The State Department is ordering all non-emergency employees out of the U.S. consulate in Shanghai due to a surge in coronavirus cases and the subsequent shutdown imposed by the Chinese government.
Officials previously had authorized government employees and family members to leave. The shift to a mandatory exit underscored alarm with the situation on the ground.
“The movement from ‘authorized’ to ‘ordered’ departure means that we are now mandating that certain employees depart Shanghai rather than making this decision voluntary,” the State Department said Tuesday in a written statement. “Our change in posture reflects our assessment that it is best for our employees and their families to be reduced in number and our operations to be scaled down as we deal with the changing circumstances on the ground. The employees and family members will depart on commercial flights.”
The U.S. mission will retain enough staff to offer 24-hour emergency services to American citizens, and the consulate in Shanghai will “reopen to the public as soon as possible.”
U.S. officials notified their Chinese counterparts of the departure and said they will revisit the order in 30-day increments.
State officials said U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has continuously raised concerns about the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens with Chinese officials as Beijing carries out its zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19.
Shanghai, a huge coastal hub of 25 million people, reported more than 26,000 new cases on Sunday, meaning it accounts for 94% of cases on the mainland.
Residents are in the second week of a strict lockdown that has sparked fears about access to food and medicine. People have been shouting from their apartment balconies for supplies, prompting the government to plead for calm.
The lockdown is the strictest measure imposed since the virus broke out in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
While the U.S. and Western nations try to live with the virus, experts say Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to back off his strict virus policies at least until after the 20th Party Congress this October.
Scientists say China is ill-suited to deal with the omicron variant because it lacks widespread immunity from prior infections and is using vaccines that are considered less effective than messenger-RNA shots in other nations.