@StateDept’s Interagency Group to Coordinate Repatriation – Not Convened Since April 2019

 

In November 2021, the GAO released its review of the State Department’s repatriation efforts at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (see State Carried Out Historic Repatriation Effort but Should Strengthen Its Preparedness for Future Crises).
GAO’s report concludes in part that:

State carried out a historic effort in helping to repatriate more than 100,000 individuals during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the passengers who responded to our survey gave State high marks for its communication and information related to repatriation. In addition, State’s application of lessons learned from its COVID-19 repatriation effort will help it address future crises effectively.

However, although State took steps to prepare for a global crisis such as the pandemic, addressing several gaps could improve State’s
preparedness to carry out future repatriations. Reconvening quarterly meetings of the WLG, which has not met since April 2019, would ensure better communication among the agencies involved in planning emergency evacuations.

The publicly available 1998 MOU between the State Department and DOD on the protection and evacuation of US citizens and nationals and designated other persons from threatened areas overseas explains the role of the WLG:

The Washington Liaison Group (WLG) is an organization consisting of members of the Departments of State and Defense, chaired by a representative of the Department of State, which has basic responsibility for the coordination and implementation of plans for the protection and evacuation in emergencies of persons abroad for whom the Secretaries of State and/or Defense are responsible. The representatives on the WLG are the points of contact for their departments on all matters pertaining to emergency evacuation planning, implementation of plans, and coordination of repatriation activities with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Regional liaison groups are established overseas and activated upon the recommendation of the WLG to assist in the coordination of emergency and evacuation planning between the Departments of State and Defense for areas outside the United States.

GAO notes that WLG members include DOD, DHS, and HHS, among other agencies, as well as a number of State bureaus. Specifically, State WLG members include CA, DS, the Bureau of Administration, the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, the Office of the Legal Advisor, and regional bureaus.
More from the GAO report:

Although State established an interagency group—the WLG—to ensure coordination for the protection and evacuation of U.S. citizens abroad, State did not sustain the regular quarterly WLG meetings, which may have contributed to gaps in interagency communication during the global repatriation effort. State and DOD established the WLG in 1998, with State as the lead agency, to coordinate and implement plans for the evacuation of persons abroad during emergencies, and according to State officials, State formalized WLG’s charter in 2018.39 The charter states that the WLG is expected to meet quarterly. CMS—which is responsible for department-wide crisis preparedness and response activities—manages the WLG’s day-to-day operations, including scheduling meetings.40 However, as of May 2021, CMS officials told us that they had not convened the group since April 2019.

According to CMS officials, after the WLG last met in April 2019 and before the pandemic began, members of the group questioned the
purpose of further meetings. CMS officials told us that, in response, they offered to schedule future meetings on request or if the need arose.
According to the officials, in February 2021, interagency WLG members expressed interest in CMS reconvening the WLG to discuss information sharing about repatriation across and among the task forces. However, CMS delayed reconvening the WLG in part because of limited capacity within CMS to manage the group while also playing an active role in managing State’s international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to CMS officials.

State documents and comments by CMS officials suggest that the lack of WLG meetings before and during the pandemic may have contributed to gaps related to interagency communication. In internal documents, State identified a number of gaps related to interagency communication during the pandemic, such as a lack of knowledge of how to communicate with other agencies, lack of guidance about points of contact at other agencies, and lack of clarity about U.S. government policy on repatriation. Comments by State officials indicated that such gaps led to challenges in communicating with the correct offices at interagency partners and coordinating repatriation efforts with interagency partners in the absence of clear, established policy. For example, CMS officials told us that regular meetings of the WLG would have facilitated interagency communication at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, because such communication would have reduced the effort required to identify the correct contacts in other agencies.

