The Untold Coronavirus Story: How the Diplomatic Security Service Helped Evacuate Americans from China

By Eric Weiner, DSS Public Affairs

DSS Special Agent David Nicholas, Regional Security Officer, Consulate General Wuhan

DSS Special Agent Robert Gudenkauf, Assistant Regional Security Officer Investigator

The outbreak

In January, a new and highly infectious coronavirus was spreading through Wuhan, China. To control the outbreak, the Chinese government took a drastic step – without warning, they closed Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, and began what would become one of the largest quarantines in world history. U.S. Consulate General Wuhan was caught in the epicenter of the lockdown. Consulate staff and their families were concerned about isolation and the inability to access medical and support services. When the local government unexpectedly closed the airport, stopped public transportation and closed the roadways, the American team thought they might not be able to leave Wuhan.

Back in Washington, the U.S. government formed an interagency coronavirus task force to lead the response to the outbreak. On the ground in Wuhan, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and consulate leadership were already implementing a plan to close the consulate and evacuate American personnel.

As the law enforcement and security arm of the Department, DSS ensured that consulate facilities, personnel and information were secure before turning off the lights and lowering the American flag, but evacuation was no simple matter.

“Prior to the lockdown, we had reviewed the consulate’s emergency and food supplies, medical capabilities and vehicle capacity,” said DSS Special Agent and Consulate General Wuhan’s Regional Security Officer David Nicholas. “Despite our extensive preparation, we adapted our evacuation plan daily to address changing conditions and to get our people out of China safely.”

The Evacuation

The DSS Regional Security Office (RSO) worked tirelessly with the General Services Office and local staff to find evacuation routes from Wuhan to cities with operating airports. The initial evacuation plan called for a convoy of consulate vehicles to make a 16-hour drive across several provinces and local jurisdictions, but road closures and checkpoints made it impossible. As options dwindled, the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and Directorate of Operational Medicine stepped in and quickly devised a plan and arranged a flight to evacuate not only consulate staff and their families but also private U.S. citizens and their family members, as well as some third-country nationals, living in and around Wuhan. The flight was staffed with emergency management specialists, logisticians, and communications specialists from the Directorate who were wheels up from the United States within a one-day notice.

The clock was ticking to design and execute an airlift evacuation plan. The RSO team worked closely with task force, consular, and operational medicine staff to make it happen. No other country had yet evacuated people from Wuhan, and local Chinese officials and international missions spent long hours planning how such an operation would work in a city under lockdown.

DSS Assistant Regional Security Officer Investigator (ARSO-I) Robert Gudenkauf and Consulate Wuhan Criminal Fraud Investigator (CFI) FangFang Wang worked closely with local officials to coordinate the evacuation flight of 195 Americans from Wuhan. A small group of dedicated local staff volunteered to drive and support the evacuation at great personal sacrifice, risking not only their health, but separation from their families due to the city’s strict travel restrictions. Wang rode a bike through Wuhan’s deserted streets to the consulate each day to assist with the departure planning. For the first evacuation flight, she served as Wuhan’s sole liaison to the local government and used her wide network of contacts to help negotiate ground-level details of the operation.

When asked why she and her local colleagues put themselves at such personal risk to help, Wang said “It was a team effort and we were all dedicated to the mission.”

The first flight

On the day of the evacuation, a host of new challenges emerged. The RSO advance team of Gudenkauf, Wang and Bureau of Medical Services (MED) healthcare provider Paul Claw arrived at the airport to find more than 100 U.S. citizens waiting—one had arrived on foot four days in advance. There was some hesitancy from local government officials, but Wang was able to dispel any doubts about the Department’s ability to manage and process all the passengers. The consular team at the airport, working alongside the RSO team and MED staff, processed and screened passengers for coronavirus symptoms, and addressed any visa issues before takeoff. Thanks to the efforts of the team on the ground and assistance from the task force in Washington, the first evacuation flight of Americans took off for the United States before dawn on January 29. No symptoms for coronavirus were detected during the rigorous screening conducted before and during the flight and there were no positive tests for COVID-19 after the evacuees were screened in the United States.

The RSO team shared lessons learned with other diplomatic missions to aid in the evacuation of their citizens, and the successful first airlift out of Wuhan laid the groundwork for four additional evacuation flights that brought 600 Americans home by the end of February.

In an email to Department of State employees, Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao welcomed home those who returned from Mission China. To those remaining in and returning to China he said, “The work you are doing to protect U.S. citizens is the Department’s most sacred duty, and you have set an inspiring example. We will continue to take every measure to see that you are supported in your work and have all the medical resources, counsel and care you need.”

