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Americans stranded abroad try to escape border closures, overwhelmed health care systems

The State Department says it has brought back 15,000 Americans who were stranded in more than 30 countries across the globe. But some 30,000 are still stuck abroad, growing increasingly worried about border closures, food shortages and health care systems that are becoming overwhelmed. Nick Schifrin reports on the immense challenge of trying to return home amid a global pandemic.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. State Department says that it has brought back 15,000 Americans who were stranded in more than 30 countries.

    But some 30,000 Americans are still stuck abroad.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, they are worried about local border closures and health care systems becoming overwhelmed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When 28-year-old Samantha Behlog landed in Honduras earlier this month, she didn't need to social distance from the children she was trying to help. She and her volunteer team brought books and created libraries for communities that need them.

    But then the pandemic arrived. Schools closed, and she filmed this line outside an ATM, the capital locked down. Masked soldiers and police prevented anyone nonessential from entering the city.

    Downtown, the streets emptied and the government closed the border.

  • Samantha Behlog:

    There was no warning. There wasn't kind of any kind of grace period for which people could really get out on time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Honduras' health care system is not prepared. Government hospitals only have 12 respirators. Behlog knew she needed to get out. At first, the embassy wasn't helpful.

  • Samantha Behlog:

    Like, I'm an American citizen that's here. What can I do? And them telling me, we don't have any information for you. Contact the airlines.

    OK, this is the waiting room at the airport.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eventually, with embassy help, she was allowed to go to the airport without a ticket, hoping to stand by.

  • Samantha Behlog:

    All of the workers you see them walking by me. Everybody is in masks. Everything is closed down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And she found a quiet place to speak to us on the phone.

  • Samantha Behlog:

    Especially with the increasing restrictions on the U.S., that you want to get out of here before they decide to close down the borders.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior State Department officials called this moment unprecedented and admit their capacity to repatriate is strained.

    The Defense Department is trying to help, and last weekend evacuated the U.S. women's football team. But the challenge is overwhelming and worldwide.

    In Uganda yesterday, police forcibly cleared shoppers who ignored government closures. Fifteen miles away, NGO worker and missionary Jared Morrison lives with his family. He's worried about their safety.

  • Jared Morrison:

    There's xenophobia going on with the Ugandans, thinking that us expats are the ones that brought the virus here.

    So we're being really careful to stay in our compound and do the best we can with what we have got right now. And then also, one of our children has asthma, and we know if something were to happen and he were to contract the virus, that the health care here is not adequate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They are hunkering down, reliant on a swing set and a backyard garden, after officials closed the village market.

    Last week, the embassy offered American citizens one Qatar Airways flight, but the price was $3,200 per seat.

  • Jared Morrison:

    Just in the process of booking, you could see the price was changing. It went from $10,000 to $14,000 to $17,000 for seven tickets for our family to get out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Morrison said today the embassy facilitated a commercial flight for next week for $2,500 a ticket.

    And is that at all affordable to you?

  • Jared Morrison:

    As a missionary family, no.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Lima, Peru, soldiers enforce a nighttime curfew, and the airport has been closed indefinitely, except for tourists, who hold onto teddy bears and hope the U.S. can help them leave.

  • Tara Finch:

    We're really relying on them to help us get out of the country and back home, because we're not going to be able to do that on our own in the near future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tara Finch is an accountant from the Philadelphia suburbs. She was hiking Machu Picchu with some friends. Now she's stuck in Cusco and running out of food.

  • Tara Finch:

    I have been eating, like, a peanut butter sandwich almost every day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Here's the view from Tara's window, empty streets. Anyone found outside not going to the grocery store risks arrest.

  • Tara Finch:

    I mean, if we were to not get out in the next few days, I'd be worried about getting food, because we would have to go out and get food.

    I'm worried about my job back home. I'm worried about if I were to get sick here, I don't really know if I'm a priority, being as though I'm not a citizen of this country.

  • Khadija Ismail:

    I think, on the first night, we tried to walk the dog. And there was a police officer who was like, you guys can't be out here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khadija Ismail is stuck in the capital, Lima. She says the embassy wasn't helpful at first, but is now facilitating three daily flights. But there are still thousands of Americans who need to leave Peru. And she needs to leave.

  • Khadija Ismail:

    And there's multiple health care workers here, multiple R.N.s, other physicians. And given what's going on in the U.S., we would definitely be much more useful back there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ismail is a fourth-year emergency medicine resident who works at UCLA-Harbor outside of Los Angeles.

  • Khadija Ismail:

    Every day, there's a new update about how we're running out of personal protective equipment, what we're going to do about that. And some of my co-workers actually have been exposed to positive cases, so they have now had to go in quarantine.

    And so it's frustrating, because, you know, currently, I'm supposed to be working, and people are covering my shifts and we're already short-staffed. And I can't do anything here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After four tickets and $3,000, Behlog was able to leave Honduras. She flew through empty airports, and got back home to mom.

    This afternoon, Finch was also able to leave Peru, and flew wearing a handkerchief.

    But so many are still stranded, including those trying to get home to try and save lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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