Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia steps up aid for Afghan arrivals, seeks mass vaccination site

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Virginia proposes to set up a mass vaccination site for thousands of Afghans arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport as the state steps up humanitarian aid for people evacuated from Afghanistan in one of the largest human airlifts in U.S. history.

The state has established an emergency repatriation center at an airport hotel to aid American citizens and lawful permanent residents arriving from Afghanistan, while federal military planes and buses transport displaced Afghans to Fort Lee and three other U.S. Army bases for processing and eventual resettlement.

The Department of Defense confirmed on Wednesday that Fort Pickett, home to the Virginia National Guard in Nottoway County, and the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico also will be used to temporarily house and process Afghans, including those with special immigrant visas and their families because of service to American military forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Fort Pickett eventually will host as many as 5,000 people and the Quantico base up to 10,000.

More than 8,600 people had arrived at Dulles from six other countries by early Wednesday morning, said Grant Neely, communications director for Gov. Ralph Northam. All arrivals — Americans and Afghans — are being tested for COVID-19 by state and local health workers at Dulles, administering 900 tests on Tuesday alone, and 11 have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Loudoun and Fairfax counties’ health departments are providing isolation and quarantine for U.S. citizens who test positive, while the U.S. State and Defense departments are taking protective health measures with non-citizens with the coronavirus disease. The state health and emergency management departments are providing protective gear for staff and families.

“Virginia has requested to set up a mass vaccination site, and a final location is being worked on,” Neely said in an email message on Wednesday afternoon. “We expect that to be operational soon.”

The vaccination sites — which will offer the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for now — are a federal effort that the Virginia Health Department and Medical Reserve Corps are not involved in, VDH spokeswoman Maria Reppas said Wednesday evening.

Virginia has become a major hub in the frenetic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul ahead of an approaching deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops that President Joe Biden says is firm.

More than 88,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, most of them by U.S. military aircraft, Defense Department officials said Wednesday morning.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimated that 6,000 American citizens have left, with as many as 1,500 remaining, according to national media accounts. The airlift is focusing on citizens and lawful permanent residents, special immigrant visa holders and their families, and other vulnerable Afghans seeking to escape since the Taliban returned to power.

But efforts to get Afghan allies out of the country and resettle them in the United States already had begun late last month. Dulles has been the sole airport of entry to the United States for holders of special immigration visas and their families since the first planeload arrived on July 30 with 206 adults and 15 infants for processing at Fort Lee.

Congress and the president provided more than $1 billion for the special visa program to help translators, drivers and other Afghans who assisted the military get out of the country to avoid Taliban reprisals.

Northam has activated the Virginia Emergency Repatriation Plan to help U.S. citizens and their families returning to Virginia because of war, illness or destitution. The emergency repatriation center opened at the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott already has provided temporary assistance to 125 Americans — including money, lodging, flights and other travel arrangements.

“A great deal of humanitarian work is happening in Virginia right now — and it’s something that all Americans can be proud of,” said Neely in the governor’s office.

The state’s social services, emergency management and health departments are working with federal agencies, as well as the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and local officials in Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria.

“The operation is really complex, with lots of moving parts and shared responsibilities across many government agencies at the federal, state and local levels,” Neely said.

Defense officials have not provided specific information on how many Afghans have been processed at Fort Lee or how many are there currently, but an Army spokesperson said the military has capacity for up to 15,000 people at four bases and is “working to increase that capacity to 22,000 by the end of this week.”

The other bases are Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Bliss in Texas and joint base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The U.S. Northern Command, a joint force established in 2002, is expanding the initiative to include Fort Pickett, near Blackstone, and Quantico, in Prince William County, in coordination with other federal agencies. The program already is using the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, in Fairfax, to temporarily house people arriving at Dulles.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, whose congressional district includes Fort Pickett, said her office is seeking more information from the Defense Department on the base’s role and its effect on the surrounding communities.

Spanberger also expressed gratitude to the Virginia National Guard, based at Fort Pickett, for its work “during this rapidly changing situation.”

“Over the past year and a half, these service members have been called to respond to a variety of tense, dangerous, and unprecedented situations — from boosting Virginia’s efforts against COVID-19 to securing the U.S. Capitol,” she said. “They have never wavered in answering the call, and they continue to tirelessly serve their fellow Americans and our allies during this evacuation operation.”

“While their preparations at Fort Pickett continue, my team is working around the clock to assist American citizens, [special immigrant visa] applicants, and family members of Central Virginians as they evacuate Afghanistan and reach safety, she said. “Our office’s efforts will continue for as long as necessary.”

Virginia Republican leaders also offered help, while denouncing Biden, a Democrat, for his handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“The images we have seen of this evacuation are simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a letter to the state’s congressional delegation that was co-signed by House Republican Caucus Chair Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, and House Republican Whip Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake. “So much of this could have been prevented with adequate planning.”

“Regardless, our primary objective must now be the evacuation of American citizens and our NATO and Afghan allies,” they said. “Every person flown out of Kabul is one more soul that will not be claimed by Taliban brutality.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a blistering statement that accused Biden of potentially leaving Americans in harm’s way in Afghanistan, weakening U.S. standing in the world and reversing “nearly two decades of progress” in the war against terrorism.

“President Biden’s catastrophic failure in Afghanistan has embarrassed the United States and ashamed the American people, Wittman said, asserting that: “His failed leadership in Afghanistan, as well as the multitude of crises here at home, raises serious concerns about his ability to serve” as commander in chief.

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