@StateDept: “not tracking any specific exposure to any specific individual at the ambassadorial level”

 

Via Briefing With Senior State Department Officials On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad MARCH 23, 2020

QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this.  Two things.  First, for the Senior Official One, can you respond to Senator Menendez’s letter yesterday in which he calls for the administration to invoke authorities within the Civil Reserve Air Fleet readiness program to facilitate chartering these flights to get people back, and in which he also calls for the military or the Department of Defense to make military aircraft available.

And then secondly, for Senior Official Two, as I’m sure you’re aware, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Ambassador Marks self-quarantined on Thursday at least four days after she returned to South Africa from the United States after having spent time among other things on a U.S. Naval vessel.  Why did she self-quarantine on Thursday?  Was there something that happened between Monday and Thursday that caused her to do that, some kind of exposure?  And if not, why didn’t she self-quarantine immediately upon return to South Africa?  Or indeed, why did she return to South Africa in the first place if she had a potential exposure?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thank you, Arshad.  With regard to MilAir, with regard to using those assets, we are in conversations with the Department of Defense through what is called the ExecSec – ExecSec process.  They are one of the options that we might find ourselves calling on down the road.  At the moment, though, we are finding that – excuse me – that laying on charters via the K Fund, via other mechanisms we have here in the State Department is an efficient way to do this.

As I said, we are also helping private carriers increase the number of flights they have.  So, for example, going into Peru, our Economic Bureau is facilitating conversation amongst the U.S. Government agencies involved in providing this end of the regulatory approval while our embassy in Lima is working with the Peruvian authorities on getting the necessary regulatory approvals down there.  And so we’re able to increase the capacity that way.  This is a – whole-of-government is a cliche.  This is more of a whole-of-possibility effort to get people out, and so no option is foreclosed at (inaudible) and – out.

QUESTION:  Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  What about the question that I had regarding Ambassador Marks and why she did not self-isolate prior to Thursday?  I’d like an answer, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  All right.  This is [Senior State Department Official Two].  I can’t speak on an individual case, but I can give you from a policy perspective and sort of the way we’re addressing the disparate self-quarantine and isolation requirements in over 220 locations around the world.  First, we’re not tracking any specific exposure to any specific individual at the ambassadorial level, but I can tell you when any traveler from the State Department returns to a host nation, we respect – to the extent that we can we respect their requirements.  It’s the right thing to do, and I think we would expect their diplomats to do the same when they come to the United States.

 

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@USEmbassySeoul Finally Suspends Routine Visa Services

 

Related to our post of March 16, specific to South Korea:
US Embassy Seoul: We’re told that despite being a Level 3 COVID-19 country with very active community spread for the past few weeks, has continued to do routine NIV visa services and is still doing routine NIV visa services. “Those from epicenter areas are able to walk in like anyone else. No temp checks or additional screenings! Guards are not allowed to turn visibly sick people away. Visa appointments are only down because people aren’t traveling as much. However you can still get an appointment easily for (F, M, J, B) This is also a visa waiver country.”  (Note: South Korea is a CDC Level 3 country, and a State Department Level 3: Reconsider Travel country as of this writing).
(Read more: If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, please tell us why)
It looks like the US Embassy in Seoul has now suspended its routine visa appointments effective March 19 (first outbreak of COVID19 in Seoul was reported in late January). On March 18, the State Department announced the suspension of routine visa services in Level 2-4 countries. There are some 108 countries currently on Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions Travel Advisory. There are also Level 1 countries like U.S. Embassy Tashkent in Uzbekistan where posts have suspended their routine visa services; there are COVID19 cases in country and quarantine is in effect).
Below is an excerpt from US Embassy Seoul’s announcement:
“In response to worldwide challenges related to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Department of State is suspending routine visa services in all countries with a level 2, 3, or 4 U.S. Department of State travel advisory.  Accordingly, the U.S. Embassy to the Republic of Korea will cancel all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments as of March 19, 2020.  This does not affect the visa waiver program.  Services to U.S. citizens will continue.”
 Link to full statement below.

