Only nine of the people evacuated from Afghanistan to the United States since the Taliban takeover have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a government document obtained by Yahoo News. Even so, COVID procedures and testing have slowed down the processing of evacuees, according to the document.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday morning that the U.S. military has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of approximately 58,700 people from Afghanistan since it began emergency airlift operations from the Kabul airport on Aug. 14. At a press briefing at the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor said 21,600 individuals departed Kabul in the last 24 hours, with one aircraft leaving the Afghan capital roughly every 45 minutes. During that time, Taylor said, an additional four flights carrying more than 1,000 passengers have landed at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.
The document — a government update sent to the White House Monday evening and marked “For official use only” — offers new details about the number of evacuees who have been transported to the United States from Afghanistan, and the challenges involved in managing COVID-19 screening for evacuees. The document states that between Aug. 17 and Monday afternoon, 21 flights carrying a total of 4,393 evacuees from Afghanistan — including 44 military service dogs — had arrived at Dulles.
The Pentagon, the Department of Health and Human Services and the International Organization for Migration “are still identifying processes for transitioning evacuees that test positive for COVID-19,” the document says.
According to the document, evacuees who provide proof of a negative test within 72 hours are not required to be retested upon arrival in the United States, an exemption that is helping improve processing times. However, the document notes that it is still “taking longer than expected for evacuees to disembark planes for testing and customs processing” due to a combination of factors, including delays in U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents receiving flight manifests, unspecified national security concerns, evacuees not having completed a CDC COVID-19 form prior to landing, and other issues related to determining which evacuees require testing upon arrival.
The percentage of evacuees who have proof of a recent negative test varies from flight to flight. The nine positive COVID-19 cases were out of 3,293 evacuees who’d been tested on-site at Dulles so far.
“Conducting one of the largest airlift operations in recent American history is no small feat in the best of circumstances, and this one is not the best of circumstances because … we’re in the midst of a pandemic,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
“Screening occurs at every stop, at every stage of the process,” he said, explaining that elementary health screenings are being done at the Kabul airport for evacuees who are symptomatic, as well as additional screenings at temporary safe havens in Europe and the Middle East where evacuation flights are landing before departing for the United States, where passengers are screened upon arrival.
Though Kirby emphasized that the primary focus is to get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, “we’re doing the best we can to make sure that we’ve got enough visibility on everyone’s health,” he said. “It’s on everybody’s mind, believe me.”
It’s not clear how many of the positive COVID-19 cases were among Afghan refugees versus American citizens, but the document obtained by Yahoo News notes that early Monday morning, an unspecified number of at-risk Afghans who tested positive for COVID-19 were transported by bus to the Fort Lee Army base in Virginia.
Fort Lee is one of four U.S. military installations that are currently providing temporary housing to Afghan refugees, including translators and other Special Immigrant Visa applicants who worked for the U.S. military or its allies in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.
As of Monday, according to the document obtained by Yahoo News, there were just 10 evacuees at Fort Lee, 360 at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and 755 at Fort Bliss in Texas. Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in New Jersey, had yet to receive any Afghan evacuees, and another 426 were being housed at the Dulles Expo Center, a 100,000-square-foot convention facility 6 miles from the airport.
Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that the goal is to be able to house up to 25,000 Afghans across the four U.S. military installations. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “It’s going to take days and weeks for all four to get to that combined level.”
Airlift operations from Kabul have ramped up significantly in recent days, as the U.S. military looks to evacuate as many Americans and at-risk Afghans as possible before the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. President Biden has not said whether he will extend that deadline.
Additional reporting by Jana Winter.
Cover thumbnail photo: Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
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