Post of the Month: In a Time of Pandemic, a U.S. Embassy Launches a Witch Hunt

“Your previous article has really stirred things up …. a lot of retaliation against who people think might have written you…which is now a large group of suspects…”

Related posts:

Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide? March 23, 2020

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@StateDept to Continue Processing H-2 Visas, Program “Essential to the economy and food security of the United States”

 

On March 26, the State Department released a statement  regarding its intention to continue processing nonimmigrant, temporary visas under the H-2 visa program “as much as possible” and as “permitted by post resources and local government restrictions” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement notes that the H-2 program “is essential to the economy and food security of the United States.” The H-2 category allows temporary agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) visas for U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign workers to the United States.  In FY2019, the State Department issued 204,801 H-2A visas for temporary workers performing agricultural services.
Via state.gov:

In response to significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates as of March 20, 2020. As resources allow, embassies and consulates will continue to provide emergency and mission critical visa services. 

The H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority. Therefore, we intend to continue processing H-2 cases as much as possible, as permitted by post resources and local government restrictions. Secretary Pompeo, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has authorized consular officers to expand the categories of H-2 visa applicants whose applications can be adjudicated without an in-person interview.  Consular officers can, if they so choose, now waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning H-2 applicants who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility. This expansion also increases the period in which returning workers may qualify for an interview waiver. Applicants whose previous visas expired in the last 48 months, and who did not require a waiver of ineligibility the last time they applied, do not need to be interviewed in-person if they are applying for the same visa classification as their previous visa.  We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview. 

Consular resources and local government restrictions vary widely, and each consular section is continuously reviewing its capacity to adjudicate visa applications during this worldwide pandemic. We encourage applicants to consult with the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate in order to confirm the level of services currently offered. Our overseas missions will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.

Original statement posted here.

 

Consular Affairs Medical Professionals Visa Announcement Adds to Chaos

 

Via March 27 DOS Briefing:

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?
[…]
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: [MED CROSSING TO CA LANE]
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.

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.

[…]
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.

US Embassy Turkmenistan Now on Ordered Departure For All USG Family Members Under 18

 

On March 27, 2020, the State Department issued a Level 3 Reconsider Travel Advisory for Turkmenistan. The advisory also announced the ordered, mandatory departure of  “all family members of U.S. government employees under the age of 18 in addition to the authorized departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of U.S. government employees due to stringent travel restrictions and quarantine procedures that affect commercial flights.”
See excerpt below:

Reconsider Travel to Turkmenistan due to the Global Health Advisory and Embassy Ashgabat’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.

On March 27, 2020, the Department of State ordered the departure of all family members of U.S. government employees under the age of 18 in addition to the authorized departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of U.S. government employees due to stringent travel restrictions and quarantine procedures that affect commercial flights.

The Government of Turkmenistan has implemented enhanced screening and quarantine measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  All incoming international flights are being redirected to Turkmenabat, approximately 291 miles from Ashgabat.  Passengers will be required to undergo medical screening and possibly involuntary quarantine at local medical facilities.

Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice. Visit the website of U.S. Embassy Ashgabat for additional information on these new measures.

Medical protocols in Turkmenistan are not consistent with U.S. standards and some travelers have been required to undergo medical testing unrelated to COVID-19.  Consider declining any medical testing unrelated to COVID-19.

Due to the possibility of quarantine of unknown length, carry additional supplies of necessary medication in carry-on luggage.  Contact the U.S. Embassy if you are subject to quarantine or prior to undergoing any invasive medical testing or procedures.

Read the full announcement here.

Map via state.gov

Related posts:
Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide? March 23, 2020
US Embassy Turkmenistan Now on Voluntary Departure For Non-Emergency USG Staffers/Family Members (March 9, 2020)

 

Snapshot: @StateDept’s COVID-19 Cases, Domestic and Overseas as of 3/27/20

Updated: March 28, 9:55 am PDT

On March 27, the State Department released the official repatriation number of U.S. citizens returned home as well as a summary of COVID-19 cases at its domestic offices and at overseas posts. Still not the specificity that we’re looking for, but it is what it is.  The major breakdowns include total positive cases, pending tests, recovered cases, and number of employees in self-isolation.
There is no data on number of employees evacuated due to COVID-19, or number of deceased in this summary. There was recently unconfirmed information about one casualty in Indonesia. If there are casualties, we would like to see that locally employed staff are also accounted for. Anecdotal evidence also indicates at least one medical evacuation from overseas to Dulles Airport in Virginia. Those cases are also not included in the official summary of cases below.
We understand from a source that the domestic cases may be difficult to track because it is based on self-reporting to MED. If you know otherwise, please let us know.

(see below the official word from State.)

March 27, 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: 

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.

Snapshot: @StateDept’s COVID-19 Repatriation Statistics as of 3/27/20 – 15,441 U.S. Citizens; 40 Countries

 

Via state.gov:

  • The U.S. Department of State has coordinated the repatriation of 15,441 U.S. citizens from more than 40 countries.
    • On March 26, a charter flight repatriated 223 U.S. Citizens from Jordan.
    • Over the past few days, 1,259 U.S. Citizens were repatriated from Peru.
    • On March 26, 129 U.S. Citizens were repatriated from Guayaquil; a total of 723 U.S. Citizens repatriated from Ecuador to date.
  • The Department has negotiated and continues to negotiate with more than 33 governments to permit commercial or U.S.-organized repatriation flights.
  • In order to communicate vital and timely health information to Americans abroad, the Department of State’s call center has fielded more than 11,000 calls since March 21.

Second columns indicates the number of citizen repatriated, and the third column is the number of flights to-date. Click here to see complete lis.

