With federal officials estimating there were 15 million Americans abroad during the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak, the government began making arrangements to get people home.
The Wall Street Journal reports it has coordinated 90,000 repatriations so far with many more to go as border closures left travelers stranded overseas.
The State Department launched an effort that is believed to be the largest civilian repatriation program in U.S. history to get Americans home.
In mid-March, the State Department created a 24-hour task force led by Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
“We realized right from the outset, it was unprecedented,” Brownlee told the Wall Street Journal. “There are 15 million U.S. citizens overseas. What if all of them raise their hand and say, me please, right now?”
The 24-hour task force has helped get people trapped in Peru and other countries back home. It's efforts have gone all the way to Bhutan, a country located between India and Tibet where Dr. Bert Hewitt thought he might die from the coronavirus.
Hewitt, 76, was about to be placed on a ventilator when he heard the county’s king had sent him a pair of blue silk pajamas because he was interested in his case, he told the newspaper.
The South Asian country has no diplomatic relations with the U.S. and has only one international airport that is noted to be one of the most difficult places to land in the world.
The Bureau of Medical Services already had a contract with Phoenix Air Group, which had planes equipped with biocontainment chambers, that could safely bring patients home.
It is not as simple as sending a plane to pick up passengers, deputy chief medical officer at the State Department William Walters said.
The process involves negotiating slots not just with the countries where citizens are stranded, but also countries with flyover restrictions. On top of that, many embassies are working with limited staff.
If you do get a spot on a plane to head home, the flight isn’t free. Travelers have to sign a promissory note promising to pay the government for chartered flights. The government also offers access to loans to pay for commercial flights negotiated by the State Department.
Dr. Hewitt said he thought he would never see his kids again. With limited access to Internet, he was unable to reach his family to tell them the was infected.
One of his daughters learned he was sick in March when she read an article about a 76-year-old American tourist becoming the first COVID-19 patient in Bhutan. She tracked down the hospital and began to put in calls to the State Department.
Dr. Walters called Phoenix Air Group to see if an evacuation was possible.
“We had a debate on whether he would survive the trip,” said Dent Thompson, senior vice president of Phoenix Air.
Dr. Hewitt was taken on board for the 30-hour flight back to the U.S., which required five stops and multiple flight crews. He recovered once he returned home to Maryland.
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