More than 50,000 Americans are asking the U.S. government for help getting home from foreign countries where commercial flights are suspended, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Ian Brownlee, the Consular Affairs official heading the State Department’s repatriation task force, said 66 flights are planned over the next nine days to bring at least 9,000 Americans back to the United States. That is double the number who already have returned on flights arranged by embassies and consulates around the world.
Brownlee said the State Department is struggling to assist stranded travelers get home. Demand has soared as an increasing number of countries have sealed their borders and closed their airports. Brownlee said the State Department is seeking assistance from the Defense Department to arrange aircraft operated by civilian air companies to rescue Americans marooned abroad with no way to get home.
“As it is truly an unprecedented event, the State Department’s capacity to do this is being strained,” Brownlee told reporters.
The State Department has been ramping up its efforts to assist Americans stuck in foreign countries in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic. It is prioritizing seats for the most vulnerable – the elderly and those who may be medically compromised.
One logjam appears to have been broken in Peru, where some 5,000 Americans have been stuck since the government suspended both international and domestic flights. More than 1,000 Americans have been repatriated in recent days. Two U.S.-bound flights left Wednesday, one from Lima and one from Cuzco. Brownlee said U.S. officials are working with their Peruvian counterparts to arrange more flights this week.
Brownlee said one cause of the delay is that approvals from senior Peruvian government officials did not trickle down to the regulatory agencies who issue landing permits. One American Airlines flight headed to Lima had to turn around as it was about to enter Peruvian airspace because it lacked permission, he said.
Peru has shut down the civilian side of its international airport, but the smaller military side of the facility remains open. The United States has offered a hangar usually used by U.S. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement officials, and is arranging chairs with socially-distant spacing so the space can be used to process passengers.
Brownlee said the State Department is also sending a team of consular officers and a senior official from the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau to Peru to assist in getting more flights approved.
“We’re doing what we can to help the Peruvians fill the capacity gap,” he said. ” We hope – we hope – this will keep things moving more fluidly in the future.”
The response to the coronavirus pandemic is developing so rapidly that Brownlee said U.S. officials usually get no advance notice when another country decides to suspend international flights.
“We get the same notice the public gets, whether it’s 12 hours, 24 hours, or 36 hours,” he said, adding, “People need to think about what might be coming up soon.”
The scramble to get Americans home while it’s still possible comes as the State Department is finding coronavirus striking its own workforce.
William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for the State Department, said they are aware of 58 confirmed cases in overseas posts. One bureau alone has 33 staffers who have tested positive, though Walters did not identify which posts have been hit hardest. In the United States they have identified 16 cases in five cities, he said.
Walters noted that the State Department has 75,000 employees, including local staff in embassies and consulates, so the virus has struck a rate of one in 1,000 staffers. He said they have been aggressively encouraging social distancing and teleworking.