Click image to see full list of pax and countries

@StateDept Orders Evacuation of Designated USG Employees From US Embassy Baghdad, USCG Erbil, and BDSC

 

On March 26, the State Department updated its Iraq Travel Advisory, a Level 4 Do Not Travel to Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, the Global Health Advisory, and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”
The updated advisory announced the mandatory departure of designated U.S. government employees from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center (BDSC), and the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil on March 25 “due to security conditions and restricted travel options as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Excerpt below:

U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping. Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur in many areas of the country, including Baghdad.

On March 25, 2020, the Department of State ordered the departure of designated U.S. government employees from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Baghdad Diplomatic support Center, and the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil due to security conditions and restricted travel options as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On December 31, 2019, the Embassy suspended public consular services, until further notice, as a result of damage done by Iranian-backed terrorist attacks on the Embassy compound. U.S. Consulate General Erbil remains open and continues to provide consular services. On October 18, 2018, the Department of State ordered the suspension of operations at the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah. That institution has not reopened. Due to security concerns, U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad have been instructed not to use Baghdad International Airport.

U.S. citizens should not travel through Iraq to Syria to engage in armed conflict, where they would face extreme personal risks (kidnapping, injury, or death) and legal risks (arrest, fines, and expulsion). The Kurdistan Regional Government stated that it will impose prison sentences of up to ten years on individuals who illegally cross the border. Additionally, fighting on behalf of, or supporting designated terrorist organizations, is a crime that can result in penalties, including prison time and large fines in the United States.

Read in full here.

US Mission Indonesia Now on Ordered Departure For All Family Members Under 21

 

On March 26, the State Department issued a new Travel Advisory for Indonesia, a Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory “due to the Global Health Advisory and Embassy Jakarta’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.
It also announced the mandatory evacuation of all family members under 21 for US Mission Indonesia, including the US mission to ASEAN:

On March 25, the Department of State allowed for the Ordered Departure of all eligible family members (EFMs) under age 21 from Embassy Jakarta, Consulates Medan and Surabaya, and the U.S. Mission to ASEAN.

Commercial flight options may become limited, as well as decreased medical evacuation options from Indonesia. Indonesia’s health system has limited capacity to test for the virus causing COVID-19. Travelers should consider these factors and their health before traveling to Indonesia and follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for the prevention of coronavirus if they decide to travel.

Read the full advisory here.
Post’s March 20 Health Alert notes : “We understand that Indonesia’s health system has limited capacity to test for COVID-19 and to manage treatment of persons with COVID-19.[…] The government of Indonesia has implemented enhanced screening and quarantine measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice. As of March 20, 2020, Indonesia has suspended entry for foreigners using visa exemption and visa on arrival.
Post’s March 17 Health Alert said, “The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Consulate General in Surabaya, and Consular Agency in Bali have implemented social distancing measures but remain open for Consular Services.” On March 20, it said, “The U.S. Mission in Indonesia has suspended routine consular services.”

FCO Deputy Ambassador Steven Dick, 37, Dies of COVID-19 in Hungary

 

 

COVID-19 Tracker: State Department and Foreign Service Posts (March 25 Update)

 

We originally created a tracker for COVID-19 cases for the State Department and our Foreign Service posts on March 21. We updated that post on March 22. (See Tracking COVID-19 Cases at State Department and Foreign Service Posts (Updated)).
Since Pompeo’s quip at a presser on March 17  that “We’ve had a couple of employees – count them on one hand – who have positive tests” we still don’t have official breakdown of numbers as to how many employees and family members have actually been infected, how many have recovered from the virus, or even how many were tested, or how many have been medically evacuated for COVID-19.
The last couple of days even with Senior State Department officials doing their “Special Briefing”, we still don’t have a good official count on numbers and places where there are positive, suspected, or quarantined staffers/family members due to COVID-19 cases.
On March 23, SSDO said:

“So the domestic numbers are easier to quantify just based on communications with posts abroad.  Obviously, this is a rapidly evolving situation, especially in the overseas environment. I can tell you we’re still at single digits here in the United States with cases – one each, two each, three each in Washington; Houston; Boston; New York; Quantico, Virginia; and Seattle.  So the numbers themselves are – overseas are still double-digit.  We’re looking at less than 30 scattered over 220 posts around the world, and it remains a challenge. Obviously, the – this type of outbreak, had we known earlier what the epidemiology was and had some of that data, perhaps we would have a better feel for how this was going to move across our overseas posts.  But we are keeping pace with it.  And again, the number at this point is less than 30.” 

In our updated COVID-19 tracker we are noting this info as “fuzzy math.”
On March 24, the SSDO was asked “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?”.  SSDO responded:

“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. ” 

On March 25, Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations was one of the briefers and said:

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.

Tracker is not embeddable right now, so the links do not work; however, we have links as reference and can post separately, as needed.  The newest addition in the update below includes the cases in Madrid, which we were originally informed were 6 positive cases, and now are at reportedly 16 positive cases. Also includes the fuzzy accounting from the March 24 briefing on domestic cases, and the presumptive positive case at SA-1 per internal email on the night of March 24. After we updated the tracker, we saw the March 25 briefing with MED”s Walters and CA’s Brownlee. Walter mentions “tracking 58 current cases” with 33 cases as the highest in one unnamed regional bureau, plus 16 cases in five unidentified cities domestically (3/23 briefing notes six cities).
We think that the fuzziness is intentional. It is very likely that MED (perhaps even Ops) has detailed trackers internal to those offices and could provide a straight-forward breakdown like DOD, if they want to. We’re hearing complaints of “no central info on cases department wide”. As of March 25, based on official briefers, domestic cases went from single digits on 3/23 to 16 domestically; and less than 30 on 3/23 to 58 overseas.