The U.S. Embassy in Kabul says it is suffering from a major COVID-19 outbreak that has largely confined staff to their quarters and is disrupting many of its operations. Earlier this week, the embassy announced that it was suspending in-person visa interviews for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military.
In a note sent to staff, seen by NPR, the embassy says 114 people "have COVID and are in isolation; one has died, and several have been medevaced." The note goes on to say that military hospital ICU resources are at full capacity and that the embassy has been forced to "create temporary, on-compound COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients." Most of the cases involve individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
"We are saddened by the deaths of many valiant Afghans, who have been sickened by this pandemic and we in fact grieve the passing of an embassy local staff member," said Ned Price, the State Department's spokesperson.
The embassy requests staff to get vaccinated, stay six feet from others, suspends the use of pools and gyms, and demands strict mask compliance from staff. "Wear your masks, correctly! We are seeing a lot of noses."
Failure to comply could see staff on the next flight home. The embassy asks them to make sure others are following protocols and to report those who aren't.
Eric Rubin, who heads the American Foreign Service Association — the State Department's union — says he's hearing from members, who are "very concerned that their safety has been endangered by fellow employees, who have chosen not to be vaccinated."
"Our understanding is that there is enough vaccine at every embassy and consulate in the world for anyone, who wants to get it," Rubin told NPR.
The State Department does not disclose how many people are at the embassy, but it is one of the U.S.' largest. The embassy reportedly faced a smaller coronavirus outbreak in June 2020.
The State Department and the embassy in Kabul did add some staff in recent months to handle a surge in visa applications for Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S.
As the U.S. military pulls out – and is expected to fully do so by July, with a symbolic end date of Sept 11 – many of those who helped U.S. forces over the past two decades believe their lives are in danger, with the Taliban controlling greater swaths of the country.
Testifying before a congressional committee recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there are currently 18,000 Afghans who have expressed interest in moving to the U.S. and about half were in the early stages of their application process.
Trying to reassure Congress, he added that while the military was leaving, the embassy would continue with its job and was focused on getting those who helped the U.S. out: "We're not withdrawing. We're staying. The embassy staying. Our programs are staying. We're working to make sure that other partners stay. We're building all of that up."