In part because CMS did not convene quarterly WLG meetings in accordance with the group’s charter, State’s ability to coordinate with other agencies to respond to the pandemic and carry out repatriation activities was diminished. In addition to the requirement for the WLG to meet quarterly, leading practices for interagency coordination based on our prior work call for agencies to consider how to sustain leadership of interagency groups over the long term—such as by meeting regularly—in order to maintain the group’s effectiveness.41 CMS officials told us in May 2021 that they planned to reconvene the WLG in the future but did not know when that would occur. Convening quarterly meetings of the WLG would enhance State’s ability to coordinate repatriation activities with other agencies in any future global crisis.

###

 

Report: Covid19-Infected Amcits From #DiamondPrincess Flown Home Against CDC Advice

 

Via WaPo, February 20, 2020:

In Washington, where it was still Sunday afternoon, a fierce debate broke out: The State Department and a top Trump administration health official wanted to forge ahead. The infected passengers had no symptoms and could be segregated on the plane in a plastic-lined enclosure. But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagreed, contending they could still spread the virus. The CDC believed the 14 should not be flown back with uninfected passengers.
[…]
The State Department won the argument. But unhappy CDC officials demanded to be left out of the news release that explained that infected people were being flown back to the United States — a move that would nearly double the number of known coronavirus cases in this country.
[…]

During one call, the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, argued against taking the infected Americans on the plane, according to two participants. She noted the U.S. government had already told passengers they would not be evacuated with anyone who was infected or who showed symptoms. She was also concerned about infection control.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was also on the calls, recalled saying her points were valid and should be considered.

But Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Department of Health and Human Services and a member of the coronavirus task force, pushed back: Officials had already prepared the plane to handle passengers who might develop symptoms on the long flight, he argued. The two Boeing 747s had 18 seats cordoned off with 10-foot-high plastic on all four sides. Infectious disease doctors would also be onboard.

“We felt like we had very experienced hands in evaluating and caring for these patients,” Kadlec said at a news briefing Monday.

The State Department made the call. The 14 people were already in the evacuation pipeline and protocol dictated they be brought home, said William Walters, director of operational medicine for the State Department.

As the State Department drafted its news release, the CDC’s top officials insisted that any mention of the agency be removed.

Read the full report below.
Anyone know if the State Department has a Task Force for Covid-19 already? It looks like U.S. citizens in Hubei Province or those with information about U.S. citizens in Hubei are advised to contact the U.S. Embassy or the State Department at the same email address: CoronaVirusEmergencyUSC@state.gov.
Excerpt from State Dept Special Briefing on Repatriation ofo U.S. Citizens from the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, February 17, 2020:

OPERATOR: The line of Alex Horton from Washington Post has been opened. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks, everyone, for jumping on this call on a holiday. So I was curious about when discussion with the CDC was executed to make this call. Based on their press release a few days ago, they said there would be screening to prevent symptomatic travelers from departing Japan. The press release you guys issued is very carefully worded when you said, “After consulting HHS, the State Department made the decision to allow those individuals to go on,” those 14.

So is there daylight with CDC and HHS in this decision by you guys to send them forward, and what were some of their objections that you – that you seem to have overturned?

DR WALTERS: This is Dr. Walters. What I’d say is that the chief of mission, right, through the U.S. embassy, is ultimately the head of all executive branch activities. So when we are very careful about taking responsibility for the decision, the State Department is – that is the embassy. The State Department was running the aviation mission, and the decision to put the people into that isolation area initially to provide some time for discussion and for onward, afterwards, is a State Department decision.

There is a – I think where you might see the appearance of a discrepancy is in the definition of symptomatic. Symptomatic – when we use the word “symptomatic,” we’re talking about coughing and sneezing and fever and body aches. Those are symptoms, all right? And as Dr. Kadlec laid out and I reinforced, each one of these 338 [4] people was evaluated by an experienced medical provider, and none of them had symptoms.

Once they were on the bus, we received information about a lab test that had been done two or three days earlier. But it is, in fact – it is a fact that no symptomatic patients – no one with a fever or a cough or lower respiratory tract infection or body aches, or anything that would lead one to believe this person is infected with the virus was – none of that was in place before – at the time a decision was made to evacuate these folks.