The Covid-19 outbreak at the US Embassy in Kabul has grown to 159 cases, according to a diplomatic cable sent Tuesday, as a devastating third wave of the deadly disease continues to hit Afghanistan.
A source familiar with the cable said it noted that several people at the diplomatic mission are on oxygen or have been medically evacuated from the post, which was put under immediate lockdown last week to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The growing outbreak at the embassy has prompted frustration among some in the diplomatic community over the lack of a vaccine mandate for those posted abroad, which they argue hampers the United States’ ability to conduct effective foreign policy.
An embassy management notice dated June 17 warned that “COVID-19 is surging in the Mission,” noting that there were 114 people with coronavirus and in isolation, one death and several medical evacuations.
“Military hospital ICU resources are at full capacity, forcing our health units to create temporary, on-compound COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients,” that notice said.
Sources familiar with the situation point to a confluence of factors behind the outbreak at the diplomatic mission. Some of the cases in the current outbreak came from personnel interacting directly with the public, and there have been some breakthrough cases among staff who had been vaccinated.
According to the embassy notice, “95% of our cases are individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated,” and it called for those coming to the embassy to be vaccinated before arrival, noting that “failure to do this puts everyone in the community at risk.”
The surge in cases has fueled tensions in Kabul, sources told CNN, with some pointing the blame at unvaccinated contractors. Most American diplomats, third country nationals and locally employed staff have been vaccinated — the rate is more than 90% of staff in the latter two categories, according to the management notice.
According to an official at a major international security provider for the US in Afghanistan, almost 50% of its American staff in Afghanistan have been vaccinated and nearly all of its non-American staff have been.
A spokesperson for Gardaworld, one of the companies that provide contractors, told CNN that it “does not disclose details regarding client contracts nor do we provide personal information on our employees or contractors for privacy reasons.” A spokesperson for Amentum said the company follows its customers’ requirements when it comes to vaccinations and a spokesperson for PAE declined to comment.
The American Foreign Service Association has called for “the Biden Administration to take swift action to allow the Department of State to require all personnel, including local employees and third-country nationals, serving at our embassies and consulates abroad under Chief of Mission authority, direct-hire and contract alike, to be fully vaccinated for Covid-19 as a condition of their physical presence in the workplace.”
“The only exceptions would be for those individuals who cannot get vaccinated due to medical reasons or disability or religious belief or practice,” the organization said in a statement this week.
Former US diplomat Annie Pforzheimer, who served in Kabul, noted that “we impose certain requirements, and some of them are medical requirements, of our local and American staff at US embassies all the time.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that “at this time the US government only encourages vaccinations, and we do so strongly.”
“We continue to look for ways that will help us increase vaccination rates at overseas posts,” the spokesperson said, noting that “all Embassy Kabul staff have been offered vaccines, and we continue to encourage anyone not vaccinated to avail themselves of vaccines immediately.”
Tuesday’s cable noted that a record number of Covid-19 vaccinations had been given over the last week.
Nonetheless, the current outbreak has added another challenge at what is already an extremely difficult post, particularly in light of an extra-challenging year with personnel working very long hours and supervising staff virtually, There was the hope that with people getting vaccinated, the embassy would be able to function more normally. With the lockdown, many personnel are isolated alone in their housing on the compound.
A vaccine requirement would likely be welcomed in Kabul because there is a much higher risk of exposure at the embassy compound, where the community is in close quarters and there are limited hospital facilities in case people become very ill.
“Living in Afghanistan means you are already in an environment of uncertainty and fear,” Pforzheimer told CNN. “That is even more intense now, with the takeover of districts by the Taliban and the US withdrawal. Then, in addition to other factors of uncertainty, there is this added difficulty of people not getting vaccines, which allows the highly communicable disease to spread more easily. It is a horrible situation. Not having full vaccine coverage of the Kabul embassy does not make sense.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged the outbreak last week but would not provide specific numbers, saying the embassy had “adjusted its operations to do all we can to ensure the continued safety, security, and health of our staff as they continue to advance U.S. interests and our relationship with the Government and the people of Afghanistan.”
“This includes requiring all staff to telework and to adhere to physical distancing and masking requirements and other applicable regulations,” he said, adding that they “expect that normal embassy operations will resume once embassy leadership is confident that chain of transmission has been broken.”
This story has been updated with additional comments from the State Department.