 

US Embassy Jamaica Shows How to Do Public Communication During a Pandemic

On March 11, US Embassy Kingston released an official response to Reports of U.S. Embassy Personnel Testing Positive for COVID-19. See US Embassy Jamaica Employee Reportedly Tested Positive of COVID-19, Routine Consular Services Suspended
On March 16, the Government of Jamaica announced a mandatory self-quarantine effective March 18: “For all persons entering Jamaica from countries where there is local transmission of COVID-19, will now be required to self-quarantine for up to 14 days. This measure will take effect from Wednesday, March 18, 2020.”
On March 17, 2020, US Embassy Kingston issued an update on the status of the COVID-19 positive employee at post, the number of employees — fourteen (14) — placed under quarantine, decontamination efforts at the embassy and its work to provide assistance to its host country. The update has been released as a press statement and also released on Twitter. The US Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia has also addressed the status of the embassy staffer on Twitter.

Kingston- On Tuesday March 10, the U.S. Embassy in Kingston received information that an employee was in isolation on suspicion of COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, the U.S. Embassy took the following appropriate mitigation steps. In alignment with Jamaican health authorities and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the staff of the entire consular section where the individual works, and anyone who came in close contact with them were ordered to remain at home and notify the embassy and the Ministry of Health & Wellness immediately if they developed symptoms related to COVID-19.

As a preventive measure, within 24 hours of the incident, the Embassy flew in from Washington, DC a U.S. Department of State decontamination team that sanitized the affected areas of the embassy.

“Today, the employee is in good spirits and recovering well. There have been no reports of local transmission via contact to any U.S. Embassy employee. In addition to addressing the embassy case of COVID-19, the U.S. mission in Kingston continues its collaborative efforts with the Government of Jamaica (GoJ) to support its nation-wide efforts to respond to the pandemic.” says Ambassador Donald Tapia.

Following the initial precautionary steps taken, the Embassy attending physician, in consultation with other medical experts conducted assessments of the staff who were ordered to remain at home and made final determination on who to remain on home quarantine. A total of fourteen (14) individuals remain at home for the remainder of the 14 days which ends on March 24th and none has developed symptoms as of today.

In addition to taking care of our mission staff community, the Embassy is also working hard to provide support to the GOJ including: an offer to MoHW of support through Embassy staff physicians and other public health professionals who can provide assistance in the areas of contact tracing, data management and clinical care if needed. The embassy is also in the process of acquiring resources from U.S. government agencies for support in the areas of medical equipment, PPE, and testing kits, to supplement GoJ’s efforts.

Tapia states, “We want to congratulate the GoJ and the Health and Wellness Ministry for its timely reporting of COVID-19 cases and aggressive containment strategy. The ministry has shown that one of the best defenses is appropriate public sensitization on preventative methods and the importance of early case recognition.”

Fighting this pandemic requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. We remind all persons to follow the guidance given through the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Those who suspect that they have had exposure to COVID-19 and are displaying symptoms to self-isolate immediately and contact the Ministry of Health & Wellness at 888-ONE-LOVE (663-5683) or 888-754-7792 for further instructions.

Peace Corps Suspends Global Operations, Evacuates All Volunteers #COVID19

 

OPM Issues Guidance For Maximum Telework Flexibilities, Employees to Seek Direction From Agency Heads

 

On March 15, Acting OPM Director Russell  T. Bought issued an “Updated Guidance for the National Capital Region on Telework Flexibilities in Response to Coronavirus”:

In light of the evolving situation concerning the corona virus (“COVID-19”) and the National Capitol Region (NCR) experiencing community transmission, the Administration wants to ensure that department and agency leaders assertively safeguard the health and safety of their workforce while remaining open to serve the American people and conduct mission critical functions.

