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State Department: First D.C. staffer dies of COVID-19

Americans aboard a bus as they leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal for repatriation in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 17. Photo by Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE/
Americans aboard a bus as they leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal for repatriation in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 17. Photo by Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE/

April 14 (UPI) -- The State Department reported its first death of a staffer to the coronavirus at its Washington, D.C., headquarters on Tuesday.

William Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations in the Bureau of Medical Services, told reporters the victim was a civil servant who died over the weekend after "a prolonged illness."

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The employee had been out of work more than two weeks prior to his death, Walters said, meaning no additional precautions are required to safeguard the facility in which he worked.

Walters said he could not comment further on the State Department employee out of privacy concerns, but remarked, "he was hospitalized for some time fighting the coronavirus and ultimately did succumb."

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The death is the fifth among State Department staff and the second to occur in the United States. Walters said the department was tracking 297 cases of COVID-19 among its workforce overseas. Domestically, there were 71 cases, he said.

The announcement came during a press conference on the State Department's ongoing effort to repatriate Americans stranded abroad. The officials said they are currently tracking some 15,000 Americans who have shown interest in returning to the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered airports, borders and avenues to return home from overseas

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Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary Bureau of Consular Affairs, urged Americans abroad mulling whether they should reach out to them for help to decide fast as government-chartered evacuation flights will not continue forever, an often repeated warning by Brownlee during repatriation updates.

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"As I've also said many times before, if you're on the fence about returning get off that fence now," he said.

The officials said the State Department has repatriated nearly 62,000 Americans on more than 560 flights from 107 countries since its first evacuation flight Jan. 29 from Wuhan, China, ground zero of the coronavirus.

Of those repatriated, 10,000 were evacuated from Africa and 5,000 were from South and Central Asia with nearly half returning from Central and South America, Brownlee said.

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The State Department's repatriation task force chief added they have begun to "wind down" State Department-sponsored charters in some areas and have moved to commercial flights, including in Central America.

"In the near future, we will look to do so in other regions," he said, adding, "our timeline is based on demand and resources."

He, however, warned those in Peru -- where the department has repatriated some 7,150 Americans -- but especially Brazil to make plans to return to the United States while airlines continue to fly between the two countries.

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Tens of thousands of Americans live throughout the vast South American nation and without commercial flights "it will be exceedingly difficult for the U.S. government to organize repatriation efforts," he said. "If you want to return home, you should do so now."

Globally, the virus has infected nearly 2 million people and caused more than 126,000 deaths since it emerged in December.

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