Memo warns State Department not 'airline of last resort' for ill Americans abroad

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels this week to India, a country only a few months removed from a terrifying COVID-19 surge of more than 400,000 reported daily cases. 

India’s May experience is also a reminder of the risks to Americans traveling abroad during a persistent pandemic, mutating virus and sluggish global vaccine rollout. 

“The Department continues to strongly recommend U.S. citizens reconsider travel abroad, and postpone their trips if possible,” said Department of State spokesperson. “Our ability to provide consular and other services may be hindered by local health conditions.” 

In late May, Ian Brownlee, the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, sent a memo to Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, advising that the State Department had developed a process to address evacuations for critically ill Americans unable to secure “lifesaving care” in India, though advising that the government “should not generally undertake further large-scale COVID-19 evacuations” beyond that small group.

The memo also warned that “there is no obligation, legal or regulatory, for the Department to serve as the airline of last resort.” 

The State Department has advised U.S. citizens to prepare to remain overseas “for an extended period” if they test positive for COVID-19. In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered all air passengers returning to the U.S. from a foreign country to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of their flights. 

“We are committed to providing all possible consular assistance to U.S. citizens in need overseas, including by providing information on local medical resources when appropriate,” said a State Department spokesperson. 

Cases in India have declined significantly since May. The Indian Health Ministry reported fewer than 40,000 new cases Sunday. 

Less than 7% of India’s population, about 92.7 million people, are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. More than 340 million have received at least one dose.   

After the United States, India has the highest level of reported COVID-19 cases in the world, with more than 31 million cases and 420,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

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