All Federal Executive Branch departments and agencies within the National Capital Region (NCR), consistent with OMB’s recent guidance (0MB M-20-13), are asked to offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies as determined by their heads. In addition, we encourage agencies to use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework enabled. If employees are not eligible for telework, agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave, or the agency’s equivalent, including for employees who may not have been considered “at higher risk” under 0MB M-20- 13. Furthermore, agency heads should develop an operational plan that maximizes resources and functional areas to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other Government services (including but not limited to staggered work schedules and other operational mitigation measures).

See OMB Guidance M-20-15 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/M20-15-Telework-Guidance-OMB.pdf)
Over a week ago, we understand that State/M Bulatao asked employees with mobile/remote access to test their remote access capabilities by participating in a worldwide remote log-in exercise.
This OPM guidance is only for the National Capital Region (NCR) but related to this, a concerned source recently told us that many State Department management platforms are “still not cloud based” or “not outsourced to regional centers”, and so for overseas employees, many locally employed staff must come into work.

 

@StateDept Issues Global “Authorized Departure” For Certain USG Personnel and Family Members

Updated: March 15, 8:26 pm PDT:

On March 15, 2020, the State Department issued an updated Global Level 3 Health Advisory: Reconsider Travel. It also announced that the day before it authorized “the departure from any diplomatic or consular post in the world of US personnel and family members who have been medically determined to be at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.” So the “authorized departure” or voluntary evacuation depends on the determination of the local MED unit or based on current medical clearance?
Excerpt below:

The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.   

On March 14, the Department of State authorized the departure from any diplomatic or consular post in the world of US personnel and family members who have been medically determined to be at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.

For the latest information regarding COVID-19, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website.

Keeping workplaces, homes, schools, or commercial establishments safe.

You are encouraged to visit travel.state.gov to view individual Travel Advisories for the most urgent threats to safety and security. Please also visit the website of the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to see information on entry restrictions, foreign quarantine policies, and urgent health information provided by local governments.

Travelers are urged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency. The Department uses these Alerts to convey information about terrorist threats, security incidents, planned demonstrations, natural disasters, etc. In an emergency, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate or call the following numbers: 1(888) 407-4747 (toll-free in the United States and Canada) or 1 (202) 501-4444 from other countries or jurisdictions.

We will update if/when we know more.
Update 8:26 pm PDT: 
The cable released by State/M Brian Bulatao says:  “Effective March 14, 2020, I hereby approve authorized departure (AD) from any diplomatic or consular post of U.S. direct hire employees or eligible family members (EFMs) as listed on employee orders and defined in 14 FAM 511.3 who, after confidential consultation with MED, have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19, or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification in foreign areas.”
Our source, not from Public Affairs, interpret this to mean that  MED approval is not specifically required but you need to refer to MED when you go tell your boss you want out.
The  last time we had a global authorized/ordered departure order was probably during Y2K, was it? (The State Department at that time also issued an edict stating that all embassies must be prepared to be self-sufficient for 30 days by January 1, 2000). 
Would be interested to hear how this plays out this coming week and how folks are weighing the decision whether to avail of the voluntary evacuation to return to the United States shortly versus staying put at post. Given the slow response and unsettling chaos with the USG’s handling of the pandemic domestically, the decision may depend on post, location, and healthcare system in the host country. Drop us a note if you want to share. 

