I’d just like to emphasize that our work on behalf of American citizens has truly been an all-hands-on-deck effort here at the department. I’ve already described just some of the efforts of our Bureau of Consular Affairs, Bureau of Medical Services, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Management. But every bureau and every office at State has contributed to State’s response. And we’ve also worked closely and collaboratively with our partners at other agencies to help ensure a coordinated response – not just a whole-of-department response, but a whole-of-government response as well.
And now I’m open to your questions.
MODERATOR TWO: Okay. The first question is from Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I can.
QUESTION: Okay, great. I’ve got two brief ones. One: Just yesterday, one of your colleagues said that the number of people who have been repatriated was – I can’t remember the exact number, but it’s like – it was like 4,000 more today, like 5,000 then 9,000 today. How do you explain that shift? Was it just some weren’t counted yesterday, or were really 4,000 more had gotten out or gotten home in 24 hours? And then secondly, I’m sure you’ve seen these reports that there are numerous embassies, or at least several embassies, where people are basically clamoring for order departure status, and that they are being discouraged from that. Can you address that?
STAFF: On the first part – this is [Senior State Department Official Two]. On the first part, regarding the numbers going from I believe yesterday I was briefed just over 5,000, and now just over 9,000 – the numbers are coming in and growing every day. So – and just in the next 48 hours, we do have three different cruise ships coming in. Now, each of these are bringing in more and more Americans, and we’re working hard around the clock to bring more and more in. So you’d expect this number to continue to grow as we bring more Americans in. So that’s why that number has increased. Sorry, [Senior State Department Official One.] I just wanted to mention sort of why the number has increased.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, no. All help is appreciated. On the second part of your question, Matt, so our embassies overseas have their emergency teams meet regularly to discuss the situation at post, and they have a process and procedure in place where they can really evaluate the transportation system, the healthcare system, and not just the status of COVID in the country. And when they reach a certain point where they feel like, okay, maybe time to request authorized ordered departure, they submit a request to the undersecretary of management, and those are coming in regularly, and the undersecretary reviews them and then makes decisions on what to approve. At this point, I think one of the biggest issues is the travel restrictions that countries are instituting around the world.
MODERATOR ONE: If I could just add on to that, those decisions are made against a robust set of criteria and decisions made based to – based on a consistent set of principles, all which are geared towards maximizing the safety for our employees.
MODERATOR TWO: Next question is from Christina Ruffini.
QUESTION: Hi, guys. Following up a little bit about what Matt was talking about, when it comes to these embassies overseas, I want to clarify something we talked about yesterday. It sounds to me like, for the moment, these staff members are completely reliant on local healthcare infrastructure for testing and treatment should they get ill. Is that correct? And are you planning to stand up any kind of medical capacity at these embassies or is the plan to just try to bring them home and treat them here if we need to? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, working overseas for the State Department or for any government agency in a country that may have poor medical resources has been challenging all along. We have a process in place that generally we try and make sure that people with underlying medical conditions would only go to places where they have local resources that could take care of them. Obviously COVID presents new challenges.
We do have, like I said earlier, a robust health care system, a medical program. We have doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurses deployed at almost every mission around the world. We rely also heavily on local staff that we employ in our health units. And they’re the frontline. I mean, they’ll see the patients first, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s anything else, and either provide care directly or to find the best local care available.
In COVID obviously, as health infrastructure overseas breaks down, it’s more of a challenge. In terms of testing, we have up to now relied on local sources, local – maintain facilities for testing. I’m not sure if we’ve actually sent back samples to the CDC in Atlanta, but that’s an option as well. But I heard news today that there’s been approval for a use of a device called BioFire FilmArray, which is an apparatus that we actually have in a number of embassies overseas, so lab testing machines doesn’t require – it requires expertise, but it doesn’t require a special license to use. And BioFire company just had their approval given for use of – for creation of a cartridge to test for COVID. So going forward, we anticipate we’ll be able to do a lot more of our own monitoring and testing. Thank you.
MODERATOR TWO: Next question is from Katrina Manson.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much. Can I check whether you’re the right person to ask about exports of the – U.S. diplomats to push for exports of medical and protective equipment back into the U.S. to help with the fight against coronavirus?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Fighting coronavirus has definitely become a global issue, and we’re looking for partners, and I think countries are looking at us to partner with them to fight the virus as much as possible. I know our – we’ve actually reached out to missions and have asked missions to determine whether certain countries may have excess capacity of the ability to manufacture supplies, whether there are companies in that country that may consider exporting supplies to the U.S. And that’s being entered into a tracker, and we’ll track that and then forward to other agencies such as FEMA that are basically working on the supply chain issue for the U.S. And hopefully we can match up external suppliers, external sources with states and entities in the U.S. that actually need them. Over.
QUESTION: Thank you. That’s so helpful. And just to follow up, can you let us know which countries have come forward and whether you’re finding more success with protective gear or specific medical equipment?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So it’s a – like I said, the tracker – we had a number of requests. I don’t have the specific countries in front of me. I think it’s just important to know that we’re doing our effort to reach out – our best effort to reach out to any country and any kind of business we know overseas that might be able to contribute and getting their responses and then cataloguing that information.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MODERATOR ONE: And I’ll clarify by – we’re talking about sales, valid sales of materials.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you.
MODERATOR ONE: Unlike has been depicted by some articles that are out there.
MODERATOR TWO: Joel Gehrke for the next question.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wonder – two questions. One, it was Singapore’s ambassador to the United States actually last week predicted that the State Department’s guidance that Americans should return would result in a new wave of coronavirus cases and transmissions. Is there any – as these repatriations happen, are you coordinating with the arrivals or with other government agencies to account for that possibility?
And then a second one, more historical one: Looking back at the effort to make evacuations from China, did the Chinese Government – back in January now – did the Chinese Government impede or delay repatriations at that time for any political reasons? And did their public messaging – this is not a question about coronavirus coverup, per se, but did their public messaging or diplomacy after the outbreak was known affect your – Western abilities to respond?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, any American returning from overseas will be subject to the screening that has been put in place at CDC recommendation, enacted by CBP and TSA at the airports. So I don’t – I don’t think anything special will happen to our people. I think they’ll go through the same screening process that so far I think has been very effective, and they’ll be given the same recommendations that any other American citizen is coming to – or any flight coming to the U.S. regarding recommendation for 14 days of self-observation, self-isolation.
Your second question – could you repeat that, please?
QUESTION: Yeah. I wondered if, back in January when you were trying to organize evacuations out of Wuhan and Hubei province, if the Chinese Government was cooperative, or did you think they were trying to slow down or delay those repatriations? And then more broadly, was there public diplomacy at that time about the outbreak? Was there engagement with you on issues like that, like repatriations? Did that have – in any way exacerbate what we’re dealing with now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, regarding the first part of your question, I don’t believe so, that there was any kind of pushback or any – anything was done to interfere with the evacuation. I know [Official] I think was – he did the call yesterday and I think he’s on again tomorrow, and he was critical in arranging some of that. So I’d ask you maybe to hold the call – hold that question for him. And also (inaudible) – I’m also unaware of any issues related to the second part of your question. I think it hasn’t affected our ability to get our job done at all.
MODERATOR TWO: Conor Finnegan has the next question.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Just a quick clarification. When you say 9,300 already returned, does that include the 3,400 figure that you threw out there? And then what’s the estimate for how many are left overseas now after these repatriations?
And then if I could, just – it’s been very confusing for a lot of folks to understand how you decide and where to do charter flights. So Honduras has seen military aircraft arrive, but Peru, where there are thousands of Americans, has not. Can you clarify the process for all of that, for how you determine that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Those questions are probably best directed towards [Official], who I think will be on the call tomorrow. Generally, I can say it’s always tough – tricky to get into a numbers game. We just – numbers change on a regular basis. We just continue to sort of face each repatriation request or need and try and find a solution for each individual request.
Peru had some special challenges related to some of the issues the Government of Peru had in terms of potentially having some of their citizens fly on planes that were going into Peru from the States. Once that was resolved, I know a number of flights have occurred. I don’t have the number right in front of me. And Peru’s also had a special – a logistical issue. There are many Americans in Cusco, but American airlines weren’t certified to fly to Cusco I think because of altitude elevation issues. So we had to work with another airline to do those flights or to try and get the Americans from Cusco into Lima.
