March 25 (UPI) — More than 50,000 Americans abroad have asked the United States for help to return home as they have become stranded in countries that have closed their borders and prohibited carriers from flying amid the coronavirus pandemic, State Department officials said Wednesday.
Some 9,300 Americans have been repatriated from over 28 countries since the first evacuation flight took off in late January, and Ian Brownlee, a senior Consular Affairs official who is leading the State Department’s repatriation task force, said during a briefing Wednesday that there are some 9,000 more people scheduled on 66 flights to return to the United States in the next nine days, with tens of thousands more seeking assistance home.
The number of 50,000 Americans requesting help is more than double the 13,500 number the State Department said on Monday, but Brownlee said the department is keeping a running tally of U.S. citizens officials estimate will ask for help, and that number changes not only daily but hourly.
“Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens and we’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can,” he said.
However, the task force is becoming more and more constrained as countries continue to go under lockdown, giving it often the same warning of hours that their borders will shut as they give to the public, Brownlee said.
The State Department is seeking to contract aircraft to bring U.S. citizens home but has run into obstacles and has asked the Department of Defense to line up planes.
“This is fairly complex contractual work and inasmuch as this is a truly unprecedented event, the State Department’s capacity to do this is being strained,” Brownlee said.
In Peru, where more than 1,000 Americans have been evacuated from, two more flights were in the air heading home during the briefing, but the State Department said they have experienced a logjam there to bring Americans home.
The U.S. Embassy in Peru confirmed that 300 U.S. citizens had been evacuated from the South American country on Wednesday, equally more than 1,000 Americans in total to be repatriated, but that more were waiting to get home.
“We know how frustrated many of you are, and we are working tirelessly to overcome obstacles and get you back to the U.S.,” the U.S. Embassy in Peru said late Wednesday via Twitter.
Brownlee said the issue in Peru is that the military side of the airport is working on a “shoestring” after the civil aviation authority shutdown due to officials being infected with COVID-19.
William Walters, executive director and managing director for Operational Medicine, said among the State Department’s 75,000-strong workforce, they’re tracking 58 cases of COVID-19, 33 of which were diagnosed in one regional bureau.
In the United States, he said they have identified 16 cases in five cities, with eight being identified in one location.
The rate of infection, he said, is fewer than one in 1,000.
“That’s a direct result 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,” Walters said.