US Embassy in Jerusalem sends some diplomats home over virus fears

New State Department policy allows embassy employees and family members to immediately leave their posts if considered a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

View of the site of the US Embassy in Jerusalem ahead of its inauguration, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the site of the US Embassy in Jerusalem ahead of its inauguration, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several US diplomats and family members stationed in Israel have returned home out of concern over the spreading coronavirus.

“Out of consideration for the health and safety of State Department employees and family members worldwide, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo approved authorized departure from any diplomatic or consular post for US employees or their family members that are deemed at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19,” an official at the American Embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I can confirm that some Embassy Jerusalem employees and family members have returned to the US under this new policy.”

The official declined to say how many Americans diplomats have left Israel, and if any of them were tested for the virus.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people aged 65 and higher and those with underlying medical conditions — such as diabetes, obesity or asthma have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the sickness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Last month, Ambassador David Friedman spent two weeks in self-quarantine after returning to Israel from a work-related visit to the US.

The US State Department has some 75,000 employees around the world, only 75 of whom have so far been found to have been infected with the disease. Only five of them are in a condition requiring hospitalization, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations in the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services William Walters said at a press briefing earlier this week.

“Some posts around the world are facing reduced staffs, but where needed, we are sending additional staff out to assist,” US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee said.

In addition to those serving overseas, 30 State Department officials living in America have contracted the virus.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry, too, has not been spared by the pandemic, though the numbers of infected is much lower. At least three diplomats have been infected but have since recovered.

In addition, dozens of senior ministry staff, including director-general Yuval Rotem, a number of deputy directors-general, the entire cadet course of future diplomats, as well as Consul-General to New York Dani Dayan, were exposed, separately to someone who carried the virus, forcing them for into self-quarantine for two weeks.

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