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In addition, HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes do not capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 data to CDC by May 17, 2020, starting with information as of May 8, 2020, but made reporting prior to May 8, 2020 optional. By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes. GAO recommends that HHS, in consultation with CMS and CDC, develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. HHS partially agreed with this recommendation by noting the value of having complete data, but expressed concern about the burden of collecting it. GAO maintains the importance of collecting these data to inform the government’s continued response and recovery, and HHS could ease the burden by incorporating data previously reported to CDC or to state or local public health offices. Economic Impact Payments The Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued economic impact payments (EIP) to all eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; however, not everyone eligible was able to be initially identified. To help ensure all eligible recipients received their payments in a more timely manner, IRS took several actions to address challenges GAO reported on in June, including a policy change—reopening the Non-Filers tool registration period for federal benefit recipients and extending it through September 30—that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, Treasury and IRS lack updated information on how many eligible recipients have yet to receive these funds. The lack of such information could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of individuals at risk of missing their payment. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, (1) update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP to help target outreach and communications efforts and (2) make estimates of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP, and other relevant information, available to outreach partners to raise awareness about how and when to file for EIP. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and described actions they are taking in concert with the recommendations to notify around 9 million individuals who may be eligible for an EIP. Coronavirus Relief Fund The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is the largest program established in the four COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Audits of entities that receive federal funds, including CRF payments, are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds. Auditors that conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updates and issues annually in coordination with federal agencies. OMB issued the 2020 Compliance Supplement in August 2020, but the Compliance Supplement specified that OMB is still working with federal agencies to identify the needs for additional guidance for auditing new COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, as well as existing programs with compliance requirement changes. According to OMB, an addendum on COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, will be issued in the fall of 2020. Further delays in issuing this guidance could adversely affect auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue the addendum to the 2020 Compliance Supplement as soon as possible to provide the necessary audit guidance, as many single audit efforts are underway. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. Guidance for K-12 Schools State and local school district officials tasked with reassessing their operating status and ensuring their school buildings are safe are generally relying on guidance and recommendations from federal, state, and local public health and education officials. However, portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. Based on GAO’s review, Education has updated the information and CDC has begun to do so. GAO recommends that CDC ensure that, as it makes updates to its guidance related to schools’ operating status, the guidance is cogent, clear, and internally consistent. HHS agreed with the recommendation. Tracking Contract Obligations Federal agencies are tracking contract actions and associated obligations in response to COVID-19 using a National Interest Action (NIA) code in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. The COVID-19 NIA code was established in March 2020 and was recently extended until March 31, 2021, while a draft of this report recommending that DHS and DOD extend the code beyond September 30, 2020, was with the agencies for comment. GAO has identified inconsistencies in establishing and closing these codes following previous emergencies, and has continued concerns with the criteria that DHS and DOD rely on to determine whether to extend or close a code and whether the code meets long-term needs. GAO recommends that DHS and DOD make updates to the 2019 NIA Code Memorandum of Agreement so as to enhance visibility for federal agencies, the public, and Congress on contract actions and associated obligations related to disaster events, and to ensure the criteria for extending or closing the NIA code reflect government-wide needs for tracking contract actions in longer-term emergencies, such as a pandemic. DHS and DOD did not agree, but GAO maintains implementation of its recommendation is essential. Address Cybersecurity Weaknesses Since March 2020, malicious cyber actors have exploited COVID-19 to target organizations that make up the health care and public health critical infrastructure sector, including government entities, such as HHS. GAO has identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies, including CMS, CDC, and FDA, over the last 6 years, such as weaknesses in key safeguards to limit, prevent, and detect inappropriate access to computer resources. Additionally, GAO’s March 2019 high-risk update identified cybersecurity and safeguarding the systems supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as health care, as high-risk areas. As of July 2020, CMS, FDA, and CDC had made significant progress by implementing 350 (about 81 percent) of the 434 recommendations GAO issued in previous reports to address these weaknesses. Based on the imminent cybersecurity threats, GAO recommends that HHS expedite implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies. HHS agreed with the recommendation. As of September 10, 2020, the U.S. had over 6.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and over 177,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of September 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of July 31, 2020, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.6 trillion and expended $1.5 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds as reported by federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This third report examines key actions the federal government has taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving lessons learned relevant to the nation’s response to pandemics. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials, as well as industry representatives. GAO is making 16 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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