By Michael Dubray 

The Department of State is rising to meet the historic challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, every day, all over the world. When the evacuation preparation of American citizens from Wuhan, China began in late January, the Department established a task force whose sole mission was to assist in the coordination of bringing these men and women home safely. With the increased and unprecedented impact of this novel coronavirus, the task force evolved into a vital collaborative entity to the Department—the Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit (CGRCU).  

“The Department realized this was a long-term issue, and required long-term coordination and management going forward,” said Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, special coordinator for the CGRCU. “A lot of it was based on lessons learned dealing with the previous administration and the Ebola crisis.” 

The CGRCU brings together different bureaus whose missions contribute to the Department’s global response. Their overall goal is to ensure that there is good mission flow and coordination across all parts of the Department and overseas, which has included engaging with counterparts across agencies, and also with multiple entities in the U.S., and international private sectors in an effort to integrate the overall response. 

“Initially our most important function was to support the deputy secretary in his role to the CGRCU,” said Rosenfarb. “Preparing him for daily White House Task Force meetings, making sure that he has all the information happening in our missions in countries around the world—so that he has everything he needs going in with recommendations for the vice president.” 

While briefing leadership is still an essential task for CGRCU, connecting people and agencies in emerging crises response has become something the unit tackles daily with new developments in the on-going pandemic occurring at a constant, rapid pace. Initially the task force spent approximately 13 hours a day in the office, but the unit is now available 24/7 while working from home. Additionally, CGRCU is proud to lead the Department by example—the entire unit has been 100 percent teleworking from different locations in the Washington, D.C. area since early March. 

“Internally, we are a unit that is very new and was staffed quickly,” said Rob Forden, deputy special coordinator for the CGRCU and, normally, the deputy chief of mission in Beijing. “The overall challenge has been managing our role with the pace and scale of the crisis that myself and many others have never seen before. The coordination unit, from the beginning of this outbreak, has morphed so rapidly into so many different areas. It has been a challenge to make sure that we are bringing in the right people with the right expertise, sometimes drawing them into the unit, and sometimes reaching out to connect with the interagency or the White House.” 

The Department’s attempt to bring home Americans from every region of the world has truly been unprecedented in both scale and scope. Even before the creation of the CGRCU, overseas consular officers, along with their locally employed colleagues, had been working night and day to help repatriate Americans who were either stranded or had informed the Department of their desire to return home.  

In order to collaborate widely on the unprecedented global effort to bring home U.S. citizens from every corner of the globe, the CGRCU supported the creation of the Repatriation Task Force as a new constituent to the global response team, March 19. Using a wide range of tools, including travel advisories and alerts, the entire team is working to help U.S. citizens make informed decisions about travel overseas and returning home. The team supports the Bureau of Consular Affairs in working with embassies and consulates to maintain timely information and to encourage any U.S. citizens who reside overseas to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program——to receive the latest updates. 

Countries around the world, however, have begun instituting their own travel restrictions which adds to the complexity of the task that the Repatriation Task Force and the CGRCU are committed to fulfilling. The team in Washington, D.C., along with embassies and consulates across the globe, are working to address the complex issues involved in bringing Americans home. Since efforts began in January, the Department has repatriated more than 63,000 U.S. citizens on more than 665 flights. Included in that number are the more than 800 American citizens and mission personnel evacuated on Department charter flights from Wuhan, and more than 300 American passengers that were repatriated also on Department charters from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan in February.  

According to the World Health Organization, a Diamond Princess cruise ship, like the one pictured here in Nov. 2017 floating at the Osanbashi Pier in port of Yokohama bay, accounted for more than half of the reported infections of coronavirus around the world outside of China. The CGRCU coordinated the successful repatriation of the more than 300 American passengers from that ship on Department charters in February. Photo by Anotai Y
The Diamond Princess cruise ship, seen here docked in Yokohama Bay in November 2017, accounted for a large number of the early reported coronavirus infections outside of China. The CGRCU coordinated the successful repatriation of the more than 300 American passengers from that ship on Department charters in February. Photo by Anotai Y

“Cruise ships are problematic in that they have acted as incubators of COVID-19, and it’s been hard for them to find locations where they could disembark,” said Rosenfarb. “We worked with the cruise line industry, the White House Task Force, [the Department of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection], as well as [the Office of Foreign Missions] and the regional bureaus in the Department to provide information to counties who had their own citizens as passengers on cruise ships. Even though some cruise ships are still out there, most have docked, and we contributed to getting those people home safely. We are very proud of that.”  

In addition to safeguarding and protecting American citizens, the CGRCU is working to inform and share data as it becomes available. Understanding the strong need for critical data and analysis, CGRCU welcomed the Coronavirus Data Analytics Team (CDAT), April 3. CDAT emerged from the ongoing collaborative efforts between CGRCU and the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions Center for Analytics. Their team works to collect, manage, analyze, and make available critical data and analysis to help inform Department decisions. 

“The CDAT will serve as a one-stop shop for data questions and aims to work closely with other collaborating data offices to ensure all COVID-19 data is being managed in one central repository to be shared and leveraged as applicable,” said Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao in an announcement to employees.

CGRCU manages an information repository which includes the latest public statements, testimony, and resources from the Department related to COVID-19 and the coronavirus. Additionally, CGRCU reports repatriation data on this website, which it updates daily. Overall, the CGRCU team is working tirelessly to address the outbreak, support the workforce, and promote transparency.  

“The Department keeps learning,” said Rosenfarb. “We pulled together quickly to respond and to protect our people. We have learned a lot there. We are proud of how we have been fulfilling our mission to coordinate and integrate the Department’s response, and to help personnel from all bureaus have what they need to get the job done.”  

The U.S. government has no higher priority than the protection of American citizens. With the establishment of CGRCU, and the ongoing collaboration from multiple stakeholders, the Department has taken decisive action to inform and safeguard U.S. citizens overseas, protect the homeland, and advance the administration’s commitment to building global health security capacity for this and future outbreaks.  

Michael Dubray is a public affairs officer in the Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit. 

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