US locks down embassy in Afghanistan amid COVID-19 surge

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan ordered a near-complete lockdown Thursday because of a massive spike in coronavirus cases among employees.

Already on uncertain footing due to the imminent withdrawal of American forces from the country, the embassy in Kabul ordered remaining staffers into virtual isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has already killed at least one person, sent 114 into quarantine and forced several people to be medically evacuated.

The embassy said in a notice to employees that almost all group activities, including work meetings and recreational gatherings, are banned because intensive care units at military medical facilities in Afghanistan are at full capacity and the number of cases has forced it to establish temporary COVID-19 wards to care for patients requiring oxygen.

It said the restrictions would remain in place until the chain of transmission is broken. Violators will be removed from the country on the next available flight. The notice said 95% of the cases involved people who have not been vaccinated or fully vaccinated against the virus and urged all staff to take advantage of available vaccines at 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,” the acting U.S. ambassador, Ross Wilson, said in the notice. “Restrictions will continue until the chain of transmission is broken.”

“We are all in this together and rely on your cooperation during this difficult time,” he said. “We can only return to normal operations with the cooperation of everyone.”

The restrictions confine all personnel at the Kabul embassy to their living quarters except to get food alone or to exercise or relax outside by themselves. This requirement bans all sports and means personnel must stay at least 20 feet from others unless they are wearing a mask.

The announcement was distributed to journalists and others by the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

“At a time when the U.S. military withdrawal is accelerating, attacks on Afghan and coalition forces are intensifying and the U.S. is seeking to establish a stable and positive presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, the damage to our national security and national interests is potentially grave,” the association said of the outbreak.

It also issued a call for the Biden administration to require all staffers at all U.S. embassies and consulates abroad to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of their employment.

The State Department acknowledged that Afghanistan is suffering an “intense third wave of COVID-19 cases” and that the embassy had “adjusted” operations to deal with an outbreak among employees for health and safety reason but declined to discuss specifics.

Spokesman Ned Price told reporters that vaccines are available to all staffers and encouraged, but said there was no current requirement to be vaccinated.

Staffing levels at the Kabul embassy have already been significantly reduced pending the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, which President Joe Biden has ordered to be complete by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

All personnel who had jobs that did not require their physical presence at the embassy had been sent to other locations to telework in April shortly after Biden’s announcement.

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