March 30 (UPI) -- State Department officials aiding in the repatriation of Americans stranded abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic urged U.S. citizens overseas to make plans to return to the United States while they still can.
Countries the world over have been imposing strict quarantine measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, which has infected nearly 800,000 people in more than 170 countries since the virus emerged four months ago, making it more and more difficult for Americans to board commercial flights to return home.
The State Department has repatriated more than 25,000 Americans from at least 50 countries but officials said Monday they are unsure how much longer they'll be able to arrange these evacuation flights.
"We do not know how long commercial flights will remain available, nor do we know how long the U.S. government will be able to facilitate additional flights where commercial options no longer exist," said Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "It is therefore imperative that U.S. citizens make plans now to avail themselves of these options."
The State Department is tracking more than 100 additional flights over the next week and has identified 9,000 U.S. citizens who have said they want to board them but there is still space for more passengers, Brownlee said, urging those wanting to return to the United States to contact the department.
"We are seeing more U.S. citizens decide to stay abroad and ride out this crisis where they are," Brownlee told reporters during a telephone briefing. "If people decide not to take advantage of these flights now, they will also need to hunker down where they are."
The officials made the warning as more than 350 Americans who have been stranded in Peru departed for the United States on Monday. According to the U.S. Embassy in Peru, nearly 3,300 Americans have been evacuated from the South American country after it implemented strict quarantine measures, such as closing its main airport to the public earlier this month.
Brownlee said buses have been transporting U.S. citizens from outlying regions so they can return to the United States but some people have been placed under quarantine and will not be able to leave as "exceptions are not made for international tourists."
"We are working to ensure that travelers placed under quarantine have access to appropriate food and healthy living conditions," he said. "In the meantime, we remind all U.S. citizens to adhere to the Peruvian government's quarantine measures."
The State Department is also seeing an increase in demand for repatriation flights from Asia, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, Brownlee said, adding its first evacuation flight from Bangladesh departed for the United States on Monday and it was in the process of coordinating flights with India.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh said the flights occurred after the Civil Aviation Authority on Saturday announced that from Tuesday until April 7 scheduled international commercial passenger flights from more than a dozen countries would not be allowed to land and that it was "not aware" of any flights departing from the capital Dhaka during that time period.
Brownlee said missions around the world "are facing reduced staffs" but that they haven't needed to send additional employees to other countries aside from the seven staff they sent to Peru.
The head of the department's repatriation task force, which was formed March 19, said he is unsure of the cost of the evacuations but that he has found Congress ready to assist in bring Americans home.
"So, at this point, I'm not concerned about the K Fund running dry," he said, referring to the coffer used during emergencies by U.S. foreign policy officials.