In terms of how we prioritize, each case is looked at individually. We rely on our embassies to tell us how many people have requested evacuation, what’s the situation with their ability to – what’s the window of opportunity to get people out, what’s the health infrastructure looking like, what are cases of coronavirus looking like, is the situation more dire. We try and get to each of them as quickly as we can, but inevitably, some we’ll prioritize based on those issues. Thank you.
MODERATOR TWO: Jessica Donati.
QUESTION: Hi, I just wanted to confirm that it – the number is still around 13,000 Americans left overseas. And also I was wondering if you could tell us, out of the approximately 40 or so cases of COVID-positive people that you’ve got at State, how many are FSOs and how many are local staff? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Again, I don’t like to get into the numbers game. I know 13,000 was yesterday’s number that was mentioned. If it’s the same number today, I can’t say.
In terms of the cases that we’re following from the State Department’s perspective, I don’t have the precise breakdown in front of me of how many of our direct-hire employees versus local staff. I certainly can get that information. But again, it changes so rapidly that it’s – we just want to focus on the fact that we’re doing everything we can to take care of our people overseas, and for our local staff who are so important to our operations do what we can to facilitate their getting care in the local economy. Thank you.
MODERATOR TWO: Hunter Davis from Fox is next.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Just been talking to some people that are over in Argentina. I was trying to get confirmation on how many Americans you know of that are stuck in Argentina. Also trying to get some confirmation – they mentioned there was possibility of a charter flight this weekend that people were being charged about $1,700 a ticket, so just trying to get some clarification on that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m afraid I don’t have any specific information about Argentina. It’s something that the repatriation task force is following closely, and they would be able to have that – they would be able to provide information. Like I said, [Official] is the head of that unit. I think he’ll be doing the call tomorrow, but we can also try and get you information offline. Thank you.
MODERATOR ONE: Let’s – most of the questions tend to be on repatriation concerns. Let’s do one more and wrap it up, please.
MODERATOR TWO: Okay. Abbie has the last question.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Apologies if this also focuses on the same thing, but I wanted to go back to Peru and ask if you had any further information about – I know some of the flights were delayed today, but I wanted to get an estimation of how many Americans remain there that are trying to get back. I know that 800 have gotten out so far.
And then also there was a call today from the UN secretary-general asking for people to ease sanctions, at least UN sanctions, and I wondered if there was any consideration by the U.S. to do the same. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I hate to repeat myself, but in terms of precise numbers, I don’t have them available for you. We can get them or, like I said, on tomorrow’s call I think we’ll have a lot more detailed information (inaudible) repatriation task force (inaudible).
And I’m sorry, could you repeat the UN question, the sanction question?
QUESTION: Yeah. The UN secretary-general was calling for an easing of sanctions in the face of this humanitarian crisis. I wondered if the U.S. would support that measure in the UN Security Council, but also just generally if there was any consideration of doing that in the case of the United States unilateral sanctions. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As [title], I’m not really in a position to weigh in about sanctions and whether we support the UN or ease our own sanctions. I’d just emphasize that we’re doing everything we can to contribute to the global response to coronavirus. Like I said earlier, we are soliciting information about available supplies; we are offering assistance to governments who need – who request it, or at least review their request for assistance; we are trying to maintain a workforce overseas that can support our American citizens. I hate to be redundant, but it’s the most important point: Our whole mission is to protect Americans overseas, and we’re doing everything we can to do that.
QUESTION: And can I ask a non-repatriation question? This is John Hudson with the Post.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Be happy to take that one, or I think (inaudible).
QUESTION: I was just wondering, in terms of requests for equipment from other countries, the President obviously had a phone call with South Korea’s president. Is the United States asking other countries for test kits for purchase, and would South Korea be included in those countries?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am not aware of any specific asks of any particular country. Like I said, we are trying to assess what’s available globally and match it up with – potentially match it up with our needs in the U.S.
MODERATOR ONE: Okay. Thanks, everybody, for joining. Again, we’ll do another one of these tomorrow to try to keep you guys as up to date as possible. This is end of the call, so the embargo is lifted. Thanks, and thanks to our briefer.