With thousands of Americans stranded abroad, private companies often pick up where State Department leaves off

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

Carlos J. Vélez-Blasini, the dean of international programs at Middlebury College in Vermont, first learned about the coronavirus when students arrived in China for the beginning of their semesters abroad in late January. Expecting to settle into their new cities before classes started in February, students were instead confined to their dormitories. 

As things continued to get more serious, Vélez-Blasini began working the phones and sending emails — consulting with Middlebury staff in China, the State Department and experts at Global Rescue, a private evacuation company that many universities pay for their emergency services abroad. Middlebury’s study abroad program sends students to 16 different countries, and Vélez-Blasini would ultimately need to get them all home. 

The Middlebury students weren’t alone. In the last several months, thousands of Americans traveling abroad were caught by surprise when borders began closing as the coronavirus spread to an increasing number of countries. For many, it became near impossible in some places to buy tickets for flights home. 

Looking for help to navigate an increasingly complex web of government regulations and travel restrictions, many travelers have turned to the State Department, which has been arranging repatriation flights. Yet for many, the wait for government-arranged flights can be frustrating, and sometimes even getting to the city where such flights are available can be a challenge. 

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images.

So a number of Americans have also sought assistance from private evacuation and rescue companies, such as Global Rescue, International SOS and Medjet, which provide a range of different services to personal travelers as well as members of Fortune 500 companies and schools and universities. 

Private companies have long been involved in helping repatriate Americans, but the spread of the coronavirus has taxed the abilities of those companies to provide the services many of their customers expect.

Matthew Bradley, a regional security director at International SOS and a former CIA officer in Latin America, said customers have been calling nonstop requesting faster service to get them home, demands the company is trying to meet. “There were some high expectations ... for a pandemic that is unprecedented in our lifetimes,” he said. “Clients wanted us to move heaven and earth, open up airspace that had been closed, and all of that we did ... but is it possible in 200 countries? No, not always.”

Whether Bradley or his colleagues and competitors were able to get people out of worldwide destinations as quickly as they had hoped, the industry has essentially turned into its own intelligence and logistics apparatus, publishing notices and advising clients as well as coordinating with counterparts on the ground, in many cases earlier than the U.S. government, which has been criticized for its reticence to respond to the pandemic with severe restrictions and universal guidance.

Bill McIntyre, a spokesman for Global Rescue, a company that provides travelers, companies and universities with intelligence and crisis response services, said the company has had to navigate a number of tricky situations amid the “rather unprecedented” pandemic.

Global Rescue put out its first report on the coronavirus on Jan. 22, when there was just one recorded case in the United States. The bulletin, provided to Yahoo News, described the virus as a “pneumonia-like coronavirus, which manifests in fever, coughing, and breathing difficulties” and “was first traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in late December 2019.”

It advised travelers to avoid contact with the sick and to wash hands frequently. 

International SOS has its own medical and security team in China that was quick to communicate about what was going on — though there was still little understanding of how fast and far the virus would spread.

According to Harding Bush, the associate manager for operations at Global Rescue and a former Navy SEAL, the company needed to help a client whose employees in Wuhan were permanent U.S. residents and whose children were U.S. citizens — and were immediately met by a wall of resistance as travel and normal activities were shut down by Chinese authorities. “The only vehicles out were army trucks or ambulances. That’s when we really realized the extent of the shutdown,” he said.

The company then turned to coordinate with the U.S. government to get people on repatriation flights, but that was even more complex since not everyone in the group was American. One employee was Australian, and the Australian government had begun taking travelers to Christmas Island for 14 days for mandatory quarantine.

Bradley said International SOS had clients in Wuhan caught in the outbreak, and described how his colleagues had to move people to another city in China that still had flights, or provide resources to anyone who could not get out.

Vélez-Blasini told Yahoo News that Middlebury College was able to get all but two students out of their overseas campuses on commercial flights. Two students stranded in Cameroon were put on one of the government’s chartered flights. “That’s one of the places where it went from zero to 60 in no time,” he said in a phone interview.

Circumstances vary for people on the ground. In Peru, according to Bradley of International SOS, there are Americans still stranded. Several weeks ago, Peru completely locked down incoming and outgoing travel, and Bradley and his colleagues began a complex dance with local government officials to try and send in a charter flight with a “very small window to land,” a deadline the Peruvian government kept missing, restarting the process over again for days.

In Guatemala, Bradley and his colleagues were forced to transport people to Mexico by land, having Guatemalan security guards, who were not allowed to leave the country, physically hand off the travelers to Mexican security guards at the border for safe departure.

According to a State Department spokesperson, one of the areas of highest traveler demand is Central and South America, where many borders have closed. “The State Department is utilizing all possible options to bring stranded American citizens back home quickly and safely,” wrote the spokesperson, noting that the total number of repatriated Americans is over 49,000. “Where regularly scheduled commercial air service is no longer possible, we reach out to airlines to ask for their help in organizing ‘commercial rescue’ flights to support our repatriation efforts.”

In Africa, Global Rescue is in touch with a traveler on a remote safari hunting camp who is concerned he will run out of antimalarial medication — a concern made even more complicated by the fact that President Trump has been pushing for patients to take the antimalarial medicine hydroxychloroquine to try and treat coronavirus, despite limited testing.

Some places are more dangerous than others. In Egypt and Lebanon, as governments dragged their feet on approving flights, an International SOS employee who is Egyptian reached out directly to civil aviation authorities he was familiar with to “short-circuit the internal bureaucracy,” said Bradley. In Lebanon, the embassy was sending its own employees home, forcing Bradley and his colleagues to work even quicker. “We were going to run out of local support at the embassy,” he told Yahoo News. “We didn’t want the security situations or the medical situation downgraded even more.”

It’s not that disease outbreaks are something that evacuation companies haven’t dealt with before. Medjet, which primarily provides medical transport home for customers ranging from the NFL to luxury travel advisory companies, began including assistance for pandemics in coverage for some clients in 2017, according to John Gobbels, the company’s vice president and chief operating officer. 

“Between SARS and Ebola, and a slew of earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes in the news, natural disaster and pandemic coverage became increasingly common requests from our members, especially our corporate partners,” Gobbels wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

However, people infected with biosafety class 3 pathogens, which include the coronavirus, are excluded from medical transport coverage because of the risk the travel poses to “not just flight crews but the population at large,” explained Gobbels. “We have never before seen the ENTIRE WORLD shut down,” to the extent that travel is as difficult as it normally would be for dangerous places like Libya, Syria and Iran, he continued. 

Bradley said it’s the unprecedented nature of a global pandemic that has strained the capabilities of companies like his. He noted that when he conducts simulation scenarios with travelers before they depart, those simulations are almost always focused on one country, and while the dangers briefed are wide-ranging — from a medical disaster to a terrorist attack — it doesn’t scale the same way when hundreds of countries are closed off.

“Almost all decision-making processes will break down under that scenario,” he said.

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