WASHINGTON — Several U.S. diplomats living in State Department-provided housing in the Washington area have expressed alarm about the department’s lack of communication concerning a colleague who has contracted the novel coronavirus and lives in their apartment complex, according to emails and interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

Some of the Foreign Service officers and their families have left the building due to the absence of medical guidance, while others have raised concerns about whether the department is taking the problem seriously given the international nature of their work.

“They were furious that State gave zero guidance after promising it,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal State Department matters.

As of Friday, 340 State Department employees had contracted the virus, with 55 cases domestically and 285 abroad, William Walters, the State Department’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, told reporters. Four employees have died of the disease.

The diplomats living in the complex in suburban Arlington, Virginia, learned about the case through word-of-mouth after an email went out March 23 from the director of the Foreign Service Institute, Daniel Smith, notifying select colleagues that the person “has now tested positive for the virus.”

The email, which said that the person “has been working remotely for the past 10 days,” was not sent to the U.S. diplomats who live in her apartment building. Those diplomats would like to see self-quarantine practices put in place that would prohibit the use of common spaces for individuals who test positive for the disease.

One diplomat raised the issue in an email to the building’s management, noting that neither the building nor the department had acknowledged the case or provided medical guidance for the diplomats and their families.

A State Department spokesman said, “We are aware of reports of COVID-19 cases related to Department of State employees in training at the Foreign Service Institute.”

“We will provide as much information as possible to our employees consistent with the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act and the Privacy Act,” he said.

One tenant in the building said that diplomats were promised guidance from the Bureau of Medical Services but it still hasn’t come.

“Every FSO in our building is furious,” the person said, referring to Foreign Service Officers.

Medical experts have said that clear communication about localized infections and enforcement of social distancing guidelines is the best way to limit community spread of the virus.

Frustration over the department’s handling of the incident comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has underscored the danger diplomats face in their efforts to arrange evacuation flights for Americans stranded abroad. “Our team – working at great personal risk – has repatriated over 50,000 U.S. citizens, on 480 plus flights, and from 90 countries,” Pompeo said April 8.


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