US embassy in Afghanistan on strict lockdown amid ‘surging COVID cases, full ICU

(KABUL) — The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan is suffering from a COVID-19 crisis as the virus sweeps across Afghanistan in a devastating third wave destabilizing the already fractured country.

Staff have been placed on a severe lockdown as dozens of employees have been hospitalized, filling the U.S. military hospital’s intensive care unit to capacity and requiring medical evacuations of several staffers, according to an internal notice to staff obtained by ABC News.

American diplomats and Afghan and other foreign staff are already stretched thin by departures from the embassy in April and already on edge as the U.S. military withdraws from the country after two decades of fighting.

Amid new spikes in violence ahead of that withdrawal, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc across Afghanistan, with infection rates skyrocketing by around 2,400% in the past month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC). The country’s already fragile health care system is on the verge of collapse with a shortage of beds and oxygen.

But what’s particularly shocking about the outbreak at the U.S. embassy is that its staff have had access to vaccines for over six months now, meaning the spike there is largely because of staff who refused to get vaccinated or aren’t yet fully vaccinated.

According to the notice, 114 employees are hospitalized at the U.S. military’s hospital. With the ICU at capacity, the embassy was forced to create temporary COVID-19 wards on its grounds, while “several” employees were also medevaced out of the country.

One embassy employee has died in recent days, according to the notice, although it’s not clear whether they were American, Afghan or another nationality.

The embassy was one of the first overseas U.S. posts to receive vaccines back in December, prioritized because of the fragility of Afghanistan’s health care system and the high risk to staff.

That makes this outbreak more shocking because, according to the June 17 notice, 95% of those hospitalized were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

In total, over 90% of Afghans and other foreigners on staff are vaccinated, too, meaning a sizable portion of those in dire condition now are American staffers. The notice doesn’t include how many Americans are vaccinated, but it all but demands that any new American diplomat, security contractor or other official coming to the embassy be vaccinated.

“Incoming personnel should be vaccinated before arriving at Post. Failure to do this puts everyone in the community at risk,” it said.

There are still vaccine doses available, per the notice, which urged staff, “Please avail yourselves of the vaccines available in the Embassy.”

“We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the Mission’s ability to carry out the nation’s business,” it added.

To that end, all personnel are being confined to their quarters except to get food and exercise or relax alone outside. All indoor meetings are prohibited “unless absolutely mission-critical” and only then with prior approval. And even outdoor meetings are allowed only if they’re “mission-critical and time-sensitive” — and also with prior approval only.

Those severe restrictions are effective immediately, and the punishment could be strict and swift.

“Failure to abide by the Mission’s COVID policies will result in consequences up to and including removal from Post on the next available flight,” it said.

The COVID-19 crisis in Afghanistan has also placed the lives of Afghan translators and other contractors at risk, too. Last Friday, the embassy announced it would suspend all visa operations effective on Sunday, including for those Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or diplomatic presence and now, facing threats of retaliation by the Taliban, are seeking U.S. visas.

“We acknowledge and regret the inconvenience to applicants as we seek to protect the health of our staff and applicants to ensure we can fully support visa and other consular services going forward,” the embassy said in a statement.

There are approximately 18,000 Afghans who, along with their families, are seeking those Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs — a program long beset by years-long delays. This indefinite suspension threatens to only deepen that problem, although the State Department has said it is increasing staff in Washington to help process applications in their initial phases before an in-person interview is required.

That’s not enough for several U.S. lawmakers from both parties, many of whom are urging the Biden administration to find new ways to continue interviewing Afghans “desperately trying to get their visas processed before the U.S. fully withdraws from the country,” as the office of Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement last week.

With that military withdrawal now more than halfway complete, according to the Pentagon, McCaul is among those urging Biden to “explore” offering humanitarian parole to Afghans in “the final stages of visa processing.” Humanitarian parole is a temporary legal status that allows a foreigner to enter the U.S.

“The health and safety of our diplomatic personnel is a high priority for me. But suspending visa operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul at this critical juncture only further exacerbates the situation for those awaiting their Special Immigrant Visas,” McCaul added.

In the meantime, the rest of Afghanistan is desperate for vaccines. The White House said the country is one of the dozens of countries that will receive vaccines from its first tranche of 25 million donated doses that the administration said will be shared overseas by the end of the month.

But it’s not clear when those will arrive in Afghanistan yet or how many it will receive. Last Friday, 700,000 doses arrived from China, but Afghanistan has otherwise received very few vaccines.

“COVID-19 is another cruel blow for millions of Afghans already dealing with the constant threat of violence, displacement, food insecurity and poverty. We’re seeing large numbers of people having to make terrible choices between finding a way to feed their families and growing risks of getting sick,” said Necephor Mghendi, head of IFRC’s Afghanistan delegation.

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