HONOLULU – U.S. Air Force Special Air Mission 50601 departed from Joint Base Andrews on the night of Dec. 9 with an ambitious journey ahead — an eight-day, around-the-world trip with America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But the diplomatic mission to Britain, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand would soon be upended by the global surge in coronavirus cases. At least three members of the traveling party tested positive for COVID-19 and forced the abrupt cancellation of the last stop and a frantic re-calculation of the remaining itinerary.
The Air Force confirmed on Saturday that at least two members of its crew on the plane had tested positive for COVID. That followed the State Department's announcement that a journalist among the traveling press corps had tested positive, which alarmed the rest of the party and resulted in the trip being cut short.
“Two U.S. Air Force aircrew members supporting the Secretary of State’s international travel tested positive for COVID-19," Ann Stefanek, the chief of media operations for the Air Force, said in a statement. “Both aircrew members were fully vaccinated. Neither had come into close contact with the Secretary of State or senior staff.”
She said one is asymptomatic, while the other is experiencing mild symptoms and that both are following host nation COVID protocols, which generally mandate a 10-day quarantine.
The first crew member, who was symptomatic, tested positive in Jakarta, after arriving in the Indonesian capital from Liverpool, England, where Blinken participated in a Group of Seven foreign ministers' meeting.
It was not immediately clear where the second crew member tested positive, but the journalist tested positive in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, according to the State Department, which has declined to comment on the Air Force cases.
The journalist's diagnosis in Malaysia set off a panic among the traveling party because of quarantine requirements for those testing positive at the next stop in Thailand.
Presented with a series of options to avoid the possibility of others testing positive, especially before the Christmas holiday, Blinken opted to curtail his trip. Instead of spending Wednesday night in Thailand and having meetings there the next day, Blinken made a brief stop at the airport in Bangkok to replace the infected crew members and did not leave his plane.
He then flew to Guam, an American territory in the Pacific, and then to Hawaii before returning to Washington early Friday morning.
The State Department says it has more than fulfilled the Centers for Disease Control guidance for COVID, by requiring every member of the traveling party to take daily COVID tests over the course of the trip and asking all of those on board the plane to take follow-up tests.
The department said Saturday that all official members of the traveling party had tested negative for the virus upon their return to Washington.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.