 

Burn Bag: State Department/MED – Heads in the Sand

From sickdips via Burn Bag:
“Members of the Embassy community at one post have fallen seriously ill with COVID-19 symptoms, but the State Department will not test them for COVID-19 or *MEDEVAC them. There is already limited medical capacity at many posts, which will be completely overwhelmed as the pandemic spreads. What is MED waiting for? Protecting our people should be our NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.”
*MEDEVAC – medical evacuation
** MED – State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services

Via Imgur

 

Trump Announces Travel Ban For Travelers From Schengen Area (26 European Countries) Over COVID-19

Via WH:
“The World Health Organization has determined that multiple countries within the Schengen Area are experiencing sustained person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  For purposes of this proclamation, the Schengen Area comprises 26 European states: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.  The Schengen Area currently has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of the People’s Republic of China.  As of March 11, 2020, the number of cases in the 26 Schengen Area countries is 17,442, with 711 deaths, and shows high continuous growth in infection rates.  In total, as of March 9, 2020, the Schengen Area has exported 201 COVID-19 cases to 53 countries.  Moreover, the free flow of people between the Schengen Area countries makes the task of managing the spread of the virus difficult.”
This proclamation is effective at 11:59 p.m. eastern daylight time on March 13, 2020.  This proclamation does not apply to persons aboard a flight scheduled to arrive in the United States that departed prior to 11:59 p.m. eastern daylight time on March 13, 2020.
The travel restriction is for “The entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of all aliens who were physically present within the Schengen Area during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States is hereby suspended and limited subject to section 2 of this proclamation.”
Click here for the scope of suspension and long list of  limitations of entry.

@StateDept Issues “Global Level 3 Health Advisory – Reconsider Travel” Over COVID-19

 

On March 11, 2020, the State Department issued a “Global Level 3 Health Advisory – Reconsider Travel.”

The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19.  Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions.  Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.     

For the latest information regarding COVID-19, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website.

You are encouraged to visit travel.state.gov to view individual Travel Advisories for the most urgent threats to safety and security.  Please also visit the website of the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to see information on entry restrictions, foreign quarantine policies, and urgent health information provided by local governments.

Travelers are urged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.  The Department uses these Alerts to convey information about terrorist threats, security incidents, planned demonstrations, natural disasters, etc.  In an emergency, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate or call the following numbers: 1(888) 407-4747 (toll-free in the United States and Canada) or 1 (202) 501-4444 from other countries or jurisdictions.

If you decide to travel abroad:

It looks like the State Department is also working to adapt its website to the ongoing outbreak. On travel.state.gov‘s travel advisories page, a new tab for COVID-19 Country Specific Information has been added which links directly to various embassies’ COVID-19 webpage, as well as a tab for Visa Alerts – Banner (currently unpopulated with information).
We are still looking for improvements on the “health alert” advisories. There is no easy way to search for them on travel.state.gov. Some of the health advisories like those for Israel is not included in the Travel Advisory. The embassies COVID-19 page also do not include links to the post issued “health alerts.” US Embassy Jamaica’s COVID-19 page has been overtaken by events and there is no clear link to the recent “health alert.”

US Embassy Jamaica Employee Reportedly Tested Positive of COVID-19, Routine Consular Services Suspended

 

Local media in Jamaica reports that the second COVID-19 case in the island is a U.S. Embassy Jamaica employee who recently returned from the UK.  Jamaican Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Chris Tufton tweeted confirmation of the second case on March 11.
The US Embassy released a statement acknowledging the media reports but cites “privacy concerns” in declining to share additional information. It has, however, announced the suspension of routine consular services until further notice and that the “Embassy is in the process of sanitizing the premises to prevent further outbreak.”

Kingston, Jamaica – We are aware of reports of a COVID-19 case related to an Embassy Kingston employee.  Due to privacy concerns, we are not able to share additional information.

The U.S. Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas and locally-employed staff.

In coordination with Jamaican authorities, Embassy Kingston is implementing all appropriate measures to help control the spread of COVID-19.

The Embassy is in the process of sanitizing the premises to prevent further outbreak.

Our Consular Section will not be providing routine services – including visa processing and American citizens services – until further notice.  U.S. citizens who require emergency assistance should call 876-702-6000.

U.S. citizens who decide to travel to Jamaica  should review and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for the prevention of coronavirus, read the Travel Advisory and Country Information Page for Jamaica on travel.state.gov, and enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP.state.gov).

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