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," triggering the need to set up temporary on-site units for staff who need oxygen.
The outbreak has prompted the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the U.S. diplomatic corps, to call on President Joe Biden to require all U.S. government employees overseas to be vaccinated, unless they have medical or religious exceptions.
"This is the most serious outbreak (at a U.S. diplomatic facility), and I believe it’s the first time, at least recently, that we’ve had an entire embassy on lockdown," said Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria and head of the foreign service association.
"This is such a truly worrying and sad situation that we feel necessary to go public and just to say, 'Enough,'" he said. "It should be a condition of employment. People should not be allowed to endanger the lives of fellow citizens, their fellow employees."
The State Department press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the mandatory vaccine proposal.
Earlier on Thursday, Ned Price, the State Department's chief spokesman, noted the surge in cases at the embassy in Kabul 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.
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.
"Afghanistan is a particularly difficult place, at a particularly difficult moment," Rubin said.
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.
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.
Rubin noted that State Department employees are required to be vaccinated for other diseases, and the Biden administration's "one-size-fits-all" policy – which encourages but doesn't require vaccination against COVID – doesn't work in places like Kabul.
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."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID in Afghanistan: US embassy in Kabul hit by virus' third wave