WASHINGTON – The State Department says more than 13,000 Americans stranded abroad have contacted the agency for help getting home amid the coronavirus outbreak, a senior official told reporters Monday.
The Trump administration is scrambling to charter commercial flights to dozens of countries – amid mounting pressure from lawmakers and their marooned constituents.
But State Department officials are also telling Americans to get home on commercial flights – if that’s even possible, as more countries impose severe travel restrictions and mass quarantines to stop the spread of the disease.
“We are encouraging people … to avail themselves of commercial means (to get back to the U.S.) while they still exist,” said the senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. “But that window is closing fast.”
There’s no guarantee, he said, the U.S. government will be able to get every American home, particularly those stuck in hard-to-reach locations.
“I’m hesitant to give a guarantee we can move every single person,” the official said.
For those Americans who can’t get commercial flights, he said, they need to register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, called STEP.
“The only way we’re going to find somebody is if they’ve registered with us in STEP and provided pretty detailed information about who they are, how to get in touch with them, etc.,” the official said.
Some Americans who have contacted the State Department are in very remote locations, such as Iquitos, Peru.
“The only way in and out of the Iquitos is by air … and the Peruvians have shut down internal air travel,” the State Department official said. The agency is working with the Peruvian government to get permission to move those Americans by plane to Lima and then back to the U.S. But the arrangements are complex, and the outcome unclear.
The Trump administration has already brought about 5,000 Americans home from 17 countries, including about 800 from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Officials hope to fly another 1,600 U.S. citizens back this week from countries across the globe, the official said.
“We’re looking at 16 or so flights in the next five days and about 1,600 passengers identified for those flights. There’s room for more,” he said.
They are prioritizing vulnerable Americans – the elderly and those with underlying conditions – as they build out flight manifests.
Thousands of Americans have found themselves in limbo amid the global freeze on international travel as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe. Many of these stranded travelers say the State Department and its embassies have offered little to no assistance.
When Kristin Monesmith, an ER nurse from North Carolina, learned that Peru’s president had ordered a lockdown, the last flight out of Cusco had already left. So she went to the U.S. Embassy.
“The doors were locked, with a sign on the door just referring people to their website, which said nothing,” Monesmith said. “The embassy has been no help at all. The State Department has said that they do not send flights to bring Americans home, that is not their practice so we should not expect it.”
State Department officials defended their response, noting the situation is unprecedented and constantly evolving.
“It has been a lot of hard work, and it is going to be a lot of hard work going forward,” the State Department official said. “We are devoting all of our resources to this.”
But the agency set up a task force to coordinate the repatriation efforts only last week – as members of Congress began demanding a more robust response.
On Thursday, Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the State Department to begin chartering commercial airplanes and even use Pentagon aircraft to bring stranded Americans home.
“No American citizen should be abandoned overseas as we confront this unprecedented pandemic simply because of a failure of government to provide them the support that they need,” Menendez said.
The State Department official said they have used some military planes, on a space-available basis, to bring stranded Americans home. They are also using some Department of Homeland Security flights to bring citizens home; those planes head to Central American countries loaded with deported immigrants and are coming back with stranded Americans, he said.
The official conceded the State Department has had some glitches with its STEP website but said employees are working to expand capacity so it doesn’t crash as more Americans enroll.
The State Department has also set up a call center to help marooned Americans, but agency officials say the best way to get on the agency’s radar is to register through STEP.
The call center phone number is 202-501-4444 for those overseas and 888-407-4747 for those calling within the U.S. on behalf of stranded family or friends.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook