WASHINGTON – A dangerous surge in COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan has gripped the U.S. embassy in Kabul, forcing an immediate lockdown and the creation of temporary, on-site COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients, according to an internal memo.
“COVID-19 is surging in the Mission. 114 of our colleagues now have COVID and are in isolation; one has died, and several have been medevaced,” reads the notice from Shane Pierce, an employee in the embassy’s health unit.
His memo says that intensive care units at a U.S. military hospital “are at full capacity,” prompting the need to set up temporary on-site units for staff who need oxygen.
Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, noted the surge in cases coincides with “an intense third wave of COIVD-19 cases” across Afghanistan.
COVID infection rates have surged in Afghanistan by 2,400% over the past month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross
“Afghanistan is at a crisis point in the battle to contain COVID-19 as hospital beds are full to capacity in the capital Kabul and in many areas,” Dr. Nilab Mobarez, acting president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said in a statement Thursday.
“This surge is fast spiraling out of control, adding huge pressures on our fragile health system and millions of people living in poverty,” he said.
Price said the U.S. embassy employee who died was a locally-employed staff member.
“Our thoughts are with that individual’s family and other loved ones,” Price said.
Workers of the HALO Trust de-mining organization were attacked on Tuesday night by the armed gunmen. Coffins of the victims in Tuesday's attack are placed on the ground at a hospital in northern Baghlan province, Afghanistan, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Photo: Mehrab Ibrahimi, AP)
American officials stationed in Afghanistan are already on edge as the U.S. military withdraws its forces and a spike in violence grips the country.
Embassy staff have also been under growing pressure from lawmakers in Congress to process thousands of visa applications from Afghans who helped American forces during the war before the withdrawal is complete. Many Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other roles fear that once U.S. troops are gone, the Taliban will sweep back into power and target them as traitors.
‘They will slaughter us’: Afghans who worked with US beg for visas as troop withdrawal looms
Pierce, the embassy health official, said 95% of the embassy’s COVID cases are among individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. It’s not clear why so many embassy employees remain unvaccinated. His note says COVID-19 shots are available.
“The vaccine is available to members of our embassy team in Kabul, just as it is to our employees around the world,” Price said. He said while the State Department is encouraging employees to get the vaccine, it’s not required.
In an effort to stop further transmission, the embassy has ordered all its personnel to stay in their own quarters alone, except to get food, exercise or participate in “mission-critical” work that cannot be done remotely.
“Exceptions for work outside of quarters must be both mission-critical and time-sensitive, and approved by supervisors in writing,” the memo says. “Individuals should not eat with anyone else, regardless of vaccination status.”
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